Schools need to put children’s rights at the heart of education

Opinion: Young people are equal citizens with a powerful contribution to make

Since Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, much critical work has been done in promoting and integrating this charter across government departmental policies and across wider society. Photograph: iStock

Since Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, much critical work has been done in promoting and integrating this charter across government departmental policies and across wider society. Photograph: iStock

 

I recently read guidance on being a good wife and mother from the 1955 Housekeeping Monthly entitled “The Good Wife’s Guide”. It stated: “Children are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.”

This “children should be seen and not heard” narrative has had a profound impact on how children experienced their lives in the decades since this guide was written.

While our more contemporary society now considers this worldview as predominantly redundant, positioning children and young people as active and equal citizens is still quite challenging and problematic.

Critical work

World Children’s Day on November 20th this year is especially notable as it marks 30 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Since Ireland signed the UNCRC in 1992 much critical work has been done in promoting and integrating this charter across government departmental policies and across wider society.

This has been realised through mechanisms such as children’s rights advocacy groups and through youth-led organisations including the Irish Youth Parliament, Comhairle na nÓg. Yet how children experience and express their rights in their daily lives is still unclear.

What is clear is the power of child and youth voice(s). Most recently, the streets of our towns and cities bore witness to tens of thousands of Irish students striking for climate change.

They joined over seven million other people across the globe inspired by Greta Thunberg, who at the age of 15, stood outside the Swedish parliament calling on her government to take action against climate change.

The strength of this strike was not only an exemplification of global citizenship, it was also a demonstration of children’s rights - the freedom to participate, to express opinions and to assemble peacefully. Witnessing the power of the Greta Thunberg effect on a global scale highlights the power of young people’s voices and yet it is a voice very much underrepresented within Irish society more broadly.

Vital role

Schools play a vital role in preparing our children and young people to enact their rights and to participate in a critical way in society.

While the majority of Irish schools expertly facilitate children and young people’s voice through their pupil and student councils, the current revision of the primary and post-primary school curricula by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) provides an opportune moment to foreground children’s rights and voice within the everyday practices of schools and classrooms.

Professor Laura Lundy, an expert in international children’s rights, emphasises that providing the opportunity for children to express their voice is not enough.

For children’s rights to be realised, they need to be afforded the safe opportunities to express their views (space), be facilitated to do so in a safe manner (voice), they must listened to (audience) and their views must be acted upon as appropriate (influence).

The Lundy model for participation is playing a key role in guiding teachers on the design and development of curriculum content at Junior Cycle level in areas such as wellbeing.

There are excellent exemplars demonstrating the possibilities for teaching children’s rights across the curriculum at both primary and post-primary level in subjects such as CSPE, SPHE and digital media literacy.

Global citizenship education, as one example, places particular emphasis on preparing our young people to live in an increasingly fast paced, interdependent and unequal world.

It teaches our young people about global justice and global solidarity, realised through their rights as citizens, both at a local and global level. There are also excellent examples of schools, most recently Balbriggan Educate Together National School, explicitly teaching their pupils about human rights.

Citizens of the world

While teaching children about their rights is critical to engaging them as global citizens, even more crucial is teaching children how to enact those rights and realise their role as citizens of the world.

We need to move beyond teaching about children’s rights to teaching how to enact these rights. This more nuanced approach to children’s rights is achieved through the integration of a rights based approach to the curriculum being taught and the methods being used to teach across the school day.

Enshrining children’s rights at the heart of education not only emphasises their importance, it embeds them as practice impacting directly on how children experience and shape their daily lives both within and outside of school.

Empowering children and young people to enact their rights is especially pertinent as we face into an extremely challenging, and potentially unsettling, future particularly when considering the threat of climate change on humanity, on democracy and on world peace.

Such an approach positions children and young people as human beings in their own right, as equal citizens within society, with a powerful contribution to make in securing not only our future, but our present too.

Dr Deirdre McGillicuddy is assistant professor in education in UCD with specific interest in education and children’s rights.