Our outgoing Co–director Colin Morrison reflects on reports from the National Discussion on Education and the Hearings for Children: The Redesign Report. He asks, how can two reports be so different in their perspectives on what change means and how we make change happen through the lens of children’s human rights?
There have been two significant publications these past weeks when it comes to the lives of children and young people, and how they and their families experience the systems they engage with. One concerns the education system, accessed by all, the other the Children’s Hearings System with which many of our most vulnerable children and families have connections. When it comes to meaningful change and the rights of the child, they tell two stories.
The report on the National Discussion on Education is called All Learners in Scotland Matter (https://consult.gov.scot/national-discussion-scottish-education/) It comes from work commissioned by Scottish Government and COSLA, the idea originating in the education reform work whose report by Professor Kenneth Muir [i] proposed that it was time we initiated “a national discussion on establishing a compelling and consensual vision for the future of Scottish education”. Of importance in Professor Muir’s proposal was that this national discussion not only reflected on the vision for Curriculum for Excellence but also “how the education system seeks to address the purposes described in Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”. More on this shortly.
The second of our two reports comes from the ongoing work of The Promise; the work being done to fix a ‘care system’ that isn’t working in the best interests of children and young people. Part of this system is the long-established Children’s Hearings System, and this new report addresses how children and families engage with it: Hearings for Children: The Redesign Report https://thepromise.scot/the-promise-scotland/what-the-promise-scotland-does/change-projects/hearings-system-working-group/redesign-report/
There are some interesting comparisons we can make.
The first is that authors of both have worked hard to reach out, include and listen. Children’s Parliament supported children to engage meaningfully in the precursor Education Reform process and with the National Discussion; National Discussion facilitators Professors Carol Campbell and Alma Harris made much appreciated space and time to engage with children and young people. In terms of the Promise and Hearings review, Children’s Parliament has shared our past work on the lived experience of children and the care system [ii] and we know there has been considerable effort to include those with lived experience across this work. So, all well and good, those who engage with systems must be central to considerations of what needs to change, why and how.
The first of two challenges we pose, and how the reports differ, is their consideration of when change needs to happen. All change needs a plan. We know that when it comes to change and the realisation of children’s human rights, the notion of progressive realisation is helpful and realistic. But change starts now. I am increasingly frustrated by the adult/systems view that we need to look to the future, that our focus should be on times to come. There was a fundamental flaw with the National Discussion process in that it started with an articulation of this very problem, with the guiding question posed as: “What kind of education will be needed by children and young people in Scotland in the future and how do we make that a reality?” What then follows is that we need a vision, by definition future focused, aspirational at best? Or perhaps more realistically, at worst, we end up with change kicked into the long grass. The report offers what it says are Calls to Action, but it is hard to find what they are, never mind how they will be achieved and evidenced. There are some lovely phrases, so we hear that “cultivating joy and a love for lifelong learning is important”. Yes it is, but what is going to deliver that tomorrow, next term, next year?
When it comes to Hearings for Children: The Redesign Report identifies what needs to change and who should be responsible for this. Yes, it needs a plan to operationalise the change required, but change is articulated, indeed across the twelve areas explored of this complex system each and every element is summarised in text that is headed: What will these changes look like for children and families? This is how you ground change in the lived experience of the people who are most impacted by it, and most importantly throughout a long and in-depth report, there is a sense of urgency. Players across the system are treated respectfully, but change is not an ask, it is a requirement.
The second and stark comparison we can make between the two reports is the extent to which they are grounded in the human rights of children and young people. We are about to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law. And, if we needed reminding, these rights are basic entitlements, the floor not the ceiling, they are not in the gift of adults. So how do our two reports fare here?
Hearings for Children: The Redesign Report is an example of how to reflect on a system and build it back on the foundation of rights. It acknowledges that some things are good, but good can be better, and outmoded attitudes, understandings and behaviours can go. The report uses the broader language of rights, it talks about putting the child at the centre, considering the whole child, it clearly acknowledges the family as the fundamental group in society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, and that families must be supported. It identifies the need for professional learning for people across the system when it comes to children’s human rights. Then there is the example of how to do a Children’s Rights Impact Assessment. Published as part of the suite of materials, it sees this as only the first stage of an ongoing assessment of the impact of changes that are required in terms of the rights of children across service redesign.
Then we have the National Discussion report All Learners in Scotland Matter. While this comes from a good place and no doubt from large numbers of participants being well meaning, this isn’t enough. We cannot still be in a place where we talk about ‘listening’ to children, ‘respecting’ learners. This passive tone denies the responsibilities duty bearers across the education system have towards children; it fails to locate children and young people as rights holders. In the third paragraph of a four-paragraph vision statement we have a commitment to “…learning experiences which respect their rights”. In the next level guiding values, not a mention of rights. Going back to Professor Muir’s proposal for this National Discussion, in this report there is not one mention of Article 29 of the UNCRC that describes the purposes of education.
What is it we are not getting here? Why is this such a struggle? Why do children and young people who engage with one system have their rights understood and progressively realised, when another system is allowed to be fuzzy and non-committal? A tale of two reports, indeed.
Dr Colin Morrison
Co-director Children’s Parliament
[i] Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education https://www.gov.scot/publications/putting-learners-centre-towards-future-vision-scottish-education/documents/
[ii] Seen and Heard Seen + Heard in Fife – Children’s Parliament (childrensparliament.org.uk) and Childrens Hearing Reform (2010) Children’s Hearings Reform – Children’s Parliament (childrensparliament.org.uk)