Following a visit to Wales to find out more about their latest approach to preventing children from entering the criminal justice system, Claire Lightowler and Fern Gillon reflect on the part a rights respecting school is playing in this.
You know something is special as soon as you walk into Blaenymaes Primary School.
The mural as you enter proclaims your right to a good education. The UNCRC articles are listed on each step. Here the children talk openly about their favourite rights and the challenges of balancing rights. They start each school day with a ‘circle’ where they say bora da (good morning) to each other and say how they’re feeling. This is important according to one pupil so you know if you should be “really kind to someone today”.
If children say they are really sad the teacher privately has a chat with them. The day closes with the same exercise, which the pupils told us was really important because “a teacher doesn’t want someone going home sad”. The eloquence with which children talked about their feelings and how they supported each other with them was moving. Evidence of the right to play being respected was also important and demonstrated by the consequences of international mud day covering the deputy head.
This rights respecting school is in one of Wales’s most economically deprived areas with particular attention needed if children and their families are to engage with school. To assist here is the amazing family inclusion officer, whose role focuses on getting to know the families of the children in the school, supporting their inclusion in the school community and helping them to facilitate their child’s education. Some of the support is practical – negotiating with food banks, ensuring children get Christmas presents, supporting other agencies to provide good quality help. But a key element is the emotional support, families know that someone cares and there is someone they can approach for help.
The importance of school as a place that can facilitate people’s inclusion in communities, or act as a barrier to it is well known. The evidence is clear about the significance of school inclusion to support children experiencing difficulties, helping to ensure that they are visible, alerting to issues at home, providing positive social and educational opportunities, and preventing negative outcomes, particularly offending behaviours. What Blaenymaes School demonstrates is a model of how to pro-actively support this inclusion, and it seems to be making a difference. Of course there are issues and challenges, children are still excluded sometimes, sometimes due to behaviours linked to learning difficulties and a lack of appropriate supports being available. There are perhaps issues to reflect on about how to then support inclusion for all children, being alert to the potential to exclude (in all senses). These are the very themes we are exploring in our Inclusion as Prevention project in South Lanarkshire, indicating significant opportunities to share learning across Wales and Scotland, and work together on some shared agendas.
These were the conversations we began with colleagues at Hilary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University who are doing some incredible work spanning, academia, policy, practice and participation. Like the primary, the academic school – its staff and Early Career community – are welcoming, passionate and generous with their time and expertise. It is exciting times in Wales with the publication of the blueprint, focused on preventing children from entering the criminal justice system, minimising their contact with it and maximising opportunities for diversion. The model is strikingly similar to Scotland’s Whole System Approach but with greater emphasis on prevention. The Welsh approach also much more clearly articulates rights, and sets out children’s entitlements, being explicit that children in conflict with the law should have their rights upheld as any child should. The Observatory on Human Rights of Children based at Swansea University is a forum for research, debate, education and knowledge exchange about children’s rights, undertaking work which both informs policy and practice around rights, and provides a watchful eye over whether children’s rights are being respected. Swansea University also hosts the Children’s Legal Centre Wales, which is developing information and working to enable the provision of legal advice for children and young people.
Like us, our Welsh colleagues are grappling with how to support children to claim their rights and to contribute to policy and practice developments. Post-devolution as our two countries develop our own youth justice policy and practices, what is particularly interesting is how similar our emerging policy narratives are, and how both at Hilary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University and the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice are grappling with similar issues. We’re now looking forward to getting under the skin of these similarities to how practice on the ground compares, comparing outcomes, identifying how and why things are working/not working in each jurisdiction, and finding promising ideas in one jurisdiction that can be adapted and tried out in the other.
Keep an eye on Wales, there are some exciting and interesting developments, and much for us in Scotland to learn, reflect on and to work on with our Cymru colleagues.
With thanks to students and staff at Blaenymaes Primary School; Dr Anthony Charles, Aaron Brown, Joe Janes, Sally Sellwood (Hilary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University); Dr Helen Hodges (Wales Centre for Public Policy).
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