Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, children across the world have experienced significant changes to their lives. Save the Children (2020, p. 4) report that an estimated 99 per cent of children worldwide (equating to more than 2.3 billion children) live in one of the 186 countries where some form of restrictions have been implemented due to Covid-19. Additionally, research by Unicef indicates that school closures have affected almost 90 per cent of students worldwide, with nearly 370 million children who rely on school meals not receiving these (as at July 2020) (Unicef, 2020). In January 2021, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reported that the number of children living in poverty has increased by 142 million in the past year (UN, 2021, p. 2). In the UN’s summary of the meeting, it was noted that the closure of schools had had a devastating impact on children, with the UN Secretary General referring to the situation as a ‘generational catastrophe’ (UN, 2021).
In the UK, recent press coverage has also highlighted the unsettling impact on children caused by end-of-year school examinations being disrupted and the poor quality, and small quantity, of food being delivered to some children in place of free school meals (see for example BBC News, 2021). More generally, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in ‘a complex and multifaceted context of issues and risks facing children across the UK in every area of their lives from education to health and nutrition, to protection and play’ (Unicef UK, 2020, p. 1). The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also reported that the pandemic has resulted in pushing more children into poverty, increasing the risk of children being victims of abuse and having an overall negative impact on their mental health (EHRC, 2020). Of particular concern is that the mechanisms on which children rely for support – typically available through education, health and social systems – have been weakened since the start of the pandemic (Unicef UK, 2020, p. 1).
When making decisions at national and local levels about action to support children, consideration needs to be given to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which sets out a requirement to seek and consider the views of children. The UNCRC applies to children from birth to 18 years and has been ratified by all countries across the world apart from America – it was ratified by the UK government in 1991. Under Article 12 there is a requirement to ‘assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child’. While there may be disagreement about whether some children are ‘capable’ or sufficiently ‘mature’ to form and express their views, what is evident is that there is an obligation to listen to children, and not taking children’s views into account is a clear contravention of Article 12.
‘While there may be disagreement about whether some children are “capable” or sufficiently “mature” to form and express their views, what is evident is that there is an obligation to listen to children, and not taking children’s views into account is a clear contravention of Article 12.’
Opportunities for children to be involved in discussions and decisions about matters that impact on them, however, are hugely lacking. Unicef UK acknowledges that, so far, the voices of children have been absent from the significant decisions affecting their lives and their futures (Unicef UK, 2020, p. 2). Moreover, on a global scale, in the recent meeting of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, children were referred to as ‘the silent and silenced victims of the pandemic’, stating that ‘children must be listened to, and their proposals should be heard’ (UN, 2021).
In an effort to seek the perspective of children, the Department for Education recently opened a consultation on how GCSE, AS and A-level grades should be awarded in summer 2021 to those students expecting to sit these exams (DfE, 2021). In order to respond, however, students needed to be aware of the consultation, have the resources to respond online, and possess the literacy skills to understand the 64 questions posed. Significantly, students are not involved in the data analysis or decision-making processes. As a consequence, while this represents a positive move towards listening to children, it only partially acknowledges children’s rights under Article 12 of the UNCRC. Given the profoundly negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on children globally, the importance of children being active partners and fully involved in discussions and decisions about measures to support their future education, health and wellbeing cannot be over emphasised.
BBC News (2021, January 13). Free school meals: Mother’s ‘sadness’ at ‘mean’ food parcel. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55641740
Department for Education [DfE]. (2021). Consultation on how GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in Summer 2021. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/953000/6743-1_GCSE__AS_and_A_level_grades_should_be_awarded_in_summer_2021.pdf
Equality and Human Rights Commission [EHRC]. (2020). Children’s rights in Great Britain: Submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/childrens_rights_in_great_britain_0.pdf
Save the Children. (2020). Protect a generation: The impact of COVID-19 on children’s lives. https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/usa/reports/emergency-response/protect-a-generation-report.pdf
Unicef UK. (2020). Children in lockdown: The impact of coronavirus on UK children. https://downloads.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Unicef-UK-Children-in-Lockdown-The-Impact-of-Coronavirus-on-Children-Briefing.pdf
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UN]. (2021). Committee on the Rights of the Child, Eighty-Sixth session. https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/CRC/C/SR.2483