Human rights ‘a hot potato’ for teachers, expert warns

9th January 2015 at 00:00
Human rights a teaching "hot potato"
Call for universities to better prepare students to teach rights issues

Teachers in Scotland avoid discussions on the “hot potato” of human rights because they learn little or nothing about it at university, according to one expert who fears that their views are being shaped by the tabloid media instead.

Even those who do venture into the area may be discouraged from doing so by senior colleagues, while some new teachers claim that children should not be taught human rights as they already “have too many rights”.

“The majority of [teaching] students will… complete their degree programmes with little, or perhaps no, knowledge and understanding of teaching in this area,” according to Alison Struthers, of the University of Warwick’s Centre for Human Rights in Practice.

Research in 2013 by BEMIS (Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure in Scotland) underlines this claim. It found that 78 per cent of teachers surveyed had received no training on human rights, before or after qualifying.

Ms Struthers also highlights failings in the Curriculum for Excellence, where mentions of human rights are “relatively sparse”.

The result, says Ms Struthers, is “piecemeal” teaching across Scotland that leads her to believe that competence in human rights should be a precondition of teacher registration.


‘Lacking confidence’

The biggest barrier to human rights education (HRE) in Scotland is the “paucity” of the subject within student teachers’ university courses, says Struthers in the latest Scottish Educational Review.

Many new teachers enter the profession with little experience of HRE and are “consequently avoiding teaching in this area because they lack confidence”.

But there are also “potentially deeper and more complex barriers”: even teaching students who do have a passion for HRE may find themselves discouraged in schools. Ms Struthers cites a 2014 academic article, “Teaching human rights? All hell will break loose!”, exploring why Scottish teachers might be afraid to delve into this area. One student planned to introduce the concept to P5s but was subsequently warned that it was “a bit too controversial”.

“If student teachers are afraid to teach about human rights, or are advised against doing so by more senior members of staff, negativity and misconceptions surrounding human rights in the broader culture are likely to subsist,” says Ms Struthers.


Pupils ‘have too many rights’

Sometimes, however, the barriers are in student teachers’ minds. A small number “reportedly expressed the opinion that children have too many rights and that teaching them about human rights would only compound this”. Ms Struthers believes such an opinion reflects wider attitudes in the UK, fuelled by media stories about how “human rights protection has gone too far” and only benefits the “unworthy”, such as prison inmates.

“When great swathes of the public have these negative attitudes towards human rights, it is simply unrealistic to expect teachers to be positively inclined towards teaching in this area,” says Ms Struthers, adding that this is why universities must improve their HRE for student teachers.

But she warns that teaching human rights as an “abstract and distant concept” is not enough – it has to relate to pupils’ own experiences and “permeate” the whole school. Encouraging pupils to express views and influence school life, for example, would make HRE an “empowering concept”.

Universities, similarly, cannot simply provide a rudimentary knowledge of human rights, according to Ms Struthers. Student teachers must “truly grasp the values at the root of human rights and be able to recognise situations in which human rights are not being respected”.

When working as teachers, they must help pupils to recognise injustice and inequality, and give them the knowledge to see how to do something about it.

HRE will continue to be a “hot potato to be avoided” until teachers view it as “a natural and important part of their education and subsequent classroom practice”. Until then, warns Struthers, teachers will steer clear of this area, “thus leaving the broader societal scepticism and misconceptions surrounding human rights unchallenged”.


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