Many children in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in the world, have been away from their regular school and early year settings, spending lengthy periods of time at home since the beginning of lockdown measures due to Covid-19. While this has been a positive experience for some children, others will have experienced negative and traumatic situations.
In a report published by the Children’s Commissioner for England (Clarke, Chowdry, & Gilhooly, 2019) it is estimated that 2.3 million children in England are living with risk because of a vulnerable family background. This group includes children in the care system, children known to have experienced personal harm and those living in families where there is a high likelihood of harm. Of these children, a formal programme of support is in place for an estimated 669,000 and a further estimated 761,000 are known to social services, but there is a lack of clarity about their level of support or whether they are receiving any help at all. However, an estimated 829,000 children living with risk are ‘invisible’, meaning that they are not known to the support services and, thus, are not receiving any formal programme of support.
‘An estimated 829,000 children living with risk are “invisible”, meaning that they are not known to the support services and, thus, are not receiving any formal programme of support.’
Furthermore, a recent briefing by the Children’s Commissioner for England (2020) reported that evidence suggests there has been an increase in the number of domestic abuse cases in England since the Covid-19 outbreak. The risk of children witnessing, or being, victims of domestic abuse themselves has, therefore, heightened. For children who fall within this vulnerable category, knowledge of their rights and confidence to access support in cases of rights violations is paramount.
Currently, human rights education is taught in schools as part of relationships education for primary age pupils and in relationships and sex education for secondary age pupils. Both primary and secondary pupils also learn about human rights in health education, citizenship education and personal, social, health and economic education. While these subjects include some important, albeit limited, teaching about human rights, the focus is on the transmission of factual information about human rights and sources of support available in cases of rights violations. However, for children’s rights education to be meaningful, children need to understand how rights apply to their own context and to be empowered to confidently voice concerns when their rights have not been respected or when they feel unsafe and at risk.
UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA) [https://www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/the-rrsa/about-the-rrsa/] goes some way towards doing this. It aims to support schools to embed children’s human rights into the school ethos and to teach children about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [https://downloads.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/unicef-convention-rights-child-uncrc.pdf?_ga=2.11935793.488891141.1590491403-862977340.1583245415] as well as help children understand how the rights enshrined by the convention apply to their own lives. Research into the impact of the UNICEF RRSA shows that where schools teach children about the convention, it helps them to develop the confidence to report instances where their rights have been disrespected (Sebba & Robinson, 2010, p. 20). However, not all children attend schools that have achieved or are working towards RRSA and, even for those who do, a greater emphasis could be placed on ensuring children are equipped with the skills and confidence to seek help when they have encountered situations in which they feel vulnerable.
Many children are now returning to school after an extended period of time at home. During their time at home they would have had limited opportunities to articulate concerns about their wellbeing and safety. The need for children’s rights education at all levels of education, including for children in early years settings is, therefore, paramount if children are to be equipped with the skills and confidence to voice concerns about instances where they have felt at risk, unsafe and where their rights have not been respected.
Children’s Commissioner for England. (2020). Briefing: Children, domestic abuse and coronavirus, April 2020. Retrieved from https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/cco-briefing-children-domestic-abuse-coronavirus.pdf)
Clarke, T., Chowdry, H., & Gilhooly, R. (2019). Trends in childhood vulnerability: Vulnerability technical report 1. London: Children’s Commissioner for England. Retrieved from https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/33779/1/cco-vulnerability-2019-tech-report-1.pdf)
Sebba, J., & Robinson, C. (2010). Evaluation of Unicef UK’s Rights Respecting Schools Award: Final report. London: Unicef UK. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/12/RRSA_Evaluation_Report.pdf)