Responsibilities make primary 'fantastic'

28th May 2010 at 01:00
Carleton in Glenrothes reaps benefits of Unicef initiative that brings children's rights to life

Usually, when a teacher hears a child utter the words "I know my rights", the reaction is to shudder and wait for a tirade along the lines of what the teacher can or cannot do.

At Carleton Primary in Glenrothes, however - and a growing number of schools in Scotland and the rest of the UK - the rights message is a positive one that is welcomed by every member of staff and the local community.

Carleton is one of the pioneers of Unicef's Rights-Respecting Schools Award (RRSA), based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the impact of teaching the pupils about the convention is that they know their rights - but also understand the responsibilities that come with them.

That unbreakable link between rights and responsibilities has transformed what was always a good school into a "fantastic" one, says PC Shirley Buttercase, one of Fife's schools and communities education officers, who has worked closely with Carleton's Unicef steering committee.

"I have noticed a massive difference in three-and-a-half years," says the police officer, who covers every school in central Fife and believes none of the others has the same understanding of respect.

"The biggest thing for me is that children today are very aware of their rights but many don't understand that every child is entitled to rights and, by doing something, they can be depriving another child of his or her rights. The pupils at Carleton have a much better understanding of that - whether on a global or individual basis," she says.

Carleton Primary was one of the earliest schools in Scotland to achieve Level 1 accreditation under the Unicef awards scheme, and after two years it became the first in Scotland to reach Level 2, which required it to demonstrate it had involved people outwith the school in the programme.

The head, Linda Donnelly, and depute, Sioux Hamilton, are members of a committee set up by Fife Council to gain a rights-respecting community award from Unicef, which would be another first for Fife.

The school is also unique in appointing two pupils as RRSA assessors for other schools. Head boy and girl Adam Braid and Katie Williamson have equal status with Mrs Donnelly and Mrs Hamilton when they visit a school to assess whether it meets the RRSA criteria. If the two adults thought it should be given an award, but Katie and Adam did not, the award could not be given. Happily, such a conflict has never arisen, and the experience of visiting other schools, making presentations at national conferences and high-level meetings has given Adam and Katie a self-confidence and maturity rare in P7 pupils.

The RRSA initiative began three-and-a-half years ago when the school was considering how to include global citizenship in its improvement plan. Two teachers went to a seminar on the topic and heard Bruce Wilkinson, Unicef's education officer for Scotland, speak about the programme. They felt their school was on its way to meeting the criteria and decided to apply for formal accreditation.

Mrs Hamilton was already working on personal and social development with classes when covering non-contact time for colleagues. She and another teacher introduced the ideas of the rights in the convention and how they applied to children's lives and behaviour.

For the ones in P1, she would talk about the basic elements, such as understanding right and wrong. But with older children, the concepts and discussions are more complex. The P7s, for instance, have been discussing refugee status this year.

Unicef was closely involved at the beginning: Mr Wilkinson carried out an audit of the school's rights-respecting practices and held twilight sessions for non-teaching members of staff and professionals in the school, so they too understood the new language and ethos.

Now the kitchen staff, school office workers, local minister, after-school and breakfast club workers and parents have become part of the initiative and are all tuned into the same language.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has 42 articles, but some are linked to government action and therefore not appropriate for a school programme. So Carleton's pupils have produced their own leaflet which they distribute to other schools and community organisations, explaining children's rights.

For Article 23, for example, they write: "Children who have special needs or any kind of difficulty should have support to make their lives fabulous"; or on Article 24: "Children have the right to good health. If they become ill, they must be given good healthcare."

Under the heading of "responsibilities", they explain:

"In school we realise our rights come with responsibilities:

  • we have the responsibility to follow rules;
  • we have the responsibility to respect the opinions of others;
  • we have the responsibility to take care of books and resources;
  • we have the responsibility to treat others fairly;
  • we have the responsibility to do our best."
    • Each class has to produce its own rights-respecting charter; teachers have to agree to the rights and responsibilities stipulated, while the children have to agree with the teacher what her responsibilities are. The charter is displayed in the classroom and updated during the year.

      Teachers also look for opportunities to make links between the awards programme and other aspects of school life. Article 12, for instance, which states that everyone has the right to a voice and opinion, is reflected in the pupil council and the eco-club.

      Staff also emphasise the difference between a "need" and a "want" - explaining, for instance, that everyone wants Christmas presents but everyone needs nutritious food and water.

      The rights-respecting agenda would not work on its own, say Mrs Donnelly and Mrs Hamilton, if they had not tied it in very closely to restorative practices and the "Cool in School" behaviour initiative.

      Carleton has trained a team of P6 pupil peer mediators to intervene in playground disputes. If the problem is too serious, however, the pupils know they must pass it on to adults. The language of these interventions is couched in terms of rights and responsibilities.

      The school also has P5-6 "Carleton companions", whose job is to support the P1-2 pupils in the playground.

      "As a result of working restoratively, having peer mediation and rights and responsibilities, as a management team we deal with hardly any problems with any children," says Mrs Donnelly.

      "Class teachers deal with any problems restoratively in the classroom through discussion about rights and responsibilities and mediation. We still have our moments - usually with children who have issues at home. But in the main, there are very few."

      PC Buttercase, as an objective observer, says: "I've never had a reception like the one I've had here. Pupils at Carleton have the confidence to come and speak to the police, and even their parents. If parents have issues with their kids, they will say to the school: `Can you get PC Buttercase to speak to the kids?'

      "Usually, parents say to their kids: `If you do that, the police will get you,' which is not the message we want to put out," she says.

      While The TESS is visiting the school, PC Buttercase is called away to speak to a boy who has been reported for fighting in the playground. Two years ago, that child - a challenging boy - would have given her 30 stories before telling her the truth about the incident, she says. Today, he "fesses up" immediately.

      As part of her police work in "diversity", PC Buttercase has been taught British Sign Language - and she has passed that skill on to Carleton pupils as preparation for their move up to Auchmuty High, which has a deaf unit, in the hope that it will make the school community more inclusive.

      She also uses the language of rights and responsibilities when addressing issues such as online bullying on social networking sites or explaining that the criminal process means children from the age of eight can be prosecuted if they break the law.

      She explains to the children: "If you take rights away from other people, you don't have the same rights - for example, you lose the freedom of speech or movement if there is anarchy or terrorism, but you always have the right to food or water."

      Carleton's local minister, Reverend John McLean, used to be a teacher in Northern Ireland and is enthusiastic about the way the Unicef programme has made it easier for him to communicate his messages.

      "The rights-respecting school comes from a non-religious way of recognising the place of all religions to take part in it and be respected for their view. It mirrors the golden rule that applies in most of the big world religions - `treat others as you would like them to treat you'.

      "The Ten Commandments are about respecting other people, so we are talking a lot of the same language. From that point of view, it is easy for me to fit in," he says.

      "I find they are better now at understanding my messages. Previously, I was the `odd guy with a dog collar who talks about religion'. Now they can accept that what I talk about is not just confined to Christianity or religion, but an essential ingredient of being a human being."

      P7 charter

      • We have the right to a choice of healthy foods at school, but the responsibility not to waste the food we are given.
      • We have the right to go to the toilet or get a drink of water during school time, but have the responsibility not to use this time as an excuse to get out of class activities.
      • Our teacher has the right not to be bullied or shouted at by others and the responsibility to deal with any form of bullying in the school.
      • We have the right to a colourful classroom to learn in; however, we have the responsibility to keep our classroom tidy.
      • Our teacher has the right to her opinions and to be listened to and the responsibility to listen to others and respect their opinions.
      • Our teacher has the right to a safe and secure classroom environment and the responsibility to make sure that all her pupils feel safe and secure.
      • We have the right to an education and the responsibility not to disrupt lessons when other children are trying to learn.


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