Monday, July 06, 2009

Rights and responsibilities: a child's view

"We've all got to respect people's rights, so we set an example for the younger kids," says William Cooper, aged 10. "We have rights to things like an education, and a house. That is in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child."

"Our rights are very important," chips in Megan Glendon, 9. "If we want the right to express ourselves, that means we have the responsibility to listen when other people talk."

This is not the kind of conversation that one expects to have with a group of primary school children. But at Knights Enham Primary School in Hampshire, all the children are very well aware of their rights - and of the responsibilities that correspond with them. The school is the first in the world to be awarded a UNICEF level 2 rights respecting school award. It is now the basis of an impressive educational experiment that is currently being spread to 300 more schools across Hampshire.

"The change has been remarkable since we introduced the rights-based approach," says Anne Hughes, the head teacher. "The children are more confident; they are better behaved and happy to come to school." Indeed, the statistics speak for themselves: since the school adopted the rights-based approach in 2003 unauthorised absence has dropped, exclusions are down from 8 children in 2002-3 to only 1 in 2007-8, and SATS scores have risen from 133 to 252.

Knights Enham’s catchment area is a poor part of Hampshire: the area is in the bottom 6% of deprivation indices in the UK, and 40% of children are on free school meals. "Parents in this area have not traditionally warmed to education - lots of our kids get themselves up to go to school," says Hughes. "Now are kids are keen to learn – they realise the importance of education and realise that they are lucky to have it."

Hughes got the idea for her new approach from a tiny article in the Times Educational Supplement about a school in Canada that had reduced bullying by teaching students about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. She organised a visit to Nova Scotia to watch the approach in action, and when she came back implemented it with one of the school’s two Year 6 classes. "Very quickly we started to notice differences in behaviour and attitude between the two classes. The children who were taught about human rights were more tolerant of one another, they listened to each other, and they were more interested in global issues."

The following year, the approach was extended to the whole school. Staff, parents and children sign up to a "Home/ School Agreement", which states their rights and responsibilities. At the beginning of each year, all the classes produce a charter outlining the rights the children want and the responsibilities that go with them. Laura Pearson, a trainee teacher, shows me the one produced by her form. Some of the rights deviate slightly from the UN Charter: the "right to have fun", for example. All the children have signed the charter, which is displayed on the wall.

"The great thing about the rights and responsibilities approach is that the children take ownership of the rules," says Pearson. "They realise that all the good things they get in school come with responsibilities, and you can remind them of that. It also reminds me to be respectful of their rights: if I don't want them to touch my desk, for example, I won't go into their cabinets. It makes a huge difference, and I'll definitely take this approach with me to other schools."

For Hughes, there is no turning back having experienced the positive effects of a rights-based approach. "This school is much happier and calmer. I've had no staff turnover for 2 years now. The children so confident and proud of our success: they have even given presentations on Rights, Respect and Responsibilites to meetings of up to 100 people. I feel it helps them to realise that what they do is important, and that even one little voice can make a difference."

There may be times, however, at which parents momentarily rue the day their children became so confident and empowered. "I want to be a hairdresser when I grow up," says 9-year-old Megan, "but my parents took away my right to choose. They told me to be a teacher instead."

Source: Equality & Human Right's Commission

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