For 25 years, the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has been a cornerstone for those campaigning to improve the lives of children and young people. In 2016, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child will be examining the UK’s performance against the benchmarks in the UNCRC, so it is a good time to reflect on how schools are contributing.
Article 28 of the UNCRC recognises “every child’s right to education, on the basis of equal opportunity”. The UK is a member of the rich nations’ club the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and spends around £30 billion on all local authority maintained schools, so we should expect this as a given. But even at this first hurdle, does the UK falter, especially for the vulnerable?
In December, the Fair Education Alliance published a “report card” demonstrating that educational inequality exists before a child even starts school and that pupils from poorer backgrounds are twice as likely to leave primary school without basic literacy and numeracy than their more affluent peers.
And some children are missing out altogether. Last year, we made a Freedom of Information request to all local authorities in England about children missing from education. The results from the 139 that responded suggest that on any given day as many as 14,800 children are missing education in England. Of these, the whereabouts of more than 3,000 are unknown to either their school or local authority.
Going forward, our ability to provide enough school places for all children is being challenged by a prolific baby boom. In 2013, the National Audit Office estimated that 250,000 new school places would be needed in 2014/15.
The UNCRC also states that the curriculum should prepare children “for responsible life in a free society”. This is likely to figure in the considerations of the Education Select Committee on the place of PSHE and sex and relationships education within schools and how notions of respect and tolerance are nurtured within citizenship classes alongside confident expressions of cultural identity.
There has been at least one significant win already, with personal financial planning being introduced onto the curriculum, but can an education which fails to provide proper careers advice truly be preparing children? Ofsted found last year that too much advice by secondary schools on the study options available to 16 to 19-year-olds was “weak”.
The UNCRC also calls for children to enjoy the highest standards of health. One area where schools may require help is with mental health. Research tells us that half of all mental illness, excluding dementia, starts by age 14. This means that schools are ideally placed to spot a child in difficulty before problems escalate. Yet initial teacher training provides little guidance.
While we may assume that as a mature democracy our children understand – and indeed take for granted – their rights, schools in this country give little space for discussion and awareness-raising around rights compared to schools I have encountered abroad.
When rights are not taken for granted and are more frequently abused, schools are often a safe space for children to explore these issues, engendering not just an awareness but a desire to play an active role in achieving rights.
At the recent launch of the Fair Education Alliance, there was strong agreement that schools need to offer more than academic achievement, and recognition that schools cannot bear the entire responsibility for children’s wider development beyond education – parents, businesses, health professionals, local and central government all have a role to play. So when the UN does measure the UK, it won’t only be schools held to account.
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk