We don’t need no human rights in the classroom. Hey, teacher leave them kids alone!
There was a time when inculcating beliefs in children that conscientious parents might not agree with was frowned on. Even when most people in this country were Christian, the right of parents to pull their children out of Religious Education (RE) was jealously guarded. Today, it is just the opposite. The fact that parents might have difficulties with beliefs the establishment approves of shows that the parents are simply misguided, and if anything is a reason in favour of imposing them willy-nilly. We’ve already seen this happening in respect of ethics with the successor to RE, Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). Not only do we see a governmental determination to axe any tiresome parental opt-out in respect of what it might say about (for example) gender assignment or same-sex relationships, but it turns out that much of the guidance is being produced for a willing educational establishment by partisan organisations like Stonewall. What you may not have realised is that much the same is happening in some areas of politics too. Human rights are a case in point. Hardly a week goes by without some newspaper attacking what it sees as an undeserving cause being accorded human rights protection; and indeed until relatively recently it was Theresa May’s policy to exit the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR) altogether and replace it with a home-grown model.
Whether you agree or not is beside the point: what is clear is that human rights under the ECHR and similar documents, such as the European Convention on the Rights of the Child, are a matter of intense political controversy.
Children have the right to an innocent childhood.
Clear, that is, except in the education world. There the proliferation of convenient prepared teaching materials and other facilities by a number of organisations, public and private, continues unabated, designed to ensure that the existing scheme of regarding most of life as a human rights issue carries on being regarded as beyond attack, with children well and truly indoctrinated in its favour.
Amnesty International, for example, generously provides schools with teaching resources for those teaching 3 to 5-year-olds, complete with themed lesson plans incorporating the provisions of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a continuing education programme for teachers “with a passion for human rights, equality and justice”; and an interesting page on “using fiction to teach human rights”.
This includes how Bob Graham’s How to Heal a Broken Wing is really an expression of Article 3 of the Universal Declaration (the right to life) and Michael Morpurgo’s The Kites are Flying must express Articles 3, 9, 25 and 28, not to mention the way John Lennon’s Imagine leads us straight to the human rights values of fairness and equality, or even a belief that countries, religion and possessions are bad for us.
Not to be outdone, a series of plans by Oxfam for primary school children gets children to take articles from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, whereupon learners “will group selected articles from the UN Rights of the Child into categories such as health, happiness or safety and then rank them in their order of importance” and “use appropriate language to persuade others to agree with their choice of the top three most important articles”.
To impart to children as matters of dogma things that are highly controversial in the grown-up world is a gross misuse of the teacher’s position of authority.
Of course, technically both Amnesty and Oxfam are private charities. But never fear: the government-sponsored Equality and Human Rights Commission is not far behind. It provides material designed to make sure that whatever else primary school children do or don’t know, PSHE, citizenship, English and drama teachers can ensure they know the meaning of the words ‘stereotype’ and ‘discrimination’; identify stereotypes and challenge stereotypical thinking; and develop strategies to support others who may encounter prejudice or discrimination. What is wrong with this? For one thing, there is the right to an innocent childhood (funnily enough, not mentioned in any of the relevant conventions). Just as children should have the right not to be sexualised by those teaching them at primary school, they should equally have the right not to be politicised.
To teach them catechism-style to deprecate things like “discrimination” and “stereotype”, words which are difficult to understand even for adults is an abuse of unsophistication: to impart to them as matters of dogma things that are highly controversial in the grown-up world is a gross misuse of the teacher’s position of authority. For another, it is in any case distorting. If you read it, To Heal a Broken Wing is a heart-warming story, told mainly in pictures, of decency, kindness and personal fulfilment. To present it as an illustration of an article of a United Nations legal instrument is point-missing in much the same way as the famous 1928 Field and Stream review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which appreciated its “many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper”.
Thirdly, most such teaching materials are distinctly one-sided. If you must immerse the young in political issues like human rights, you owe it to them to raise points such as whether they are compatible with democracy and individual freedom, and whether issues such as life and death are better looked at as a matter of a right to life or as an application of personal morality.
The point matters, and there are no easy answers. In so far as any human rights education enthusiast suggests that there might be, or that it is never too early to imbue their simplified beliefs in the young, a bit of speculation as to what their real motives might be doesn’t come amiss. Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!
(Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as UKIP’s candidate in Bath)