Children’s rights
Children’s rights

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Children’s rights

1 Children's rights: general issues

The audio file in this course considers the general issues of children's rights, and the possibilities and implications of imagining children as citizens. Within the discussion, ideas about childhood and children's needs are explored. Although the programme focuses specifically on children it is possible to link to the wider issue of social construction of difference and power. Some examples are given in these notes.

This audio file was recorded in 1998 and related to a TV programme on children's rights. It is not necessary to have seen the original TV programme to gain an insight into the discussion presented in the audio file.

You can also use this audio file to help you further develop a range of study skills, such as: Identifying competing arguments and the evidence used to support them. This is a skill that is also related to the OpenLearn course: D218_4 How arguments are constructed and used in the Social Sciences.

Participants in the audio programme were:

  • Esther Saraga Social Sciences Staff Tutor in the Open University's London region;

  • Mary McLeod Director of Policy and Research at Childline;

  • Ann Phoenix Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Activity 1

Try to identify for yourself, and note down, the various arguments that Mary McLeod and Ann Phoenix make about children and childhood.

The following questions will help you to structure your notes, and to make links with concepts of ‘welfare’, ‘power’ and ‘diversity’ and the theme of citizenship.

  1. What different constructions of children and childhood are described?

  2. What points are made about the power relations between adults and children in relation to children's rights?

  3. What does Ann Phoenix mean when she says that ‘childhood is differentiated’? What aspects of difference are discussed, and what are the main points made in relation to each of these? Reflect on how these issues are related to processes of differentiation in compulsory education and processes of inclusion and exclusion.

  4. Ann Phoenix suggests that, in relation to the TV programme, ‘the children were engaging as active citizens’. How does she argue for the proposition and what evidence does she cite from the programme?

  5. Mary McLeod and Ann Phoenix have different views on ‘children as citizens’. Can you identify each of these arguments? How effectively do you think each makes her case? What points of continuity and change can you identify with nineteenth century concerns with education for citizenship?

  6. Finally, what points are made about the implications for welfare provision, of thinking of children as active citizens rather than future citizens?

Children's rights part 1 (10.5 minutes 5 MB)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Children's rights part 1
Skip transcript: Children's rights part 1

Transcript: Children's rights part 1

Esther Saraga
This tape is intended to add to the issues raised in the TV programme on children’s rights and responsibilities, to look at issues raised by that programme and to consider more broadly the implications of seeing children as citizens. I’m joined for this discussion at Childline by Mary McLeod, Director of Policy and Research, and Ann Phoenix, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London.
The TV programme was concerned with looking at children’s rights and responsibilities within a school context. We went to Highgate Primary School because we knew that the children had been involved in helping to develop a code of behaviour, which operates within the school. Ann can I ask you first, what issues did you feel were raised by that programme?
Ann Phoenix
For me the most striking issue that emerged from the programme was that if you treat children seriously, take their views seriously, and really seek to include them in decision making, that they are able very sophisticatedly to engage with issues around rights and responsibilities. So it became immediately clear that all the children recognised that in order to have rights they also had responsibilities and that they also had to listen to each other and to take account of what they all said.
Esther Mary
what were the main issues raised for you?
Mary MacLeod
I think that a great deal of the discussion among the children, and between the children and the teachers, was about bullying, and it’s very clear and has become clear that within secondary schools the best approach to tackling bullying within a school is from the children up. But there is a lot of hesitation about extending that into primary schools because many people feel that children aren’t capable of having these kinds of discussions and of producing rules for themselves and it was really encouraging to see in this school that given the chance children can enter into that whole process and in the end produce something that they then have some ownership of and can feel that they want to go along with.
Esther
Were there any other things in the programme that you felt it showed, you know things that children were capable of which perhaps aren’t always accepted?
Ann
I think there were a number of things. One that struck me was that the children talked about being responsible for each other, so the older children talked about being responsible for the younger children. They showed that they could change their opinions having listened to the democratic process and gone along with what people said, and I think that was most dramatically demonstrated in the Sports Council where one boy said yes he hadn’t liked the decision that had been made, but now he thought that it was the correct decision to have been made.
They also respected each other’s rights. They talked about needs for privacy and so on, and that they would respect each other’s needs for privacy, that was crucial. So they themselves recognised that they had to listen to each other, and that they had to take their rights while still being under control. Somebody put that very nicely when they said, we can do what we want, but still be under control.
Mary
Yeah I thought that in the group discussions that we saw, one of the really lovely things was seeing the way that the children talked to each other, responded to each other, smiled at each other, and you felt here were young people who had relationships with each other that were complex and complicated and kindly as well, and there was a kindly atmosphere and very often again you know young children are seen as being monsters that have to be controlled.
Ann
Because the children were given the opportunity to participate it didn’t mean that they had vastly different views from those of the staff. One of the things that people will note in looking at the film is that the staff said very similar things to the children about what rights and responsibilities should be, so actually there was some sort of agreement about what was important within the school and I think that perhaps some fears about allowing children to actively participate in decision-making is that they will necessarily want to counter everything that adults do, this wasn’t the case in this film.
Esther
You’ve both made it sound as though this is relatively unusual. Do you think that’s the case that this is not a picture of children that is commonly presented, either in school or outside?
Mary
I think it’s not commonly assumed that children at primary school can be involved to that depth in making rules for themselves and I think it’s not as generally assumed that children have a sense of responsibility about themselves and other children. I mean the Children Act for example describes children who can have their views taken into account as children of such age and understanding and the question of course is not settled, what is the age, what kind of understanding, and I think seeing these youngsters we would think, yes these are children that you can ask and involve, and the really complicated questions like where should I be living? How difficult my family relationships are, does that mean that I should live somewhere else? Should I live with my dad? Should I live with my mum?
Esther
I wonder if we can start looking at questions of diversity. What issues were raised for you when looking at that programme, and obviously the children varied, differed from one another in a lot of different ways. Were there particular things that it raised?
Ann
Well there were three issues of diversity that were explicitly addressed through the film, one was to do with the issue of hearing children as opposed to children who couldn’t hear so well, so were impaired in some way, who attended Blanche Neville as opposed to Highgate school.
Another was to do with the issue of gender because through the film there is the issue of what you do about sports and allowing girls to participate. One of the things the school had done was to get girls to play football or to have girls-only football on Mondays and Tuesdays, that was another issue.
And in the class discussion there was a whole issue of racism, as well as in talk from the head about ethnic diversity, linguistic diversity and so on throughout the school, and I think that those three issues are central to thinking about childhood as differentiated. One of the things to always be the case was that people talked about children as if they were somehow unitary, by that I mean as if all children were the same, as if there were no differences between them, the only thing that differentiated them was age, so in other words a developmental sequence differentiated them, they were different from adults.
But now from all the research that has been done, from all the policy and practice implementation that has been done over the years, we have recognised that children are very different and I think that these are key issues, which we need to think about a great deal more.
Esther
It was very clear I think from the programme that those differences, the ones you have identified Ann were apparent in the school and were taken account of, the school was very conscious of them. I wonder to what extent the children were aware of those differences and responded to them?
Ann
I think that the school obviously made a lot of effort particularly with hearing impairment, to get the children to understand, I thought that was an excellent part of the school life that when we saw the sequence of the children listening through a hearing aid, that’s really interesting, its really something that many children are not exposed to. So I would find it difficult to believe that they weren’t aware of those particular differences and differences that many children are not aware of in their primary schooling.
I think how these differences are played out in practice is very complex, very interesting, and I would site the example of one boy who was hearing impaired at Blanche Neville, talking in the sports council about children from Blanche Neville not being included in football games sufficiently, and I think this raises all sorts of interesting issues. One is about inclusion and exclusion and raising the thorny issue of power relations to do with inclusion and exclusion, because it seemed to me that even though this was, I thought, a school with an excellent policy, that had done things that other schools hadn’t done about hearing impairment, that there was still a notion that the children who could hear had the power to include or exclude children who were hearing impaired, and I think that is really important for thinking about issues of disability. I have no easy answers, but actually the power relations are still there in terms of imbalance between those who can hear and those who are much more hearing impaired, or maybe who can’t hear at all.
One of the things that we know from research and from this sort of policy having been attempted before in many schools, I think with a great deal of success in terms of girls inclusion within the school as central rather than peripheral, is that boys don’t necessarily recognise that they are taking a disproportionate amount of time and space from teachers, from the school and so that they feel that they are being unfairly treated when girls are being given a more equal, this is not necessarily entirely equal, but a more equal space, a more equal share of time and I think that it is crucially important that that is dealt with because boys then leave school feeling that schools were unfair to them.
The point I am wanting to make very clearly is not that I don’t think this should be done for girls, I completely agree and it is crucially important, it shouldn’t be left, but there also needs to be alongside that work done with boys around why this is being done and for them to also feel that things are specially for them, or rather to recognise that many things are in any case already specially for them and we don’t know how that was dealt with in school because this is a very short film, but for me it raised that issue and there are further issues around issues of race.
Esther
Just…I was going to say what you have just said is really interesting because in the first example on diversity around disablement it seemed to be fairly clear which group were likely to be excluded and efforts being made to include them in, whereas on gender it is much more complicated because we are saying traditionally it is girls who have been excluded but the efforts to include them, the policies to include them, if one isn’t careful, are actually going to result in boys feeling and perhaps even being excluded from some activities?
End transcript: Children's rights part 1
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Children's rights part 1
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Children's rights part 2 (8.5 minutes 4 MB)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Children's rights part 2
Skip transcript: Children's rights part 2

Transcript: Children's rights part 2

Mary
Well I think one of the interesting things was that that issue was focused, well what we saw was it being played out in the playground. It would have been interesting to see how gender manifested itself within the classroom and whether, you know, given the point that you have raised Ann about boys doing less well apparently compared with girls in the classroom, you know would have been interesting to see whether boys have a voice, more of a voice, how the girls and boys and the teachers manage their relations among boys and girls in the classroom context.
It’s not enough to get the forms and the structures right, but you really have to engage with children in talking about their feelings and their sense of inclusion or exclusion in order to make policy work for all children so that the imposition of a rule doesn’t end up with getting children into a state where they are feeling more and more aggrieved and so you end up having an escalation of conflict rather than an amelioration.
Ann
The ways in which it is done, the process is central, and also being aware that these differences of gender of race and or of ethnicity are not binary opposites. By that I mean that boys and girls, black people, white people, different ethnic groups, aren’t in some ways automatically and only different, that there are also commonalities between them, that these shift from context to context and that we need to take account of those as well, rather than automatically assuming very fixed differences and dealing with these as if a process wasn’t involved.
Mary
That raises very similar issues to those that you need to consider in working with bullying around children because traditionally bullying has been understood as something that one set of children – bullies – do to another set of children – victims – and this leaves out entirely the group process and of course the research that we have done on bullying at Childline and in other places shows that a large proportion of the children who are experiencing bullying, also bully and the best techniques for helping children to get out of a kind of culture of bullying, if you like, are group techniques where you are involving the children in understanding and talking about the losses and the gains and why they are involved in this process.
I mean it is quite interesting if we ask children, why do you think other children bully? They come away with quite a number of psychological explanations that they are children who want to be powerful, they are children who are perhaps being bullied at home, all of these kinds of things. If you ask children why they bully they say, because we don’t like that person and they, like adults, have the sense that if you don’t like someone, then it’s perfectly OK for you to be as nasty as possible to them and, if you like, it’s an ideology that they absorb. And in order to get the relationships changed you have to engage them in thinking about how they think about these kinds of people, this kind of person I don’t like. So it applies in their relations with each other, outside if you like the isms.
Ann
I think that a whole other level of complexities raised by those issues of ideology and difference because if we relate back to the film, these general issues, there was one point in the class discussion where the discussion shifted onto thinking about racism and what causes it, and it was very interesting the ways in which different children came up with different explanations for racism, which may have been rooted in their different positions in terms of gender, in terms of race, but were rooted in differences to do with ideology, their explanations. What I mean by that is that there was one strong explanation given that racism was caused by, if you like, individual pathology, by the children’s background, the fact that they weren’t loved enough at home, they had problems at home and so that racism was just another form of bullying they brought to school. Exactly what you were saying, this individual notion, psychological explanation of bullying and racism being an incidence of bullying.
But that was very much challenged by somebody else who said, well I would want to disagree with that and I think that its not that, its much more, and really he was giving much more structural type explanations for why racism exists and not treating it as individual pathology. And I think that those differences are crucial to work with if one really wants to disrupt within schools, bullying or racism, and I don’t think that they are necessarily the same things, although of course you can have racialised bullying and racism that expresses itself in that way. Esther I mean that seems to go back to what you were both saying at the beginning about this fear of what will happen if you let children loose that somehow something dangerous will happen because they won’t be able to conduct a discussion in a civilised way.
Mary
It’s the Lord of the Flies scenario isn’t it?
Esther
Yes, I mean you’ve talked a lot in that last bit about the importance of children’s involvement in discussion and engaging with children and their ideas. What we saw in the film was some formal processes of consultation and participation that had gone on in setting up the code of behaviour in the first place and as an ongoing process in the sports council, so that children there as I say in a formal way as representatives came along from their class to help make decisions. Were there limitations to that process of participation, I mean what issues did that raise for you?
Mary
The thing that really struck me was what the children were talking about all the time was their behaviour, so that the behaviour of the adults in their world towards them, and towards each other, wasn’t up for their discussion as part of the production of behaviour policy that would apply to the school – we are talking about children’s behaviour not adults’ behaviour – and I would like to have seen that developed. It would have been very interesting to see how children talk about teachers and teachers’ behaviour, and what they want, and what they can respond to, and it’s important for us to progress in that direction because there is evidence to suggest that violence and disorder in school are related as much to how the adults in the school behave and behave towards children as how the children themselves react together.
Esther
But the response of a lot of people to a view that you’ve put forward be, well that’s impossible, it would be chaos in a school that surely you know teachers are the ones trained to be in charge. I mean how would you respond to that, how could a school function if children were allowed to have a say in how teachers behaved?
Mary
If you think about how you conduct within the family a discussion about things that can go wrong and you talk within a family about how well adults can hurt children too, then it is perfectly possible to say if you are a parent, what are the ways that I am behaving that you might not like. I think there is no reason in the world why that in a perfectly low key you know, we are not engaging in revolution here, we are just talking about, well what do you think of the ways that we are behaving as teachers that you really like, and what are the ways that you think we could improve.
And I think it would do two things. One it would I think demonstrate, give feedback to teachers and very useful feedback, so that its not only the inspectors who are telling them when they are doing well and not doing well, but the children as well. But I think it would engage the children in even more ownership of a policy, a way that we have got to live together in this community, and I think that would contribute to their better behaviour. The adults would be being if you like, an even better role model than we have seen in the film up until now.
End transcript: Children's rights part 2
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Children's rights part 2
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Children's rights part 3 (9 minutes 4 MB)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Children's rights part 3
Skip transcript: Children's rights part 3

Transcript: Children's rights part 3

Esther
So if I continue to play devil’s advocate just for a bit, what is the limit to that? You have talked a lot about the behaviour of teachers and I can see that in terms of classroom behaviour and how they respond to children, a lot of people listening to this might think well, you know, schools are about learning, children are there to learn. Are children going to be given a say in the curriculum, in how they learn, those kinds of things, aren’t teachers trained to do this?
Mary
Well I have to say I don’t see why not, but yes there are limits and the limits are imposed obviously on schools and on teachers. But these kinds of discussions can be part of a curriculum, you know you can frame them as developing skills in all areas of the curriculum and that’s why so many of the programmes that are really effective on, for example, bullying, but also on looking at racism and gender relations, are when you are using drama, you know the creative arts and, for example, mapping the school territory to see where the bullying takes place, you know you can involve all parts of the curriculum in it and make things if you like more real for children, make what they have got to learn more real.
Ann
I think that this again goes to some of the heart of some of the debates around citizenship and childhood, because as I said earlier one of the things that struck me about the film is that children were engaging as active citizens, and this is indeed what we all should be, active citizens. But we need practice at it, adults need practice at it, children need practice at it. And it seems to me the more engaged children are in contemplating in actually assessing and critically evaluating everybody’s behaviour, the curriculum that they are given, and that is limited for teachers as well, teachers don’t have an infinite input into the curriculum. And it seems to be that actually really makes them active citizens, it isn’t just preparation of active citizenship it is active citizenship and it is actually more than a lot of adults currently are being able to do. But it cuts through to some of the most contentious issues in this area and one of them is the ideological tension between what are often posed as parents rights, but in fact are adult rights, and children’s rights, and responsibilities, I mean on both parts. And it seems to me that this is where a lot of people begin backtracking on what is a positive ideology about giving children rights and saying, oh but issues of safety are paramount, or their education is paramount, or their age is not quite right yet, you know we don’t know what the right age is but surely they are too young and they are not well enough developed, and I think that these are some of the most contentious issues in that they are not well worked through, that people disagree about them and yet they are fundamental to sorting out some of these things, they are key.
Esther
To what extent is it possible for them to be citizens as you say in the here and now as opposed to being just prepared for future citizenship which is of course how children are often talked about, they are seen as an investment in the future rather than in the present? Mary
We can certainly think of children as making contributions and being involved and participating in how their worlds are organised around them. They can’t be citizens because they don’t, in law, have the same rights and responsibilities as adults do. I think it would be worth looking at some of the contradictions in the position of children though. For example if on the one hand we are saying that ten year olds can be responsible in front of the criminal law, then are there other things that we should be saying they can be responsible for like selecting the partner they are going to maybe spend the rest of their life or a small part of their life with and I think children are affected by it. They feel very confused about what they can decide about and what decisions they are prevented from taking. I suppose if you are asking me a direct question like when do I think children are ready to be citizens of a community, I couldn’t give an age. I think that we need to think about the point that Ann made about how children are very individual, they grow and engage with themselves and other people and their relationships with other people at a different pace. So I would probably not want to give an age, but acknowledge that of course they can’t be full citizens. They can do more than we allow them to do at the moment.
Ann
Children are not autonomous beings anymore than the rest of us are, but that what they want, their views, are often surprisingly sophisticated or at least surprising to people who don’t work with children asking them about these issues a great deal, that it should be taken very seriously, not just into account which might mean that you listen to it and then leave it alone, but that the onus should be on people to demonstrate why one cannot take children’s views into account rather than that one can, so it should be the other way round.
Esther
Mary can I ask you how you see a service like Childline fitting into the discussion we have been having about increasing children’s rights, seeing children as active citizens. What does Childline offer them in that context?
Mary
Well I think when Childline was originally set up it was set up to, if you like, be a bridge between children who had previously not been able to talk about abuse particularly, and services like Social Services and the police, and in offering the service I think the organisation found that they had opened a space that they had no idea how it would be filled by children. And what children and young people did was they used it enthusiastically and it became for many children the first time that it was possible for them to say I need help, I have a need. Most of the time children are identified as being needy by the adults in the world and taken to a source of help, and here was something that children, by virtue of the technology and that its free, here was something that children could contact themselves and say, you know I want to talk, I need help.
And what we found in developing this service was that children didn’t want matters to be entirely taken out of their hands. They wanted to be if you like, left in charge of the problem that they had as much as possible, or they certainly wanted to be able to have a discussion that didn’t whip that responsibility away from them.
When we are talking about how children talk to us we often talk about it as its consequences, we are having a discussion – well if you did that, what would happen? Supposing you talk to your mum on a Saturday morning would that be a good idea? How could you begin to say to her what you have said to us? So you’re beginning to help children to rehearse and to open up the options that are open to them, and I think that what we have learned from that is that the traditional services I think now need to change, they need to think about how accessible they are to children and whether there isn’t something to be learned from this service, and the way that it operates, that can be applied to education, to health more broadly and to Social Services and Welfare.
Ann
One of the things that I think is brilliant about Childline is that it doesn’t get stuck on the rhetoric of children’s need. What I mean by that is that it is very common to construct what children’s needs are from the outside in a way which is not at all helpful because it is paternalistic and it makes judgements that again often treat children as unitary, as if they were all the same and undifferentiated. It seems to me that one of the things that for example Childline publications make clear, is that children even within apparently the same groupings, gender, ethnic groups, that they are vastly different and that they can very eloquently put their own needs. I mean after all we have chosen the phone so they are a self selected group of children, but nonetheless it makes an important contribution to understanding of the ways in which children’s needs have been constructed by adults, by outsiders previously.
End transcript: Children's rights part 3
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Children's rights part 3
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
D218_5

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus