The gold standard
Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools Award puts children’s rights at the heart of schools in the UK, and Scottish schools are leading the way
Using the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as its guide, Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA) is based on principles of equality, dignity, respect, non-discrimination and participation.
The award recognises achievement in putting the UNCRC at the heart of a school’s practice to improve wellbeing and help all children and young people realise their potential.
The initiative started in 2006 and Unicef says the schools involved in the award have reported a positive impact on relationships and wellbeing, leading to better learning and behaviour, improved academic standards and less bullying.
Unicef recently revised its criteria for the Award, creating Gold, Silver and Bronze from a previous Level 1 and 2 structure.
Gerry McMurtrie, Senior Professional Advisor (Scotland) for Rights Respecting Schools at Unicef, said: “The award has been around for more than 10 years and we wanted to keep it fresh. The award was very much about the processes schools needed to do to become Rights Respecting, and often about what the adults in the school had to do. We recognised that we wanted to strengthen and streamline the award, and increase pupil voice.
“Now the award is focused on what the young people themselves tell us has changed, what works, what is positive for them. It is a ‘what difference does it make to you’ approach.
“Young people talk about being in a safe place, where they feel valued, included and can stand up and ask for change. We want the award to reflect those things rather than focus on the leadership of the schools.”
Under the new criteria, two schools in Aberdeen – Ferryhill Primary and Harlaw Academy – were the first in the UK to gain the Gold Award. Ferryhill started its RRSA journey in August 2014 and went on to achieve Level 1 (now Silver) in December 2015.
Jeanette Macpherson, depute head at Ferryhill Primary, said: “Moving forward from Silver to Gold, we looked for further opportunities for pupil voice in class through Cooperative Learning methods, and we encouraged pupils to be more enterprising by making more decisions surrounding their learning. We also introduced more pupil committees and liaised more closely with the Parent Council.”
In a bid to make the values of the UNCRC more prevalent throughout the school and community, Ferryhill set a school-wide competition for which the children created designs that reflected the vision and aims of the school. An art student from Robert Gordon University chose some of the designs for a mural positioning important UNCRC messages along a 100m corridor which links the main school to the annex. Pupils’ artwork and UNCRC information was also displayed in the local park, while a talk on children’s rights was delivered to the local church congregation.
Jeanette said: “We also looked at ways to raise awareness of global citizenship, including inviting an ex-pupil to share her experiences of working in a school in Rwanda. We very quickly made links with this school and our pupils have enjoyed seeing some of the Rwandan schoolchildren proudly holding our artwork. We have sponsored one of their pupils and our children have been delighted to realise the right to an education for this boy.
“Another goal was to ensure all differences were both accepted and celebrated. As a multi-cultural school, with more than 20 languages spoken, we had already worked with our Parent Council to look at ways of celebrating and promoting our large number of cultures. For the past few years, we have had an International Day where children can come to school in their national clothing and we have held a special assembly to recognise this. We also invite our parents to set up stalls with ‘tasters’ of food from their countries, and national dancing has been performed including Chinese dragon dances, Bollywood dancing and Scottish country dancing.”
Equity and fairness is another area identified as a major priority for a Rights Respecting School. Ferryhill’s teachers are trained in restorative practice – a set of principles and practice that encourages children to take responsibility for their behaviour by thinking through the causes and consequences.
Jeanette said: “Our teachers and PSAs take time to explain why sometimes different decisions have to be made for different pupils. Staff take time to model rights respecting language and behaviours. Through teaching and learning and assemblies, pupils are very aware that not all disabilities can be seen. This work was highlighted as a key strength in our accreditation.”
Many of Ferryhill’s pupils go on to Harlaw Academy, the first Secondary School in UK to gain the Gold RRSA under the new criteria.
David Innes, Harlaw headteacher, said: “We have been involved in RRSA since 2013 and have tried to keep ourselves up to date with developments of the award. In Scotland there is a disproportionately high number of Rights Respecting Schools and we have been particularly active in North East Scotland.
“There has been a lot of work done here to discuss the issues and embed RRSA in our plans, as it involves a change in ethos and mindset.”
Harlaw’s Rights Respecting Group Lead Coordinator Ashleigh Wilson explained: “The pupils have raised awareness and improved understanding of child rights for the pupils at their school. They have developed the profile of young people’s rights and the UNCRC and taken forward a number of significant initiatives.
“The pupils act as ambassadors not only to other pupils in the school and staff, but to members of the local community who they regularly work with to make improvements to the schools in relation to the voices of the pupils. Some recent changes they have made are a move away from head boy and head girl to head prefects so pupils are given the post based on merit, not gender. They have also secured new water fountains for the school based on pupil voice and pupils rights.
“The group has also been working with other schools both in the city, but also from Moray council. They have been helping new groups get set up as well as meeting with ambassadors from other schools to offer advice and support – developing our connections with not only our local community, but also our wider community through child rights.”
Unicef’s Gerry agrees with David that Scotland is “leading the way” in embedding children’s rights in schools. “We have almost 1,400 schools in Scotland involved with RRSA – just over 50 per cent. It is embedded within our curriculum rather than an add on, and children’s rights are in our teaching standards. Our political climate is supportive of children’s rights. The First Minister aims to incorporate the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law, 2018 is Year of Young People, and the Scottish Youth Parliament is very supporting of the Rights Respecting Schools work.”
Jeanette feels that some schools may have been held back from their RRSA potential through a misconception that it is “something extra” to do.
She said: “As schools become more knowledgeable and more engaged with the main principles of the RRS, it will become more apparent that so much of the good work already carried out in Scottish primary schools is promoted within the UNCRC. At national, local and school level, the ideal would be for the Convention to underpin our entire educational policy and approach.” Both Harlaw and Ferryhill report a positive impact on children’s relationships, knowledge and behaviour from their RRSA activities.
Jeanette said: “Pupils have more understanding of children’s rights and are clear that these should never be taken away. They also know that through their ideas and actions, such as charity events, they can make a difference both locally and globally. They know that their contributions are taken seriously and understand who to approach when they don’t feel safe. Learning, achievement and talent, both in and outwith school, is nurtured and widely celebrated in class, at assembly, through open afternoons and by way of social media. Teachers have reported that pupils are more knowledgeable about the world about them. And class charters have acted as a daily point of reference when dealing with challenging behaviour, with pupils developing the use of more respectful language towards each other.”
Despite achieving Gold, the schools are determined not to rest on their laurels.
Ashleigh said: “Pupils and staff actively recognise and realise the rights of pupils at Harlaw both within and outwith the classroom, and this has given pupils more ownership of their school and has encouraged others to become involved so they can help move our school forward and make changes for the better.”
Meanwhile, Ferryhill will continue to embed the main principles of the UNCRC, making reference to these when supporting individual needs.
Jeanette said: “We will continue with our duty as ambassadors for the UNCRC by supporting and liaising with other pupils and staff in other schools while seeking more creative ways of taking the key messages into the local community.”