Skip to main content

Open the door to human rights;Platform

Robin Lloyd-Jones says schools must challenge prejudice and injustice

All teachers are teachers of human rights all the time. Like it or not, they are highly visible and influential models for their pupils of how to treat other people. The messages a teacher sends out through the kinds of relationships established in the classroom and with colleagues can be more powerful in shaping pupils' perceptions than the content of a lesson. I remember, as a student teacher, sitting at the back of a geography class. The teacher was doing pretty well in putting over a lesson about the gulf between the poor world and the rich world and the need to share resources, when there was a knock on the door and a boy entered to ask if Mr Smith could borrow the globe.

"No, he can't," the geography teacher shouted. "It doesn't belong to the department, it's mine." That, I suspect, was what stuck in his pupils' minds that day. The things learnt through the hidden curriculum are often the things which go deepest and which can negate or enhance the lessons of the formal curriculum. Central to our endeavours to produce caring, humane citizens, the sort of people who will respect and uphold human rights, is what we do to help pupils towards feelings of self-respect and self-worth. Respect for self is the foundation upon which respect for others is built.

The personal and social development of each and every pupil is at the heart of the creation of a caring society. The Heart of the Matter (produced by the curriculum council last year), has this to say: "Education for personal and social development is about many things. It's about the relationships teachers have with pupils and with each other for that matter; it's about methodology; it's about the kind of language we use with each other; it's about the kind of climate in which we operate; it's about sharing responsibility; and most importantly, it's about every teacher and every aspect of school life."

Methodology, as the above quotation implies, gives out strong signals to pupils about the extent to which they are actually respected. Teaching styles and strategies that let pupils review their own progress, set their own targets, record their own achievements, develop faith in their own judgment and express their own opinions all emphasise respect for the learner. Every time we offer pupils opportunities for success and every time we assist them towards discovering and expressing their own creativity and individuality we plant seeds of self-respect and self-worth and so help develop the kind of person who will respect the feelings and humanity of others.

For many pupils, what they learn in class from the formal curriculum is not seen as part of real life. It's something they leave behind at the school gates along with the way they speak and dress. And here we come to the importance of shaping attitudes. The acquisition of knowledge and skills will not significantly influence behaviour unless it is part of a process of attitude formation. Desired attitudes are more likely to take root when the ethos of the school, its atmosphere, tone and communally held values, are in tune with them; when strategies to create these attitudes are applied across the curriculum as whole-school policies; and when learning occurs in a continuing rather than an episodic way.

Obviously, direct, overt teaching and learning about human rights issues is required, too. A wealth of material, both for the classroom and for in-service training, exists for those wishing to avail themselves of it. Organisations such as Amnesty International, the Council for World Citizenship, Christian Aid, Save the Children, Oxfam, Sciaf and Unicef all produce excellent material. (Some, though by no means all, of these materials are described in the catalogue "Resources for Scottish Schools: resources to bring global issues of equality, justice and environment into your classroom", produced by the Scottish Development Education Centre, Old Playhouse Close, Moray House Institute of Education, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ.) A feature of most of these materials is that they do not expect human rights and development education to be bolted on to an already crowded curriculum, but match with existing subjects and their identified outcomes, concepts and skills. Oxfam, for instance, has produced a useful booklet entitled Matching Development Education Resources to 5-14 English Language Targets. This approach applies to all subjects. There is no area of the curriculum in which topics related to human rights could not find a place or be used to help achieve some of that subject's stated goals. In the main, these materials start with human issues close to home and work outward to the wider world so that pupils see their relevance and feel personally involved. One argument for teaching human rights issues would certainly be that they cover areas of the existing curriculum in fresh and motivating ways.

Much is already in place, with regard not only to classroom resources, but to policy decisions at high levels. Many of the battles necessary for the introduction of human rights teaching to Scottish schools have already been fought and won. Policies concerning equal opportunities are now in place in every region. Take Strathclyde's document, Equal Opportunities, which states a commitment to providing a curriculum and associated materials "in which all sections of society are visibly and positively represented and which challenge prejudice and injustice" and "which enable children, young people and adults to understand the roots of discrimination and to challenge it in themselves and others".

Here are human rights issues in abundance, officially endorsed. Similarly, multicultural and anti-racist education is government policy and organisations like the mcare (multicultural and anti-racist education) unit in Glasgow have produced excellent supporting materials designed to meet the needs and aspirations of Scotland's pluralist society and to recognise the interdependence of peoples across the world: aims which have a great deal in common with those seeking to further the teaching of human rights. "The Rights of the Child", one of the unit's packages, is spot on in this respect.

Until recently, the teaching of human rights has entered the curriculum through the back door, being implicit in many topics, but never directly stated as an aim. Now, however, as the curriculum council states in The Heart of the Matter, young people should be encouraged "to be explicit about the values of a just and caring society". This allows human rights to enter by the front door. Environmental education 5-14, too, has put caring and responsibility squarely on the curriculum and the unit "People in Society" deals directly with human rights, officially admitting it into the classroom.

All these developments - equal opportunities, multicultural and anti-racist education, environmental education, education for personal and social development - have become the remit of HM Inspectorate, education officers, advisers and assistant headteachers. They have a written responsibility for progressing these sets of aims and policies.

The door has been unlocked. Now is the time to push it open.

Robin Lloyd-Jones is a former adviser in social subjects with Strathclyde Region, a member of Amnesty International and vice-president of Scottish PEN International. Further information about Amnesty International's Teachers and Academic Network can be obtained from: Rosemary Burnett, Scottish Development Officer, Amnesty International, 11 Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh EH1 1DR (0130 557 2957).

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you