At an event in Bradford recently, I gave a presentation based around our emerging findings about rights and participation at a time of policy and political change. Using live feed from RightSpace http://www.rightspace.org.uk/, we looked at some key themes about human rights, accountability and style of leadership and evidence of change.
I’ve taken some of the discussion with the video links to offer some reflections and hopefully generate comment and debate as we build toward the national RightSpace conference on 26 October in Sheffield. To check this out and book on line, go to http://rightspace.org.uk/content/event.
1989 saw the beginnings of an upturn in interest and understanding and use of rights language to promote the voice and influence of children and young people in matters that affect them. The Children Act of 1989 most coherently placed the right of children and young people in child protection proceedings to have their “wishes and feelings taken into account.” This was extended in the 2004 Children Act to all children and young people in need. Also in 1989, the UN set out the Convention on the Rights of the Child which has been signed and ratified by all nations of the world save two and both these – Somalia and the United States – are getting closer to doing so (www.childrightscampaign.org).
This movement to enshrine adult responsibilities for the wellbeing and welfare of children and young people into law is to be applauded, rather than leaving it to transitory attitudes or passing policy priorities. But there are some risks, two of which are explored here.
Human rights not children’s rights
The language of children’s rights can speak of “them and us”, which can be interpreted as oppositional or divisive. Liam Cairn’s video clip shows the greater strength from affirming children’s human rights, drawing strength and learning from other “emancipatory movements.” And at the Children’s Rights Alliance for England’s (CRAE) annual children’s rights conference on 20 November 2009, Professor Klug urged that children and young people’s rights do not become a separatist movement, but one held and championed within a wider human rights framework which holds the “vision for society based on ethical norms,” rooted in “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the mother & father of all human rights instruments.” See the blog post at: http://www.practicalparticipation.co.uk/2009/11/20-20-vision-children’s-human-rights-in-focus/
Right and virtuous action
Why do we do what we do? What is our motivation? We can look at this in three ways: because we ought to, because we’re told to and because we want to. If we only, for example, encourage children and young people’s participation because the law tells us we must, that is not very high motivation and may not face up to a contrary climate. Talha Ghannam’s short clip offers a powerful commentary on intention and the reason for action.
These two challenges above come together in a third area of concern: how we see and treat children and young people in England. We tend to polarise them as angels, victims, empty vessels, units of investment, threats and thugs. Our policy and personal responses too often shift to suit political expedient and public scapegoating. But, “Children and young people’s human rights are not a pick and mix assortment of luxury entitlements, but the very foundation of democratic societies” (Alvaro Gil-Robles, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner). And our social and political reference points should enshrine this.
Leadership turned upside down
Leading and managing work with young people is being turned on its head. The position of the service user, however young they may be, is moving from object to subject, consumer to co-creator, empty vessel to expert by experience, receiver of services to being involved by right in their design, delivery and evaluation. These are transformative times. What impact is this having and should it have on the style of leadership and the accountability of managers to children and young people themselves? There are signs across local authorities and the voluntary sector that it isn’t all just about new structures, such as youth forums and advisory boards, or news systems like dedicated budgets, or monitoring and recording of participation activity.
But there still seem to be some big challenges:
- Transactional or transformative participation: do we still tend to see active involvement as “come and join me in my organisation on my terms about things that will help our service”? Or is there evidence of participation as shifting to being about transforming relationships, understanding and collaborative working?
- Representational or participative democracy: are our main methods and approaches encouraging exclusivity and feeding into the few chosen being told they represent the many, rather than supporting grass roots engagement and empowerment?
A style of leadership that understands young people as having lives and interests reaching far beyond the bounds of a particular organisation is crucial to the full realisation of a society in which young people are equal citizens now, activists in vibrant, forward-moving communities, exercising their right to participate, including their right as citizens to dissent.
Nottingham Children and Young People Trust showed innovative leadership and strong accountability to children and young people by running a two event where the children and young people first had the space to identify the issues affecting them and agreeing their top participation priorities before being joined by the managers and leaders to agree action plans with clear responsibilities and time frames. The video tells the story.
With such attention to the participation of children and young people in matters that affect them in recent times, backed by a vast array of laws and policies, we have perhaps been guilty of not asking searching enough questions about the purpose of this industry and who the beneficiaries have been. Adults have tended to justify participative activity mainly by the act of involvement itself and any changes to the organisation or service resulting. But as Liam Cairns explored earlier in his video clip, taking this approach risks confusing means and ends.
Evidence of dialogue and evidence of change
Lord Ouseley said in his report after the Bradford disturbances: ‘If the people who are supposed to benefit from change do not know that it’s happening, then it probably isn’t happening’. How do we know children and young people have benefitted from participative activity? What’s better for them as a result? Is their area safer? Do they get better access to training or job opportunities? There may be representative structures in place like school councils or care councils, but are students and looked after young people getting a better deal as a result?
Stories to tell
For some years we have been researching, collecting and celebrating stories that give evidence from children and young people of dialogue and change. They are a great encouragement and inspiration. The tweets from this page give you one example a week. You can look at a whole archive at http://hbr.nya.org.uk/whatschanged and add examples by adding #rightspace to any tweets or adding a comment on line at http://rightspace.org.uk/taxonomy/term/7
Visit http://www.rightspace.org.uk/ join discussion on children’s human rights
Book for RightSpace event, 26 October, Sheffield
Bill Badham, Co-Director, Practical Participation
19 June 2010