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Profile – Giving children a voice

 

Judge Andrew Becroft, the new Children’s Commissioner is running behind schedule. He is farewelling his previous guests. His staff apologise and make sure I have everything I need. It is a busy job but he ensures everyone is welcome and gives people the time they need.

Earlier this year, Becroft hit the headlines after saying at the Education and Science Select Committee that the Education (Update) Amendment Bill should be stopped until children had been consulted properly.

He told the committee that there needed to be meaningful, appropriate and proper consultation with children.

“We were not aware of any separate student-focused consultation being done – no focus groups for just children, in language appropriate for children online or otherwise.

“It was a fundamental flaw in the process, I used the word ‘astonishing’.”

He says any time when decisions are made which involve children, and children are not consulted, it is likely to produce poorer quality decisions and a richness to the debate is lost.

Breach of children’s rights

He says not consulting children is a flagrant breach on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC).

Part of the Children’s Commissioner’s statutory duty is to monitor the application of UNCROC and he says if he did not – “it would be a dereliction of my duty.”

“When I mention the convention, eyes tend to glaze over as if it is meant for Bhutan or Somalia –  and we don’t do all that badly in New Zealand do we? But it is a standard for all countries.

“No one is saying that a decision-maker should adopt everything a child says but that the views should be collected and factored into the decision-making process and if children’s views are rejected they are told and why.”

He would like to see all legislation (and policy) vetted with a child’s lens as it is for compliance with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (BORA) and says there are examples of where is had been done well  – such as the work done by Oranga Tamariki – where children are consulted in the formulation and then continually consulted.

“There are 1.1 million children under 18 years old in this country – that is 25 per cent of the population. They cannot vote and don’t have a voice. Just as legislation needs to be looked at with a Bill of Rights lens, it should be looked at from a child’s lens.

“There are no other ways for their views to be taken into account – it ought to be fundamental to the policy-making process.”

 

Importance of education

As Principal Youth Court Judge, he too often saw the result of youth disengaged from education. He says that education is the ultimate crime-fighting tool.

“In the Youth Court, the most common characteristic was that they (the youths) were profoundly disengaged from education. While not all who are disengaged from education commit crime, the overwhelming majority of  those who commit crime were disengaged from education, not just mainstream school but also alternative education.

“Nothing is more important in developing resilience and inclusion in the community than active participation in primary and secondary school.”

Teachers are at the forefront of this. This does not mean turning teachers into social workers, but he says schools could be seen as hubs of service provision.

Children are staying in education for longer and Becroft says teachers should be applauded for this.

He sees teaching as a pivotally important job.

“Teachers are undervalued and the profession is not esteemed enough.’’

 

Poverty

Becroft has become involved in the child poverty debate because of his office’s involvement in the work of reducing child poverty but also because he has seen its effects.

“Poverty is a high-risk factor in life outcomes. It is not determinative, but it increases risk and makes learning harder. It is a struggle. And we need as country to be concerned about these enduring rates that aren’t coming down and it ought to be one of the pivotal issues facing the country.”

He does not agree with the view that child poverty cannot be measured in a robust way.

“We have a simple suite of measures which paint a picture. It is absolutely disingenuous to say we can’t measure it.

“Whichever way you cut it (he says pointing to the 2016 Child Poverty Monitor) there are at least 85,000 kids who are in significant and continuing disadvantage. It is something that we all need to work on, but the Government needs to take the lead on this.”

The Government has signed up to a target of reducing all poverty, including child poverty, by 50 percent by 2030 under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

 

Boards of Trustees

The submission from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner to the select committee also outlined the need for effective child representation and voice to Boards of Trustees, not just through a single student representative, and for there to be an appeal process for Board decisions.

“There should be an appeal process for children excluded or suspended from school – a cheap and efficient system – perhaps a three-person panel. There is nowhere else in life where you are deprived of that right.”

He says Board decisions are virtually impossible to challenge at present, with the High Court being too costly and the Ombudsman process being too long for issues such as exclusion which need an immediate response.

 

Online schools

He is also wary of the late admission of Communities of Online Learning (COOLs) into the legislation.

He believes that schools may already have enough online learning and he echoes an earlier concern of the Chief Ombudsman that these schools could become “dumping grounds” for challenging  or disabled children.

“It could become a poorly resourced dumping ground for the most troubled and difficult [children]. Let’s have the debate in public and think it through before it is left to regulatory decision-making.”

 

The Children’s Commission is also seeking schools to be part of online surveys through the year. The Child and Youth Voices Project enables children and young people to have a say in matters that affect them. If you would like to know more about getting involved you can register your school through this link – https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/voicesreg