Protecting the rights of the child


The work of the Thomas Coram Research Unit is vital to understanding the dangers that children continue to face in 2015. Professor Margaret O’Brien explains.


In 1741, Captain Thomas Coram, the great philanthropist who gave his name to UCL’s Institute of Education’s Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU), established the Foundling Hospital in the fields of Bloomsbury for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children”.

Unlike his contemporaries, Thomas Coram could not walk past babies dying in the gutters and rotting in the dung-heaps of Georgian London. In many countries across the world, the quality of life for children has improved immeasurably in the 273 years since. 

At the TCRU, we celebrated our 40th anniversary last year, and in November we also marked the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on November 20, 1989, and it remains the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. The UN Convention is a strong reminder that we are all part of a global community.

At TCRU, we focus on children and young people in all their diverse settings – the home, family spaces, health, social care, neighbourhoods and, of course, education. At the unit, we are currently seeing the effects of declining public spending and how this has an impact on the lives and wellbeing of children and young people. The economic down-turn has had the effect of making evidence-based research harnessed to supportive preventative efforts as well as services for the most vulnerable imperative. To this end we have started a three-year study into families and food poverty in three European countries in the age of austerity this year.

The Convention recognises that children have the right to be heard. That their views must be respected and that signature countries must promote children’s active, free and meaningful participation in decision-making that affects them. However, in some cases children are burdened by the weight of translating the views of others.

On arrival to a new country, children often learn the language faster than their adult family members and end up in the role of language brokers. With the movement of peoples – through member countries of the EU, migration and refugees – little research has taken place on how children and young people interpret and translate for their families, peers and others who cannot speak the local language.

Through language-brokering, children and young people are literally “translating cultures”. What this means is that they are acting as mediators of cultural knowledge. Many children in our schools today act as mediators between those who educate them and those who care for them.

Our research in this area will provide a greater understanding of language-brokering in educational and care settings. It is clear that in some schools children are being asked to translate very serious or sensitive matters that are being discussed with their parents. One of the challenges teachers face is the lack of a shared language for communicating the school’s expectations and the child’s needs. 

The TCRU believes that there is a need for more sensitive practice and more carefully articulated school policies on the use of pupils as language-brokers for their own parents and others in school.

However, while I celebrate our work and the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, I am aware that some children across the world are at best being denied the basic right of an education and at worst being beaten, kidnapped and murdered for simply going to school every day.

Sadly, children are still being forced to play roles in this world that Thomas Coram would recognise: child solider, child bride, child labourer. Even in London today we are not really sure how many infants, children or young people are missing, left behind or abandoned. In addition, we live in a rapidly changing world. At the same time as we are working to establish the initial 54 articles of the Convention for all children we are facing new threats and challenges to their wellbeing. 

It would have been impossible 25 years ago to imagine the opportunities and the dangers opened by the internet. On the same date, November 20, of the signing of the Convention exactly 25 years ago, the House of Lords debated the key risks of children’s online activity. Children today face online sexual exploitation, cyber-bullying and social network misuse on a daily basis. 

However, on the positive side, online and on-screen teaching and the access to the resources and information opened by the internet, mean that across the world more of our children have the opportunity to access and participate in education than at any time in history.

Captain Coram was a realist who believed he could change his society by rational debate and enlightened arguments. By engaging people in his work he changed public perception of those who deserve support and those who do not. William Hogarth was a first trustee and Hayman, Wilson and Thomas Gainsborough, to mention only three, were persuaded by his work to donate paintings to the Foundling Hospital. This had the effect of attracting the support of the great and the good to the institution. 

I am sure that you will have heard the Band Aid record over Christmas, and as we start a new year, think of Thomas Coram who persuaded Handel to give a wildly oversubscribed rendition of the Messiah to raise funds for his hospital more than 270 years ago.

Today, evidence-based research is vital to ensuring that policy decisions are based on evidence and not hearsay, dogma or prejudice. The work of Thomas Coram continues in the TCRU where, through our research, courses, lectures and seminars we believe we will help improve the lives of children and work towards making the 54 articles of the UN Convention a reality.

  • Professor Margaret O’Brien is the director of the Institute of Education’s Thomas Coram Research Unit.

Further information
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