The champion and the child

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Scotland's first commissioner for children and young people worries no more - if she ever did fear she was going to be ignored.

Kathleen Marshall has hit the headlines on a regular basis since she took up her job in April - sometimes happily, sometimes not. With a remit as both a reactive and proactive champion of children's rights, headlines clearly do not scare her.

She has readily admitted to smacking her children when they were young, and is now equally happy to be a sinner who has repented. She has been similarly at ease criticising the Scottish Executive's policy on antisocial behaviour and its non policy on the detention of children from asylum-seeking families.

More contentiously, Professor Marshall fears she has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons over her reported views on teachers shouting at children.

The last thing she needs, as a public servant who feels schools are crucial to the nature of her job, is to be seen as an "ivory tower" academic remote from the realities of the classroom.

Her consistent refrain is that she has not invented her remit: it has been laid down, not just by the Scottish Parliament but by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - her twin bibles.

Professor Marshall's much-reported views on the undesirability of teachers shouting at their pupils is in line with those requirements, she says. And, she believes, teachers agree.

The UN convention, she adds, refers in article 28 to the importance of disciplining children "in a way which is consistent with the child's human dignity".

Like much else in this field, she repeatedly accepts, people tend to see only one half of the equation. But this is not how the UN, or she herself, sees it. "The convention does acknowledge the importance of discipline but emphasises that it should not be used to humiliate the child," she says.

Professor Marshall's comments have been condemned by some teachers' leaders but, she points out, "the issue of effective classroom management is another matter. It is not my bag, and I have always said I am not a teacher, nor am I a social worker or a health professional or an expert in other areas of expertise that concern children."

She continued: "My job is to ensure that children's rights are protected and that their dignity is not infringed, which it would be if article 28 of the UN convention were breached."

As well as being alive to reacting when children's rights are being threatened, Professor Marshall is equally alert to what she describes as her "sheepdog role" of being proactive.

Both of those roles make her sensitive to any accusation that she is one-dimensional. Her long career in the field of children's rights, which has included substantial contact with schools, provides balance, she suggests. A small-scale research project she conducted with 40 teachers in four schools in 1998 confirmed her view that teachers also support "discipline without humiliation".

Three-quarters took the view this was either very important or important, rising to 90 per cent of primary teachers and 100 per cent of secondary teachers who rated it "important".

"The key expectation that young people have of adults is to be shown respect," Professor Marshall says. "And one of the things that demonstrates a lack of respect is being yelled at."

She adds: "I know people work sometimes in very difficult environments and say, 'well, what about respect for teachers?' But the UN convention talks about respect for everyone.

"So, of course, it is important to have respect for teachers, establishing a cascade effect. Otherwise, the idea of creating a community of mutual respect can seem a little bit less real."

Professor Marshall is sensitive to the notion that espousing children's rights might seem like deserting the rights of others. She comments: "My role is to do with human rights boundaries, which I haven't made up. These rights have been endorsed and accepted by international law and by our Government. So my job is to promote and safeguard these rights. That's a given. It's a question of how you implement them."

Although the teachers in her research project acknowledged the importance of "discipline without humiliation", she is aware they also question the issues. "Teachers, like other professionals, are very ready with the 'yes, but . . .' questions," she says.

Her own views are clear - at least on the obvious questions. "I believe denigrating a child's family, making fun of a pupil in front of the class, calling youngsters names and that kind of thing are clearly humiliating.

But there are obviously grey areas, and I would have as much difficulty as teachers in deciding what's humiliating."

Professor Marshall's current preoccupation is drawing up mechanisms for consulting the young people in her orbit - defined as those from birth to age 18, extended to 21-year-olds for those who have been in care. Her office has been given a research budget of pound;100,000 a year.

As far as schools are concerned, she wants to visit and she wants to listen. She is particularly concerned that her reported views on "shouting" will have given teachers the impression she is completely out of touch.

Professor Marshall will be keen to get over the message that she is far from being a "rights not responsibilities" messenger. She comments: "People say too readily that children nowadays are very aware of their rights and that teachers and other professionals dare not challenge these.

"The truth is that children and young people tend to know very little about their rights. What they believe they know is often a caricature that replicates the unfounded ideas often also held by adults."

Professor Marshall, former director of the Scottish Child Law Centre, said she found this to be entirely true from her outreach work with schools.

"It's an argument for people to think more clearly about their rights which are, almost without exception, qualified by statements about the importance of the rights of others.

"Rights are not a licence: freedom of expression, for example, is not an unfettered freedom for young people to stand up in front of the class and talk whenever or about whatever they like."

Professor Marshall is now setting out to discover how the young people she champions should have a say in how her office shapes its priorities - a participation strategy, which is laid down in the parliamentary legislation which created her post.

That includes children who find it difficult to have their views heard - "really challenging because, by definition, they are not going to turn up at focus groups for the socially excluded."

But, Professor Marshall points out, she has a job to do in alerting schools and other agencies to her responsibilities impacting on policies for children. "If people think they are being faced with inconsistent policies, of being pulled in different directions, that is something I can get involved in - where policies can conflict with one another."

As she also points out, her appointment by the Queen on the recommendation of the Scottish Parliament gives her access to those who can provide information and help resolve conflicts. And she does, of course, have formal investigatory powers affecting all providers of services for children.

It is clearly early days.

Leader 22

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