EDUCATING FOR CHILDREN´S RIGHTS

John Bennett, Chief, The Young Child and Family Environment, UNESCO, Paris

 


Introduction

Article 42 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child enjoins State parties to "make the principles of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike". If one examines the initial reports already submitted to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the conclusion is clear that State parties, for the most part, have not distinguished themselves in fulfilling this obligation. In so far as initatives towards children and schools are concerned, efforts have been made by some Education Ministries to include human rights modules in teacher training courses and to produce versions of the Convention appropriate for the reading levels of children at different ages. In even fewer cases, attempts have been made to integrate Convention principles into the ethical, social or civics curricula of schools.

Indivdual schools, e.g. the UNESCO Associated Schools Network, have gone further. Some have launched ambitious programmes for education in tolerance, democracy and peace and even manage to inform their pupils about the obligations which their governments have incurred through ratif,ving various Conventions. These efforts are admirable and, where they exist, cater for the formal elements of human rights or ethical educational courses.

I would like to draw your attention to two parallel tasks to be achieved if governments and schools are to succeed in nurturing the natural, moral impulse of children and lead them to an active awareness of their legal rights and responsibilities.

* the first task is to renew school organisation and teaching practice so as to allow children the vital space they need in order to form their own values.

* secondly, to close the gap which exists between off~cial State or United Nation values and the values of the actual world in which children live,

These tasks are obviously connected. Unless governments engage in education and information activities to win public support for Convention principles, they will not succeed, through legislation alone, in closing the gap between present societal values and United Nations ideals.

Allow me to treat briefly these themes in turn:

1. Renewal of school organisation and teaching practice so as to allow children the vital space they need in order to form their own personal values.

Learning is a complex activity. From a constructivist viewpoint - that is, a philosophy of education based on Dewey and given a strong research confirmation in Piaget, Bruner and later researchers - learning and educational practice are ideally founded on the intrinsic activities and needs of the child to be educated, or as the Convention on the Rights of the Child puts it in more general terms, on the interest of the child.

Much education, however, is not of this kind. On the contrary, instruction dominates in the schools of the world. Instead of learning through an active process of construction, the child is obliged to bend mind and body to absorb State or adult - driven content. Hence, a great deal of what passes for education is quite superficial and remains at the level of reproducing facts, phrases or formal reasoning for examination purpose.

The heteronomous or other-directed agenda is equally noticable in moral education, which generally starts from the supposition that the child is a person to be trained and socialised. Whether one is referring to family standards, religious or ethical education and today, to education in United Nations ideals, it is supposed that children are really not capable of socialising themselves in interaction with adults and their peers. Rather, it is presumed that they must be taught the rules of good living - whether those rules stem from a religious, State or now - with the universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child - from a United Nations source. Less attention is given to ethos or the social environment of the school, to the quality of adults present, to the importance of modelling behaviours and values' to the provision of healthy, enriching, participative and active contexts for children, to sensitivity to the present stage of development of the child and his/her interests, to the interactions between children and adults or betweeen children and their peers, to mediation of meaning and other components of deep learning and respectful education.

In many regards, moral education does not differ from other branches of learning. If it is not based on the formation of deep-seated attitudes and reasoning skills nurtured at a very early age and on convictions and actions developed during adolescence, it remains essentially at the level of discourse. For this reason, the title of this section ends with the words "in order to form their own personal values" and not with "in order to know the Convention", for a fundamental aim in human rights education must be the formation of personal, participative values within the framework of broad Convention principles rather than on Convention literacy within a framework of passive, conventional behaviours.

How, therefore, should one attempt to educate very young children - at home, in kindergartens and schools - in those attitudes which form the bedrock of Convention rights? How do we in schools go beyond the Convention text to give children an appropriate understanding for their age of Convention principles and the experiential context to apply and deepen that understanding? How should schools be organised so that a congruence exists between Convention principles and the actual life, the hidden curriculum of the school?

These are difficult and delicate questions, for the goals of national education generally reflect above all the cultural and economic preoccupations of a society and of the adults who compose it. The Convention on the other hand announces a new vision of society, a new conception of the child as a subject of rights, which, for the moment at least, is shared only by a minority of educational planners, parents and teachers. Many teachers, in fact, feel threatened by certain sections of the Convention. Not only is there pressure from parents and the necessity of maintaining dicipline in large classes to contend with, but also, they must accomplish the main task set by the State of producing knowlegeable and disciplined students who will adapt easily to the work expectations and opportunities of the senior school and, eventually, of the national economy.

However, sooner or later the question will need to be faced: given the new vision of children and society which the State has ratified in the Convention, how can schools be organised to reflect that vision? It would seem to me that a chartering initiative might be useful to propose to head teachers and educational planners, based on a whole school approach. A whole school approach clearly implies that the responsibility for values education does not fall solely on the individual teacher but is a matter of school policy. By chartering is meant that the human rights ethos or policy of the school is clearly formulated and published, becoming a central objective for the school to achieve. In practice, how might a charter initiative work?

Essentially, each school should draw up - and review annually with teaching staff, parents and children - a written social-educational contract. This annual exercise, supported by the Ministry Of Education, would influence the following elements:

* a charter statement of the schools educational and human rights goal, reflecting the basic principles of the Convention, in particular the best interests of the child, non-discrimination, respect for the dignity and views of the child. In this statement, education would be seen to be wider than instruction and be concerned in addition, with the physical, social and personal development of all children (Article 29), with special attention given to children who differ from the norm or who are not among the academically gifted. The statement should contain practical information as to how this educational policy is to be implemented in the school;

* an explicit commitment by the school to establish mechanisms for the effective and appropriate participation of the children in school life with the aim of assisting the children to function in a socially competent, democratic and cooperative spirit. Thus, children would be given the opportunity to practice the Convention in meaningful, experimental ways that would reflect the pluralistic nature of the democratic society;

* a commitment by the school and the local or national educational authorities to make the Convention and human rights instruments known to the children in an appropriate and increasingly active way so that children understand that relationships in the school and society at large can and should be ordered by agreed principles. In this spirit, the school code of conduct and the disciplinary measures to be followed would be published and made known in a relevant manner so that the school would be seen, by the older child at least, as a microcosm of the civil State, governed by the rule of law and due process;

* a short training or orientation session each year for all staff so as to understand and implement school policy as a team and devise ways and means for children to participate actively in their learning and in school affairs.

2. Closing the gap between offcial moral discourses and the reality of children's lives.

The second task mentioned above was to close the gap between off~cial moral discourses and the reality of children's lives. Obviously, the wid.est gap occurs in undemocratic, survival societies in which the daily violation of the basic riglEts of c~ldren - economic, social and cultural rights as well as individual freedoms - is an af~o~ to humanitarian principles. It is well to remember in this regard that the principle of non-interv~tion in the internal affairs of sovereign states is not quite so sacred as undemocratic rulers - or trade opportunists - would have us suppose. In fact, by ratifying the Convention, Western countries undertake certain reponsibilities, as mentioned in Aricles 4 and 28, towards countries in which the basic rights of children are not being respected. But even within the advanced industrial societies of the West, the gap between official discourse and actual practice can be wide. A stark contrast exists, for example, between the values discourse of the school and the values which children absorb through the popular media.

It is not an exaggeration to observe that the opinions, attitudes and values reflected in the media are often grossly materialist, chauvinist and intolerant. That these values are powerfully communicated to children through attractive visual narrative does not make the situation easier for educators who, in company with parents, tend to think that values are transmitted essentially through abstract moral directives and discourse. In general, the children handle well the discontinuties between the two sources, as they tend to follow the behaviour and discourse of adults they trust. Yet when obvious discontinuities - not to mention contradictions - exist between the official values of school or state and the hard facts of school and societal relationships which children experience, then idealism, so easily awakened in young children, can quickly wither and die. For this reason, it is important, when attempting to educate children in schools about human rights, to be active at the same time, in ensuring that adult society outside school reflects to some extent a human rights culture. The following questions may illustrate the dilemma in which contemporary societies find themselves today:

* How can tolerance be taught when negative stereotyping of other peoples is commonplace in the media (most tabloids use a vocabulary of less than 4000 words)? Current affairs reporting needs careful analysis and a willingness by all concerned to explore news content. Fifty years ago, the Preamble to UNESCO's Charter, written immediately after the terrible Second World or European War, noted: "that ignorance of each other´s ways and lives has been a common cause throughout the history of mankind, of suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world... that the great and terrible war which has now ended was a war made possible by men, and by the propagation in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races".

There are not many instances today of deliberate propagation of racial hatred by governments. such as the infamous Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda which openly advocated ethnic massacres, but in many, if not most countries, official media and popular cultures are often extremely self-centered and biased, as the present Olympic Games reporting illustrates.

* How can children be guided toward simplicity, peacful attitudes and respect for the environment when media are dominated by sensationalism, violence and crass consumerism? Public discourse is important. Should we not as citizens come together to persuade media companies and their producers to set better standards? We know that a causal effect has not been established between exposure to media violence and the commital of brutal acts, but research does indicate that the repeated depiction of aggression makes children less sensitive to the fact that fighting and bullying are unacceptable, promotes identification with aggressive heroes and offers violence as a realistic option for achieving power or status.

On the positive, preventive side, should we not be lobbying for:

* The use of the popular media to educate, dispel ignorance about others and promote appreciation of the co-existence of diverse cultures as a sine qua non for peace.

* Civilised debate on the issues that unite people, such as access to basic economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, and eventally on issues which separate peoples: territorial lines, religious beliefs, cultural mores, social behaviour, aspirations for development, political power, social betterment... Knowledge of others is the first step to tolerance.

In summary, as teachers for peace, we cannot be content either to limit teaching about the Convention in schools to knowledge of a text - useful as that may be - nor can we be content to ignore the wider social context in which children live. A real dichotomy between adult discourse toward children and the actual values communicated to children through the media will eventually make our educational goals extremely difficult to attain.

Select Bibliography:

The Challenge of Human Rights Education, ed. Hugh Starkey, London Cassell, 1991

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Eugeen Verhellen, Leuven, Grant Publishers, 1994

Education for Human Rights: An International Perspective, ed. Douglas Rayet al, Geneva UNESCO/IBE. 1994

Implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ed. James Himes, The Hague, Martinus Nihof, 1995

The Child-Friendly School, an article by Thomas Hammarberg, to be published by UNESCO, 1996

Supporting Family Responsibility for the Rights of the Child: an educational viewpoint, John Bennett in The International Journal of Children's Rights, Vol 4, No.1. Dordecht, Kluwer Law, 1996

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