A child rights perspective on parental involvement and child participation

This paper was prepared for school heads and assistant heads participating at a school leadership training, but it may also be useful for all parents and teachers for designing a rights-based participatory system in their schools. It also contains some child rights aspects to be considered generally in education, some of them often violated, a couple of them are regularly violated on the basis of false assumptions on responsibility or out of ignorance. With 20 November, the day we celebrate the rights of the child, approaching, it seems to be a timely publication. The logo illustrating the article is awarded to schools respecting the rights of the child. There is a lot to be done to achieve that.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has been ratified by all member states of the European Union. It clearly regulates the rights, duties and responsibilities of parents with regards to the education of their children, and also gives the legal basis for child participation. The ‘best interest of the child’ should be the guiding principle when regulating, organising or carrying out anything related to children from child care and education to the empowerment of parents and teacher training.
The following paragraphs do not contain any reasons for parental involvement and child participation but pure child rights references. There is solid research evidence on parents having the largest impact on the learning outcomes of their children as well as their attitude towards learning. It is also scientifically proven that taking ownership of their own learning is probably the only way for children to become apt lifelong learners. So it is clear from research that those drafting the UNCRC were right in their approach of putting all responsibilities to parents as well as recognising children as full-fledged rights holders with special needs to ensure their rights. 
Status of the UNCRC in the legal system
As all international conventions it has the highest rank in the hierarchy of legislation, meaning that it overwrites all national legislation and if national legislation clashes with  an international convention, the international regulation is valid. This gives the basis for the work of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that has the right to declare a piece of national legislation invalid in case it is against an international human rights convention. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities is an equally important legal document when it comes to inclusion at school.
Rights base for parental involvement
The UNCRC very clearly gives all responsibility for the upbringing of children to the parents – or guardian if there are no parents. It means that as long as the court does not deprive parents of their right to custody, all rights and duties related to this, including the education of their children is with the parents and the parents only. Institutions, like schools, are only supporting parents in this task. This support is also an obligation for states to provide the necessary support to parents, partly, but not solely by setting up institutions like schools or offering financial support to families.
This has many implications and here I list only a few of them:
-          Regardless of what national legislation says about it, it is the parents’ decision if and when they send their children to school
-          Duties and responsibilities do not end with choosing a school and do not stop at the school door
-          Parents have the right to know all aspects of school life and thus either opt out of school if they don’t like what they get or, in an ideal case, to have the institutional framework for changing those elements from curriculum and teachers to the arrangement of the school day/year
-          It is necessary to set up communication channels and representative bodies for the parents to be able to participate in decision making on group and class level as well as on school level
-          It is beneficial if there is a bottom up representative of parents on national level that ensures that the parents’ voice is heard on legislative levels and also acts as a child rights watchdog
-          It is a must to empower and train parents for all these duties
-          Schools and professional educators – hand-in-hand with other professionals working with families from the birth of the child – have a role in this training and empowerment process
-          Parents are to be acknowledged as the primary educators of their children by professionals, and thus treated as respected peers, even if with a slightly different role, by teachers and other professionals

The relevant Articles are the following:
Article 5
States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.
Article 18
1. States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.
2. For the purpose of guaranteeing and promoting the rights set forth in the present Convention, States Parties shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities and shall ensure the development of institutions, facilities and services for the care of children.
3. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that children of working parents have the right to benefit from child-care services and facilities for which they are eligible.
Rights base for child participation
Children of all ages are to be involved in all aspects of school life based on the UNCRC. It obliges both parents and professional educators, but even policy makers to take the voice of children into account when making decisions that affect their lives. It also means that there is a need for representative fora as well as other means of communication provided by the school and state for children to raise their voice. According to the UNCRC children have the right to their voice give due weight in all administrative processes affecting them – and what procedure does not affect the child in a school.
From a child rights perspective it is desirable to provide a means in schools for all children, regardless their age, to have a say on all important aspects, such as the choice of teachers, curriculum, organisation of school life or extracurricular activities. As children of different ages are at different developmental stages, it is the responsibility of adults, especially parents and teachers, to create age-appropriate structures for this and to provide the right facilitation without biasing the outcomes themselves.
There is also a need for adults to act as guardians of these rights. In Portugal for example all schools must set up a child rights protection committee dominated by parents that has proven to be a good practice.
Child participation is necessary when making decisions on several aspects of school life, making sure that the most important school-related rights are ensured and protected. The following aspects provide a challenge in many school systems in Europe:
-          Prohibition of discrimination of any kind, especially that based on the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status
-          Prohibition of separating a child from his or her parents against their will, for example by closing the school door at any time to exclude the parents or to lock in the child (the same offers a major challenge to health care providers whose child rights based procedures are regulated in Europe by the EACH Charter that may be a good role model for schools)
-          It is compulsory to ensure the freedom of thought, conscience and religion even in religious schools, so compulsory prayers or participation at religious services, as well as religious education that includes faith elements are against the UNCRC
-          Children have the right to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly, it is necessary to provide space and time for this
-          Children are not to be deprived of their right to privacy and correspondence, thus nobody, but law enforcement authorities with a legal basis for it have the right to search the bag of children, and it is equally prohibited to read notes by children to other children even if it happens to be sent during a lesson
-          It is compulsory to protect the child from mental or physical punishment or abuse by parents, teachers, other professionals or peers, including a total ban on corporal punishment
-          Mentally or physically disabled child are entitled to live a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child's active participation in the community. In present Europe this is provided by inclusive school approaches where special, individualised support is to be provided according to the UNCRC, but often missing from budgets
-          Children have the right to health care and preventive actions, including education and support offered to the family in this field. 
-          Education must be targeted at the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential thus it is necessarily individualised
-          Children of all ages have the right to play
-          There is a basic right to recreational activities regardless their financial potential
-          They are entitled to rest, and to work far fewer hours per week – counting school hours and hours spent on homework – than adults in the country
-          Children have the right to mother tongue, education in it, as well as to mother culture
-          It is prohibited to deprive a child of their liberty or to make them face detention, thus it is not possible to restrict their movement into our out of school
The relevant articles on child participation:
Article 12
1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.
Article 13
1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.
2. The exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; or

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals. 

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