Enough shaming and blaming: time to change the narrative

I’ve just spent 2 days in Geneva with international children’s rights practitioners, Members of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Child Human Rights Defenders, UN Special

Rapporteurs and The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, celebrating Child Rights Connect’s 40th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. The theme of the Conference was #ChangingTheNarrative.  There were a lot of interesting presentations from around the world on the impact of children’s effective participation in helping to change narratives and subsequent policy and behaviours. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, cited two international examples of good practice by Child Human Rights Defenders. The first was children in Bangladesh who have managed to prevent a number of child marriages taking place and the second, Children’s Parliament’s Changemakers’ work in securing The Scottish Government’s commitment to end single use plastic.

Thinking about the impact of children’s activism, where adults recognise children as agents of change and where children have been taken seriously, while I was in Geneva, The Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Education’s announced that there is to be a behaviour summit to address the issue of violence in Scotland’s schools. The language around ‘behaviour’ and ‘violence’ alongside provocative media presentation immediately pushes this issue into an adult dominated, negative space where children and young people are clearly seen as a problem.  I wonder how such an event is going to help us change the narrative in order to give us a chance to change the outcomes.

UN Committee on the Rights of the Child member Philip Jaffé said in his speech that children are deciding to “go it alone” because “decision-makers haven’t changed”. Mikiko Otani, another member of the UN Committee calls this ‘beyond participation’; children recognise they don’t need to wait for adults’ permission to make their views known. Mikiko continued “Even if [people and systems] aren’t ready, children are”.  In other words, there is a bus full of children heading to a new destination and if we want to have any say in where it ends up, we better get on the bus.

Iceland’s Minister for Education told the conference that when he took up his post in 2021, he stated that he wanted to prioritise children’s rights and dignity in education. When a wave of violence erupted in Icelandic schools, children asked to meet him.  He agreed to a meeting although he was aware that many school leaders questioned his approach.  He listened to the children and then made a plan. “Governments on their own are not progressive” he said, so he involved NGOs. The Icelandic Government took activists into the Government. Government officials became activists. They didn’t expect that, but it happened.  Things are much improved – not perfect but they have strong leadership, a clear aspiration and framework – putting love, kindness and understanding at the heart of all they do – which also, handily, happens to be a requirement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Iceland incorporated the UNCRC in 2013, but beyond Incorporation, they now had someone who understood its power in bringing everyone on to the page that puts love, kindness and understanding first. It takes away what Grahame Leicester of the International Futures Forum calls ‘moral luck’ where children are left hoping to find themselves with adults who will love and respect them rather than feeling confident that this is the minimum they can expect from adults in their lives – at home, in school and in the community. The Minister understood that while effective children’s participation is one important aspect of a children’s rights approach, full implementation requires adults to be aware of and understand the aims of the UNCRC and to bring that human rights awareness and realisation to every aspect of their role.

Over 26 years of Children’s Parliament, we have involved thousands of children in projects and programmes.  We work hard to include children who seldom attend school or who are on the verge of exclusion, whose behaviour is considered ‘challenging/anti-social/harmful’ and without exception we have evidenced that our rights-based approach has ‘“improved children’s mental health and wellbeing, improved relationships with peers and adults and increased positive engagement in school and learning.” (Centre for Global Citizenship).  Without exception. That’s the holy grail, right?

So, what’s stopping this evidenced-based approach taking root within mainstream education? It has begun in some places.  We work with some fantastic teachers and schools across Scotland where the UNCRC is more than posters and a committee but where children’s voices are genuinely and effectively changing not just what is taught, but how it is taught.  UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools Award is a great way to introduce the UNCRC to staff and children. To have an effect on the cultural and physical environment in which children learn, school leaders need to go beyond human rights education, and understand that realising children’s human rights starts with how adults think about and treat children. There is a growing acknowledgement that it is the culture of educational environments that is the difference between a child succeeding and failing. However, our education system allows individual leaders to largely decide what kind of culture their school will have – it could be respectful of children’s rights and human dignity, or it could be predicated more on the traditional model of reward and punishment. The point is that children – and teachers – generally don’t have a say; they will, however, be on the receiving end of whatever the approach is – positive or negative.

When children who are troubled or displaying distressed behaviour come through the door at a Children’s Parliament’s session, they don’t develop new understanding and skills by osmosis.  There are often challenges in the first few days as the strategies and behaviours they use in school in an attempt to communicate with adults are tested out in this new environment. At all Children’s Parliament sessions, we encourage children to speak up, make suggestions and take responsibility for themselves and each other.  When children aren’t used to getting the buzz that goes with growing in confidence, feeling proud of themselves, and recognising the development of skills and abilities they didn’t know they had, we have to patiently support them through kind and positive relationships. The first, and most important thing the Children’s Parliament team does is recognise that the very worst thing we can do in situations where children are unable to self-regulate is punish, embarrass, shout, or exclude – so we never, ever do that.  What we do is make clear where language and behaviour is inappropriate and respond with love, kindness and understanding to every single word, phrase, look and action that is unkind or upsetting. And yes, that takes time. And yes, we adults must get past the point of believing that such behaviour needs to be dealt with through punishment.  Not wanting or needing to hurt someone else comes from not wanting to hurt yourself and we find children often need to learn to develop empathy for themselves, to understand and like themselves, before they can think about the consequences of their behaviour on another person.  It is this critical process that shows children we value them and that they are worth our time and attention, that we believe in them, that we have high expectations, that they can succeed here, that they are wanted here. These are feelings many children who are caught up in the cycle of disruptive behaviour never feel – and they are absolutely essential if we want different outcomes.

#ChangingTheNarrative around how we deliver an education that fits 21st Century life and work requires us to challenge ourselves, our values, and our expectations.  Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children, emphasised the need for children to be “at the heart of negotiations.  Children are not a problem to be solved but part of the solution. They need to be seen, heard, and engaged.”  The signs are coming at us thick and fast.  What are we going to do differently in order to achieve a different outcome?  Do we even know what the alternative outcome is that we’re seeking? Children know – they tell us over and over what they need but adults keep talking to them about ‘a vision for the future’.  As my Co-Director, Dr Colin Morrison always points out, now IS children’s future.  What is it going to take for us to treat what children are telling us seriously and create new pathways that lead to the radical change most people seem to agree is required?

Volker Turk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told the conference “Children are worried.  They have stress around education, family stress, there is a changing landscape around them – it’s a scary time.”  And behaviour and violence in schools are ways children are attempting to tell us how they are feeling in the absence of any alternatives.  Unless we acknowledge this, change gears and #ChangeTheNarrative, things can, and will, get worse.

As Suzanne Zeedyk regularly points out, behaviour is a symptom – it can’t be ‘fixed’ by a system that tells children ‘you’re wrong, we’re right, so change what you’re doing, or we’ll punish you’. Our hierarchical educational culture, our too early school starting age, the amount of desk-based learning, our reliance on testing and exams, our over appreciation of academic ability – all are a legacy of a centuries-old system that required different skills and abilities to those we need now.  A message, I would emphasise, that was wholly embraced during the conversations I took part in as part of Professor Kenneth Muir’s Education Reform process.

So, if we accept that the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome, who is going to take responsibility to #ChangeTheNarrative? Would the Cabinet Secretary for Education consider doing what Iceland’s Education Minister did? Meet children first through NGO routes and then invite the adults in? Putting children as Najat Maalla says “at the heart of negotiations”?

There is no better time to be thinking radically. We continue to have a strong focus on education reform. Will the Cabinet Secretary be an Unfeartie and put children in the centre to help design a system that achieves the outcomes children, young people, parents/carers, business people and educationalists are crying out for?

Cathy McCulloch
Children’s Parliament

30th May 2023

Date: 30th May 2023
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