Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The fight for children’s rights

The struggle to provide children with rights and end their status as mere chattels or belongings of their parents has been a long and bitter one. At every stage, the cry by parents has been the same; ‘The state has no business intruding in family life and is harming the rights of parents by doing so.’

In the 19th Century, many children were forced to work down mines and up chimneys from an unbelievably early age. They had no rights in the matter at all. Each time some piece of legislation prevented, for example, children under the age of ten from going down coal mines; there was outrage, principally from parents. How dare the state dictate to mothers and fathers what their children should or should not do? This was an assault upon the rights of parents and indeed the very institution of the family. If a father could sell his eight year-old son to a chimney sweep for £5, what on earth business was it of anybody else?

Nowhere was this outrage more indignantly expressed than when the government tried to secure the right of children to receive an education. The 1861 Newcastle Report into the State of Popular Education in England summed the case up neatly. It said:

Any universal compulsory system appears to us neither attainable nor desirable. An attempt to replace an independent system of education by a compulsory system, managed by the government, would be met by objections, both political and religious.

Wiser counsels prevailed and in 1870 the Elementary Education Act was passed, popularly known as Forster’s Act. A decade later, education was made compulsory for all children between the ages of five and ten and there was a huge uproar. Parents led the complaints, comparing the British government with that of Prussia; a grave insult indeed! The crux of the matter was that this was an erosion of parents’ rights to raise their children as they saw fit. Compulsory education was an attack on the family. In the ten years following the making of education compulsory for children, prosecutions of parents for the non-attendance at school of their children were running at over a hundred thousand a year. It was the commonest offence in England, apart from drunkenness.

Every single attempt to increase the rights of children, which of course means giving greater duties to their parents, has been met by strong opposition by parents. The governments of the day have had to lead the way, fighting apathy, sloth and reactionary parents in order to furnish children with more legal rights and protection under the law.

In recent years, we have seen two examples of this tendency. One has been the efforts of the legislature to make it a criminal offence to strike children. This has met with only limited success. Parents have fought ferociously to retain their right to beat children. Incredibly, even now in the 21st Century, there are those in this country who feel that they should enjoy the ’right’ to hit their kids! Any attempt to abolish this ’right’ is met by howls of protest and the familiar claim that the state is intruding where it has no business to be; that is to say into family life.

The other recent example of this reactionary and backward-looking trend is of course the campaign by some parents a few years ago to force the state not to enquire to closely into whether or not children were receiving a suitable education. Again, parental ’rights’ were cited and the government was told that any move to check up if children not attending school were actually being educated was an attack on the family by the state. Just as when the 1870 Elementary Education Act was being planned, the case of Germany was brandished by parents fighting against any diminution of their supposed rights. That this was essentially about the rights of parents and not of children can easily be seen by the language being used. The right of children to an education was scarcely mentioned, it was all about the ’right’ of parents to home educate.

Although the calling of a general election in 2010 ended the hopes for this latest extension of children’s rights, the cause is not entirely lost. A first step would be at the very least the registration of all children who are not attending school. Such a move is now planned by Wales and there are signs that Scotland too has such a scheme in mind. If this happens in those two countries, then introducing such registration in England would be merely an exercise in bringing this country into line with what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As has always happened throughout history, the reactionaries will howl their protests, but we must hope that this time they do not get their own way and that one more step is taken in ensuring that the most vulnerable members of society are properly protected and furnished with the rights that they deserve.


  1. Children have a right not to be smacked hard enough to leave a mark (sort of hooray, but it should have been banned, though to be fair, in an ideal world, education would be better than criminalisation). However, we don't have to submit our children for a regular medical examination in order to prove that they are not being smacked. They have many rights that are not checked on routinely, but are effectively monitored by the community. If people notice a problem they report it. This is true of educational neglect as well as abuse as the experience in New Zealand shows. They introduced regular annual HE inspections but found that exactly the same rate of problems were identified both before and during the inspection regimen.

    Read a few of the published serious case reviews in the UK and you will find that identification of problems is rarely a problem. It's how the authorities react and use their existing powers that is invariably found to be at fault. With HE, Local Authorities have a right to make informal enquiries when such a potential problem family is brought to their attention. If they are not answered fully enough they can begin the school attendance order process, the first part of which is a letter legally requiring the parents to satisfy the LA that they are educating properly (and they can set a time limit as long as they give at least 15 days).

    The way the right to an education as it is currently enacted though means that it is more a duty or requirement for children. Children are regularly forced into school against their will. It has become more a duty for the child to receive an education and the 'right' of society that they not become a burden on the state in the future through lack of an education. Employers appear to have the right to receive a workforce that has received an education that fits their requirements. Humans have a right to liberty and not to be held in slavery or servitude. Expect, apparently, children.

    PS It's not just some parents who are against the anti-smacking law either, some MPs also say this,

  2. 'Children are regularly forced into school against their will. It has become more a duty for the child to receive an education and the 'right' of society that they not become a burden on the state in the future through lack of an education. Employers appear to have the right to receive a workforce that has received an education that fits their requirements. Humans have a right to liberty and not to be held in slavery or servitude. Expect, apparently, children.'

    Education is not a duty for children. The duty lies with their parents, to provide this right for their children. That some children are reluctant to learn is undoubtedly true; just as some are reluctant to clean their teeth, eat healthily, go to bed at a reasonable hour and so on. They do not have full mental competence and so we as adults have the duty to look after their interests.

    As for children having a right not to be held in servitude, this is perfectly true. Until the late 19th Century it was possible in effect to sell children into bondage as indentured workers or apprentices. This was indeed servitude which verged upon slavery. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, but I am sure that if we abolished the right of children to recieve an education, as some apparently wish to do, we would soon find children as young as nine working down coal mines again. Speaking purely for myself, I do not find this an attractice prospect; although others may of course disagree.

    1. "Thankfully, this is no longer the case, but I am sure that if we abolished the right of children to recieve an education, as some apparently wish to do, we would soon find children as young as nine working down coal mines again."

      Who wants to abolish the right of children to receive an education? I queried calling something that is compulsory, a right, I didn't offer a solution as I don't have one. If anything it would be to abolish the compulsion, not the right (or the duty of a parent to make a suitable education available). I think government and industry view education as a duty for children - to ensure they are not a burden on the state and that suitable employees are produced.

      The current education system fails to ensure that many children fail to receive a suitable education. Unfortunately, most of them are in school. But I don't believe that the current system of monitoring by the community particularly fails home educated children (as they found in New Zealand).

      "That some children are reluctant to learn is undoubtedly true"

      I doubt many children are reluctant to learn, just reluctant to learn what and how they are required to learn by society.

      "Education is not a duty for children."

      Children are required to receive an education whether they want it or not, just as parents are required to ensure provision of an education. You say one is a right and the other a duty, but effectively there seems little difference. The only time it can be considered a right is when the child wants it but might be prevented from obtaining it (by being sent out to work, kept at home to care, etc).

    2. "The current education system fails to ensure that many children fail to recieve a suitable education"

      should have been,

      "The current education system fails to ensure that many children receive a suitable education."

    3. But manages to ensure that many do.
      Who are you quoting?

    4. Oh, I'm certain that the current education system ensures that many do receive a suitable education, especially if you can afford to pay for it or can afford to live in the right catchment area.

      Sorry, I was quoting Simon the 23 August 2012 06:04 message and myself, for the correction, at 6:05.

  3. Sadly, again your thinking is flawed.
    The draft bill which is proposed to provide the power to inspect in Wales also provides the power to control with regard to: (d) persons involved in the provision of pre-16 education or training or post-16 education or training, other than in schools, relevant independent educational institutions or institutions (yep that means any home educator)

    Any of the following:

    professional standards (including training, professional development, performance management and qualifications)
    (a) professional conduct;
    (b) recruitment;
    (c) disciplinary proceedings;
    (d) registration;
    (e) required levels of health and fitness.

    Clearly it was badly written but hey ho it is WAHG after all.

    So whilst you were educating your daughter you would have felt that providing a Local Authority with those rights was reasonable would you? Of course not.

    The Welsh guidelines and legislation already provide specifically for intervention wherever there is 'cause for concern' within welfare issues and where there is 'cause for concern' with regard to educational provision.

    The only people that WAG can not already intervene with, monitor and otherwise involve themselves with are those home educators who are educating their children in a manner that does not result in any cause for concern reported to the LA by any member of the public or by one department of the LA to another.

    This is not about home educators clamouring for the right to fail their children, it is decent loving parents fighting the move by an incompetent government to try to pass faulty legislation that will effectively put their LA in total control of their private lives.

    Your understanding of the law is regularly shown to be impoverished, in this case you are clearly not au fait with Welsh differences in provision or culture. One could, I suppose, forgive that as you are not a lawyer nor are you a resident of Wales. HOwever, in those circumstances perhaps you could also refrain from commenting on a situatin you do not understand.

    1. Decent loving parents...
      psychopathic ones are often really good at faking it.

    2. Goodness! Better take all children from their parents immediately and have the state raise them in special orphanages. That way we can protect them from the pyschopaths who are so good at faking being decent and loving.

    3. That's what psychopaths do best..
      Ask the home educator Eunice Spry.

    4. "That's what psychopaths do best..
      Ask the home educator Eunice Spry."

      Is this supposed to be an argument in favour of registration and monitoring? The person who passed social services fostering and adoption checks with flying colours? The person who was registered as a home educator with their Local Authority? The same person who passed their HE visits with flying colours? Yes, great argument! Why take the time to think effective solutions when we can just throw money away so that it looks like we are doing something?

      If you are just making the point that some home educators are horrible people, then you are wasting your time. Why would they be any different to any other random group of people?

    5. So then, let's hear your solution...

    6. The education authorities in New Zealand found that community monitoring and reporting found just as many problem families as annual HE visits to families by local authority employees. I've yet to read a serious case review in this country which the children were not already known by social services to be at risk, so community monitoring and reporting generally works for abuse and neglect too.

      In the Spry case in particular, social services responded to 12 concerns expressed about the care of the children over 10 years. The police returned the children home when they ran away and injuries seen by medical professionals were not reported. So again, the abuse and neglect should have been detected even without the HE visits that also missed any sign of problems.

      My conclusion? If there is money available to waste on registering and visiting tens of thousands of home educators, the majority of whom are innocent, it would be much better spent on employing social workers so that they can follow up on reported problems more efficiently. As Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the LSE, says: ‘If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack [serious abuse], then you are going to make things much harder by making the haystack even bigger’

  4. no registration or home visit for us thanks!

  5. I don't think anyone disputes the right of children to an education, which is probably why it doesn't get a mention. The assumption is that the right exists and is a 'good thing'. The problem is who defends a child's right to an education and who decides what education is suitable for an individual child, the child's parents or the state. Presumably you thought you were the best person to decide on the most suitable education for your daughter, as do other home educating parents. Yes, there is a place for the state as parent of last resort, just as in cases of abuse and neglect and the current system provides for this. Community monitoring of abuse, neglect and educational failure generally works. It's what happens after a problem is reported that is at fault (and not through a lack of legal powers).

    1. Yes, my children have more control over their own education than the government or LA would ever allow. If the government took more control over HE my children would lose the rights they currently have to control and direct their own education.

  6. anon says-Why's that then?

    cos the kid locked in the cellar LOL