Children’s rights, the UNCRC and participation
Yet again, more research show us that children’s rights in England are in a poor position. We have the lowest level of children’s rights awareness and knowledge out of 15 developed countries and second worst when looking solely at the UNCRC. In the same week, the media focuses on our children being amongst the unhappiest in the world. Only 36% of English children knew what rights they had and only 29% knew their UNCRC rights. Sadly, only 56% of children felt that adults respected children’s rights (older children were less likely to agree). These figures pale in comparison, when in Norway, Columbia, Poland and Nepal, over 70% of children thought they knew their rights.
We don’t have a great track record in this country of rights and young people, our UNCRC record speaks for itself. There are some critical issues, largely in the way we conceptualise family and childhood. The framing of family and childhood is overarching, affecting education, intervention, social attitudes to children and young people and so on. There are some areas that I feel are in particular need of consideration:
• Advocacy — Is too often seen as a bolt on for children in England. (Why I feel advocacy is so essential is coming)
• Criminal Justice — The way we approach issues such as the age of criminal responsibility and incarceration.
• Looked after children — The way children’s views are taken into account in family proceedings.
• Assessment and intervention — Children as the object of assessment and intervention as opposed to an active participant.
• Education — Lack of choice open to children and lack of focus on rights and participation in the curriculum.
Beings or becoming?
I would argue that a lot of how we deal with children’s rights is seeding in our overall view of childhood. In many policy areas and in practice, children and young people are seen as becoming, as opposed to being. Thus, we remove the notion of children and young people as actors and participants and instead frame childhood as strictly the process of becoming an adult. This way of thinking narrows participation, dilutes the child’s voice and far too often removes them from the decision making process, on the grounds of diminished capacity.
There is no doubt that children are on a process of becoming, but to label as that leads us to overlook critical issues that could improve the state of children’s rights in England. We see them as mini-adults, on the journey to adulthood — Instead we need to see children as beings in their own right and not a mini version of anything. Until we address the conceptualisation of childhood in policy and practice, there is limited scope to improve on rights and participation beyond the scope of the current light-touch efforts — Such as school councils, or the obligatory voice of the child form as part of an assessment process. This is where advocacy is critical, as in the current climate, there is little room for the child’s voice. In an ideal world, advocacy should be available as standard to all children who are subject to child in need, child protection, looked after proceedings, criminal justice sanctions, leaving care and so on to ensure that the child’s voice i able to be heard loud and clear. This way, children are informed of their rights, understand them and are able to exercise them far more effectively than through the practitioner or system with vested interests. Good advocacy needs to be impartial and separate for the system that is controlling whatever process it may be.
Of course, there is also the general need to improve the visibility of children’s rights and maximise participation. This could be through education, PSHE, youth work or many other facets. Or, we could simply embed it into practice with children and young people — And embed it really early. Ideally, I would like to see a children’s rights and participation framework developed into every policy that impacts on children and young people, with the voice of the child strong and clear as part of a participatory approach to policy making.
A participatory, rights-led framework
As I said, this could start really early. Much earlier than many people may think. There are a few things to bare in mind when considering rights when thinking about children:
• Enshrined in the UNCRC is that the rights of the child shall be the primary consideration — This should apply from policy making down to individual practice.
• Children’s rights according to the UNCRC must respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents.
• Rights must be viewed as ‘ours’ and not ‘my’ — They are about collectiveness and solidarity.
There have been in my view some outrageous claims against children’s rights. Including the argument that rights are not bestowed and thus can only be exercised by groups that can understand, claim and exercise rights for themselves (again, reinforcing the idea of advocacy). Another argument that has been made is that the provision of rights includes duties, obligations and responsibilities and children operate at the level of ‘pre-responsibility’ (again back to seeing children as becoming not being). Owing to our legal framework, adults are responsible for ensuring that many children’s rights are met, though many children desire participatory rights so they can share (and generate) responsibility. The rights laid out for children can be broadly grouped into provision, protection and participation for this very reason, the voice of the child is enshrined into core, fundamental rights.
There has been much debate about younger children having a voice, with sadly many feeling it would not be very productive. But projects such as the Everton Kids Council prove that young children can participate in policy decisions. The mosaic approach demonstrates that children are able to participate in the design of children’s services and provision and many schools have already had success in participatory bullying policies and approaches from as young as 6 or 7. Some primary schools even operate policy where children run their own meetings, without staff members as part of participatory efforts.
When looking at participatory rights, we are guided in the way we should be practising with children and young people. The fundamental right for children to be able to have their say (article 12) places an onus on participatory practice. Article 5 is clear on respecting a child’s evolving capability in decision making, alongside advice and guidance. It has been proposed that children can become decision makers on 4 levels:
• Being informed
• Expressing a view
• Influencing decision making
• Being the main decider
It has been argued that participation is at level 4 — that children should be responsible for being the decision maker, although as you can imagine that has been labelled as risky. That said, as part of a rights-led framework for children in participation, there is no reason why these stages need to be looked at in isolation as they have often been interpreted, but instead as a journey of participation. There is no reason why a child cannot move through the levels of participation as they make more and more choices and form more opinions along the scale — It does not need to be an all or nothing approach. All children have the right (as well as I feel it is the adults moral obligation) to be consulted about decision that affect them. The evidence supports positive outcomes in this method of practice:
• Talking and listening helps children and adults to share problems, values, beliefs and ideas about the world. It teaches justice in respecting the rights of others.
• To consult children respects them as beings, as opposed to those simply becoming.
• It encourages learning
• Adults can give more effective care through listening to the needs and wants of children.
Of course, a participatory framework needs to be developed to the needs and development of the child. Participatory practice has been used successfully in health with 3 year olds managing chronic health conditions for example, in involving them in treatment plans and responsibilities, appropriate to their capability and understanding. On a research level, there needs to be greater investment in participatory research that focuses on the voice of the child, such as the landmark inventing adulthoods study. Participation may need to be designed in a way that is accessible to children, through design children of any age can participate, bearing in mind the stages of participation.
If we start young and see participation and consultation as the cornerstone of ANYTHING that affects children or young people, we will in turn educate children to their rights, increase participation and create a positive culture for future development, making it easier to work in a rights-led way as a child grows up and assumes more responsibility.
My own practice
I have always been very focused on rights-led practice. I have advocated for teenagers to ensure their basic protection and provision rights have been respected, to participatory approaches for children of all ages. This can be as simple as sitting a child down and simply listening to what they have to say and allowing that voice to come through in a plan. Agreeing a plan with a child, simply seeking consent on decisions made about them can make a huge difference. Tailoring approaches and assessment to suit the child’s learning style, understanding and stage of development, to ensure they can participate in the most meaningful way possible.
When advocating, I see it as critical not to be the voice of the child concerned, but as the empowering mirror that allows children and young people to understand and exercise their entitlements. Yes, it can sometimes involve speaking on behalf of children, but that should very much be a channeling of the child’s voice, as opposed to the professionalisation of a child’s opinion or stance. Strong, effective advocacy should be available to all children who need it, in order to make participation in decisions a priority. I have found it can lead to stronger relationships, higher levels of trust and more effective practice when working in a pure rights-led way with families. By starting early, we can make a strong statement on the paramountcy of the best interests of the child. We will only do this when we can shift our thinking, collectively and as individuals, on our view of children and place in society and family life.