Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 320 - 330)



  320. Do you think there is anything that could be suggested to encourage more effective participation by children in schools? You gave a lot of examples, but because there is not a rights framework, it will probably depend on the culture of the teachers and the views of the head. Is there anything more general which you think might be adopted?

  A. I would like to take you back to my earlier proposition that if the framework for inspection of schools included examples of participation in activity of the sort you are rehearsing, and if the inspection looked at that, schools would more generally comply with doing that.

Lord Parekh

  321. You earlier said how important a figure a Children's Rights Commissioner is, perhaps even more important in some cases than the Human Rights Commission. In order to do what you want to do, what kinds of powers would a Children's Rights Commissioner need, and how would it fit in with existing structures?

  A. I have partly touched on that in answer to a previous question. I certainly want to give them powers of hearing and commenting in general about the issues; but if they only ever commented on, without reporting to institutions—particularly institutions—who appeared inadvertently to be in breach of children's rights—unless they had the powers of talking to them and perhaps combining the carrots and the sticks—because I was getting to the sticks and saying I would give them the power if some of their practices were systemically infringing children's rights, then I would want them to have the right to alter those practices or direct the alteration of those practices that were there. I would want to give them fairly extensive powers over general systemic infringements, rather than particular cases.

  322. Can you give me an example?

  A. You might find practices, for example, in respect of exclusions that were at variance with human rights. You might find that there were infringements of human rights in respect of admissions. It is arguable that some practices of admissions do infringe children's rights. If they came across that and reported on it, then I would suggest they had the power to alter it. Since there is already a schools adjudicator, you could ask that the Children's Rights Commissioner asks the adjudicator, using their powers, to alter the practices of a local education authority, or any other admission authority—because it is not always the local education authority that is the admission authority.

  323. Do you see him in some way supervising the existing power structures or having additional powers that might by-pass existing structures?

  A. Wherever you could, I would try to use the existing structures rather than create other ones, yes.

  324. Are you suggesting the Children's Rights Commissioner would take over rather than require compliance?

  A. That is very sad, because for anybody to take over from an existing set of people who are doing their best within the powers they have got—assuming they are doing their best—it is a terrible pity to take over powers because that might infringe other people's rights as well.

Mr Woodward

  325. We have established a Children's Rights Commissioner in Wales in order to see how the experiment goes. From your experience, are we right to wait and see how the experiment goes, or are we wasting our time, and should we just be getting on with the business of having one here too?

  A. I think we should have one now because for every child that loses their rights, we are wasting the future. We should get on with it.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  326. I am puzzled because it has been unlawful since 1968 for schools and local education authorities to practise racial discrimination. It has been unlawful to do it indirectly since 1976. Throughout that time we have seen this pattern of racial exclusions which impact much more severely on black children than others, and yet, to the best of my knowledge, the Commission for Racial Equality has not exercised its formidable powers. When we discuss in this Committee what kind of powers to give a Children's Rights Commissioner, I ask myself why the existing agencies have not used their powers. Does that not tell us something about the problem about these Commissions, that they are fallible and depend upon the will and commitment of human beings that run them, just as much as the structures and powers that they are given? Do you think that my concern about this is well-founded, that we might come up with some splendid recommendations for an agency with powers, and then find that it is no more effective than the rather lamentable record of the last quarter century in not using powers that should have been used?

  A. If you look at the state of racial discrimination, prejudice and straightforward racism, either institutional or otherwise, in the 1960s, and you look at it now, you would regret the speed of progress but you would be able to detect some progress. I think that there is institutional inertia as well as institutional prejudices. I am perfectly aware of that. I have lived and worked in institutions for quite a long time, and that would not stop me trying to say that we have a bit of institutional inertia; if we introduce somebody whose absolute straightforward concern was children and children's rights, then I think they would make some progress. I do not believe for a moment that they would get rid of it all overnight. Part of my performance contract, which is published and known to everybody, is to reduce the number of permanently excluded children of African-Caribbean background. Indeed, the CRE commended that kind of public commitment. I talk about it; I ask our schools to talk about it; I am trying to raise the issues. The fact is that the number has dropped, but the number of exclusions has dropped too. It is still, sadly, the case that there is an over representation of African-Caribbean youngsters. As a result of that, we have tried to intervene with an action research of a group of teachers looking at the experiences of children in the last four years in primary and first three years of secondary school. We have had a group of people looking at all the possible interventions that would reduce that unacceptably high level. Hope springs eternal, as it were. I think it is a very, very difficult issue.

Mr McNamara

  327. We are obviously very concerned about the exclusion of children from schools and their human rights, but I am also concerned to know how you measure that up against two other groups of people: the human rights of the other children who are entitled to a good education, an undisturbed education, and the human rights of teachers who are teaching in difficult circumstances and perhaps being bullied by children? These are clashes of different sorts of human rights. They are the same human rights, but different sorts of problems.

  A. They are, and they are all important, and you juggle with those all the time. I suppose really we would have to get into a very long discussion about lots of issues. One would be the rewards and sanctions policies within schools; in other words, what lies between the verbal reprimand and the temporary or fixed-term exclusion? What is the advantage, for example, in a fixed-term exclusion that leaves a child outside a school; whereas I could show you a federal school on a split site where their view is that the fixed-term exclusion can be dealt with very easily, by moving the child out from one of the halls into another hall where they are completely unknown. There, they are not in front of the kids that they have been showing off in front of. Usually, fixed-term exclusions are lower level exclusions in terms of not abiding by the rules of the institution than the permanent exclusion, which is much more likely to be a more intractable problem. That school has diminished the number of fixed-term exclusions by making accommodation within another part of the community for that child. I personally think that that is a preferable way of doing it. I absolutely acknowledge the right of the other children and the teachers to get on with what they are doing. That does not mean that I think that the child needs to be excluded from all its education by simply being sent away. It can be put into another part of the same institution, or you can think of other devices around restorative or reparative work that will have an impact. I think it is an area we should look at a lot more because I am really alarmed by the figures, which are growing and growing and growing. The moment that child is off the roll or out of the responsibility of the school, I have less and less confidence in that child getting what it needs. If I could extend the powers of the school to make provision for the individual, even if that individual were not within that school but the duty of care was still there, I would be more confident that I would be moving towards somebody like myself within the local education authority.

  328. There has been a switch in Government policy. At one time it was all-inclusive; now the Government is saying to heads that they can exclude. That seems to be an educational turn-around.

  A. Yes. I should like the record to be clear. There are two distinct issues here: the fixed-term exclusions, which are growing and growing; and the permanent exclusions which, on the whole, have come down, though they are just going up again now. When you get to fixed-term exclusions, you have to think of alternative education. I wish those people could retain some sort of link with the community that is no longer able to accept them as a full member of their community, because they are a huge risk. However, it may well be that you cannot do that. The fixed-term exclusion is resorted to, it seems to me, a bit too often. We are not as inventive about the other things we might do, short of a fixed-term exclusion. I am trying to encourage a debate about that amongst all our heads. As we always do in Birmingham, we have good, fierce debates about it. People take different positions and will thrash it out. That is all because we think we have to improve on what we are doing at the moment, as in everything that we do.


  329. It would probably be right to say that you are in charge of one of the largest public authorities in this country in delivering services to citizens, even though they are citizens who generally do not have votes. Would you say that the Human Rights Act has made any difference to the way you go about your job?

  A. It has, yes. It has made a difference because it has legitimised a set of values that might have been seen as idiosyncratic. This is what I now feel: if we have the Human Rights Act and all this other legislation people can't say, "wait a minute, this is not an idiosyncratic, eccentric romantic old fool", it is what everybody is saying they want for all the community.

  330. Thank you for appearing before us today.

  A. Thank you for listening.

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