Jenna Gillett-Swan

No child should be sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ of a school or ‘best interests’ of majority. This is what child rights is about

Everyone has the right to safe working conditions and environments including children. This right is not negated by misbehaviour or convenience, or because a child’s removal from a situation or classroom will make the rest of the class easier to manage. 

I am not saying that children should be permitted to ‘get away’ with whatever they want and that actions should have no consequence. However, our obligations under various human rights treaties (to which Australia is a signatory) mandates that behaviour management should always be implemented in a way that respects the human dignity of the individual regardless of what they are alleged to have done.

You would think most people would agree with me, but debate following media headlines about the use of restrictive practices in schools – especially when relating to students with a disability and/or challenging behaviour – indicates that public opinion is very divided on the use of physical restraint and/or punishment for children in education contexts.

Exactly what happened in each of these cases is often not clear, however everyone seems to have an opinion about the actions taken and broadcast in the media. As I see it, these cases open up a bigger issue that we need to talk about.

The bigger issue we need to talk about

The bigger, yet unexamined, issue that underlies this debate is the ‘acceptability’ of mistreating an individual if their mistreatment is considered to be in the majority’s ‘best interests’. It is a battle where the rights of the many are perceived to trump the rights of the individual.

This battle plays out in numerous ways in schools. For example, we can see it in responses to systemic pressures such as NAPLAN performance, where lower achieving students are given permission to not attend school on testing days in the ‘best interests’ of the school’s reputation. It is also visible when schools attempt to justify the exclusion of students with disabilities or challenging behaviour because it ‘puts a strain’ on resources or the teacher.

A more subtle example is when teachers reward or punish children for behavioural or academic choices by restricting who is and is not permitted to use the toilet during class.

Schools and teachers play a vital role in helping shape children’s lives and the way children interact with one another and the world around them. Respecting children’s rights through daily school practices has wider reaching effects than keeping a child in class to learn or training them to use the bathroom at appropriate times.

In our research, my colleagues and I consistently come across such examples. So much so that it has become a theme over multiple projects: many students feel their rights are not respected at school. The examples we have noted relate to choices, respect, control, and the inability to enact basic rights (e.g. going to the toilet) for what might seem to the students to be arbitrary reasons.

The denial of basic rights, including being removed or excluded from education experiences because their removal is deemed to be in the ‘best interests’ of the majority, often fails to assure the child’s right to education in a way that respects their human dignity. Children may then develop a mistrust of adults who ultimately want to help them. This may lead to reluctance to go to teachers about other rights or general concerns such as safety/protection, self-harm, discrimination, or generally just feeling low.

This many/few tension is also not unique to adult-child interactions. There are also many examples of parents and teachers battling for assurance that their rights as an individual will not be lost in what is thought to be in the ‘best interests’ of the majority. There are frequent cases where teachers have actively advocated for the rights of their students (or groups of students) to counter restrictive policy or governmental mandates.

How do rights actually work?

The problem with much current discourse is that it pits rights groups against each other. It presents a view that certain rights or the rights of certain people are more/less important than others, when this is not the case.

Whether considering the rights of a child or rights of an adult, we are all humans, and all human rights are indivisible, interconnected, universal, and equal.

In the same way there is no quota for rights (i.e. only a certain number of rights to go around), they are also not something that can be ‘traded off’ for convenience or due to complexity.

There may be times when rights may indeed seemingly compete with one another. For example, when being verbally confrontational, an individual’s right to ‘freely express themselves’ may be thought to conflict with another’s right to protection from harm if the individual’s self-expression is considered abusive.

However, the right to protection from harm includes protection from physical or mental violence, injury or abuse. So, if the individual’s self-expression is deemed discriminatory or abusive in nature (e.g. in some cases of bullying or verbal abuse), it is actually subject to restrictions as “necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others…”.

This means that being abusive, discriminatory, physically or emotionally violent towards another is certainly not an individual right or entitlement. The right of the individual to be protected from harm outweighs the ‘right’ of the individual to freely express themselves, as abusive/discriminatory expressions of this nature are not actually part of the right to freely express oneself at all.

These and other similar rights tensions represent a fundamental misunderstanding of human rights and what they constrain and enable. It is these misunderstandings that contribute to a polarising focus on absolutes. These absolutes then distract from the main issue of wide acceptance when the choice is made to restrict or sacrifice an individual or group’s rights for the ‘greater good.’

An associated problem with this many/few discourse, especially for education, is that pitching groups against each other (majorities vs minorities; teachers vs students; students vs students; parents vs teachers) also discourages members of these groups from listening to each other.

Significant transformation can occur when different stakeholders actually start listening to one another, and perhaps more importantly, actively seek ways to authentically engage with and act on students expressed needs and experiences.

All stakeholders ultimately have the same goal. That is, to try to ensure and assure that all children are provided with a quality education that fosters the holistic development of each child. Trying to act in the best interests of the majority can therefore neglect a significant and underutilised resource in seeking to understand the student experience from the perspective of students themselves.

Benefits of teachers and schools listening to students

Recently we worked with a school on their journey to seek, include, and act upon wellbeing matters identified by students. Through this process, the school evaluated, refined, added, and developed student wellbeing provisions to connect directly to what mattered to students.

Throughout the project (funded by QLD Government Horizon Grant), students valued being able to “work on something that’s impactful for the school… normally we don’t get to do that kind of thing… Teachers and adults are [now] able to see our point of view of things that are happening around the school” (Grade 9 student) and actively contribute to enhancing the school experience. Students referred to developing greater confidence in themselves, as well as leadership, and transferable academic and critical thinking skills as a result of their project activities.

Student voice can be powerful. Some of the benefits we found in our research, include:-

  • Student voice can strengthen existing relationships between students and staff, or cultivate the formation of new relationships.
  • Student voice enables preventative and proactive resolutions for school related decisions
  • Student voice increases mutual understandings and respect of multiple perspectives, even when you may not personally agree with the perspective.
  • Student voice supports all members of the school community in feeling valued, connected and invested in the school experience.

Obtaining a better understanding of the student experience from the student perspective also enables greater insight into students lived realities and can change the way adults and children respond to one another.

When decisions are made that affect students, they are often not consulted or provided the opportunity to give feedback. Being authentic in seeking and actively including students in decisions and processes relating to their school experience also enables greater ownership and connectedness to the process of education and reiterates that they are a valued stakeholder – not just a passive consumer.

Ultimately, listening to all children enables greater insight into what really matters for students in the school environment and whether the interventions and strategies that we as adults are focused on, are actually able to address each child’s identified needs.

Respecting rights is enacting the core business of schools

When teachers and other school staff listen to and respect the rights of all their students, they are enacting the core business of education; that is, to support the full and holistic development of the individual “to their fullest potential.” As one teacher noted, they’re “starting to notice already, it’s changing the culture of how teachers are starting to view their role, like I’m not just a [subject] teacher, I’m a teacher of a student. Looking at the student holistically and looking at the mindset of teachers…”

Working in partnership with students supports a rights centred approach to education in fostering the “development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” while enabling “the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality… and friendship among all…”

In doing so, we are one step closer to an educational system that is more equipped to support the diversity of each child, in all contexts. We need to assure the child’s right to “preparation for responsible life in a free society” and protect that right against the tendency for some to believe the rights of the few/individual should be sacrificed to enable the rights of the many.

Jenna Gillett-Swan is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on wellbeing, rights, voice, inclusion, and participation. She also specialises in qualitative child-centred participatory research methodologies. Jenna is the Children’s Rights Research Strand Leader for the QUT Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group, co-convenor of the Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network of the European Educational Research Association .  Jenna is on Twitter  @jkgillettswan. She is co-founder of #ChildRightsChat Twitter chat

Jenna is participating in the forum Child Rights and Wellbeing at School as part of the Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour (#SELB) Research Group at QUT on Wednesday 20th Feb.

  • The image on this blog is a joint effort by three students working together during our research project. They were asked to think about what a school with wellbeing would look like, and this is what they came up with.