Children at Swinton Primary School smile under their outside numbers chart

Children’s rights in schools

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At Unicef UK, we work with thousands of schools across the UK to promote children’s rights and to put them at the heart of schools’ practice and ethos.

The Rights Respecting Schools Award programme supports schools to embed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC or CRC) in their practice to improve well-being and help all children and young people to realise their potential.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the human rights of every person under the age of 18. The Convention is an international human rights treaty which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and ratified by the UK in 1991.

The Convention is a very important document because it recognises that all children and young people have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness, to be protected, to develop to their full potential and to participate. It also lays out what countries must do to ensure that all children and young people can enjoy their rights, regardless of who they are, or where they are from.

Children do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates.
Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment on ‘The aims of education’, 2001

The Rights Respecting Schools Award focuses on children’s rights in schools and takes a whole-school approach to child rights and human rights education. Child Rights Education (CRE) can be defined as learning about rights, learning through rights and learning for rights within an overall context of education as a right. It aims to build the capacity of children and young people as rights-holders to claim their rights, and the capacity of adults as duty-bearers to fulfil their obligations. Child rights education helps adults, children and young people to work together, providing the space and encouragement for the meaningful participation and sustained civic engagement of children and young people.

Right to Education

Education is a key social and cultural right, and plays an important role in reducing poverty and child labour as well promoting democracy, peace, tolerance, development and economic growth. There are number of articles in the Convention on the Rights of the Child that focus on a child’s right to education  and the Committee on the Rights of the Child has also expanded on the aims of education in their first General Comment.

Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child focus respectively on a child’s right to an education and on the quality and content of education.

Article 28 says that “State Parties recognise the right of children to education” and “should take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity.”

Article 29 of the Convention focuses on the aims of education and says that governments agree that “the education of the child shall be directed to;

  • The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;
  • The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;
  • The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate and for civilisations different from his or her own;
  • The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;
  • The development of respect for the natural environment.”

(Text from the Convention on the Rights of the Child)

The 1990 World Declaration on Education for All described education as being made up of essential learning tools such as literacy, numeracy and problem solving combined with knowledge, skills, values and attitudes required by human beings to survive, develop potential, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions and to continue learning.

General Comment on the aims of education

In 2001, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the body of experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention, published a paper (called a General Comment) that explained and elaborated on the right to education.

The General Comment 1 on the aims of education provides a very clear overview of what the right to education means in practice:

  • Education must be child-centred and empowering, and that this applied to the curriculum as well as the educational processes, the pedagogical methods and the environment where education takes place.
  • Education must be provided in a way that respects the inherent dignity of the child and enables the child to express his or her views in accordance with article 12 (1) and to participate in school life.
  • Education must also be provided in a way that respects the strict limits on discipline reflected in article 28 (2) and promotes non-violence in school.
  • Education must include not only literacy and numeracy but also life skills such as the ability to make well-balanced decisions; to resolve conflicts in a non‑violent manner; and to develop a healthy lifestyle, good social relationships and responsibility, critical thinking, creative talents, and other abilities which give children the tools needed to pursue their options in life.

You can read the full General Comment on the aims of education and find other General Comments submitted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

It’s important to remember that the Convention must be seen as a whole and so articles 28 and 29 should not be looked at or considered in isolation. Particular regard should be paid to the General Principles and other closely related articles for example: article 16 : protection of privacy, article 24 health (including health education), article 31 rest, leisure, play, recreation and culture.

Read the full text of the Convention or download a summary.

The right to participate

Participation of children and young people is one of the General Principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as it plays a fundamental role in realising all the rights in the Convention for all children.

One of the relevant articles of the Convention that addresses the principle of participation is article 12, the right to be heard. Article 12 says that every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. This principle recognises children and young people as actors in their own lives and applies at all times, throughout a child’s life.

There is also a wider group of rights (or articles) that address the right of children to participate and which influence our understanding of participation, including a child’s right to seek and receive information, to express their own views and to associate with others.

Participation of children and young people in Rights Respecting Schools

Children and young people play an active role in their school becoming rights-respecting.

The Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA) provides a framework for pupil participation based on the Convention. Adults are encouraged to work with children and young people in an inclusive way to ensure that their views are heard and valued in decision-making. In Rights Respecting Schools, children understand that participation is a right, “an entitlement not a permission.”

The experience of participation should be relevant, informed, voluntary, safe, respectful and transparent. Children must not be pressured into participatory activities and independent advocacy support should be sought where appropriate. There is no minimum age at which children can participate and younger children should be offered appropriate support, in line with their evolving capacities, to play an increasingly informed and active role in the school’s life.

In Rights Respecting Schools, staff create an environment that is conducive to participation. A wide range of opportunities are provided for all children to become involved in decision-making in different contexts, including in governing bodies, staff appointments, curriculum planning and evaluating teaching and learning. Children and young people are supported to get involved and the impact of participation on policy development and outcomes for children is reviewed.

Participation is not a one-off, event-based undertaking or an end in itself but an overarching principle which builds a meaningful, effective and ongoing dialogue between children and staff. Children’s experience of participation is monitored and structural and systemic barriers are identified and tackled, for instance by challenging negative views which devalue children’s voices.

For children and young people, knowing that they have the right to be heard in decisions which affect them boosts not only their sense of security but also their self-confidence. This opens the way to developing and applying the skills, language and concepts that empowers them to claim their rights and to advocate for the rights of children everywhere.

General Comment on the right to be heard

The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the body of experts that monitors the implementation of the CRC in all countries where the Convention has been ratified, has produced a General Comment on children’s right to be heard.