Kirsten Sellars hears how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is being incorporated into schools and is changing the whole ethos of the classroom
Several years ago, a delegation of education officials and headteachers from Hampshire visited Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to study a programme that taught children about their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Impressed by what they saw, they decided to pilot the scheme in schools in Andover and Eastleigh. When evaluators from Nova Scotia visited last year, they reported improved behaviour, a keener sense of community and greater commitment to rights. With the help of a grant from the DfES Innovations Unit, the programme has been extended to other Hampshire schools. Ian Massey, the county council's inspector for intercultural education, says:
"We are really serious about this. It is now the core of the children's services vision."
The Rights, Respect and Responsibility programme aims to shape children's attitudes and behaviour. John Clarke, Hampshire's deputy director of children's services, told the Parliamentary Education and Skills Select Committee that it "sets out to create the conditions in which the social behaviour of children and young people can develop positively, and provides a framework for relations between children, and between children and adults, to develop in a rights-respecting way".
Some might say that this sounds very similar to Tony Blair's "respect"
campaign, with its accompanying moral and political agenda. Those involved in the programme see it as a more ambitious project, and regard the shaping of new citizens as an integral part of education.
For John Clarke, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is important because it appeals to children's self-interest: "They understand that they are already citizens, and have rights now, not rights they will have to earn or receive when they become adults." Thereafter, the programme is flexible because, he suggests, it provides "a language that can be used to resolve conflict".
At the youngest end of the programme is Tweseldown Infant School in Fleet, one of several piloting Unicef's "rights-respecting" school accreditation scheme. Headteacher June Brown believes in keeping things simple: "We explain that it doesn't matter where you come from or whether you are rich or poor, you all have rights and responsibilities. In the classroom, that's translated into: everyone has the right to have their say, and they also have the responsibility to listen to others."
For Year 2, she uses Unicef's "wants and needs" picture cards, depicting things children have a right to (nutritious food, decent shelter) and things they do not (fashionable clothes and pocket money). Then she asks them what they would need more on a desert island: a TV or clean water?
Older children grapple with more complex issues. Knights Enham Junior School in Andover divided Year 6 into a group doing rights work, and a control group that did not. After the invasion of Iraq, teachers took newspapers into each class to discuss the war. "The class that was not doing the rights work looked at the planes and bombs," recalls headteacher Anne Hughes, "while the one that was looked at the rights Iraqi children had lost - to homes, water and medicine."
She says this greater awareness of rights has led to improvements in behaviour and tolerance, with volatile children realising that they were disrupting others, and those who did not usually participate becoming more vocal because they felt they would be listened to.
"It isn't a behaviour management tool, but it does have an impact on behaviour," says Jan Cushing, headteacher of Manor Field Junior School in Basingstoke, where a "school agreement" on rights and responsibilities has replaced the old school rules. "If I am dealing with a child who has done something that contravenes the agreement, I say, 'Have you supported rights, have you shown respect?' In most cases they'll say: 'No, I haven't.
I need to show more responsibility.' So there's a move away from adversarial approaches and towards conflict resolution based on rights explanations."
Assistant headteacher Kirstie-Anne Sangway concurs: "You can teach children to recite articles from the convention, but it's not about that, it's about the ethos of your classroom."
Pupils are encouraged to deal with problems themselves. Ann Morrison, headteacher of Cranbourne Business and Enterprise College in Basingstoke, describes a PSHE lesson with Year 7s: "You act out the part of a naughty pupil who's distracting the others. The class laughs. Then you say, 'How is this affecting your learning?' They soon get the idea that unacceptable behaviour can be dealt with by them as a group. Ten years ago I would have said, 'Stop that! Be quiet because I say so!' Now you hear 12-year olds saying, 'Stop that! We've got a right to listen to this!' They accept that they have a right to learn, and the teacher has the right to teach."
So are they a party to Blair's agenda? "I'm cynical about this being used as part of a political agenda," says Julie Greer, headteacher at Cherbourg Primary School in Eastleigh. "We shouldn't do this because we think it is politic. We should do it because we feel it is good for children, and it might make a difference to society."
For some, the programme is nothing less than a new moral compass. "We are firm believers," says Anne Hughes. "By touching this generation, we're touching the next." Ann Eagle, headteacher of Tavistock Infant School in Fleet, is another convert: "As a society, we've lost our way. This could give people an understanding of how to live their lives."
* The wants and needs game is at www.therightssite.org.ukhtmlrights_wan.htm
Manor Field Junior School agreement
* We have the right to an education and the responsibility to allow others to receive theirs.
* We have the right to be respected and the responsibility to show respect to others.
* We have the right to an environment which allows us to learn and the responsibility to maintain that environment for others.
* We have the right to be safe and secure, and the responsibility to help ensure the safety and security of others.
Cranbourne Business and Enterprise College charter
* Everyone in CBEC - adults and students - has rights and they must be respected.
* Everyone has the right to be educated. We all have a responsibility to make sure this happens.
* Everyone has the right to be respected.
Respect yourself, your peers and all members of staff.
* Everyone has the right to work without disruption. Work hard and expect the same of others.
* Everyone has the right to be heard. Be a good listener and choose your words carefully.
* Everyone has the right to a healthy workplace. No smoking on college premises; no drugs, no substance misuse, no aerosols.
* Please respect the rights of others.
Treat others the way you would like to be treated.
* Everyone is responsible for their own environment. Don't drop litter or vandalise. Take care of equipment and property.
* Everyone is responsible for their own actions. Don't let them get away with it!