Thursday, 17 December 2009

Children Are Unbeatable newsletter 1

The Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance has posted its first newsletter. The Alliance works towards a repeal of the law allowing parents to use the defence of 'reasonable punishment' against a charge of common assault on a child (section 58 of the Children Act 2004). Repeal would end legalised physical punishment of children, including smacking (see previous post for a full explanation.

The CAU! newsletter provides details of progress towards the Alliance's aims in parliament and the courts and in building support in the child protection and religious communities. It also describes how children and young people are being involved in the Alliance, looks at new research and a depressing government publication called Being a parent in the real world, about which I will be blogging shortly.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Children on climate change frontline denied a voice

Further to my facetious little post on the Unicef climate forum in Copenhagen (1 December), here's some rather more depressing stuff about the lack of involvement of children who are living on the front line of climate change. From the organisation Plan International and reported in Crinmail today:


CLIMATE CHANGE: Children on climate change frontline denied a voice, says NGO

Children already struggling to adapt to severe, unpredictable weather and environmental disasters are being denied a say in the climate change debate, says children's organisation Plan International.

Young people in developing countries are taking on more responsibility and initiatives to protect their homes and communities but are not being allowed to hold governments to account.

With two in five of the world's population under the age of 18, climate change is set to have a disproportionate impact upon children.

The impact can already be seen in some countries where it operates with shorter and unpredictable rainy seasons, severe typhoons, hurricanes and floods, long-lasting droughts, and repeatedly failed harvests.

Plan International's CEO Nigel Chapman said: "Extreme weather caused by global warming has the ability to undermine all the gains achieved in the areas of food security, water and sanitation, and the survival of young children.

'We have seen how a catalogue of disasters this year has damaged homes and livelihoods in many countries where we work, with children being the greatest victims.'

Increasingly, young people are now being trained in how to practically deal with the results of such natural disasters - and how to protect their homes and build the resilience of their communities.

But not enough is being done says Mr Chapman, to support these children nor to allow them to have their say in climate change discussions.

'Children all over the world are now showing their interest, capacity and valuable role in strengthening resilience to climate risks. But adults are negotiating away the viability of the world they will live in without giving the next generation a place at the table.

'As one of the groups so drastically affected, their voice must be heard now - both on how their communities are being affected today and will be increasingly under threat in the future.'

Plan is now calling for a number of actions at COP15 (Copenhagen climate conference) including:

* Children to be given access to dialogue and formal decision making mechanisms on climate change.
* Governments to invest more in education so the next generation knows more about managing the environment.
* Ensuring that National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) and other international, regional and national strategic plans on climate change protect and involve children.
* Emphasising the significance of children - in terms of impact and 'agency' - within the 5th IPCC Assessment Report

Beatrice, 13, from Kithyoko, Kenya, is one of a number of young reporters who will be attending COP 15 with Plan.

"Climate change is affecting my community directly," she says, "I am looking forward to the day when all the people will understand better use of resources and change the climate for better. We are the future leaders and if we understand the effects of climate change now, later in life we can save our countries.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Hats off to... Front-line social workers

Time to give front-line social workers a break! Time to acknowledge the number of fragile lives that they support, often in very challenging circumstances. Mistakes have been made, some of them so disastrous that the government and the profession are heading towards important changes (see below). But there are many, many children who are thriving now, despite being dealt a difficult life, thanks to the efforts of their social workers.

If there is any doubt about the importance of social workers to children's wellbeing, here's a list of children's rights that their work directly and indirectly seek to uphold. The right to:
  • have adults always do what is best for you (article 3, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)
  • not be separated from your parent(s), unless it's for your own good (article 9)
  • have your own opinion which is listened to and taken seriously (article 12)
  • have your privacy and family respected (article 16)
  • be brought up by your parents, if possible (article 18)
  • be protected from being hurt or badly treated in any way (article 19)
  • special protection and help if you can't live with your parents (article 20)
  • the best care possible if you are adopted or in foster care (article 21)
  • have your living situation checked regularly if you are looked after away from your family (article 25)
  • a basic standard of living: food, clothing and a safe place to live (article 27)
  • be protected from sexual abuse (article 34)
  • special help if you have been hurt, neglected or badly treated (article 39).

(Wording of these rights taken from Save the Children's excellent poster, 'Know your rights'.)

The point, of course, is that these rights can only be upheld for children by social workers and children's services that are of the highest quality. The tragedy that befell (Baby) Peter Connolly threw harsh light on the quality of children's services in one local authority and drew inevitable attention to the quality of these services across the country. National soul searching has been accompanied by vilification of children's services, with the most damning finger-pointing aimed directly at social workers. So not surprising that the profession has since hit a deep depression and the recruitment and retention of front-line social workers is currently very difficult. Well, I certainly wouldn't to do the job if everyone was hissing at me.

You can't get high-quality provision from a demoralised workforce any more than you can get it from one that is badly managed or blind to its shortcomings. So an important step towards change must be to stop with the booing and the catcalling, and to take a more positive direction. We have to change the way we think about social workers.

The government-appointed Social Work Task Force agrees, and changing the perception of social workers is one of the key recommendations in its recent report, Building a safe, confident future. Other recommendations include:
  • better education and training for social workers
  • universal standards for social services and other social worker employers
  • training for managers
  • continuing professional development.

These recommendations address the quality of social workers, social services, government provision and of all the structures that these imply, and the report sets out short-term and long-term actions that they believe will enable the recommendations to be implemented. Looks like a pretty good belt-and-braces approach which is respectful towards the children and families whose wellbeing is at stake and towards social work professionals themselves.

The report has been welcomed by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) who now want to see some very quick forward movement so that the drive towards change is neither forgotten by the current government nor dropped by the next. I echo this view.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

I've already talked a bit about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and referred to articles within it - which isn't all that helpful without saying what they are and how comprehensively they deal with children's rights. As I'll be talking a whole lot more about the CRC and its articles.

This document is, of course, the dude - with text that was carefully crafted and agreed by the UN to describe 41 rights that belong to each child, and to make them water-tight. But it's also a long, legal document, written in language that just can't help but send you reeling for the Espresso machine. (Actually, I'm being a bit cute to keep you with me. I think it's beautiful, but then I'm a swot.) Thankfully, Save the Children has been equally careful in crafting a version of the CRC with concise language that makes it accessible to children - which, of course, means that it's a perfect introduction for anyone. It's in the form of a poster. If you can, please print the poster and display it somewhere prominent.

Each of the first 41 articles of the CRC describes a right, and a further 13 describe the duties of governments in relation to these rights. The 41 numbered points on the Know Your Rights poster correspond directly to the 41 children's rights. I've reproduced them right here so you don't have to keep linking back to the poster itself (and, yes, I know there are 42 points - the last one kind of wraps up the remaining 13).

The Know Your Rights version of the CRC
1 Everyone under the age of 18 has ALL of these rights. You have the right to...
2 Be treated fairly no matter who you are, where you are from, what language you speak, what you believe or where you live.
3 Have adults always do what is best for you.
4 Have all of these rights protected by your government.
5 Be given support and advice from your parents and family.
6 Life.
7 Have a name and a nationality.
8 An official identity.
9 Not be separated from your parent(s), unless it is for your own good.
10 Be reunited with your parent(s) if they have to move to another country.
11 Not be taken out of your country illegally.
12 Have your own opinion, which is listened to and taken seriously.
13 Find out information and express what you think through speaking, writing and art, unless this denies other people their rights.
14 Think and believe whatever you want to and practice any religion, with guidance from your parent(s).
15 Be with friends and join or set up clubs, unless this denies other people their rights.
16 Have your privacy and family respected.
17 Get reliable information from newspapers, books, radio, television and the Internet, as long as it is not harmful to you.
18 Be brought up by your parents, if possible.
19 Be protected from being hurt or badly treated in any way.
20 Special protection and help if you can’t live with your parents.
21 The best care possible if you are adopted or in foster care.
22 Special protection and help if you are a refugee.
23 Access to education and any support you may need if you have a disability.
24 The best health and medical care possible, and information to help you stay healthy.
25 Have your living situation checked regularly if you are looked after away from your family.
26 Help from the government if you are poor or in need.
27 A basic standard of living: food, clothing and a safe place to live.
28 An education.
29 An education that develops your personality and abilities, and encourages you to respect other people, cultures and the environment.
30 Enjoy your own culture, religion and language, even if these are not the same as most people in your country.
31 Rest, play and relax.
32 Be protected from work that harms your health or education.
33 Be protected from dangerous drugs and their trade.
34 Be protected from sexual abuse.
35 Not be kidnapped or sold.
36 Be protected from being taken advantage of or exploited in any way.
37 Not to be punished in a cruel or hurtful way.
38 Protection and care in times of war. If you are under 15 you should never be forced to join an army.
39 Special help if you have been hurt, neglected or badly treated.
40 Be helped and treated fairly if you are accused of breaking the law.
41 Be protected by national or international laws which provide better rights than the ones in this list.
42 ALL children and adults should know and learn about these rights.

In my very first post I explained that the rights fall into three categories: provision, protection or participation rights - otherwise known as 'the three Ps'. Here are a few examples of these Ps, with text taken from the CRC. (Try not to drop off in the back there; you can get a translation from the list above.) Each one has a brief commentary tying it to the UK context.

Provision rights call for high standards of services
Article 3: All services 'shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision'. Article 3 is the ultimate catch-all. It places a duty on adults to act always in children's best interests. Our human understanding of this duty lies at the heart of our soul-searching in the wake of terrible events such as those which ended the short lives of Victoria Climbie and (Baby) Peter Connolly.

Article 24: Children have the right to enjoy 'the highest attainable standard of health' and the right 'to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health'. Political wranglings over the National Health Service may not jeopardise access to a high standard of healthcare for all children. Any which threaten to do so must be challenged.

Article 29: Education should be directed towards 'the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential'. Every time we argue over key matters in education policy - SATs or no SATs? synthetic phonics or speaking and listening? - we're bound by the CRC to consider their impact on every aspect of a child's experience. Again, political interests that do not support children's best interests must be challenged.

Protection rights
Article 16: Children have a right to legal protection from: 'arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation'. This right would be contravened if the government engaged in illegal or unjustifiable surveillance of a child's home. It should also guide attitudes and policies towards invasions of children's privacy by the media (see my earlier post).

Article 19: Protection from 'all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child'. The Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance refers to this article in its challenge to the UK government's approach to smacking (see this post.)

Participation rights
Article 12: The government shall 'shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child'.

This is the right that binds the whole lot of them together. It locks on to the article 3 right that adults must always do what is best for children and strengthens it – because how can you be sure that you're doing what is best for a child unless you have weighed up their own views with any other contextual information you may have?

I'll be coming back to article 12 pretty often because it is so central to the the success of children's rights. It also needs to be picked at because it is frustratingly mealy-mouthed and leaves the way open to a conclusion that some children are not 'capable' of forming their own views. This tends to be particularly bad news for young and disabled children.

But I think that’s quite enough for now. You can stop with the Espresso now.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

UK law on smacking contravenes children's rights

Hold on to your hats. Some of this is a bit technical, but it's baseline stuff about the context in which corporal punishment of children is legal in the UK, and I'll be referring back to it in future. Let's be clear: adults are legally permitted to hit children in the UK. They are not legally permitted to hit other adults.

The good news is that children are protected from assault by the same laws as those which protect adults. The bad news is that there is a legal defence against the charge of common assault on a child which doesn't exist if you hit an adult. In England and Wales, this defence is called 'reasonable punishment' and parents, or someone acting in a parental role, may use it to explain why they hit their child - so long as they haven't left a mark. (In Scotland, the roughly similar defence is ‘justifiable assault’ and in Northern Ireland it is ‘reasonable chastisement’.) The existence of any defence for parents hitting children means that they are legally permitted to do so. There aren't any circumstances in which an adult can justify hitting another adult as 'reasonable' - though let's imagine if they could...

'I'm so sorry m'lud, but my father has been warned time again that he mustn't drink in his condition. He's an old man and it could kill him. I'm at the end of my tether with worry and I've tried everything else so I just had to give him a good cuff around the ear - to help him understand.'

or

'My client's pre-nuptual agreement clearly states that his dinner must be on the table at 7pm on the dot. The consequence of failure in this regard - agreed in writing by both parties - is that his wife should receive a careful slap on the back of her head designed to leave no mark but to make a clear statement of my client's disapproval. On the day in question, my client merely abided by the terms of that agreement.'

Too silly? OK, let's get back to some sense.

In England and Wales, if an adult hits a child in such a way as to leave a mark they can be charged with actual bodily harm, in which case the defence of 'reasonable punishment' is no longer allowed (Children Act 2004, section 58(3)). By implication, any punishment that does not leave a mark may be justified as ‘reasonable’ if a court decides the child’s behaviour merited physical discipline. The benchmark for actual bodily harm towards children is set much lower than for violence against adults (you have to do real damage to them!) and the government says this offers children better protection than exists for adults. So that's alright then.

Here's some background.

The defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ was brought into effect in England and Wales by the Children Act 2004. It replaced the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ that had been UK law since 1860 and which, in 1998, was judged by the European Court of Human Rights to provide inadequate protection from ‘inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (a right stipulated in article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The Children Act 2004 was the UK government’s response to that ruling. In the same year, Romania and Hungary banned corporal punishment after a telling-off from Europe. The Welsh National Assembly has called for a similar full ban.

Violence towards children contravenes their rights under article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has persistently called for the UK government to recognise that the legal defence for hitting children demonstrates a failure to uphold the convention in this regard.

I know that it's easy to go cross-eyed with boredom at the sound of Europe and the UN and conventions and rights and blah, blah, blah. It can all seem a long way away from home. Unfortunately, at home is precisely where physical punishment lives for children. So here's what the CRC implies. Allowing adults to hit children is wrong. It's unfair. We shouldn't want to hang on to it. When you look at it that way, it's really quite simple.

There are many cast-iron arguments against legalised physical punishment of children that are called upon to counter the government's justification for continuing it. I've used many of them and will no doubt highlight some of them on this blog. They are all important. But, given the chance, I would never go further than to say that children have a right to protection from all forms of physical and mental violence. And I would ask one question. What is it, exactly, that we're so frightened of losing by making it illegal to hit children?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Children's climate forum.

Here's a link to a Unicef children's climate forum, where 160 young people aged 14-17 from 44 countries are gathering to 'voice their opinion in the global climate change debate'.

My guess is that they're bloody cross.

Hats off to... Paisley Children's Centre

I promised yesterday that this blog wouldn't be one long moan. So here's my first herogram. It goes to Paisley Children's Centre for the extent to which very young children are involved in the planning and organisation of the centre: http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/citizenship/sharingpractice/earlyyearscasestudies/paisley/introduction.asp.

The centre's approach is explained in detail at the Learning and Teaching Scotland link but, in brief, it not only involves the children in their own day-to-day learning (which is what you'd expect in good early years practice), it also holds regular formal consultation and feedback sessions in a room specially designed for the purpose. It's a great way to show everyone - children and adults alike - that the children's ideas are listened to and taken seriously (article 12, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child )(CRC)).

In addition to this, the children are given important responsibilities. And here I would like to digress for a moment, to explain why this matters.

Every human being has the same rights. They were laid down in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CRC has interpreted them for the special case of children (see yesterday's introductory post). If each individual has the same rights, each one also has responsibilities to acknowlege and uphold the rights of other individuals. In effect, the taking on of responsibility is an extension of your own rights and has a generous relationship with those of others. It should never be regarded as a stick with which to beat either children or adults (a point to which I will no doubt return when talking about the Every Child Matters agenda and the Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum in England).

At Paisley Children's Centre, the children belong to responsibility groups that fulfil meaningful functions for everyone in the centre. They might take charge of the contents of play bags that go out at the week-end (counting them out, counting them in again, chasing any that are missing), organise how activities are tidied away, ensure that hands are washed before meals or put together a display on taking care of teeth. This demonstrates an appreciation of the importance of individual and group responsibility to personal and shared rights. It's properly empowering stuff, which I've written about before (in the 'All about ... citizenship' piece) and will no doubt write about again.

There's more to say at some point about the difference between the approach to children's participation in the four countries of the UK. England doesn't do at all well, particularly in comparison to Scotland and Wales. But I will come back to that another day - or, more likely, on several other days.