A failure on children’s rights

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive, National Children’s Bureau

The UN’s assessment on our performance on children’s rights makes for uncomfortable reading, says Anna Feuchtwang

This month the UN published its assessment of how Great Britain is faring on children’s rights and the verdict made uncomfortable reading: the UK has a lot of work to do – and a lot of that work will fall to schools.

To improve children’s rights in the UK we need to address a blind spot – child poverty. The UN committee expressed serious concerns that the levels of deprivation facing children in our country present significant barriers to the fulfilment of their rights.

While the House of Lords recently stepped in to halt plans to stop measuring child poverty based on income, we are yet to see whether the government is really serious about tackling disadvantage. The forthcoming Life Chances strategy, announced in the Queen’s Speech, will not live up to its name if child poverty is not at its core.

Schools are expected to do their bit by using Pupil Premium funding. The vast majority of schools use this money properly, but a report by the Sutton Trust suggests a small but growing number are using these funds to offset budget cuts elsewhere. It is hoped that Ofsted checks and a requirement from September for schools to publish their Pupil Premium strategy will help reverse this trend.

Another part of the pupil population singled out in the UN report is SEND children. The committee is particularly concerned that too many are placed into special schools or special units within schools, rather than making mainstream education properly inclusive. There is also the concern that under the current system, academies are less inclined to welcome children with additional needs than maintained schools. Of course, if an academy is named on an Education, Health and Care Plan it must admit that child, but if a school sends out the message that a child’s additional needs may be better met in another school nearby, the parent may turn elsewhere.

While the extent of this practice is difficult to establish, recent research by the Universities of Oxford and Kingston looked into the practices of 160 academies and suggested that decreasing admissions of lower performing pupils could be a means for improving school performance. Adopting a human rights-based approach to education and disability could help challenge these practices and ensure all schools fulfil their responsibilities to SEND pupils.

Child rights are universal and the committee recognised that for all children to achieve their rights there needs to be a particular focus on those most likely to be left out, whether it’s children from poorer families, with disabilities or from a minority group including LGBT. The committee therefore added its voice to the groundswell of support for statutory sex and relationships education (SRE), stating that the subject should be a mandatory part of the curriculum.

Furthermore, the UN called for SRE to address issues like abuse and exploitation, and that it should be LGBT-inclusive. The UN’s intervention on this issue means that it is becoming increasingly hard for the government to justify its position.

One of the reasons this is so important is the UN finding that the UK has a serious and widespread problem with bullying. The committee called for the government to intensify its efforts to tackle bullying, including cyber-bullying, through teaching about human rights and respect for diversity. There should also be better training and information made available to teachers, parents and young people on the safe use of technology.

Above all, the UN called for all those who work with children, whether they are teaching staff or policy-makers, to listen to children, paying particular attention to reflecting the views of the vulnerable. We have a lot to do before the UN next turns its attention on the UK in 2022, but when it does, our efforts should be informed by the views of children and young people themselves, particularly those that find it hardest to make their voices heard.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk

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