The right to be heard

6th September 1996 at 01:00
THE VOICE OF THE CHILD. Edited by Ronald Davie Graham Upton Ved Varma Falmer Press Pounds 36.00 hardback Pounds 12.95 paper.

THE CHILD'S RIGHT TO A FAIR HEARING Edited by Mary John THE CHILD'S RIGHT TO RESOURCES Edited by Mary John Children in Charge series Jessica Kingsley Pounds 16.95 each.

Why Me? By Mary Macleod and Sally Morris.

ChildLine Pounds 6.50.

The idea that children have something to say is quite new. Gerald Haigh examines books which echo with their voices.

In 1959 when I was on teaching practice in Birmingham, a child sat in my class shivering. When we looked closer, we discovered that she was suffering from shock, having been scalded on her body that morning at home by a spilled pan of boiling water. We looked after her promptly and well, but I do not think that we ever asked her for an account of how it happened. Only in recent years, in fact, has it dawned on me that there might have been neglect, or even deliberate abuse. That, alas, was how it was then.

The idea that children might have something to say about the way they are cared for is an astonishingly recent development. Even in the allegedly liberal Sixties, children suffered in silence because it was nobody's job to listen to them. Adults knew best.

Now, though, we have the Children Act, which enshrines in law what Peter M Smith writes in his contribution to The Voice of the Child: "It is clear that the child's wishes are not to be dismissed or belittled simply because they are those of a child."

Legal rights, though are all very well. Equally important is the way that professionals put the law into practice - and Smith believes that "social work practice is lagging behind legal expectations of consultation with children". For example, "With disabled children there was often little or no attempt to find out and record their views, as if the presence of a disability somehow obviated the need for proper consultation."

Hence this book, which describes itself as "a handbook for professionals" and which looks at the whole business of listening to children in a range of legal and psychological contexts. Euen M Ross, for example, who contributes a chapter on "Learning to listen to children", is a paediatrician who teaches these issues to medical students. He points out, very poignantly, that Jasmine Beckford, who died from abuse and neglect, "had been observed asleep in a darkened room," and that, self evidently, "One cannot communicate with a sleeping child."

This is a very significant contribution to the literature on child care and protection. The academic and professional strengths of its contributors are tellingly underpinned by their evident compassion and common sense. Properly studied and used, this book might actually change some youngsters' lives for the better.

Also catching the tide of children's rights is a series from Jessica Kingsley called Children in Charge. The first volume, The Child's Right to a Fair Hearing, contains a number of the contributions which were presented at the World Conference on Research and Practice in Children's Rights held in Exeter in 1992. A strong feature of that Conference was participation by children and young people, and this is repeated in Mary John's book. "Piggy in the Middle: What Happens When Your Parents Separate" for example, was written by 17-year old Sarnia Harrison and thus has the kind of truth and immediacy that is difficult for the most skilled adult worker to achieve.

Her aim was to produce a booklet for other children of separated parents."When your parents separate you do feel like you are the only one in the world having to go through this ... because you feel so alone you feel embarrassed to tell anyone what's happened and how you're feeling."

In the same series, The Child's Right to Resources is also edited by Mary John and contains material from the Exeter Conference. This book examines what lies behind such familiar slogans as "child-centredness" and "in the best interests of the child".

Finally, underlining the harsh reality of this issue are the telephone calls made to ChildLine. Between 1986 and 1995 ChildLine had counselled nearly half a million children.

Many of these calls were about bullying, and Why Me? is based on the calls made to ChildLine's special Bullying Line between March and October of 1994. The quotations and general conclusions are thought-provoking, and most importantly they remind heads and parents that many children live in mental agony because of bullying - Alex, aged 11, said he was "at the stage of wanting to die instead of going to school".

Time and again, the book provides examples which should give heads and governors pause for thought. Many parents, for example, called the Bullying Line because their children's schools seemed unable to solve the problem. Some heads - like the one who stood the victim and the bullies up to be lectured in assembly - were sadly inept. Others felt that the victim had "over-reacted", or was "over-sensitive" (phrases which will be instantly recognisable to many parents across the country).

This is a book for parents, children and schools. Read it, and be convinced that bullying happens, and that for the thousands of children who are bullied, it is nothing less than a permanent nightmare.

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