Jennette Arnold
London assembly member for North East London — fighting your corner at City Hall
State of Children’s Rights in London

State of Children’s Rights in London

This morning, I gave a speech at the launch of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England‘s report, entitled ‘State of Children’s Rights in London‘. You can read a copy of my full speech below, but, I must first say that the views expressed here are my own, and I do not speak on behalf of other members of the Education Panel.

Speech to Children’s Rights Alliance for England:

Good morning.

Can I start by thanking Catherine, Bill and everyone else from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England for inviting me here today to talk to you all? It’s fabulous to see you all here at the launch of this important report on the State of Children’s Rights in London.

I’ve been asked here today in my capacity as Chair of the London Assembly’s Education Panel to give my own views on how we, at City Hall, can ensure that children’s rights in London are at the forefront of our work, particularly in the realm of education.

But, first, I can’t go on without commenting on something some of you might have read in the newspapers earlier this week.

We heard The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, say that Councils should be granted the power to remove a child from his or her parents if Council Officers believe that the child is at risk of radicalisation. By saying this, the Mayor not only proved his ignorance about the main causes of radicalisation – where there is little evidence to suggest parental involvement – but added his own piece to contribute to the inherent, misguided and widespread Islamophobia that we hear in political and public rhetoric. Through this suggestion, Boris also advocated Councils violate a number of Articles in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Now, the reason I raise the Mayor’s comments is to give you some idea of the context we, as London Assembly Members, operate in – which can at times, for those of us that believe so strongly in the rights of children, cause significant frustration.

But, Baroness Jones, several of our other colleagues on the London Assembly and I, always make sure we put the case forward for fairness, equality and human rights when we challenge the Mayor and his Deputies on all issues that matter to Londoners.

Indeed, in my role as Chair of the London Assembly’s Education Panel, I do this very thing by challenging the Mayor’s Deputy and Advisers on Education about their policies.

No one would argue that Education is anything but a fundamental human right, and that the earlier in life a person has access to educational services, the better. But, the challenge for policy makers and politicians here in the UK – and, as far as my work is concerned, London – is to put in place processes and practices that ensure that the provision of high-quality education is accessible for all.

I know the report that’s being launched today backs up the broad picture across education in London that we, as a city, out-perform many other places in the UK when it comes to attainment at GCSE level – which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, very encouraging news.

But, I’ll just repeat the two operative words in this statement – that is, “broad picture”. When we drill down to the Borough level across London, children in Kensington and Chelsea out-perform children in Lewisham, Newham and – in my constituency – Waltham Forest, by 20 percentage points. So, while we should be pleased with the general picture of attainment in London, there is clearly much more work that needs to be done in order to make sure that children across our capital not only have access to education, but good-quality education.

To measure whether this is the case, in my view, we have to look beyond the raw statistics. It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back because 80% of children in Kensington and Chelsea obtained 5 A*-C grades, but there are more questions that need to be answered to ensure that children across our city are taking full advantage of their fundamental right to education. For example:

  • Is 5 A*-C grades enough? How many children obtained 8 or 9 A*-C grades?
  • How about children with special educational needs, and those from troubled families?
  • What about the 20% of children in Kensington and Chelsea that didn’t obtain 5 A*-C grades? What happens to them in their future lives? And why didn’t they get the 5 A*-C grades?
  • And – even more importantly as far as I’m concerned: Is the curriculum that we measure these children by the appropriate one to test whether or not they will grow up to be clear of their human rights, clear about how they can defend their rights, and clear that – when they do grow up – they will live in a society where their human rights will be respected and won’t be violated?

By the way I’ve framed this speech, you’ll probably guess that I believe the answer to those final questions is: No.

And I’ll give you an example of why: I’ve done a lot of work in my time as a nurse and politician fighting to defend victims of Female Genital Mutilation – or FGM. FGM is a clear violation of a young girl’s human rights. But, one of the biggest barriers when it comes to prosecuting perpetrators of FGM is a lack of understanding in the general public about what it is, about how to detect it in young girls, and a lack of empowerment of women and young girls to stand up against those people who want to cut them.

Things are slowly changing – and campaigners such as Farmer Mohammed have helped increase public awareness of FGM – but, to properly address this and other important issues, we need a compulsory curriculum that covers the problems that impact directly on the rights of young people. We are, currently, some way off that, but it is so important that the traditional ways in which we measure educational attainment need to be updated to address understanding of broader societal issues.

And, when we couple this shortfall in the curriculum with the pending schools places crisis we have across London – where it’s predicted that, if we continue at the current trajectory, we’re going to have a shortfall of one-hundred-and-eighteen thousand (118,000) primary and secondary school places across London by 2016, we have a potential situation where, at best, children will have to travel significant distances to access education, or study in overcrowded classrooms, or, at worst, children will have to find other means of accessing education. How, then, will this impact on a child’s fundamental right to a good-quality education?

So, from City Hall, I continue my work to challenge the Mayor on his education policy – and, in a recent meeting of the Education Panel, we challenged his Deputy on what she and the Mayor are doing to address the school places crisis.

And I continue my work of getting young people involved in my work – through acting personally as a mentor to dozens of young people across London – so that they can help inform the work that I do. It’s very easy sometimes for adults to dictate to children and young people what’s best for them, based sometimes on misinformed or out-dated preconceptions. But I am a very keen and active advocate of involving young people in making decisions that impact on their lives.

We’ve come a long way in the past century to change this, and organisations like the Children’s Rights Alliance for England – and the setting up of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England – greatly improve youth participation in policy making, but we still have some way to go. When we’re at a place where young people are meaningfully engaged with by all senior politicians when they’re making policy and law that affects young people, we’ll see – in education for example – a curriculum that represents the needs of young people, teaches them about their rights, and empowers them to be part of a society where fundamental human rights are at the heart of everything they do as he or she grows up to become an adult. That’s the roadmap. Now, let’s get there sooner rather than later.

I’d like to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance for England for publishing this very important report – because it’s through reports like this that we, as politicians, are able to inform our work and to be challenged to think creatively about finding solutions to the issues that affect people in their everyday lives.

Thank you all for coming today – and if there’s ever anything I can do to assist you from City Hall, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.