The Confusion and Conflicts Caused by the Interpretation of Children’s Rights

The Confusion and Conflicts Caused by the Interpretation of Children’s Rights

National and international claims are increasing that permitting home education infringes the rights of a child – but are these arguments justified?

What’s been said?

Universal human rights are a relatively recent development in human history. Their roots reach back to the Enlightenment, with the rationale being formulated in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions. Though debated by intellectuals over subsequent decades, it took two world wars to give momentum to their cause. When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it was not binding on member states. Since then several other accords have been adopted internationally, the most relevant to education in Britain being the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

Given the newness of these collective efforts to prevent war and suffering, it should not surprise anyone that we are living at a time where the application of these international agreements is still being bedded in, as possible interpretations are tested out often in court. It is against this background that home educating families encounter perceptions of how the UNCRC in particular alters their relationship with their own children. Many readers for instance will be familiar with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales’ view that HE children need to be registered and monitored in order to protect their human rights.

The international momentum behind that view was laid bare by Unicef UK’s submission to the Education Committee’s Inquiry, in which they argued that the Government should restrict the freedom to HE in order to protect the rights of children. We have previously called for home educators to consider how they can best counter such international pressure.

Recently, two articles have been published challenging the political arguments in favour of registration and monitoring. In mid April the Conservative Woman carried a piece entitled, “This misguided meddling in home education.” In it, Elizabeth Francis argues strongly against the rhetoric arising from the UNCRC “that the government, not parents, are best placed to look after a child’s best interests.” Citing Unicef UK’s submission, Sally Holland’s review of the Welsh Government’s actions and the recent move by the Scottish government to fully ratify the UNCRC – which is being challenged in court by the UK government – she asserts that “these calls for reform are misguided.”

Francis identifies two important facts which rebut the all too familiar arguments. She points out “there is no robust evidence that home-educated children need greater surveillance to protect them from abuse and harm.” Secondly that the UNCRC “does not de facto limit parental rights in education.” Instead it recognises the family as, “the fundamental group unit of society and the natural environment for the well-being of all its members, particularly children” and should therefore be “afforded the necessary protection and assistance.” Finally, she highlights the UDHR statement that “‘[parents] have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children’ because they ‘have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child’.”

Just over a week later, Suitable Education published a letter to the Education Committee rebutting Unicef UK’s submission and highlighting how this conflicts with the 2016 Supreme Court ruling on the Scottish Named Person Scheme, their foundational argument being that the latter “upheld the long-established legal threshold for state intrusion into family and private life, that of risk of significant harm protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.” They further added that Unicef UK’s submission neglects both Article 16 (the child’s right to privacy) and Article 26 (the primacy of parents in choosing the type of education their children receive) of the UNCRC.

Other conflicts are discussed, including Unicef UK’s argument that because “safeguarding is of concern when a child is home educated,” a state therefore needs to monitor all EHE children regularly. This is contrasted with the Supreme Court’s view that evidence of “a risk of significant harm” is required before “the legal threshold for non-consensual intervention by the state” is crossed. Further the writer cites evidence that the type of interventions and enforced schooling proposed actually cause harm rather than promoting the well being of children and families.

The conclusion refers to the warning against the dangers of totalitarianism in the Supreme Court’s ruling, and its citation of a 1925 U.S. Supreme Court judgement [§10] which stated:

“The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

Why does it matter?

It seems indisputable that as the UNCRC is adopted into national legislation, it is increasingly being interpreted in a way which reduces every child to being “a mere creature of the state” for it to monitor and train as it wishes. This, it seems, is being done in order to satisfy the mantra of “the best interests of the child.” However this also carries the implication that parents are no longer to be trusted to have the best interests of their own children as a priority. Instead, states are encouraged to follow a global agenda in order to school a standardised population of future citizens.

We commented previously on the Children’s Commissioner for England’s Big Ask survey, which is being conducted in such a way as to drown out individual children’s voices in a sea of predetermined questions. In contrast to this, the majority of families – no matter what their cultural background – are communities where parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles possess a natural bonding with the children born within them. It is impossible for state employees to have the level of empathy which nature furnishes to a child’s own family. This is especially so when these “professionals” have to relate to many times more children than even the largest family ever has to nurture.

No matter how good a politician your local MP or councillor may be, they can only think of your child without the natural affinity that comes with family ties. The more distant a policy influencer is from your child, the more likely it is that they will treat him or her as a statistic rather than a human being. There is no shortage of evidence that this is also true for local and national civil servants and for those who sit on the boards of international organisations.

What can I do?

Recognising that the bigger an issue appears to be, the harder it is for ordinary people to tackle, we encourage you not to close your eyes and hope this debate goes away. All the signs are that it will not!

Make time to read both the articles referenced above. Be thankful for those who are willing to look into these international issues facing HE families and to report back to the rest of us.

Thirdly, remember that international bodies such as Unicef UK draw from a pool of sympathetic supporters. For example, when commenting on their submission in December, we pointed out that Graham Badman was appointed as a director of Unicef UK in the same year as Ed Balls asked him to conduct a review into HE. In March this year, another one time Director of Children’s Services for Gateshead, Maggie Atkinson, who became the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2010, was also appointed as one of their directors.