Children's Rights In Education (In England)

by John Colbeck

Part 1

When I study "rights" talk, it is a confusing maze. Like Daedalus, we create a maze of words and are imprisoned in it. We then imprison our children (Icarus) in it with us. Any attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth seems doomed to failure. Perhaps the concluding phrase of a witness "so help me God" may be appropriate as I embark on these comments.

I make a series of remarks which I hope are true enough to be worth saying.

A right can be claimed when it is not recognised. It can be recognised, declared, granted, enshrined in law or custom or it can be denied and ignored. In England the right to vote was extended, to all men only, in the late nineteenth century. At about the same time it was thought "right" that everyone should be educated (so that, among other things, they might know how to vote). Unlike the right to vote, however, a "right" to education was not granted in the form of an "opportunity"—an open door—optional. Education was made compulsory. Children still do not have a right to opt out of education although, with safeguards, parents can opt to educate their children at home. The right to education is intended to benefit children, but it is granted in favour of their parents (and educators?) not to children. It is only "in favour" of those parents who want it; for reluctant parents and children, it is forced on them.

Most rights amount to claims for equality (equal value) of treatment, not sameness of treatment. Slavery was a very obvious case of one group of people being seen (conceived) as of lower value than others. Lack of the right to vote also implied lower value for those not enfranchised. Women in England had to chain themselves to railings (image of slavery) to protest against this "seeing" of them as lower in value. With their right to vote, politicians began to take women's interests seriously. They, their values and their interests were more publicly valued. Children do not have that right nor the respect for their values and interests which goes with it. There are laws against physical abuse but not against educational abuse.

For children who do not like school, a right to education looks like a right for adults to "chain" them in school from the age of 5 to 16.

Part 2

Adults "see" themselves, (Narcissus?) as "higher", older, more "knowing", stronger than children. They can seem to children unfair, unbalanced, unreasonable: "Just because they are stronger, they get paid to make us work for nothing. Slavery!"

In a school, rights for children are limited. Most decisions are made by adults "for" them. Inevitably (and not altogether unreasonably) these decisions are made by adults in the light of their own adult values "for the benefit" of children and their (mainly whose?) society. With good intentions (of passing on what is of value in "our" culture, for instance) adults try, using compulsion, to shape children to become adults with values and "morality" like us. We adulterate them. They lose their innocence when they learn, perforce, to talk and think like adults.

Children who do not conform are called "troublesome": they are in trouble; often they perform "poorly" at academic subjects. We grade them "low". We say that they "fail", but it may be that we fail them by expecting them to value and "perform" in activities which we happen to value. We give them little or no right to choose the kind of education they can value.

Perhaps, it may be claimed, this is unavoidable because children are too young to make informed choices for themselves. If they had the right to choose, they might choose trivial, ephemeral or immoral pursuits.

Perhaps imposition of adult values is unavoidable: adults cannot not value their own values, right or wrong. If a child wanted to be taught "stealing" at school, adults could not feel it right to do it.

That kind of argument is less telling in the case of subjects which are not harmful or anti-social. For energetic young people, we could offer more subjects with opportunities for discharge of body-energy—games, dance, drama, physical education, practical subjects. Now, in pursuit of adult academic values, there is a good deal of "Shut up, sit down, keep quiet and get on with your work." Most "work" is in only two dimensions—reading, writing and arithmetic which, for children coming straight from an active life on the street, is a shock.

Part 3

We could adopt an approach in which the different values of different children were more carefully studied and catered for. We could teach them how to talk and listen to each other (drama, con-versation), how to move about, as well as teaching them how to sit still, keep quiet and listen to us.

If children and adults were equally valued, children's own motivating values, movement, talk and interests might be studied as of equal priority with and against our own. Do children have a right to be equally valued, however different they are and however unequal in knowledge, age and experience? Do they have a right to have their own values extended, rather than narrowed?

We imply that our knowledge, age and experience make us wiser.

What would Socrates say to such a claim? I think he would lead us, by ruthless questioning, to a point of elenchus where we recognise narcissistic self-congratulation, self-reference and perhaps self-contradiction in our claims to knowledge, as opposed to belief and faith. Our attitude or "spirit" lacks ratio, balance, care, modesty, caution.

That might leave us in a state of aporeia or puzzlement, motivating us to think more care-fully about "our" rights, balanced with and against the rights of children. Socrates seems to have thought that aporeia—puzzled awareness of not knowing—is a healthier state of mind than thinking we know. Puzzlement motivates towards new learning. Certainty is a dead end.

We tend to ask a one-sided question "Why can't children be more like us?" We might ask, at least sometimes, a balancing question "Why can't we be more like children—less knowing, more flexible, inquisitive, spontaneous, loving, playful, imaginative, innocent?" We might learn, with them, about "us".

If we saw (conceived) and loved, children as ourselves—equally with, but not more than our selves, and our selves equally with—as—them, then we might grant children more equally balanced rights and "say" than they have now. We might revise our concept of "child"—and of "us".

Page created: 28.10.04. Page last modified: 29.09.06 19:34.