firstname.lastname@example.org 020 7253 0051
08 August 2012
At the ACT National Conference in July, Children's Commissioner Maggie Atkinson delivered the keynote speech, entitled 'What children need to know about rights by the age of 16'.
I want to reflect with you on what my work, and the themes that drive it, mean for education. I will comment on my vision for a schooling system that – in and beyond the classroom – actively and deliberately involves children and young people as shapers of the system alongside adults, as well as enabling their learning through high quality teaching.
My role rests on the notion that England’s children and young people need advocacy from a national champion charged to lead debates about them from a position of objective moral purpose. The job, both currently and in the future, concerns all 11.8 million children in England, but with a particular regard for the most vulnerable. I must seek children and young people’s views on how they might inform policy making, and reflect them to those in power. The review of the office and role proposed, and legislation by 2014 will seek to ensure, that a reconfigured role includes a reciprocity that is not there now. So, if in future the Commissioner challenges or reports on a statutory body, the law should make it clear that the organisation must respond.
Like those who do my job elsewhere in the UK and in Europe, I champion services including schooling, and a society, where to quote the recently retired European Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg, if we invite children and young people to our conversations, they are not there either as decorations or to make ourselves – rather than them – believe they are active in helping us shape their lives.
I also want to share the headlines of our work on education since I came into post in March 2010. On our website you will find our first, a pamphlet reflecting on whether classrooms are places of learning, or behavioural war zones, as some commentators continue to insist. It reflects the thinking of a group of adult commentators, each article followed by a different young person’s eloquent and robust response. The second piece led on to our most recent third. For that second report we commissioned the NFER, who spoke to 2,000 children and young people across England, asking what they thought about their education.
Many young people share the same priorities as we do. To give just a headline flavour of the findings, they show our children and young people are serious about their education and want to do well. The vast majority think their school helps them learn, and that school work is worth doing. The majority like being in school most of the time, although half worry about school work and exams, citing pressure from home as well as school. They want broadly the same as Government wants. Doing well in exams, access to good schools, and having good teachers.
Their views of teachers are quite sophisticated – I dare to speculate, at times more so than those of some adults involved in debates on the issue. Obvious things like subject knowledge and discipline are important, but that other things are too. They highlight communication skills, empathy, humour, listening ability and creativity. They recognise teaching is a demanding job which needs people with versatility and a wide range of skills.
Given their sophisticated view of what is needed to be a really good one, it’s hardly surprising they want to be more involved in choosing their teachers. Most would like to be involved, but fewer than 1 in 5 has had the opportunity. I have met school councils who have played what I must stress is an advisory, not a decision making role in senior appointments, and have spoken to adults in their schools about the care they take and the wisdom beyond their years that they show in doing it. Some of you might have been appointed with children and young people as part of the process, as I was. Those who interviewed me knew they were advisers, not decision makers. They were tough questioners, and gave me a salutary lesson in how best we might use their generation in our work.
I have a group of around 30, 9 to 18 year olds as my young advisers, and a bigger group who are part of my online advice community. They know they are not an executive body. They are forthright as well as thoughtful in what they say about my work. They have scrutinised my business plan, and they submitted research they helped design and run to the government’s enquiry on the commercialisation of childhood. Like everything they do, their findings challenge the adult beliefs we may have about this subject. They also featured in Reg Bailey’s final report.
Most young people the NFER spoke to for us had experienced disruption in class, but for the vast majority this did not happen regularly. They considered their teachers usually dealt with this well. They felt some children may need to be excluded, but to my great surprise 9 out of 10 said schools should help pupils with their problems, not to exclude them. Very few thought their schools always acted fairly in exclusions. More about the third piece of research and our report on exclusions later, but note at this point that their commentary led to much of what we went on to do.
We asked about admissions, and though many felt they understood the system, when we probed they understood less than they said they did! A bit like us then, really. Surprisingly, to me at least, the majority were in favour of academic ability and personal aptitude based selection. However, though the sample did include faith school pupils, most of the 2,000 opposed faith-based admissions.
If this sample is as representative as our researchers indicate, we have work to do. I intend to work with Government, and with those working across the system, to make sure pupils’ views are listened to as we implement new measures, for example, to improve the quality of those coming into teaching, to change the system for pupils with special needs so their voices are more readily heard, or as there are no doubt continuing reviews of the admissions code in an ever more diverse schooling system where somebody still has to hold the moral centre on the child’s behalf.
The Commissioner’s role in future will monitor how well the country, in all policy areas, fulfils the promises it makes to children and young people as a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, or UNCRC. This is the UN’s most signed international human rights treaty. We are bound by it, Mr Major’s government having signed it in 1990. Ministers have, several times on the last year or more, reiterated their acceptance of its importance. Sarah Teather MP has the UNCRC in her Ministerial remit. Some Convention Articles are about basic entitlements, for example to a name; to be safe; to have your right to privacy upheld. The basic premise, best summed up by Article 2, is that all these rights are a given. They are not waiting to be earned, there is no hurdle children must clear to win them, and they are retained even when a child has done something wrong.
The thousands I have met in doing this job tell me if they have rights, so does everybody else. They consider we are mutually responsible for assuring these rights for each other. Those who work in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and I meet children and young people in some very tough places, some clearly damaged by what has happened in their lives, who can explain that if we grab our rights, irrespective of or overriding the rights of others, it is unlikely we will enjoy what we seize.
The Convention in a little more detail: Article 2 says the rights belong to every child, and that society cannot pick and choose who gets them, or which ones they hold. The rights then are indivisible, inalienable and inviolable. They are not contingent on a child’s somehow clearing a line to be given them as some sort of prize.
Article 3 says everything we do must have the child’s best interests at heart. If that means adapting to see issues through the eyes of the child, so be it. The demands of this Article on the adaptation of professional practice, the onus for reflection placed on the practitioner, should not be underestimated as we change policies on education, its governance and ownership, the qualifications that somehow count and those that don’t, the names over schools’ doors, where schools turn for guidance and by whose moral compass they navigate, and of course schools’ inspection and regulation. This Article lies at the heart of what we want for all, not just some, of our children. For me as Commissioner, it boils down to who holds the line for the child, every day.
Good Citizenship programmes should lie at the heart of the child’s development of personal, philosophical and moral frames of reference. As children often tell me, Citizenship taught well is a favourite area of study because it teaches them to argue and to think critically. Taught badly, or relegated to an afterthought by those who construct the timetable and staff the curriculum, it is their least liked experience. Done badly, their scorn about it is hard to listen to, but surely we should listen to it, because if this part of what they learn is done badly and they have no alternative support frameworks at home, surely their views of issues such political literacy, community and participation, the rights agenda, equality and diversity, will be tainted as they emerge as young adults. Society can ill afford that.
Articles 4 and 5 together say children and young people must rely on governments and the adults in their lives, to protect their rights and ensure they are fulfilled. This relates most keenly to our most vulnerable children and young people. Unless you and I speak for them, they are voiceless in a society that takes the adult view. The statistics on social care, youth justice, mental health and poverty tell us those who are most troublesome in school are usually also troubled in their lives outside. So even if we struggle to see why we should defend their rights, the onus is on us.
Article 6 says they have the right to the fullest development they can each attain, in all aspects of their lives: in their families, school, health and wellbeing, and their economic social and cultural lives as citizens now, not citizens in waiting
Article 12 says all children and young people must have their voices taken seriously in all the decisions that affect their lives. That means in everything, not only when services are child specific. What their neighbourhood is like, what adults are talking about when they discuss how the family will replace the Education Maintenance Allowance next year if their 16 year old wants to travel to learn. Children and young people have opinions on these, and far more. They need us to guide them so that they can contribute to what we adults decide.
If you took part in my Takeover Day on November 11th last year, like thousands of businesses, schools, police and public services, local and national media including Radio 1, thousands of Councillors and their staff, the DPM, Government Departments, nearly 50 MPs and peers, … then you know that, sitting in the seats where decisions are made, children and young people take it seriously, and bring in fresh thinking. If you didn’t do it, why not? This year’s is Friday 23rd November, the same date as the United Kingdom Youth Parliament takes over Parliament. In 2012 we will challenge organisations to see it as “seizing the day” to embed participation, not just doing Takeover Day. A focused one day event when they get a glimpse of adult decision making is a start. The best organisations make it part of a right to participate. Kids in Museums make it part of what they do to create young curators, allowing children to critique museum and gallery practice. The IPCC, who did Takeover Day for the first time in 2010, have now built it into their work programmes, including recruitment of apprentices. Look at Local Authorities where the Mayor, the Cabinet, MPs, senior leaders from all services in the Council, the borough commander of police, leaders from health services, faith communities and voluntary bodies, go through what their young citizens want and need at a conference run by young people on Takeover Day. and are held to account by them in youth led scrutiny sessions throughout the following year. On the next Takeover Day, reports from that scrutiny kick off the next conference.
Article 12 means all children and young people, including the difficult ones, having a voice in all the decisions made about their lives, even if they can’t have what they want and difficult conversations must explain why. Research tells us we fulfil it least well with those with the harshest messages: with disabilities or special needs, health including mental health problems, in youth justice, immigration and safeguarding settings, in poverty, or isolated by who they are or where they live, including in scattered rural communities. Let’s remember, some will experience more than one of these circumstances.
Children’s ability to enjoy their entitlements under Article 12 requires free expression, captured by Article 13 in the Convention, which also stresses that this must be within the law, in a society that teaches rights through a perspective that reflects on mutual respect and responsibility as well as rights. We struggle sometimes with thinking about providing free expression for our children, especially teenagers, and they in turn struggle to understand why.
Some of the UNCRC’s Articles relate to Education directly, and are equally unambiguous. I shall pay close attention to the changes on the stocks now or coming in the future, against these Articles. Article 28 says all children are entitled to an education, in a safe and respectful environment, where discipline is both clear and reasoned. Article 29 says this education should be in the round, respecting and developing the pupil’s personality, needs and talents, teaching them respect for adults, the cultures around them, and the society in which they live. Education then, that is about being human in every dimension, as well as readying them to pass exams and reach important standards.
We need to hold up to scrutiny against these key Articles, calmly over time rather than in a prejudiced rush at the start, ongoing changes to curricula, qualifications, and the inspection and regulatory framework under Ofsted. The UNCRC, I would stress as we all commence this scrutiny, is an international treaty. It is not optional.
In light of the SEN Green Paper and what has followed, particularly given SEN changes will feature in the forthcoming Children and Families Bill, please pay close attention to Article 23. It says children with any difficulty or disability must have their talents and needs recognised and developed, in schools that help them fulfil their potential, whatever their abilities may be. Having never quite encountered a supposed and much alleged bias to inclusion, this Article’s challenge lies on us all, especially given the coming emphasis on school based but multi agency early intervention.
If we keep a close eye on both the changes underway, and the continuity likely to persist, in our diversifying publicly funded school system, it is clear that more than schools will be challenged to change. In Sweden, whose significance in policymaking remains strong, their Children’s Commissioner confirms that school inspections include interviews with pupils without adults present. They discuss how well school helps them to live out their rights. Swedish inspectors have the power to close schools whose practice falls short. As their Commissioner tells me, “They don’t hesitate.” We English will need a continued national dialogue about our own future inspection and regulatory models, in an ever more diversified system, will we not? And children in those schools need to be part of it.
What I advocate is simple to describe, but complex to achieve. It is that, whoever governs their schools, all English children and young people deserve a rounded, fit for purpose education, whatever their life circumstances. We are often very good at delivering this high ideal. Many English schools are doing so, enabling pupils to achieve great things. But whilst this is so for most children and young people, I doubt you would claim there is no room for improvement. Today, on almost every measure of educational success at every age, those from poorer households, some boys, and certain minority groups still do less well than their peers. As a matter of social justice, I trust this is as unacceptable to you as it is to me, but we have known about it a long time, have we not? It is what we do with the knowledge that makes the difference.
Legislative change, and steady reductions or redirections of funding, could challenge us to ensure we hold the necessary moral line for every child and young person. But we need to do so. Children cannot, so we must, level the playing field.
I am agnostic about who runs schools, as are many in localities with already diverse provision. Many, including Academies, are committed to local partnerships, convinced they do their best work supported by, and collaborating with, services like those from health, justice, the voluntary and youth sectors. I urge all of you, even as the landscape goes on changing, to work towards shared solutions that do the right thing by every child. You won’t be surprised when I ask you to make children and young people active participants in your thinking, not passive recipients.
I want a system where children and young people are taken seriously in the running of their schools. This means all adults, inside and beyond the classroom, role-modelling active citizenship, enabling children’s and young people’s voices to be heard. This includes engaging them in robust debate, getting them involved in self-evaluation, in really influential school councils, in decision making. In schools that take their active roles seriously, pupils come to the table responsibly, representing their peers to adults they respect and whom they recognise have a keen interest in their wellbeing.
No school can be better than its teachers. We need more and clearer evidence and a consistent insight into what makes some teachers more successful than others. Academic qualifications are necessary, but not sufficient on their own. If you are a mature entrant, what you have done in your life to date is no guarantee that you will be a great teacher either. Maybe we should turn to the consumers and ask their views.
Pupils often know which teachers get the best out of their classes, which don't, and why. Schools must be fearless enough to listen to, but astute enough to help them to temper, their views. I have visited secondary schools where pupils have been taught how to contribute to staff training. Teachers there have told me how valuable pupils’ insights are, given that in a secondary school, they see more teaching styles than the staff.
On Takeover Day 2010 I spent an afternoon in a continuously improving secondary school where, with support and help from teachers whose jobs they then did in taster sessions, students team-taught lessons with teachers who had interviewed them for the role, who then helped prepare, and who worked as support assistants in the lessons. Students said they were astounded by how hard and time consuming teaching is, and that they would think twice about time wasting in future. Staff were impressed by students’ dedication, facility with technology, creativity and risk taking, and how quickly they learned. I doubt this school will look back.
Young people are clear that as well as learning about their rights under the convention and other frameworks, they have serious responsibilities as partners in their schools’ successes. Teachers must have time and space to teach without disruption, and tools to maintain orderly classrooms. Pupils accept a mutual responsibility to ensure such order obtains, in a reciprocal and rights based way. As a strong foundation, and as part of the curriculum, I recommend UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools framework. It rests on an equal relationship between rights, mutual respect, and responsibility. Children as young as 6 have told me it’s mostly about being in a climate marked by mutual respect, with everybody bearing responsibility to ensure the rights of everybody else. A study in 2010 for UNICEF, undertaken by Sussex University, showed that in Rights Respecting Schools bullying and disruption diminish, exclusions fall, attendance rises, classrooms are calmer, attainment improves, and positive relationships with the community are sustained.
If I am worried or anxious it goes with me to work. I defy any of us to put our troubles down at the door and go to work as if only work was going on. If we expect our children to shrug off their concerns at the gates as if school were a sealed bubble, we should surely re-examine our expectations.
It should trouble us all that as well as attaining less than their more affluent peers and tending towards lower and narrower aspirations, our vulnerable groups are also more likely to be excluded from school. It follows that whoever’s schools they attend, exclusions systems and practice must be fair, transparent, and able to be called to account, including where the adult institution backs down in the face of a child’s upheld complaint. All in the system must strive to make it fair for every child, in all publicly funded schools. In a system where so many children go to great local schools, closing these gaps is challenging. Part of the solution is indeed up to the community and our localities to get right. It’s also up to every school to do this for every child, including the difficult children some schools are great with, whilst others are rather too good at avoiding them.
But for some children and young people, however supported in school, their lives are so troubled that they come in as fish out of water, angry, hurt and disruptive. In extreme cases they may need to be excluded, not least to protect others’ safety and right to an education. Given the serious long term consequences this should be a last resort, as indeed in most schools it is. Building on good practice is the drive behind government intentions to change how provision for excluded children is set up and funded. As the system continues to change, we have a duty to keep a close eye on what happens to children and young people who for whatever reason are excluded from school. Their voices are contributors to what we report, as are the voices of the children whose learning they may have been excluded to protect.
In March I published my third report on education, “They Never Give Up On You,” focused on school exclusion and on who does, or does not, get excluded. The details are on my website, including a Youtube film that makes what we said in the report accessible to children and young people and useable in the classroom. Our work focused us down on inequality – so girls are less excluded than boys, the affluent less excluded than the poor, the white less than the black, the able less than those with special needs. The killer number if you add up all the many signifiers as we DfE did for us? That if you are a black Caribbean boy with special needs, you are, on the basis of recorded national statistics, 168 times more likely to be excluded than your white, female, averagely able, averagely affluent, classmate. Fact. Our work also uncovered, for the first time, heads prepared to say that they not only knew informal and therefore plain illegal exclusion happened, but they did it. You will not be surprised DfE and Ofsted both said almost as we reported that they would work to stamp this out. Year 2 will look at some of the first year’s findings in more granular detail, Do look out for what we have to say.
The basic issue here is that children who are not in school are less safe, less likely to learn even if work goes home, less likely to re-engage and succeed, and as they told us less connected than their classmates, with lower self esteem.
In most localities schools bear shared responsibilities for the hardest to place and educate. Many have nurture facilities and staff trained in counselling, and internal “alternative to exclusion” facilities. Many have outreach work in place, including family interventions. Cost calculators have shown that sense of the school within its community, working alongside others to do the hard work with the hardest to educate or place, can save the public purse many thousands of pounds per family, intervening when things can be saved, rather than when they can’t. It has paid dividends in vulnerable lives across the country and the government remains committed to it through the Troubled Families programme starting now.
The future Commissioner, after the Children and Families Bill due into Parliament in less than a year and likely to become in 2014 if all goes to plan, will monitor how well the country fulfils the promises we made to children and young people by signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I invite you, in your classrooms and beyond, to join the Commissioner – me at the moment, whoever will follow me in due course – to join in with that vital work.