The study of children and childhood

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Why In A Society That Prides Itself On It's Democratic Values Should The Suggestion Of Children's Participation Be So Contraversial?

Introduction

Until recently geographers have paid scant attention to the study of children and childhood (James, 1990; Sibley, 1991; Philo, 1992 and Winchester, 1991). Where studies had been carried out, most were concerned with children as future adults and attention focused on their emerging skills and cognitive development. Rarely were children studied for what they are, as active social agents in their own right, with their own lives, needs and desires (Corsaro, 1997). With the ‘cultural turn', children have been (re)positioned on the geographical agenda (Aitken, 1994; Valentine, 1996a and Valentine, 1996b). One reason is that consideration of other subordinate groups in society (for example, women, minorities, the disabled) has drawn attention to the ways in which society is constructed around social and spatial assumptions. Constructivist and interpretive perspectives of this kind have led to a recognition that children as a group are amongst the least powerful within western societies (James et al., 1998) and yet, their experiences within place and space have not been systematically examined. In consequence, there has been a surge of interest in the everyday geographies of children (Aitken, 1998; Matthews, 1995; Matthews and Limb, 1998; Matthews and Limb, in press; Matthews et al., 1998; Sibley, 1995; Skelton and Valentine, 1997; Valentine, 1997a and Valentine, 1997b) and vigorous assertion for ‘childhood space' to be recognised as an important dimension in social and cultural theory (James and Prout, 1992 and James et al., 1998).

Unlike other marginalised groups, however, children are not in a position within most western societies to enter into a dialogue (with adults) about their environmental concerns and geographical needs. In this sense, children occupy a special position of exclusion. Their ability to challenge the conventions of dominant ideology from within, together with the practices and processes which lead to their socio-spatial marginalisation, is mostly beyond their grasp. Children as ‘outsiders' need allies and geography with its concern with the politics and power of space and spatiality (Painter and Philo, 1995) is well positioned in this respect. Just as feminist geographers have developed their studies to address issues of women's representation and participation in socio-spatial decision-making, so geographers studying children need to build upon their studies to take on the issue of children's rights. We contend that the debate about children's involvement (or lack of involvement) in society and public policy making is central to an understanding of the contemporary geography of children and childhood. In the rest of this assignment we develop these ideas, within a cross-cultural framework.

The right to say about matters relating to the quality of life is a basic human right (Archard, 1993). Although this fundamental principle of citizenship and of the democratic ethos was embedded in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), it was not until the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989 that children's right to participate in society was firmly established. Alongside Articles on provision, protection and care, the UNCRC sets out a number of obligations on the rights of participation by young people. Of primary importance are the following Articles:

The Children Participation Controversy

Participation implies processes of involvement, shared responsibility and active engagement in decisions which affect the quality of life. For the UNCRC participation provides a mechanism for not only safeguarding the ‘best interests of the child ' (Article 3), but also for ensuring that children's views and opinions are given respect. However, whilst there has been wide acclaim and support within the UK for two other major rights of childhood identified by the UNCRC, that is, the rights to protection and provision, there is less consensus about the notion of participation.

In spite of a growing lobby in favour of children's rights to participate, there remains an intransigence in some quarters about whether such political involvement is appropriate. Lansdown identifies three reasons why some adults are reluctant for children to take part in decision-making that will impact on their own life and the lives of others (Lansdown 1995, p. 20). First, giving children the right to say threatens the harmony and stability of family life by calling into question parents' ‘natural' authority to decide what is in the best interests of a child. Yet, as Qvortrup et al., (1994) suggest, to sustain such an argument, it must be beyond reasonable doubt that adults behave with children's best interests in mind. In practice, this is not always the case. Second imposing responsibilities on children detracts from their right to childhood, a period in life which is supposed to be characterised by freedom from concern. Such a perspective ignores the fact that many children's lives are full of legitimate concerns which are products of the same social and economic forces that affect adults. A third strand to the argument is that children cannot have rights until they are capable of taking responsibility. This view is based on an idealised view of childhood, yet few children live without responsibilities. Alanen (1994) points out that children's labour and duties within the home are underestimated, whilst the reality of school work and its associated responsibilities are rendered invisible by the label ‘education'.

A second, though related, argument against children's participation is based on a conviction that children are incapable of reasonable and rational decision-making, an incompetence confounded by their lack of experience and a likelihood that they will make mistakes. Furthermore, if children are left to the freedom of their own inabilities the results are likely to be harmful (Scarre, 1989). Franklin and Franklin (1996) draw attention to a range of libertarian criticisms of these two viewpoints. As a starting point, children are constantly making rational decisions affecting many parts of their daily lives (some trivial, some less so) without which their lives would have little meaning, order or purpose. In addition, adults are often not good decision-makers and history bears this out. Indeed, this observation provides an incentive to allow children to make decisions so that they may learn from their mistakes and so develop good decision-making skills. More radically, it has been argued that the probability of making mistakes should not debar involvement, as such an assumption ‘confuses the right to do something with doing the right thing' (Franklin and Franklin 1996, p. 101). Critics also draw attention to the existing allocation of rights according to age, which is flawed by arbitrariness and inconsistency. For example, within the UK a young person is deemed criminally responsible at the age of 10, sexually competent at the age of 16, but not politically responsible until the age of 18, when suddenly, without training or rehearsal, young people enjoy the right to suffrage. Lastly, by denying rights of participation to everyone under the age of 18 assumes a homogeneity of emotional and intellectual needs, skills and competences. Furthermore, we contend that both positions are imbued with an adultist assumption that children are not social actors in their own right, but are adults-in-waiting or human becomings. Denigrating children in this way not only fails to acknowledge that children are the citizens of today (not tomorrow), but also undervalues their true potential within society and obfuscates many issues which challenge and threaten children in their ‘here and now' (Matthews and Limb, in press).

Participation And Representation Of Children Within The UK

In this section we review young people's participation and representation within the UK, distinguishing between involvement at the national and local level. At the national level, a number of political commentators draw attention to a growing disinterest by young people in all matters political (Bynner and Ashford, 1994; Furlong and Cartmel, 1997 and Furnham and Stacey, 1991). A lack of political awareness, political apathy and low levels of political participation are claimed as commonplace. A recent social attitudes survey (Wilkinson and Mulgan, 1995) showed that 45% of under 25s did not vote in the 1992 election compared to 31% in 1987 and only 6% of 15-34 year olds describe themselves as ‘very interested in politics'. It would appear that an entire generation is opting out of politics (Barnardo's, 1996).

Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that if young people are given more responsibilities and more chance to participate in the running of society, then they will be more willing to engage in the processes of democracy (Hodgkin and Newell, 1996). For example, in single issue organisations where young people are encouraged to take part, membership statistics confirm a growing participation rate. Amnesty International's youth section increased from 1300 in 1988 to 15,000 in 1995; Greenpeace's youth membership rose from 80,000 in 1987 to 420,000 in 1995; and Friends of the Earth report a growth of 125,000 new young members over the same period (British Youth Council, 1996). Hodgkin and Newell (1996) powerfully assert:

“Our society is in some danger of infantilising children, of assuming an incapacity long past the date when they are more capable. It is a matter of common sense, and the instinctive good practice of many parents living with children and many professionals working with children, to listen to children and to encourage them to take responsibility for decisions wherever possible. The outcomes are usually better and, even if things go wrong, learning from mistakes is an essential part of development” (p. 38).

Indeed, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the international body which was set-up to monitor the implementation of the Convention, expressed concern in its meeting in January 1995 about the lack of progress made by the UK Government in complying with its principles and standards. In particular, attention was drawn to the insufficiency of measures relating to the operationalisation of Article 12. It recommended that:

“greater priority be given to... Article 12, concerning the child's right to make their views known and to have those views given due weight, in the legislative and administrative measures and in policies undertaken to implement the rights of the child. ..”and went on to suggest that:

“the State party consider the possibility of establishing further mechanisms to facilitate the participation of children in decisions affecting them, including within the family and the community..” (United Nations, 1995, p. 15).

The case for young people's closer representation and involvement in political processes, especially at a national level has been taken up by a number of campaigning organisations. First moves pre-date the UNCRC, when, in 1975, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) proposed a Children's Rights Commissioner to act as a national advocate for children, but the proposal did not advance beyond the parliamentary committee stage (Rodgers, 1979). Recently, the aim of establishing a national Commissioner has gained renewed impetus. Critical to this momentum was the publication of Taking Children Seriously: A proposal for a Children's Rights Commissioner (Rosenbaum and Newell, 1991). In this detailed study the authors make a forceful case for reform. They suggest that it is children's vulnerability to mistreatment, the lack of co-ordination across government departments in provision for children, children's complete lack of political rights, and the need to ensure long-term government compliance with the UNCRC which make the case for setting-up the office of Commissioner so necessary (Franklin and Franklin, 1996). Among the Commissioner's roles would be the remit to involve young people as closely as possible in decision-making at various levels. This would involve the organisation of local and national forums for young people; the establishment of advisory groups to consider policy and practice; and the widescale canvassing of young people for their views and opinions.

As a consequence of this publication the campaign for a statutory, independent office of Children's Rights Commissioner was launched in the same year. The proposal is supported strongly by all major child welfare and child protection agencies, four Royal Colleges of Health, local authority associations and many professional children's organisations (Children's Rights Office, 1997). The establishment of the Children's Rights Office in 1995 and its designation of a full-time officer to campaign for a Children's Commissioner gave added weight to the cause. In an attempt to move the campaign forward the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation set up an inquiry which consulted widely in the UK and overseas about participatory structures. Their report (Hodgkin and Newell, 1996) not only highlighted the modest extent of inter-ministerial and inter-departmental co-ordination of children's affairs and the ad hoc nature of the allocation of some responsibilities (an outcome of there being no lead Department for children) , but also drew attention to a range of effective government structures for children already evident elsewhere 1.

The right to say: organisational structures for children's participation and representationa

Additional encouragement to the campaign for better representation for young people has been provided by New Labour. Their 1992 Manifesto proposed putting in place a Minister for Children (Lestor, 1995), although this proposition was absent in the 1997 Manifesto. Whilst there are signs that the present government is sympathetic to the creation of such a post, at present, the official position is that they are in a process of consultation (Hewitt, 1998). This lack of progress has prompted other campaigning organisations to take up the cause. The 2020 Vision Programme is being organised by the Industrial Society as a result of a concern that young people's voices are rarely heard in political, economic and social debates. Amongst their aims is to put in place a Minister for Youth to co-ordinate policy and action (Industrial Society, 1997).

At the local level, however, there are encouraging signs that attitudes are changing with regard to the involvement of young people in decision-making. There are a number of associated reasons for such a development. First, the momentum given to young people's rights in general by the UNCRC has been added to by the principles set by Local Agenda 21. Amongst its many declarations for a sustainable future is the view that dialogue should be established between the youth community and government at all levels which enables young people's perspectives and visions to be incorporated as a matter of course into future environmental policy (Freeman, 1996). Second, local government reorganisation has provided a stimulus for youth issues to be addressed in a strategic manner, partly through a need to demonstrate community consultation and partly to tackle what is perceived to be ‘the youth problem' (Griffin, 1993 and Wynn and White, 1997). Third, there is the ‘millennium factor'; as we move towards the turn of the century there seems to be an emerging sense that the future is for our children (Hackett, 1997 and Storrie, 1997) and local decision-making is critical to young people's well-being. As part of this movement towards giving young people a say has been the development of youth councils/forums. The term council/forum is used here to describe the range of ways in which congregations of young people come together, usually, but not exclusively, in committee, to voice their views about their needs and aspirations (in their social and physical worlds).

A recent survey (Matthews and Limb, 1998) has revealed that there are over 200 youth councils within the UK, although these have developed in different ways. A number of national organisations have played important roles in their development, but a consequence of their varying approaches is an unevenness of provision within the four home countries. In England, the National Youth Agency (NYA) and the British Youth Council (BYC) provide advice and information on request about youth councils. The Wales Youth Agency (WYA) has a similar remit. These are agencies, which although proponents of young people's participation, have limited capacity to support development. Because of this, the development of youth councils in England and Wales has largely been a haphazard one. Their form and character depending partly on such factors as the demography, political make-up and traditions of a locality, and partly on existing institutional and organisational structures and charismatic individuals. In Scotland developments are more coherent. Here a partnership between the Scottish Community Education Council (SCEC), Youth Link Scotland and the Principal Community Education Officers Group, which followed four years of research and consultation, gave rise to the ‘Connect Youth' programme, launched in 1995. Targeted at 14-25 year olds, this programme seeks to promote effective involvement of young people in the decision-making processes which affect their lives and to engage young people in determining their views on services and the development of opportunities for enhanced community involvement (SCEC, 1996). By far the longest history of youth councils in the UK, however, is within Northern Ireland. In 1979 the Department of Education established the Northern Ireland Youth Forum (NIYF), with a specific brief to encourage the development of a network of Local Youth Councils (LYC). The purpose of the LYCs was to get young people involved in tackling local issues and to ensure that their voices were heard by local District Councils. The NIYF, on the other hand, took on a broader role and attempted to provide a national platform for young people's issues. Currently being discussed are proposals to get youth representatives on each District Council and the formation of a Northern Ireland Youth Parliament.

Conclusion

The multiple discourse about young people's participation and representation generates ambiguous agenda. For those who feel that young people are incapable of participating or who question the appropriateness of their involvement, the lack of opportunities and incentives for representation within the UK is not deemed to be problem. On the other hand, for those who see participation to be the cornerstone of democracy and inclusive citizenship, the UNCRC has become a rallying point, opening up new ways of thinking about young people's rights. The diversity of view, however, between those who see participation as a ‘craft apprenticeship' and a learning strategy (Storrie, 1997, p. 65) and those who consider it to be a truly empowering experience and as a chance to redefine the structures which include young people, confounds the way forward. Yet, there is a growing recognition that within the UK young people are not given the respect or listened to with the seriousness that they deserve (Lansdown, 1995). The prevarication of successive governments in not setting-up either an independent Commissioner for Children or a Minister for Children and the lack of a coherent national framework for youth councils, confirms this view. This is not the case in many parts of mainland Europe. Here, there is ample evidence of effective ombudswork, national frameworks for the co-ordination of young people's affairs and well established participatory structures which operate at a grass-roots level. At a broader international scale, too, there is evidence that the Articles of the UNCRC are reaching out to incorporate growing numbers of young people world-wide. We suggest that the UK has much to learn from these experiences and until this happens, young people will remain largely invisible in public-policy making at all levels. Finally, in this paper we have attempted to show that studies about children's participation and representation in society are integral to the emerging geography of children. Not only do they provide a keener appreciation of the historical and cultural relativity of childhood, but they also add insight into processes which marginalise and exclude.

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