The fight for children’s rights

The struggle to provide children with rights and end their status as mere chattels or belongings of their parents has been a long and bitter one. At every stage, the cry by parents has been the same; ‘The state has no business intruding in family life and is harming the rights of parents by doing so.’

In the 19th Century, many children were forced to work down mines and up chimneys from an unbelievably early age. They had no rights in the matter at all. Each time some piece of legislation prevented, for example, children under the age of ten from going down coal mines; there was outrage, principally from parents. How dare the state dictate to mothers and fathers what their children should or should not do? This was an assault upon the rights of parents and indeed the very institution of the family. If a father could sell his eight year-old son to a chimney sweep for £5, what on earth business was it of anybody else?

Nowhere was this outrage more indignantly expressed than when the government tried to secure the right of children to receive an education. The 1861 Newcastle Report into the State of Popular Education in England summed the case up neatly. It said:

Any universal compulsory system appears to us neither attainable nor desirable. An attempt to replace an independent system of education by a compulsory system, managed by the government, would be met by objections, both political and religious.

Wiser counsels prevailed and in 1870 the Elementary Education Act was passed, popularly known as Forster’s Act. A decade later, education was made compulsory for all children between the ages of five and ten and there was a huge uproar. Parents led the complaints, comparing the British government with that of Prussia; a grave insult indeed! The crux of the matter was that this was an erosion of parents’ rights to raise their children as they saw fit. Compulsory education was an attack on the family. In the ten years following the making of education compulsory for children, prosecutions of parents for the non-attendance at school of their children were running at over a hundred thousand a year. It was the commonest offence in England, apart from drunkenness.

Every single attempt to increase the rights of children, which of course means giving greater duties to their parents, has been met by strong opposition by parents. The governments of the day have had to lead the way, fighting apathy, sloth and reactionary parents in order to furnish children with more legal rights and protection under the law.

In recent years, we have seen two examples of this tendency. One has been the efforts of the legislature to make it a criminal offence to strike children. This has met with only limited success. Parents have fought ferociously to retain their right to beat children. Incredibly, even now in the 21st Century, there are those in this country who feel that they should enjoy the ’right’ to hit their kids! Any attempt to abolish this ’right’ is met by howls of protest and the familiar claim that the state is intruding where it has no business to be; that is to say into family life.

The other recent example of this reactionary and backward-looking trend is of course the campaign by some parents a few years ago to force the state not to enquire to closely into whether or not children were receiving a suitable education. Again, parental ’rights’ were cited and the government was told that any move to check up if children not attending school were actually being educated was an attack on the family by the state. Just as when the 1870 Elementary Education Act was being planned, the case of Germany was brandished by parents fighting against any diminution of their supposed rights. That this was essentially about the rights of parents and not of children can easily be seen by the language being used. The right of children to an education was scarcely mentioned, it was all about the ’right’ of parents to home educate.

Although the calling of a general election in 2010 ended the hopes for this latest extension of children’s rights, the cause is not entirely lost. A first step would be at the very least the registration of all children who are not attending school. Such a move is now planned by Wales and there are signs that Scotland too has such a scheme in mind. If this happens in those two countries, then introducing such registration in England would be merely an exercise in bringing this country into line with what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As has always happened throughout history, the reactionaries will howl their protests, but we must hope that this time they do not get their own way and that one more step is taken in ensuring that the most vulnerable members of society are properly protected and furnished with the rights that they deserve.

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