By Deborah McMillan
As we move through our lives, striving to succeed in relationships and work, we inevitably end up forming a framework of personal values. For many people, this is an informal, somewhat ad-hoc process – those little bits of wisdom gathered along the way. For others, it is something more defined and structured, perhaps even uniting them with wider groups or congregations of like-minded folk.
However we go about it, though, the fact remains that this process of values-based living is integral to our sense of personal wellbeing and fulfilment – it helps us remember who we are and what we want, especially in those moments when the pressure is on and the easy road is beckoning.
And yet, at a societal level, it is notoriously difficult to get these kinds of frameworks cemented in place. Beyond the rigid and broad tenets of the law, which can only really establish the bare bones of acceptable behaviour, there is little in the way of guidance. Political manifestos certainly help (and our young people are in the process of drafting one for the forthcoming election) but they do not always attract the right level of commitment from every politician.
This, then, is the reason that governments sign up to international conventions – as a public and accountable way of demonstrating their commitment to certain sets of values. I am thinking, of course, of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), since it is the convention that underwrites the work I do – but there are many others too, including those pertaining to the rights of women, the prevention of racial discrimination, and so on.
It is worth all of us refamiliarising ourselves with these commitments that we have made as a society, now that we find ourselves approaching the general elections in Jersey. They are useful benchmarks to see how we are performing, in terms of our government’s policy-making and the shape that our community is taking.
Sometimes these treaties and conventions can be a little daunting and hard to digest, which is why my office has produced new guidance on what a ‘child rights approach’ ought to look like in practice. The document will form part of an ongoing training package that we will be delivering across the public and third sectors (and to those incoming politicians who wish to know more).
It is a principled framework that we developed in close collaboration with the Wales Observatory on Human Rights of Children and Young People, and it is intended for anyone working with children, as a practical guide on how to integrate children’s rights into every aspect of decision-making, policy and practice.
In other words, it is a readily accessible ‘how-to’ guide to the often-complex language of the UNCRC’s articles and general comments. And, perhaps most interestingly of all, it encompasses a number of case studies of local schools and organisations, showing the many ways in which they have incorporated a child rights approach into their daily rules and routines.
Class and school councils in primary schools, for example, explain how it is their voices, not the teachers’, that run meetings and make the decisions. The NSPCC talks about the involvement of children and young people in their professional recruitment process, while Highlands College describes the process of refining its Learner Voice project into a means of student feedback that really shapes the curriculum.
The examples are many and varied but all of them point towards the same fundamental practices of engaging children to actively participate in the matters that affect them, of empowering those children, and ultimately, staying accountable to what those children have said they want. It is by embedding these ways of working that we can gradually ensure that the values-based ‘wish list’ of an international convention slowly becomes the daily modus operandi of our public services.
It may seem self-evident to state that work practices are so named because that is what we have to continually do: practise them. But in my experience, it is something that cannot be repeated often enough. Because the reality is that cultures become ingrained through repetition, and when there is no framework in place, the commitments we sign up to and the promises we make become so much harder to put into practice.
Hopefully, every small effort – such as the one we are making in the child rights training package we have devised, or similar initiatives that are being put into practice across the civil service – will add up to a coherent whole.
I would simply urge everyone to keep at the forefront of their minds a certain note of pragmatism as we enter the run-up to the June elections. It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, which is why we should be especially sceptical in the coming weeks of sweeping statements that invoke abstract, large-canvas concepts like human rights, poverty, education, healthcare, justice and so on, without grounding those challenges in practical, achievable solutions.
We need to challenge and press for details, for plans, for frameworks on which we can hang the values that we espouse as a society. We need to hear from the people who will lead our Island over the next four years the ‘how’ of what they believe in, not just the ‘why’.
And this is especially true of the services we provide for our children. We have heard plenty in recent months about the challenges that face children in various aspects of their lives in Jersey. Now we need to be told the story of how, exactly, those challenges are going to be met.