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Teach them their rights

Scotland's Children's Commissioner has called for human rights education to be made a priority in schools and teacher training.

Kathleen Marshall, delivering the annual Stow Society lecture at Strathclyde University, argued that children's rights had not "gone too far" at the expense of adult rights, nor did children know too much about their rights - as some people believed.

Instead, the problem was that neither children nor adults knew enough about rights - theirs or anyone else's. For that reason, teachers should be able to teach pupils about human rights and able to challenge inappropriate and inaccurate claims. But they would not be able to do this if they themselves did not understand rights and were not trained in rights education.

Professor Marshall also called on schools to build relationships with pupils rather than continuing with an approach based on the power of the teacher over the pupil. The sanctions that once supported power-based authority had now gone, she suggested.

In the context of "restorative justice", it was common to hear of children and young people apologising to adults and making amends, and children and young people making amends to each other, Professor Marshall said.

"But, if there is to be a peaceful community of respect, then it must also be expected that adults will, when appropriate, apologise to children and young people and make amends to them. I know this happens in some schools, but not in all.

"Some might regard this kind of apology as undermining the adult's authority; but in fact, it should ultimately support it by creating the kind of authority based on relationships which is the only kind that will really work today."

Professor Marshall commented: "If the rights of pupils are breached - if, for example, their basic human dignity is not respected in matters of discipline -staff will ultimately suffer the consequences of worse relationships and worse behaviour.

"If the rights of staff are breached or threatened through, for example, over-hasty exposure to public opprobrium on the basis of an untested allegation of abuse of a pupil, then pupils will ultimately suffer through staff distancing themselves from normal, healthy relationships and involvement in activities."

Her job as commissioner was to hold ministers and the country to their responsibilities under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Most of those rights to "freedoms" were qualified by reference to respect for the rights of others.

Professor Marshall said that the convention did not prohibit measures of discipline but did set parameters or boundaries that must not be crossed.

"As a non-teacher, I lay no claim to expertise on classroom management. I am not in a position to say what should happen. As a 'guardian of the promises' made in the convention, my job is to watch out for where the measures adopted transgress the line into a breach of the human rights of pupils.

"But I would suggest that respecting this line also ultimately promotes an ethos that supports a healthy environment for the whole school community."

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