Statement on Rights and Participation

A statement from former Commissioner Tam Baillie on what he considers participation to be about.

A core principle of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is a commitment to ensuring that children and young people have the opportunity to participate in the decisions that affect them, and to be active agents in their own lives.

It is therefore the right of all children and young people to be accepted at every level of society as legitimate contributors to political debate and influence. As the office of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, our vision is that all children and young people in Scotland should be able to understand, experience and exercise their rights.

This statement on Rights and Participation sets out why we believe it is so important that:

  • children and young people are able to contribute to and participate fully in decisions affecting them, and
  • adults recognise the value of involving children and young people in decision-making, and are skilled in enabling them to do so.

Who has responsibility for children’s rights?

Governments and state institutions have the main responsibility to make sure children’s rights are protected. However, all adults in Scotland have a role to play in ensuring the rights of all children and young people are respected.

These rights are set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and protect children up to the age of 18.

These rights are not earned. Every child is born with the same rights, no matter who they are, where they live or what they believe in.

When the rights of children are discussed, adults often talk about the need to consider these rights alongside a child’s responsibilities. This gives the mistaken impression that a child’s rights are somehow dependent on them behaving in a particular way. This is not the case. They exist entirely separately and, as such, no-one can take them away.

This does not mean, though, that children and young people cannot be expected to behave responsibly towards other people. The key to achieving this balance is to teach children and young people by example.

That is, where adults demonstrate their respect for children’s rights, then children and young people are much more likely to learn to apply the values of respect, understanding, peace, tolerance, equality and friendship to their own lives.

Rights and participation

There has been positive progress in Scotland in our ability and willingness to listen to children and young people’s views. In recent years, there has been a clear shift in the collective thinking across national and local government, in schools and other education, care and health settings. We now hear the question “how can we listen?” posed more often than “why should we listen?”

However, for some children and young people in Scotland this is not yet a reality. There are still areas of society where there is little evidence of children and young people’s voices being heard or even considered at all.

Children and young people are affected on a day to day basis by a range of local and national political processes and policies. Despite this, many currently have little means to inform and influence them.

This needs to change. We need to include and value children’s and young people’s views and opinions about matters that are important to them. We need to hear and consider their voices when making decisions that affect them. Those living and working with children day to day have a responsibility to create opportunities for children and young people to have their say and allow them to have meaningful input into those decisions.

Listening to and involving children and young people

Children already have a range of formal opportunities through which they can express their views and participate in decision-making processes.

These include school councils, local area youth fora, special advisory groups, and the Scottish Youth Parliament.

These formal mechanisms are most welcome and ensure that many children and young people’s views are represented, heard and respected. Children and young people also have the right to take part in and inform decisions that are being made about things that are important to them in their day to day lives in more informal ways.

We are aware, however, that outside of these groups, the voices of some groups of children and young people are not routinely heard. This includes for instance younger children, some children with disabilities, children with English as an additional language and Gypsy Traveller children and young people.

We are aware too that, even where opportunities exist for a child or young person’s views to be sought, then adults may not do so in a way that works best for that individual child or young person. This includes ensuring children and young people are given clear feedback about how their contribution has made a difference. Without this, children and young people can feel that they have not been listened to and that their involvement has been for nothing.

Participation and children’s rights

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in their General Comment on The Right of the Child to Be Heard, defines participation as “ongoing processes, which include information-sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect, and in which children can learn how their views and those of adults are taken into account and shape the outcome of such processes”.

Meaningful participation is not just about a one off consultation event, or a brief input to formal decision-making processes. Neither is real participation tokenistic, meaningless, manipulative, compromising or unethical.

Rather, it should be an interactive conversation that continues throughout the child’s life. It is about adults and children and young people listening, sharing experiences and learning from each other.

In order to make the process as accessible as possible, adults should adapt processes to take account of the individual child, including their age, abilities and life experiences.

We have developed a resource called the 7 Golden Rules of Participation to help adults think about how best to plan and deliver participation with the children and young people they are working with. This resource also sets out how they can support children and young people to get the most they can from participation experiences.

This accessible resource was created with children and young people, as well as adult practitioners.

In 2015, we developed this work further and launched our 7 Golden Rules for Participation Symbols Resource to help deliver participation rights for younger children and young people with additional support needs or with English as a second language.

How children and young people participate in our work

When the role of Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland was being created, it was felt that the Commissioner should play a key role in ensuring that the voices of all children and young people across Scotland were heard.

We have sought to do so through a wide range of approaches. These include, but are not limited to:

  • taking part in surveys and/or helping to design or lead research that we undertake on important issues
  • taking part in projects that engage children and young people creatively and thoughtfully in offering their views, experiences and recommendations to adult decision-makers
  • taking part in consultations about meaningful and important issues in the lives of children and young people
  • informing, illustrating and creating communication tools and learning resources that enable other children, young people and adults alike to develop greater awareness and understanding of children’s human rights
  • advising on how best to develop very specific areas of our work when they have relevant life experience that will help inform the approach
  • raising issues they are experiencing through contact with the office’s Enquiries Service.

We ask children and young people to help us set our work priorities and we report back to them every year to let them know about the progress we have made.

How you can help

We know that there are excellent examples of participation already happening all across Scotland. We’d like to hear about what you’ve been doing and share your good practice with others.

We know that involving children and young people can bring a wide range of benefits: both to you and the children and young people you choose to work with.

If you are planning an initiative where you’d like to involve children and young people, but you’re not sure where to start, then please get in touch. We are very happy to help.

Together we can ensure that all children and young people across Scotland can have their voices heard and can be meaningfully involved in the decisions that affect them.

Tam Baillie
Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland
December 2015