It’s not easy being a three-year-old. There’s so much to accomplish, what with potty training, learning to spoon-feed yourself, and negotiating the social minefield of play dates.
As if all that wasn’t enough, UNICEF — the United Nations Children’s Fund — now wants British toddlers to take lessons on human rights and multiculturalism, in between finger-painting sessions and nap time.
The UK branch of UNICEF is extending its Rights Respecting Schools scheme from primary schools to nursery school classes. According to UNICEF, the scheme “promotes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as the basis for enhancing teaching, learning, ethos, attitudes, and behavior.” If you’re wondering exactly what that means in practice — or just what it means — then you’re probably not alone. The scheme’s website is replete with such NGO-speak:
A Rights Respecting School teaches children and young people that they have rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. From this starting point they also learn their responsibility to respect others’ rights in all relationships in the community.
The ethos created demonstrates to children the inclusiveness of a rights-respecting school and paves the way to participation in the life of the community. This in turn helps them to learn how to formulate, express, and listen to opinions, helping to raise their achievement.
According to the UK’s Telegraph, the project “will see teachers explaining to children as young as three that people across the world live different lives but everyone has a right to food, water, and shelter.” What the scheme actually appears to entail is an awful lot of poster-making. The report adds:
Primary and secondary schools can already win a Rights Respecting Schools award from UNICEF by putting up posters by the main entrance, signed by everyone from dinner ladies to the headteacher, which states their commitment to upholding the rights charter. Each classroom is also meant to contain a set of pupils’ rights and responsibilities, while wall displays are expected to continue the theme.
Parents reading about this new obsession with teaching “rights” could be forgiven for thinking that schools should focus on doing a better job of teaching the existing three R’s before adding a fourth to the syllabus. Because, while a decade and more of bar-lowering by Labour has led to more British pupils leaving school with more paper qualifications every year, anecdotal evidence from universities and employers suggests that educational standards are plummeting.
And the rot begins in primary school. A government report last year revealed that forty percent of British children struggle to write their own name, or form simple words such as “dog,” by the age of five, while a quarter fail to reach the expected levels of emotional development for their age.
And with British teenagers leading most of Europe in binge drinking, violence, teenage pregnancy, and abortions, it could also be argued that instead of teaching children about “rights,” or worrying about their tolerance of food from other cultures, schools should be more concerned with teaching them “right,” as distinct from wrong.
But back to the posters. As part of the scheme children are encouraged to discuss the “rights” of fairytale characters. Pupils in one school made a poster featuring the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk, and listed said giant’s rights as “the right to have a castle” and “the right to be bad.”
Oh dear. Leaving aside the fact that the global socialists who run the UN are likely to take a dim view of the suggestion that anyone has the “right” to a castle, if those children think someone has the right to be bad just because they’re big then UNICEF might as well pack up and go home. What about the right of Jack and his neighbors to live free from the threat of having their cattle eaten? What about their right to live happily ever after? If the teacher who presided over that particular lesson had even the dimmest understanding of the concept of rights and responsibilities, he or she might have explained to their charges that the giant didn’t have the “right” to be bad at all.
If the teacher can’t grasp the point of the exercise, what chance do the children have? Of course, it might be that, in the spirit of the scheme, they chose not to challenge the children’s thinking lest their “right” to freedom of expression be infringed. Outside of UNICEF and a few “progressive” educationalists, does anyone really think that trying to teach three-year-olds — or five-year-olds or ten-year-olds for that matter — about abstract concepts such as human rights is really the best use of school time? If the only way of getting the message across is to make it so simplistic as to be meaningless, what’s the point?
I’m certainly not suggesting we teach children that it’s a mean old world out there. But neither should we lead them to believe that if they just parrot a few slogans about “rights” then everyone will get along just fine. Because the unpleasant truth is that, while UNICEF can confer enough rights on children to decorate an entire classroom with posters, those rights mean nothing unless someone is prepared to defend them.
Any child who’s been bullied, or had their education disrupted by a minority of classroom troublemakers, or been mugged at knife point, will know that all too often the “rights” of the bully, the troublemaker, or the mugger trump their own. Education policies in Britain are making it increasingly difficult for schools to remove problem pupils, while despite soaring levels of knife crime youngsters found carrying a knife are often let off with little more than a slap on the wrist.
Things are even grimmer in the developing world — where the UN at least has some remit to improve matters. UNICEF and other UN bodies do much good work, although critics would argue that most of it could be done more effectively — and a lot more cheaply — by charities and other NGOs less burdened by bureaucracy, less preoccupied with politics, and less riven with corruption and wastefulness. But as we’ve learned from Rwanda, Sudan, and elsewhere, and as we’re seeing right now in Zimbabwe, where the most outrageous human rights abuses are committed the UN is usually powerless to do anything about it.
Because the organization is subject to the whims of regional factions, dictators, and sponsors of terrorists, when it sits down to discuss the latest crisis fomented by some tyrant or band of thugs, the fact that other tyrants and thugs are sitting in judgment on their peers means very little gets done. And where the UN does manage to put boots on the ground, things don’t necessarily get better for the children; in numerous cases, UN peacekeepers and officials have exploited the children they’re supposed to be protecting.
UNICEF has some nerve lecturing children, or anyone else, on rights that it has neither the will nor the ability to protect. But then the UN has long been more concerned with posturing and declaiming on human rights than with doing very much to uphold them. And in that regard, Rights Respecting Schools is the very model of a UN initiative — lots of talking and some nice artwork, but very little in the way of substance.
If UNICEF wants to make the scheme more relevant, they might want to start by providing teachers with some guidance on how to answer a child who puts their hand up and asks why, with the rights of thousands of children to food and security being so blatantly infringed in Zimbabwe, the UN isn’t doing something to help them.
Perhaps the teachers could explain that, just like the giant at the top of the beanstalk, that grumpy old Mr. Mugabe is simply exercising his “right to be bad.”