Why are we so comfortable with failure to protect children's rights?

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Tim Linehan asks why we as the British public are so comfortable with failing to meet the physical, social and mental needs of our most disadvantaged children.

‘Rights’ is a dirty word with the British public. It suffers from the overtones of dodgy Europhilia – after all, it is the European Court of Human Rights that the public seems to rail against, despite the fact it emerged from an initiative of that most British of prime ministers, Winston Churchill. Even worse is the fey global peacenik-ism of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, despite the fact that it is based on the 1923 declaration of the rights of the child and written by Eglantyne Jebb, the British founder of Save the Children.

Children’s rights have never had a good press and rarely a fair political hearing in Britain. In 2003, under the last Labour Government, Tony Blair abolished the notion of doli incapax, which stated that children under 14 had to show beyond reasonable doubt that they could discern between good and evil. In doing so, he wiped out a law passed by Edward III 700 years previously, leaving England with one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe. Rather like so many international sports, the English have been world-beaters at inventing but have since basked in failure…

So it’s a relief that we have the Children’s Commissioner.

The role of the Children’s Commissioner
The role of the Commissioner was established in 2004 in the year after Edward III’s law was scrapped, and in 2014, part 6 of the Children and Families Act strengthened the role by replacing its remit to represent the ‘views and interests of children’ with a new role to ‘protect and promote children’s rights’.

Some rights are uncontroversial – the right to education (UNCRC article 28), the right to protection from kidnap and trafficking (article 11), and the right to protection from sexual abuse and sexual exploitation (article 34) for example. More complicated are articles 40 – children in trouble with the law must be treated with dignity and respect, and their privacyrespected – and 27, which says every child has the right to a standard of living that meets their physical, social and mental needs.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with either of these, but economic rights come in a variety of political shades. The ten- to 13-year-olds who have entered the criminal justice system since 2004 are unlikely to have had many of their needs met at all, and those who graduate from secure training centre to Young Offender Institution to prison will probably have experienced a combination of abuse, violence, estrangement from parents, being looked-after, and most likely have carried the additional burden of mental health problems and learning difficulties. These children, are, for most part, the ones that fall within the remit of the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson.

At the time of her appointment, some questioned Atkinson’s robustness to withstand ministerial bullying. Yet despite some predictable battering from right-wing quangophobes, she has emerged with great credit and her office’s work supporting children in care, contributing to safeguarding reviews and publishing and promoting the causes of marginalised children has won her many friends.

Atkinson’s contract ends in February 2015 and she is required by law to stand down. However, the problems of persistent inequalities will need to remain high on the new commissioner’s agenda. Research tells us that disadvantaged children are less likely to go to university. In fact, the chances of a child on free school meals getting a place at Oxbridge is around 2000:1, even though children from state schools do better once they get there.

But schools can take actions to help students, and in our most recent issue of Every Child Journal, we look at what research tells us is the best course of action to promote equality of opportunity amongst children.

Austerity and rights
Good policies and strong leadership can make a huge difference to the chances of disadvantaged children who want to make the most of their education. However, we should also be aware that the same recession that has resulted in a 30 per cent cut in funding of the Commissioner’s Office has also hit families, and the impact of parental debt is felt powerfully by children, as The Children’s Society attests.

Almost one in five families with children live in ‘problem debt’, and these families are, on average, almost £3500 behind on bills and credit commitments. The impact of debt cannot be underestimated and with schools increasingly relying on donations for trips or even textbooks, it’s easy to see how some children are likely to feel the overspill of the depression in their increasing marginalisation. Perhaps in this context, the Commissioner’s opposition to some of the welfare reforms are most pertinent.

Debt and poverty also affect self-esteem, and if children don’t think they’re worth very much then they’re unlikely to have high aspirations. One of the statistics quoted in Loic Menzies’ article in our latest issue, ‘The aspiration question’, is that there is an almost 30 percentage point ‘expectation gap’ between rich and poor parents that their children will go to higher education.

John West-Burnham echoes some of the themes raised in Menzies’ article in ‘The community route to self-improvement’, arguing that if parents are the biggest influence on their children’s education, then working with parents must be the key to giving children a fair start to life.

Schools can clearly do a lot more to improve the life chances of children. But it’s also true to say they can only do so much. They can help children whose families are in ‘problem debt’ by signposting, but they can’t reform the welfare system. They can involve parents in their children’s education and put in place plans to encourage more children to go to higher education, but the deeper the social divide (and the UK is one of the most economically divided countries in the OECD), the more difficult it will be for schools to help those children.

Of course, there’s another point, one that John West-Burnham raises in his article when he says: ‘In some ways, it does appear as if British society is essentially comfortable with failure and regards it as inevitable for many children. How else can we explain the failure to tackle the root causes of failure across the system?’

That’s why the contentious UNCRC right to a standard of living that meets physical, social and mental need is so important. Because unless children are granted that, the roles of schools will remain impossible and disadvantaged children will forever struggle.

 Tim Linehan is the Editor of Every Child Journal, published by Imaginative Minds Ltd.