The 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child appears to be passing uncelebrated, at least by the government and its agencies. Perhaps this is because their record, certainly on one of the most important rights to children themselves, is nothing to shout about. Adrian Voce reports.
25 years ago today, on Universal Children’s Day 1989, the United Nations adopted its Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the first comprehensive, international treaty to recognise, protect, and promote the fulfillment of basic human rights for children everywhere.
The CRC was the culmination of many decades of campaigning across the world and, according to the UN, ‘marked the transition from addressing children’s immediate needs through charity alone … towards advocacy (for) systemic change for the realisation of (their) rights’. The anniversary will be celebrated in many countries to recognise the gains the CRC has helped to bring about in areas such as education and participation for children.
‘the CRC marked the transition from addressing children’s immediate needs through charity alone … towards advocacy (for) systemic change for the realisation of (their) rights’ – United Committee on the Rights of the Child
In England, however, it appears to be passing by without remark. Even the office of the Children’s Commissioner, whose recently reformed[i] role is to ‘promote and protect children’s rights in accordance with the UNCRC’, does not appear to think the date noteworthy enough for a statement, let alone an event. The Children’s Commissioner’s annual Takeover Day is tomorrow. This is when tens of thousands of children ‘take over’ adult jobs for the day to ‘get a real insight into the world of work’ and ‘make their voices heard’. Might not those voices want to assert more of their rights than for work experience? Perhaps they will; we shall see.
One of the earliest antecedents to the CRC was a document, now more than a century old, rejoicing in the title, The Declaration of Dependence by the Children of America in Mines and Factories and Workshops Assembled (1913)[ii]. This landmark publication began by stating ‘that childhood is endowed with certain inherent and inalienable rights, among which are freedom from toil for daily bread; the right to play and to dream…’ The document was a key instrument of the movement to abolish child labour in the United States, and was influential in the early children’s rights movement in the UK and Europe too.
Leaving aside the irony that the United States, after playing such a key early role, is now the only nation not to have either ratified the CRC or signalled its intention to do so, the labouring children of America on whose behalf the declaration was made, given a glimpse into the future, may have been just a little bit puzzled that an annual event designed to highlight the importance of children’s rights in a later age, did so by sending them to work in adult jobs for a day.
According to the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), in ‘most respects there is poor implementation’ of the CRC in England, with no domestic law requiring statutory bodies to comply, or giving children the means to challenge. Neither, according to CRAE, ‘is there any cross-government children’s rights strategy with actions and targets … Government budgets do not identify how much money is spent on children’ and there is a lack of other data too.
‘in most respects there is poor implementation’ of the CRC in England’- Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE)
CRAE’s 12th periodic State of Children’s Rights in England report published yesterday reveals that it is children who are bearing the brunt of austerity measures resulting in ‘too many … having their basic human rights breached’.
Not least of these is their right ‘to play and to dream’. Under Article 31 of the CRC, ‘States Parties recognise the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts’, but according to CRAE’s report this right continues to ‘suffer from poor recognition of its importance, and a lack of investment by government at national and local level’. Indeed, since the abandonment of the last Government’s long-term play strategy, the report finds an overall reduction of 54% in funding for play by local authorities. A closer reading reveals that this figure is derived from the only 32 councils who responded to a Freedom of Information request – and of these three had reduced their play spending to zero. A more accurate figure for the reduced spending on play – including all those authorities who presumably do not even have anyone left to field the enquiry – is therefore likely to be considerably higher.
Of course an international perspective on the progress of children’s rights since 1989 highlights concerns other than children’s play. A report by UNICEF, also published yesterday, whilst assessing that their has been overall progress on a number of fronts, also contains the sobering statistic that after 25 years, still ‘17,000 children under the age of 5 die every day largely from causes we know how to prevent’.
UNICEF is right to highlight the terrible plight of the millions of children affected by war, famine and extreme poverty, whose most basic right to life is under threat. But in signing and ratifying the CRC, the UK was not simply adding its support to a global campaign to end child hunger and protect them from the ravages of war. According to the current government, since the CRC into force here, on 15 January 1992 ‘all UK government policies and practices must comply with it’.
‘the right to an adequate standard of living, to an education, to be cared for and to play … (they) should always receive minimum standards of treatment whatever the changing economic climate’ – CRAE
This means, according to CRAE, that for ‘the basic things children need to thrive – the right to an adequate standard of living, to an education, to be cared for and to play … (they) should always receive minimum standards of treatment whatever the changing economic climate’.
The Government’s own report on progress under the CRC, an 86-page document published in May this year, contains one paragraph about children’s play in England, and this mainly about a the 12 year strategy that it abandoned after less than three (although this latter fact is discretely omitted). What the government has done since is covered by one sentence: ‘wider activities to promote and support play were also supported’.
A new report on the economics of the obesity epidemic, also published today, finds that it is a greater burden on the UK’s economy than armed violence, war and terrorism, costing the country a massive £47bn a year. This puts it on a par with the effects of smoking, but with a far more complex set of causes. The report, by McKinsey and Company, illustrates the shortcomings of the strictly evidence-based approach that I discussed in my last blog. Not mentioning children’s play at all, its recommendations to increase physical activity in children are limited to obesity ‘boot-camps’ and ‘changing physical activity curricula in schools’. This is presumably because these interventions are measurable in the way that the accepted model for cost-benefit analyses need to be.
Creating the healthful environments for children, where they are free, permitted and encouraged to move and play throughout their lives and within each of the domains in which they are grow, learn and develop, is not an ‘intervention’ that economic analysts are able to easily monetise and quantify, at least not since such an attempt was abandoned in 2010, ironically, to save money. But every parent knows that a child who has played to their fill, outside in the fresh air with their friends, comes home exercised, tired and hungry, ready for a good meal and a good night’s sleep.
‘opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity’ – Dr William Dietz, British Medical Journal (2001)
One of the earliest warnings about a growing ‘obesity epidemic in young children’ appeared within a 2001 report carried in The British Medical Journal, which found that ‘opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity and that the main solution to the imminent crisis was to ‘reduce television viewing and promote playing[iii].’
Should we be guaranteeing this simple opportunity for children in order to help prevent the rising costs of the obesity crisis? No, we should be doing it because it is our responsibility, our obligation under international law: because it is children’s right, because they are self-evidently happier and healthier when they can play than when they cannot; and because families, communities and societies everywhere are more at ease with themselves when they do.
Whatever the reasons, the price of not providing for children’s right to play will continue to mount, and the rising costs of obesity will be the least of it. One challenge for Anne Longfield, the incoming Children’s Commissioner, an old friend of the play movement who was an early treasurer of the Children’s Play Council, should be to support the calls for a new national play strategy (even if this marks a departure from the mindset behind national Takeover Day).
On this 25th anniversary of the landmark Convention on the Rights of the Child, in the West at least, perhaps it is time we renewed an earlier vision for childhood, as a time for playing and dreaming.
[i] Children and Families Act 2014, Part 6
[ii] McKelway, A (2013), National Child Labour Committee (USA)
[iii] Dietz WH (2001) ‘The obesity epidemic in young children,’ British Medical Journal. Vol 322 pp 313-314