Case study: Placing children’s rights at the heart of school

Written by: Samantha Bradey | Published:
Gold standard: Head Terry Millar is pictured with students at The Howard School in Kent, which places children’s rights at the heart of its curriculum and wider school practices (Image: Supplied)

The Howard School has a mission to challenge young men to achieve – and placing children’s rights centrally in their practice has played a key role in accomplishing this. Samantha Bradey explains

“It was a wet Thursday afternoon, I’m coming to see an all-boys non-selective school as a prospective head, I thought ‘bet this is going to be tough’. I was shown around by one of the assistant heads. I figured he would cherry-pick a good year 7 class to show me. No, no. Year 10 maths last thing on a wet Thursday. And the students were immaculate, absolutely immaculate. So even before I knew about Rights Respecting Schools, it was evident that something was going on here.”

Headteacher Terry Millar joined The Howard School – a non-selective boys’ school in Medway, Kent – in 2016, but the school has been involved with the Unicef Rights Respecting Schools Award since 2012 and has recently achieved Gold, the highest level of the award, for the second time.

Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools Award recognises a school’s achievement in putting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the heart of its practice.

In the UK, more than 4,500 schools are working towards the award. The Howard School is one of only 22 schools in England who have been accredited with the Gold award twice, and of this number only two are secondary.

“We take boys, some of whom might not have had the best time in primary school, and we work hard with them to get them the grades they need to open doors,” Mr Millar continued. “We equip boys with the skills they need to excel in the world and take their place in the community. That is where the Rights Respecting framework comes in.”

Chris Grabski, who has led the Rights Respecting work at the school since the beginning, was looking for a way to raise student voice when he first came across the award.

“I caught the tail-end of the old Howard where behaviour was poor and the results were not great. I wanted this school to be a school where children can say ‘this is my school and I am proud of it’.”

Rather than a focus on attainment, which at the time was gradually improving, it was a desire to focus on student voice and the quality of relationships that prompted Mr Grabski to bring children’s rights into the classroom.

As a secular school there was also a need for a system of values that both teachers and students could work to. A school charter was developed by the boys themselves. It links articles of the UN Convention through to values and an agreed set of standards. The document forms the basis of the values the school operates by.

“If you don’t have anything you have to create something, much better we create it around a set of values that are enshrined within the UN Convention,” Mr Millar continued. “Now we have taken them and adapted them for our own use and put them into the student charter. In terms of a set of values and beliefs to build the school around, it makes absolute sense.”

Children’s rights are taught, lived and understood at The Howard School, which means the boys get a real say in the way the school is run.

“One of the major things we’ve changed this year is staff development time,” explained Mr Millar. “Giving staff bespoke training depending on where they are in their career stage so we can improve the quality of teaching and learning.

“To do that I wanted to rejig the whole timetable so we had a longer day on Monday and a shorter teaching day on Friday to give staff weekly development time. Obviously this was a major change for all stakeholders, so this time last year we undertook a consultation with children, parents, carers and staff.

“I presented the changes in assemblies, why we were making them, and what the advantages and downsides could be. Then I invited students to take part in a consultation to give their opinions and raise any issues.

“Younger students wanted to know what facilities would be available on Fridays and the older ones wanted to know if teachers would still be available close to exams to work with them. So we looked at that and built time in to the development programme.

“And what I thought would happen is that lots of students would want to stay after school and then it would tail off, but in fact it has increased because they actually want to be here. The boys had a direct say on a major shift in the school and in terms of them having a voice in the way the school is run, they absolutely have that.”

Behaviour and relationships between staff and students are based on respect. Around the school the atmosphere is calm and friendly.

Conversations between teachers and students are a calm back and forth, classes are controlled without constriction. The number of after-school activities on offer speak to the community spirit at the school and backs up Mr Millar’s claim that the boys like spending time there.

Howard boys are friendly, pleasant, respectful young men but as Mr Grabski added: “We are not going to turn them into angels just yet!”

The Howard’s approach to discipline is more about rebuilding relationships than it is about punishment. When things go awry the way a relationship is mended is a big focus.

Mr Grabski continued: “We all have days where we can lose our rag but what happens next matters, and that is another change from before we began the award.

“Our same-day detention system is not just about punishment, it’s about making up. Before detention was a punishment and there were more and more detentions and punishments because we felt that was the only way we could keep control sometimes.

“This is a shift away from that control mentality and the boys quite appreciate the fact that if they do something it is dealt with that day.

“We collect them from the lesson, take them to the hall, the teacher will come down and they have a conversation. The boy has the opportunity to say his piece and there is a senior member of staff there to help with the restoration process.

“It places the students’ right to be heard front and centre. The teacher leaves happy the student leaves happy and it resolves the on-going conflict you might otherwise have of the student not turning up for the lesson or things being tense. Overall it has been really powerful for us.”

In lessons, links to rights are made in all aspects of the curriculum, providing a new way to teach some subjects and providing an easier “in” for harder sell topics. While attainment was not the key driver for the school’s involvement in the award, this shift in student voice and relationships has had an impact on results too.

Mr Grabski explained: “When you give young people responsibility for their learning they become a lot more active in lessons. In my classroom I used to have the desks laid out in rows because it gave me more power and ‘control’ with my group. But I decided to move them into groups of tables and this gives the boys more freedom and independence.

“They are facilitated in their lessons rather than taught in the traditional way. This is their school and our boys want to do well. There are a number of good schools in our area, including grammar schools, so there is pressure on us. And at the same time we are an oversubscribed school and that says something.”

For The Howard School the future lies in equipping their young men to achieve in their lives, as active citizens in their community with a sense of global justice.

“The role of men is being questioned right now,” Mr Millar said. “So what can we do with the nearly 1,500 boys we’ve got here? A lot of them will become dads, form relationships with other people, and what we can do here is help them take their place and give them an idea of how to be a man, what that could look like. And equally for students who don’t identify as male, how do we support them too? Yes, our fundamental priority will always be the academic side of things and the work we are doing to improve the quality of teaching in the classroom will go a long way to improving academic outcomes. But more than that a school is not just about the academic outcomes it is about the parts that can’t be measured.”

Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the basis of all Unicef’s work and its principles lie at the heart of the Unicef Rights Respecting Schools Award. The CRC sets out the human rights of every person under the age of 18 and is the most complete statement on children’s rights treaty in history.

It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and is the most widely adopted international human rights treaty in history. The UK ratified the CRC in 1991.

The Convention has 54 articles that cover all aspects of a child’s life and set out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all children everywhere are entitled to. It also explains how adults and governments must work together to make sure all children can enjoy all their rights. Every child has rights, whatever their ethnicity, gender, religion, language, abilities or any other status.

More than 1.5 million children in the UK go to a Rights Respecting School and more than 4,500 schools around the UK are working towards the award.

  • Samantha Bradey is communications and resources officer for the Unicef Rights Respecting Schools Award.

Further information

Visit www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/


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