Technology and the Rights of the Child

Jul 02, 2010

Miles Berry

My piece from today’s Naace newsletter.

My move from teaching to teacher training has brought many interesting opportunities and experiences: the freedoms to write our own courses and set our own exams are great, as is access to the university library’s online journal subscriptions, but so is the chance to attend events such as the seminar which one of Roehampton’s research centres ran to mark the 21st anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Let me give you a couple of general examples from the Convention, before looking at children’s rights in relation to ICT.

Article 3 makes clear that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”, and that a child must have “such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being”. Here, initiatives such as Every Child Matters clearly do much to promote the right of every child to such fundamental things as education, health, their safety and economic well-being.

Article 12 gives a child the right to express her/his “views freely in all matters affecting the child”, with “the views of the child being given due weight”. Much is now being done to give children some voice in schools, through representative school councils and similar (and there’s brilliant work being done using VLEs to provide online space for such deliberations). However it still seems unusual for learner voice to extend beyond fundraising, uniforms, lunches and toilets into matters such as curriculum and pedagogy. Furthermore, I wonder whether we’d have seen some rather different education policies in the election manifestos if we didn’t disenfranchise the 13 million people most directly affected by these.

So how do the rights of the child relate to ICT?

Article 13 of the Convention is an interesting one:

“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.”

In UK law, the Human Rights Act of 1998 guarantees this freedom “to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”. It would be naïve to interpret this to suggest that restricting children’s access to the Internet and filtering their Google searches would be a breach of their human rights, and the convention does allow this right to be restricted in its exercise, for the protection of ‘public health and morals’, thus permitting those responsible to block access to the web’s darker reaches, whilst perhaps not immediately justifying a general block on Flickr, Slideshare, YouTube, Facebook and, in some schools, Google. I wonder, as did many of those attending Naace’s recent Subject Associations Think Tank, whether now might be the time for schools to take a more enlightened approach to filtering, by all means using granular controls to filter the worst, but recognising that their duty is to educate rather than to police, and that children learn moral responsibility through direct experience of making moral decisions. The freedoms promised to teachers and heads by the new government imply that they will need to take responsibility for policy decisions themselves, rather than outsourcing the management of these risks. Educating children to use their right to freedom of expression fully and responsibly might, perhaps, also be one way of minimizing cyberbullying: with rights come responsibilities, and we live up (or down) to the expectations others have of us.

The data held by schools and public bodies about children is another area where we perhaps should try a little harder to see things through a child’s eyes. I am somewhat relieved that ContactPoint, the central database storing data on almost every aspect of all children’s lives is not to go ahead, whilst not wishing to denigrate in any way the child protection aims which lay at its foundation. Parents do have an independent right to access their child’s educational record under statutory Pupil Information regulations, although the Data Protection Act (DPA) denies them access to other data without the consent of the child if she or he is old enough to give it. I have concerns that the recent parental engagement agenda seems to pay little regard to the child’s own perspective. Firstly, and as a minimum, shouldn’t the default position be that children as well as parents have accounts on whatever online reporting provision a school makes, as after all the child has their own subject access right under the DPA? I’m encouraged that the report from Naace’s Parental Engagement Think Tank does use inclusive language referring to both pupils’ and parents’ access to data. Secondly, aren’t there occasions when school ought to be a place for children to form their own identities away from their parents? Back in my teaching days, I greatly valued conversations with my pupils’ parents, and would happily report on progress, character and potential, sharing selected examples of children’s work to illustrate this; my pupils and I would have been less happy, I think, about inviting parents in to observe their child in each and every lesson they wished: aren’t some parental accounts on VLEs the virtual equivalent of this? Perhaps teaching children to access, use and, occasionally, question the data the educational establishment holds about them would be one way of making them aware of the digital footprint they leave on Facebook’s and Google’s servers too?

It’s also worth considering children’s own intellectual property rights. Whilst some bemoan young people’s attitudes towards copyright, particularly through peer to peer file sharing of copyright material, I wonder how much attention schools and teachers generally pay to the copyright of their pupils’ own work. Perhaps many are happy to photocopy, scan and upload children’s work, always with the best intentions, without seeking permission or acknowledging authorship. By way of contrast, I heard some very positive stories via Twitter of, for example, schools and teachers that buy art work off their pupils to hang. We could also help educate about copyright by doing more to encourage the acknowledgement, sharing and collaboration that underlies Creative Commons licensing, as well as much Early Years practice.

In short, part of citizenship, be it analogue or digital, has to be educating children about their rights and associated responsibilities. To avoid charges of hypocrisy, surely this means that we should take their rights, including those of free expression, of free access to information, of privacy and of intellectual property seriously, respecting these and defending these when others do not.