Monday, 19 October 2015

Children's rights and wellbeing

Kay Tisdall, CRFR co-director

How do children’s rights and children’s wellbeing fit together? I became concerned about this in 2012. The Government proposed new legislation, in Scotland, promising ‘to make rights real’ for children. And the Government said it would legislate for ‘Getting it Right for Every Child’ (GIRFEC), so that the initiative was fully implemented across Scotland. GIRFEC seeks to improve how professionals and agencies work together, encouraging prevention and early intervention with children and their families. GIRFEC is outcomes-based, organised around 8 children’s wellbeing indicators. With both children’s rights and children’s wellbeing placed in the same legislation, an intellectual interest – how do the two concepts fit together? – became a practical policy concern.

Over the next 3 years, I have worked with colleagues, the Common Weal, and then colleagues in Europe and North America, to work out how the concepts are similar and different. If there are differences, do the differences matter? After all, children’s rights can fit into children’s wellbeing; children’s wellbeing can fit into children’s rights.

In the article just published in the Journal of Social Policy, I suggest that the time is past for casually pairing children’s rights and children’s wellbeing. Children’s rights and children’s wellbeing are distinct concepts, each with their own historical, philosophical and practical strengths and weaknesses. Children’s wellbeing benefits from being aspirational and maximising. It can easily incorporate children’s relationships and collective needs. Researchers have developed advanced quantitative methods of measurement, attractive for outcomes-based indicators. But children’s wellbeing risks being apolitical, utilitarian and professionally-led in both measurement and practice. Children’s rights, in contrast, emphasise minimum standards, do not easily include such important matters for children like love and friendship, and has had limited investment in quantitative measures to date. Children’s rights can be accused of over-emphasising individual autonomy and thus antithetical to more collective cultures around the world. Yet, children’s rights are powerful politically, backed by law and hold duty-bearers to account.

Melton claimed in 2014 that ‘the most fundament need in child policy is for due respect towards children as people’. Children’s rights require and underline such respect for children. It is possible for children’s wellbeing to include children’s rights. But this is not essential to how children’s wellbeing is conceptualised, measured or implemented. I thus favour children’s rights, at least for Scotland, where we still have so much to argue for: from children’s access to justice, to unacceptably high and increasing levels of child poverty, to urban estates replete with ‘no ball games’ signs on unused grass.

With children’s wellbeing on the national and international ascendance, a decision needs to be made about whether wellbeing or human rights best frame policy and practice. In Scotland – if only to rationalise dual planning tracks and other confusing policy requirements – we certainly need to do so.

Tisdall, E. K.M. (2015) 'Children’s Rights and Children’s Wellbeing: Equivalent Policy Concepts?' Journal of Social Policy, vol 44, no. 4, pp. 807-823., 10.1017/S0047279415000306

Melton, G. (2014) ‘ ‘Because it’s the right (or wrong) thing to do’: when children’s wellbeing is the wrong outcome’, in Ben-Arieh, A., Casas, F., Frones, I. and Korbin, J. (eds) Handbook of Child Well-Being, Dordrecht: Springer.

Do you want to develop your skills in research and consultation with children and young people? Take a look at our Continuing Professional Development courses, delivered by Dr Susan Elsley and Professor Kay Tisdall:

10-11th March 2016: Involving children and young people in research and consultation
28-29th April 2016: Using creative methods in research with children and young people

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