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Season 1 Episode 7 UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools: safe and inspiring places to learn

In this episode Dr Kulvart Atwal shares his fascinating insights into how schools can become safe and inspiring places by placing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the heart of their community.  Drawing on real-world experience and his vast expertise in successful school improvement strategies, Dr Atwal demonstrates how we can give children a voice through authentic, compassionate leadership with transformational results and outcomes for schools. He talks about behaviour, exclusions, curriculum and values-led approaches to leadership.

UNICEF and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Rights Respecting School

‘…It is therefore a key function of leadership to ensure equity, consistency and fairness. Few schools would claim any issue with nailing their flag to the UNICEF mast, but many do not necessarily appreciate the full implications of this.’ (West-Burnham and Harris, 2015)

‘Catching Dreams’

Each night, before he goes to sleep, my son asks me to catch his dreams. We start a routine that never fails to bring a smile to my day. I cup one hand to his ear while he gently pats the other side of his head, that way he can push out any of the bad dreams and he doesn’t have to worry about them. With the invisible catch held closely between my hands I will diligently make my way to the window and fumble my way to the lock. After propping the window ajar I cast his unwanted dreams into the evening air, brush my hands clean and then show them to be empty, just so he knows that the bad dreams are gone.

Then the second part: I will reopen the window and catch a handful of air. This new air needs to be stroked into his ear while he recites the names of five super heroes. Sometimes the super heroes are names that I have heard before, other times I have no idea who he is referring to; either way he is content and will begin his night sleep feeling safe – or at least happy that the routine is complete.

I am sure that there will be a time when my son decides that I don’t need to catch his dreams anymore. When that time comes I will greet it with a mixture of sadness and happiness. He believes that the combination of his super hero thoughts and my ‘mystic’ guardianship are enough to guide him through the night, and there is something magical about that.

Each morning I send him off to school. I will be ready first and, inevitably, will reach my own school before he gets to his. Sometimes I wonder: will there be anyone there to catch his dreams during his school day if he needs them to? Is he listened to and valued as an individual? Does he have a voice?

Or are these things too much to ask from an already strained workforce? Should I be insisting on him making increments of progress in writing, reading and mathematics and be happy to define his success based on the gains in these areas, alone, over time?

I could settle for that.

I could leave dreams for home-life and ‘rigour’ for school and schooling.

But the difficulty I would have is that I have seen schools and communities that create rich, exciting learning environments that are truly child-centred as opposed to being purely ‘results’ orientated. I have seen passionate school leadership that knows children as individuals and is committed to meeting their needs; teachers and support staff that create environments of trust, confidence and success; communities that are passionate about education and child development. Whether these schools choose to define themselves as under the ‘Unicef’ banner or not, they seem to be, consistently, ‘rights respecting’ environments that play a key role in developing life chances, resilience and character development.

Can Rights Respecting Schools create truly equitable learning environments?

‘Narrowing the gap’ has been, and remains a priority area for improvement in education. As standards have increased and attainment has risen, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers remains ‘stubbornly wide’. Government initiatives such as the introduction of the pupil premium have begun to make a positive difference (The pupil premium: an update: 2014) but what if there existed a model of whole-school reform which led to not only substantial improvements in academic outcomes, but also real gains in terms of behaviour, attendance and, crucially, ‘narrowing the gap’?

UNICEF’s ‘Rights Respecting School Award’ started in 2004 and now has more than 4,000 primary and secondary schools registered. It is a framework for school self-evaluation centered on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and has made a profound impact on the vast majority of schools involved (Sebba and Robinson, 2010). Schools choose to identify and then assess themselves as ‘rights respecting’ and when they believe they have met the identified criteria an external assessment takes place. Ultimately, a UNICEF representative will visit the potential ‘rights respecting’ school and can validate the assessment and award the school UNICEF accredited status.

‘The Rights Respecting School Award recognises achievement in incorporating the Convention into a school’s planning, policies and practice. A Rights Respecting School teaches child rights and models rights and respect in all its relationships – between teacher/adults and pupils, between adults, and between pupils.’ (UNICEF, 2009)

In a RR school there exists a clear commitment to building trust throughout the organisation – ‘respect’ and ‘trust’ in the context of a RR school are interchangeable terms. The very things that lead to building trust: openness around decision making, seeking consultation and consistency, are the very things that support ‘respect’ throughout the school.

What is the CRC?

‘In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not. The leaders also wanted to make sure that the world recognized that children have human rights too. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

The Convention has achieved near-universal acceptance, having now been ratified by 193 parties – more than belong to the United Nations or have acceded to the Geneva Conventions.

The provisions and principles of the CRC guide UNICEF in its mission of advocating for the protection of children’s rights, helping children to meet their basic needs and expanding their opportunities to reach their full potential.

The Convention sets out these rights in 54 articles and two Optional Protocols. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. The four core principles of the Convention are non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child.

Every right spelled out in the CRC is inherent to the human dignity and harmonious development of every child. The Convention protects children's rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services.

By agreeing to undertake the obligations of the CRC (by ratifying or acceding to it), national governments have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children's rights – and they have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. States parties to the Convention are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child.’

‘The Unicef UK Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA) supports schools across the UK to embed children’s rights in their ethos and culture. The award recognises achievement in putting the UN Convention on the Right of the Child (UNCRC) at the heart of a school’s policy and practice. It is based on principles of equality, dignity, respect, non-discrimination and participation.

A Rights Respecting School is a community where children’s rights are learned, taught, practised, respected, protected and promoted. 'We currently work with thousands of schools across the UK to promote a child rights-based approach and to share good practice in improving outcomes for children and young people.’

Rights respecting schools (RRS)

How did it start?

‘In 2000 in Canada, a collaboration between the Children’s Rights Centre (Cape Breton University) and the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board sought to encourage the integration of child rights education (CRE)into social studies and health core curricula, and to promote awareness of child rights among professionals working with children. Learning from this initiative led in 2004 to the ‘Hampshire Rights, Respect and Responsibility Initiative’ – a partnership with the Hampshire Education Authority in England. UNICEF UK then expanded their Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA) in 2005–2006; this is currently the largest and most well developed RRS model. The UNICEF Canada Rights Respecting Schools initiative was piloted in September 2008, building on existing CRE work with schools, teacher training and the Global Classroom initiative, and adapting materials from the Rights, Respect and Responsibility Initiative and RRSA. The initiative has now spread to other UNICEF National Committees. UNICEF Slovakia is implementing a version of RRS and models are being piloted by UNICEF in Spain, Germany and Sweden. In November 2011, UNICEF National Committee CRE staff from 17 countries attended a workshop hosted by UNICEF UK to learn more about RRS models.

How does it work?

RRS models are based on ‘standards’ or ‘building blocks’ with benchmarks. In the UK model, the school, with support from UNICEF as necessary (for example, regional workshops, visits to schools and ‘mentoring’ and support from a UNICEF education officer), assesses what is already being done, identifies gaps in the fulfilment of children’s rights, and establishes its own action plan to meet and monitor the standards. In the UK a school works through three stages of an ‘awards scheme’ - Bronze / Silver Gold

In the Canadian model particular weight is given to professional development and working with teacher education institutes. This provides a supportive and practical framework for educational improvement, with a focus on transforming the whole learning environment with a consistent child rights approach. The initiative is not meant to be delivered as an ‘add-on’ or new programme for a school, but as a way to bring cohesiveness to existing school programmes. UNICEF Canada’s Rights Respecting Schools initiative is based on four building blocks: awareness, student participation, teaching and learning, and leadership.

The process begins with teacher training and assessing existing school practices. Schools then work with a UNICEF Canada staff member or a UNICEF Canada certified trainer to meet important benchmarks based on the four building blocks. These trainers can be professors with university partners, knowledgeable staff at strategically identified non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or child advocacy government departments.

In the Slovakian model schools work towards obtaining a certificate by fulfilling a set of criteria set by UNICEF Slovakia. Part of the assessment process requires that students evaluate their school’s progress and communicate this information directly to the UNICEF programme coordinators, without it being filtered through adult intermediaries. After two years of being a RRS the school takes a more individual path, setting their own goals and actions to be taken for the next period.

In all countries, a multi-sectoral approach could be initiated to ensure integration with child protection efforts, among other things.

The process by which schools achieve the standards is not uniform: each school must find its own pathway. Nevertheless, a typical ‘journey’ of a school in the UK RRSA might follow these steps.

A teacher or principal hears about the RRSA, often by word of mouth from a colleague in a school which is already involved in the scheme. (UNICEF UK does not proactively advertise: as of 2011 it was getting 10–15 new requests every week, purely by word of mouth.)

The teacher finds out more from the RRSA website and ‘registers’ the school online (paying a small fee which encourages ownership, reduces drop-out and ensures that the principal is involved, as their approval is necessary for the release of school funds).

The school receives an introductory email from the relevant UNICEF regional education officer, inviting it to attend a regional workshop. In some areas the local education authority, rather than the UNICEF education officer, has been trained to take on the local focal point role. The UNICEF education officer also contacts the relevant local volunteer to keep everyone in the loop.

The teacher attends a regional UNICEF workshop which equips him or her to take the initiative forward in their school.

The principal and senior leadership are enthusiastic and supportive. The teacher explains the scheme and the concepts of the child rights approach and gets the ‘buy-in’ of all the teachers and support staff (and children).

Simultaneously, a representative steering group of teachers, non-teaching staff (for example, administrators, caterers, playground supervisors), students (supposed to make up 50 per cent of the steering group), parents and governors is formed in order to guide, promote and develop the RRSA initiative. They develop an action plan and procedures for monitoring impact. They might start by conducting a baseline survey of knowledge, attitudes and practice in the school (via questionnaires and focus group discussions) and an ‘audit’ of existing records (for example, levels of attendance, staff sick leave, behaviour warnings and incidents of violence).

This leads to the development of the action plan which is sent to the UNICEF education officer (or local education authority in places where it acts as the focal point) along with a summary of the baseline feedback and a letter from the principal showing commitment to the initiative, accompanied by evidence such as a copy of a leaflet sent to parents.

Time is given, particularly at the beginning of the school year, to introduce child rights to the children, through whole school talks and classroom activities, in particular the participatory development of a class ‘charter’.

Students choose selected CRC rights they think are particularly important for their school and create a wall display outlining the rights they are entitled to and the actions they have to take to ensure that other people can also enjoy these rights. Each student and the teacher signs the charter (for example, with a name, thumb print or photo), which is then displayed in the classroom and reviewed (for example, at the start of each term). Some schools also develop a whole ‘school charter’. UNICEF UK reports that the more time spent really understanding rights, the better the charter development process will be. The development of charters should therefore not be rushed into. The ‘rights charters’ replace traditional ‘school rules’. In the case of misbehaviour, the student is invited to reflect on the charter that they signed and think about the impact of their behaviour on the rights of others in the class. In some schools this has been further developed (based on the idea of children themselves) into a ‘rights reflection sheet’ which children take home to discuss with their parents, replacing, for example, ‘behaviour warning sheets’. This has resulted in significant improvements in behaviour, according to feedback from both staff and students.

After some initial specific activities on explaining the concepts of child rights, teachers are able to begin to integrate child rights into their subject lesson plans on an ongoing basis, and children and staff naturally come up with ideas for child rights-related projects, displays and events. Resources and ideas are available on the RRSA Virtual Learning Environment website, which is accessible to schools who have signed up to the RRSA.

The school is supported through the process by the UNICEF education officer and volunteer (or local education authority focal point in some areas) and this relationship continues via email, phone and on-site visits as necessary until the school achieves the RRSA 'Silver' standards.

The whole process may take 2–4 years, but after the initial up-front input from UNICEF, schools are motivated by the positive impact on the school and become increasingly self-sufficient.

How is it funded?

Both the UK and Canada operate a cost-recovery/cost-sharing model. In the UK they charge schools for regional courses, school visits, local authority support, assessments and other activities. In both the UK and Canada the schools pay for the release time required to send teachers to the workshops, all photocopying and copying of teachers’ resources, along with optional additional costs for, for example, hosting external speakers at a school. The RRS programmes do not make a profit but they aim to cover the running costs.

The UNICEF Slovakia initiative is funded by national grants, partnerships and fundraising (a share of fundraising done by schools goes to Education for Development projects). The UNICEF Spain initiatives are funded by UNICEF, the Spanish Agency for Development Cooperation and the Catalan government. The UNICEF Germany pilot is funded by two foundations and UNICEF. The UNICEF Sweden pilot is funded by the European Union.’


Definition of key terms

‘Accede/Accession: ‘Accession’ is an act by which a State signifies its agreement to be legally bound by the terms of a particular treaty. It has the same legal effect as ratification, but is not preceded by an act of signature. The formal procedure for accession varies according to the national legislative requirements of the State. To accede to a human rights treaty, the appropriate national organ of a State – Parliament, Senate, the Crown, Head of State or Government, or a combination of these – follows its domestic approval procedures and makes a formal decision to be a party to the treaty. Then, the instrument of accession, a formal sealed letter referring to the decision and signed by the State’s responsible authority, is prepared and deposited with the United Nations Secretary-General in New York.

Adoption: ‘Adoption’ is the formal act by which the form and content of a proposed treaty text are established. Treaties negotiated within an international organization like the United Nations are usually adopted by a resolution of a representative organ of the organization whose membership more or less corresponds to the potential participation in the treaty in question (the United Nations General Assembly, for example).

Article: International legal instruments generally include a Preamble (stating the reasons for and underlying understandings of the drafters and adopters of the instrument) and a series of ‘articles’, which lay out the obligations of those States choosing to be bound by it and procedural matters involving the treaty. The term ‘provision’ is often used as an alternative when referring to the content of particular articles.

Charter: The term ‘charter’ is used for particularly formal and solemn instruments, such as the treaty founding an international organization like the United Nations (‘The Charter of the United Nations’).

Convention: A ‘convention’ is a formal agreement between States. The generic term ‘convention’ is thus synonymous with the generic term ‘treaty’. Conventions are normally open for participation by the international community as a whole, or by a large number of States. Usually the instruments negotiated under the auspices of an international organization are entitled conventions (e.g. the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989).

Declaration: The term ‘declaration’ is used for various international instruments. International human rights declarations are not legally binding; the term is often deliberately chosen to indicate that the parties do not intend to create binding obligations but merely want to declare certain aspirations. However, while the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example was not originally intended to have binding force, its provisions have since gained binding character as customary law.

Deposit: After a treaty has been concluded, the written instruments which provide formal evidence of a State’s consent to be bound are placed in the custody of a depository. The texts of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols designated the Secretary-General of the United Nations as their depository. The depository must accept all notifications and documents related to the treaty, examine whether all formal requirements are met, deposit them, register the treaty and notify all relevant acts to the parties concerned.

Entry into Force: A treaty does not enter into force when it is adopted. Typically, the provisions of the treaty determine the date on which the treaty enters into force, often at a specified time following its ratification or accession by a fixed number of states. For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force on 2 September 1990—the 30th day following the deposit of the 20th State’s instrument of ratification or accession. A treaty enters into force for those states which gave the required consent.

Optional Protocol: The term ‘protocol’ is used for an additional legal instrument that complements and add to a treaty. A protocol may be on any topic relevant to the original treaty and is used either to further address something in the original treaty, address a new or emerging concern or add a procedure for the operation and enforcement of the treaty—such as adding an individual complaints procedure. A protocol is ‘optional’ because it is not automatically binding on States that have already ratified the original treaty; States must independently ratify or accede to a protocol. The Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child concern the involvement of children in armed conflict and the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

Ratify/Ratification: ‘Ratification’ is an act by which a State signifies an agreement to be legally bound by the terms of a particular treaty. To ratify a treaty, the State first signs it and then fulfils its own national legislative requirements. Once the appropriate national organ of the country – Parliament, Senate, the Crown, Head of State or Government, or a combination of these – follows domestic constitutional procedures and makes a formal decision to be a party to the treaty. The instrument of ratification, a formal sealed letter referring to the decision and signed by the State’s responsible authority, is then prepared and deposited with the United Nations Secretary-General in New York.

Signature: ‘Signature’ of a treaty is an act by which a State provides a preliminary endorsement of the instrument. Signing does not create a binding legal obligation but does demonstrate the State’s intent to examine the treaty domestically and consider ratifying it. While signing does not commit a State to ratification, it does oblige the State to refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose.

State party: A ‘State party’ to a treaty is a country that has ratified or acceded to that particular treaty, and is therefore legally bound by the provisions in the instrument.

Treaty: A ‘treaty’ is a formally concluded and ratified agreement between States. The term is used generically to refer to instruments binding at international law, concluded between international entities (States or organizations). Under the Vienna Conventions on the Law of Treaties, a treaty must be (1) a binding instrument, which means that the contracting parties intended to create legal rights and duties; (2) concluded by states or international organizations with treaty-making power; (3) governed by international law and (4) in writing. ‘

These definitions are adapted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (8th edition), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990 and United Nations Treaty Collection, Treaty Reference Guide, 1999, available at

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