Human rights education is as much about process as it is about laws, says Kirsten Sellars
The students are on an island, and water is running out. They have to come up with laws to ensure that everyone has enough." This is the scenario outlined by Jennifer Foreman, creative arts and citizenship co-ordinator at the Newland School for Girls, Hull, as an exercise on government and its attendant rights. There is just one rule on the island: a person may only speak when they are holding the conch, William Golding's famous symbol of democracy.
But democracy does not always prevail. "Occasionally, a student will say: 'I'm taking over. We're going to have a totalitarian state'," admits Foreman. From time to time, the speaking order is ignored. "If they all start talking at once, I don't tell them off, I tell them: 'Your system of organisation and control is not working'." Sometimes, she steps in. So do rights then give way to autocracy? "Yes!" she laughs.
Human rights education, as part of citizenship, became a statutory part of the secondary school curriculum in 2002. For some, it is new territory. "I asked Year 12s what rights they thought they had," says Laura Brown, a trainee teacher at St Bede's School, Redhill. "There were a few responses - freedom of speech, right to a fair trial - but most of them hadn't heard of the Universal Declaration. When they read it they were surprised they had so many. Someone asked: 'Does this apply to everybody?' Yes, it's universal. Another asked: 'If everybody is meant to have these rights, why don't they?' Exactly!"
Jennifer Foreman stresses that rights are linked with responsibilities. "At the lower levels, we discuss the children's own experiences, but as they advance, the main thrust is empathy with other people's situations." They discuss the law, which, she says, is another way of raising the relationship between rights and responsibilities.
"We imagine that someone has committed a minor crime - say, stealing a mobile phone. 'If they nicked my mobile, I'd punch them,' they say. Then you explain that they have to go through legal channels." This raises rights pertaining to criminal justice - such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, and the presumption of innocence.
The current emphasis on human rights in education emerged out of the Crick report, published by a government advisory committee in 1998. In order to counter indifference to politics and the democratic process, it proposed an emphasis on citizenship in education, encompassing social and moral responsibilities, community involvement and political literacy.
Human rights provide endless scope for debate, not least because they are at the heart of so many live political issues. As educators are well aware, they not only collide with economic and security priorities, but also with each other. "Rights can come into conflict," says Edward Waller, head of humanities at John Hanson Community School, Andover: "My right of freedom of speech, and your right not to be verbally abused - how do we resolve that?"
The Crick report advised that children should not be discouraged from discussing controversial issues, with a proviso that it is "not desirable" for teachers to maintain a completely unbiased stance on human rights matters. "The key is how you set up the discussion and where you let it go," says Chris Waller (no relation), PSE co-ordinator at Mill Chase Community School, Bordon. "I tell the kids: 'You can say what you want, but don't slag off people you know'." He adds: "If someone wants to say something controversial, like 'I think people should be shot', I'd rather they said it and we challenged it, by letting other kids say: 'Do you want to go back to what Hitler did?'"
Human rights education demands many of the same skills and resources as other subjects. Edward Waller highlights the importance of clear goals, achievable ends, and time for preparation, while Jennifer Foreman stresses that group activities should be structured and controlled. Both believe that the work must start with the students. "Don't preach, or they'll find the ceiling more interesting," she warns.
What of the broader agenda behind human rights education? The Crick report's stated aim was "no less than a change in the political culture of this country". As Liam Gearon, the director of the Centre for Research in Human Rights, points out, the report and the innovations that followed are "evangelical in their sense of mission - fundamentally political as much as educational".
Teachers are expected to play the leading role in this mission, imparting values alongside facts. Edward Waller is enthusiastic about what he calls "the hearts and minds thing". He and Kern Wilkins, head of PSHE, have established an award-winning peer education scheme within the school. "We want to test the idea that human rights can give children a moral code and help them to make good decisions," he explains. "In this post-monotheistic age, people are looking for a common set of values to provide a reference point, a dialogue between children and adults. When you talk about human rights, you can create that dialogue. For example, a lot of children don't understand what feeling guilty means, because they don't have a sense of right and wrong. If you have a set of rights you can say: 'You've breached this right, that's wrong. You should feel bad about it.' They can understand that."
Human rights projects appear to be fulfilling their educational role with some success. Whether they can achieve Crick's broader social and political goals remains to be seen.
Kirsten Sellars is the author of The Rise and Rise of Human Rights (Sutton, pound;20)
* The United Nations website Human Rights in Action sets out a "plain language" version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with notes and exercises www0.un.orgcyberschoolbushumanrightsdeclarationindex.asp
* ActionAid's Read about Rights, for 11 to 14-year-olds, examines the rights to education and employment through a study of an Ethiopian family.
* Unesco's All Human Beings: A Manual for Human Rights Education provides materials and exercises. upo.unesco.org
* Amnesty International's Learning about Human Rights through Citizenship suggests exercises for 11-19 year-olds on issues such as torture and refugees.
* Oxfam's Developing Rights: Teaching About Rights and Responsibilities for Ages 11-14, provides lesson plans and examples from Brazil and South Africa.
* The Government's Study Guide: Human Rights Act 1998 (second edition), examines each article of the Act.
* The Impetus award scheme, run jointly by the Institute for Global Ethics and the Citizenship Foundation, invites school submissions inspired by the values underpinning the Human Rights Act www.impetusawards.org.uk
* Learning to Teach Citizenship in the Secondary School a guide for trainee teachers edited by Liam Gearon (Routledge, pound;18.99), examines the background, themes and methodology of citizenship education.