New school rules

14th March 2008 at 00:00
Hannah Frankel finds out what respect means to today's children and how it is improving life in class, and at home

Andover is a town on the brink of a respect revolution. To date, 66 per cent of its 18 schools are Rights Respecting Schools, introducing their pupils to the concepts of rights, responsibilities, and the third "R" of the holy trinity, respect, from as young as age four.

The ambitious goal is to get that up to 100 per cent, which would make Andover the first Rights Respecting town not only in Hampshire but in the UK.

It is a well-known battle cry from middle England: "Young people know all about their rights but nothing about their responsibilities." But the Rights Respecting scheme, introduced by Unicef, the UN children's agency, in 2005, aims to change all that. It uses the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to inform school life, changing how staff teach and communicate, and improving relationships, learning and behaviour.

Helen Palmer introduced the scheme at an Andover primary after visiting a similar initiative in Canada and being "blown away" by the impact it was having. When she tried it with her own Year 6 class, the difference it made convinced her to bring it to the rest of the school. "The children's language had been quite offensive and aggressive, but once they grasped that they must respect each other as part of a convention that applies to all human beings, it improved dramatically," says Helen.

The language of rights is introduced in its most basic form among four-year-olds at select local infants' schools in Andover, developed at primary level, and firmly embedded in the secondary sector. The next step is to get more nurseries and further education colleges involved.

Helen is now deputy head of Anton Junior School in Andover, one of 200 Rights Respecting Schools in the UK. From its humble beginnings in personal, social and health education lessons, the UN convention is now an integral part of all subjects at the primary, while permeating every aspect of school life as well.

In geography, Year 5 pupils study rivers within the context of the right to clean water, whereas a look at Victorian workhouses and factories triggers debates about the right to health care. Even the school council's successful request for pupils to have lockers was couched in the language of human rights: the right for privacy.

The school is a certified level one Rights Respecting School. It will be working towards a level two award during the summer term - a process that involves completing a self-evaluation (which can ultimately provide material for your Ofsted self-evaluation form), followed by an external assessment.

But empowering pupils in this way is not at the expense of teachers. "Pupils recognise that their rights are not more important than the rights of adults," says Helen. "It's for teachers just as much as for children because it improves relationships and solves conflict in a respectful manner."

Every class has designed and displayed its own unique charter of rules, again based on the UN convention, which is signed by staff and pupils. And it is strictly adhered to, according to Shannon Judkins, 11. "A boy was talking in class so I told him that he was getting in the way of my right to an education," she says. "The school has changed as we've become more aware of our rights and responsibilities. People are kinder to each other now, because they understand and respect each other."

Teenagers at nearby John Hanson Community School have also grasped the central tenets of the convention. Under their own initiative, four Year 11 pupils raised funds to visit Ghana for 10 days to compare how the same global rights and responsibilities they enjoy are utilised by children in a developing country.

"They have the same rights but hugely different priorities," Scott Reid, 15, tells the Anton pupils as part of a discussion between the two schools on rights. "They have to fight for their right to water - getting up at 4am every morning to go and collect it - before they can even think of their right to an education. But still, respect is second nature to them. They all look after each other and work together for the greater good."

Pupils taking responsibility for their own learning like this is not unusual in a Rights Respecting School, according to Helen Webb, the teacher who co-ordinates the scheme at John Hanson. "The pupils find it empowering," she says. "It's a two-way process that affects how teachers structure their lessons and how pupils respond to them."

Although it's a national scheme, Hampshire is leading the way, introducing its own individualised Rights, Respect and Responsibility (RRR) initiative in 2004. Early evaluation of the 56 schools involved found that implementation is most successful when heads are fully supportive of the scheme, and use it as an overarching framework that incorporates all other initiatives.

Parallels can be drawn with other schemes - most notably Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning and Philosophy for Children - but schools report that these compliment the work of RRR rather than repeat its messages.

Although the report found that some heads did encounter initial reluctance from teachers weary from initiative overload, the obvious benefits eventually convince any doubters.

"Some teachers felt it would be used against them," says Liz Hood, a teacher at Anton School, "but they are now fully receptive. Today, it's part of who we are and what we believe. It would be unthinkable not to have it."


The 2007 Hampshire County Rights, Respect and Responsibility report surveyed 16 primary and secondary schools and found the scheme results in:

- Improvements in social relationships and behaviour.

- Pupils being more respectful and helpful to others, and less aggressive and disruptive.

- Pupils showing greater respect for the school environment, including books, desks and school equipment.

- Pupils participating more in the classroom and in extra-curricular activities such as clubs and school councils.

- Enhanced academic engagement and achievement, as reflected in improved critical thinking, confidence in tackling new tasks and improved grades.

- Teachers reported a positive effect on their teaching and relationships within the school. In more advanced schools, teachers said they felt more energised when dealing with pupils and an increased sense of personal achievement.

Hounslow Town Primary School in Middlesex

At Hounslow Town Primary School, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is at the core of school life. You will find the language of rights included in everything from the school development plan to letters to parents, parent meetings and staff training.

Pupils are well versed in what it means to be a Rights Respecting School as the message is constantly re-enforced in assemblies, the curriculum, displays and even "toilet charters". Parents, too, talk about their children's responsibilities following any disciplinary action, instead of attributing blame to teachers, the school, or other pupils.

Rules and class charters are framed in the language of rights, while pupils utilise the language to resolve conflicts or make constructive suggestions about lessons.

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