Participation – a right

Previous posts post on responsibility and rights, and post on child rights in education


to ‘have your say’, is not the same as ‘to have your way’ and people, from very young to very old, do understand this distinction.

Having studied the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, one detail which interests me, is that the Convention on the Rights of the Child was believed necessary, additional to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because of the particular position of children and their dependent state. This interests me because it seems not to be particular to children. We are in fact all dependent to a quite remarkable degree on others who can make decisions which influence our lives. Some, such as those who suffer from disabilities or illness (possibly especially mental illness), know this only too well.


The text below is an extract from material prepared in 2001 by Roseann Maguire and Kathleen Marshall from the Centre for the Child and Society, University of Glasgow, and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Basic Principles

the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Of the 42 substantive articles of the UN Convention, four have been identified by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as incorporating “basic principles.” This means that they permeate all of the other articles. So, for example, when a State is considering what it must do to comply with Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention, which relate specifically to education, it must also take into account the need to incorporate within its provision, respect for the four basic principles. These are to be found in:

  • Article 2 – non-discrimination
  • Article 3 – the best interests of the Child
  • Article 6 – survival and development
  • Article 12 – respect for the child’s opinion

Article 2 – Non-discrimination

Article 2 obliges the State to protect children from any form of discrimination. The prohibition against discrimination is phrased in very general terms, but some examples are given. These are: race, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

Article 3 – The Best Interests of the Child

Paragraph 1 says:

“In all actions concerning children…… the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

Paragraphs 2 and 3 of this article oblige the State to provide adequate protection and care for children when parents or others responsible fail to do so.

Paragraph 1 is important, because it brings children’s interests into every sphere of their lives. No adult with any responsibility for a child can narrow his or her focus to a single function. Everyone has a responsibility for the care and protection of children. Of course it will take different forms. Teachers, for example, have become increasingly involved in issues about child protection. Local authorities have guidelines setting out the teachers’ responsibilities.

On a wider level, it means explicit acknowledgement of what is already much spoken about within the education profession; the school as a caring community. It is a view of the school that makes the issue of exclusion even more difficult. The child is not just being excluded from a function, but exiled from a community.

Article 6 – Survival and Development

Every child has an inherent right to life. It is the State’s obligation to ensure that the child’s survival and development are promoted to the maximum extent possible.

Article 12 – Respect for the Child’s Opinion

Article 12 says:

  • If a child is capable of forming an opinion,
  • he or she has the right to express it freely,
  • in any matter affecting the child, and
  • the child’s views will be given weight according to the child’s age and maturity.

The Convention does not give children the right to make decisions. It gives them the right to influence decisions. The influence they have will be dependent on the age and maturity of the child with respect to the matter in question.

Relationship of Article 3 and 12

In accordance with Article 3, decisions about children will be taken with the best interests of the child as the main criterion. However, the views of the child, if the child has views and wishes to express them, are an essential part of determining where the child’s interests lie. Those of us making decisions that affect children’s lives must always ask ourselves:

How can we claim to be acting in the interests of a child, if that child has views on the matter and we do not know what they are?

The research leading to production of this resource showed that some adults feared that children were either being given the power to make decisions, or that they would think that they were, and would be disillusioned if things did not go their way. However children and young people at primary and secondary schools showed that they could quite easily make the distinction between having their say and having their way. What they wanted was to be listened to seriously and understood, and given reasons for any decisions that went against their wishes.

Warning: The Article 3 dimension must not be used as an excuse for paying “lip-service” to Article 12. Children have a right to express their opinions and have them taken into account. The right to participate in decisions is not something that a child has to earn by good or responsible behaviour. Neither is it a privilege to be given at the discretion of the teacher or education authority.


Hence – what emerges if this is taken seriously, as it should be?

Participation is a right.

It is not earned, nor is it a privilege which can be given or taken away… by any other … especially by those who have responsibility for rights of provision and protection. Learning to listen, and learning to respect, is a duty of responsible adults, whoever they are.

As I said at the beginning of this post, it interests me that the Convention on the Rights of the Child was believed necessary, additional to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because of the particular position of children and their dependent state. We are in fact all dependent on others who can make decisions which influence our lives. To learn to listen, to learn to respect, is an ongoing everyday struggle. It does not come easily with adulthood.

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