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Will ‘systems failure’ make a laughing stock of UNCRC?

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by Diane Delaney of Give Them Time

In the wake of our hard-fought campaign for funded referral of all four-year-olds, achievement of our goal might seem like the culmination of our efforts. Yet, as dedicated advocates and parents, we know the fight for children’s rights extends far beyond the confines of a single campaign.

One pressing issue in the aftermath of Give Them Time’s success is the challenge faced by parents seeking to defer their ‘older’ five-year-old children. Their dilemma highlights the ongoing struggle to uphold the rights of children and their families in the face of bureaucratic hurdles and systemic indifference. It’s clear that decisions made by local authority officials are rarely about Getting it Right for Every Child as our national policy for children’s health, wellbeing, development and rights suggests.

Many parents and carers are therefore still advocating for educational accommodations, fighting for access to healthcare or battling indifferent local authorities for additional educational support. The journey is fraught with challenges… and accompanied by exhaustion and frustration. Moments of defeat weigh heavily on our spirits. Yet, buoyed by determination and fuelled by the belief that our children deserve nothing less, we press on.

Law? What law?

Nevertheless, the toll of constant advocacy can be overwhelming. Some parents reach their breaking point, as the weight of the task before them becomes unbearable. The question then arises: when will duty-bearers fulfil their obligations as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)?

Some local authorities refused to change their practice on funding all deferrals for 4-year-olds until the law was actually implemented, despite knowing the change in practice was coming for 3 years. Likewise with UNCRC, it’s clear that some local authorities will not budge until they are legally compelled to do so … and even then, many parents – and indeed children – are not convinced the law will make a difference.

Look at the Parental Involvement (Scotland) Act (2006). Supposedly, rights in law are already in place for parents, yet most of us have never been able to hold a local authority to account for their failures in complying with this law. Given the countless stories I’ve heard in recent weeks directly and indirectly via social media, local authorities simply ignore it.

The UNCRC should stand as a beacon of hope, promising to protect the rights of every child. Yet, its effectiveness is undermined when politicians and senior officials fail to listen to the voices of children and parents. Despite the legal framework provided by the UNCRC, the reality on the ground often falls short of its lofty ideals.

This disparity in power creates an uneven playing field. While local authorities possess knowledge, resources, and institutional support, parents often find themselves navigating the complexities of the system without adequate support.

Indeed, despite the plethora of webinars, info graphics and podcasts recounting the wonders that will be UNCRC embedded into law, the overwhelming majority of the parents we encounter either have never heard of UNCRC or don’t understand what it means for them, their children or anyone else.  Those few who have heard about the legislation have little faith that it will make a difference, given that for example, all children in Scotland have a legal right to education, yet many children are not receiving education.  There are many other examples.  Parents consistently ask how the UNCRC will make a difference to their own or their children’s lives.

Do policy-makers really believe in Parent Power?

For many families, particularly those from marginalised communities or with limited access to information, lack of awareness about their rights poses significant barriers. Empowering them with the necessary tools, information, and support is essential to level the playing field and ensure that every child’s rights are upheld.

So how do we ensure that every parent has access to the support they need? The professional village enjoyed by professionals and organisations – a network of colleagues, resources, and institutional knowledge – is not available to parents. This leaves them at a distinct disadvantage when advocating for their children’s rights.

In the face of these obstacles, it’s crucial that we continue to advocate for children’s rights and support parents in their journey. By standing together and amplifying our voices, we can work towards a more equitable and just society for all.  But who is standing together? When we look beside, in front and behind us, it is our fellow parents and peers standing there, not the duty-bearers and professionals who are supposed to be helping us.

The Scottish Government and the Deferral Working Group was comprised of Scottish Government and local authority officials as well as many other organisations … but of course not one single parent group. It decided against a national communication campaign to convey parent and child rights.  So here we are.  The writing has been on the wall for quite some time.  Nothing about us, without us, eh?

Changing rhetoric into reality

The fight for children and parent’s rights is far from over. It requires a collective effort to navigate the complexities of the system, dismantle barriers, and ensure that every child’s voice is heard, and used. So it also requires a collective effort to ensure that –  where there are challenges for a child to use their voice – parents, as is their legal right and responsibility, have their voice heard as their advocates, champions and the people who love them most.

Only when the authorities – those in power – share their knowledge, support and influence with children and families in a manner that is accessible to them, can we truly fulfil the promise of the UNCRC and create a world where every child can thrive.

As always, as parents, we are waiting for rhetoric to turn into reality. We are always waiting. As I wrote in a previous Upstart Scotland blog, parents do not have the power to force ourselves into local authority committees or meeting rooms. Very often, we don’t even know when or where meetings that affect our children’s lives are to be held. It therefore depends on those duty-bearers to ensure we are always invited.

If our duty-bearers don’t automatically invite parents to meetings about specific children, or representatives of significant parent organisations to meetings about children’s issues in general, perhaps we need legislation to ensure they do?

But it would say much more about our country’s commitment to democracy if we could trust duty-bearers to invite us – and to fulfil their responsibilities under the law as it stands, rather than wriggling round it to suit their systems.