As Scotland’s schools prepare to shut as a result of the Coronavirus, Commissioner Bruce Adamson blogs on how adults can protect the human rights of children and young people in difficult times.
It’s been a very long week for all of us, and there are a lot of long weeks ahead.
The coronavirus and the world’s response to it is the biggest challenge we have faced in a very long time in terms of children’s human rights.
The First Minister described the Scottish Government’s decision to close schools as one of the hardest to make. But in order to tackle the coronavirus we must support its focus on the right to health — and, indeed, the right to life.
Human rights don’t go away in a time of crisis, and it’s during the hardest times it’s most important that they are respected, protected and fulfilled.
How will coronavirus affect the rights of children and young people?
Clearly, closing Scotland’s schools will have a major impact on children’s right to education. But it will also impact their ability to play, socialise and be part of their communities: things that are critical to their development.
Schools are community . They are where children and young people go to learn, but also where they socialise, eat, play, have fun. They can also be places where children feel safest – and where they access support.
Closing our schools will have a disproportionate impact on the one in four children who are experiencing poverty in Scotland right now. It will also significantly affect those who need additional support, for any reason.
The pandemic and our responses to it as adults will have a huge effect on children’s mental health.
While we focus on the tackling the impact of the pandemic, we must also look to the support we need for children and their families.
How can we make sure the right to education is respected during the coronavirus pandemic?
All children have the right to an education that develops their mind, body and talents. The UNCRC says education should build children’s respect for other people and the world around them.
We already know that education does not always need to happen in a classroom, and in the coming weeks and months children will find that education looks very different.
We are seeing such a positive response in terms of this already. Teachers have been working hard in preparing for online contact with pupils.
There are also community and grassroots offers where we are seeing educational resources shared or dance or music classes offered for free. These are so important for connection and they contribute to building that respect for people and the world.
But the downside is that for online contact to work you need to have digital access, and we need to make sure that children are not left behind. This was a major theme of the work of the European Network of Young Advisers in 2019, which my office supported young people from Scotland to take part in.
We must ensure that all children have equipment and connection to online resources.
Particular support and reassurance must be given to those in sitting exams and other qualifications who will have been working with a particular focus. It’s important that young people know that their aspirations and plans and dreams are still absolutely possible. They are not alone. Young people across Scotland, across the UK, Europe and globally are in the same position and support and guidance will be provided.
Cabinet Secretary for Education, John Swinney MSP, announced that the 2020 SQA exams will not go ahead. This is the first time this has happened since national exams were introduced in 1888. But he reassured young people that certification processes will be put in place to ensure that their hard work and achievements are properly recognised.
How will the coronavirus affect the rights of those in poverty?
Poverty is the biggest human rights issue facing children in Scotland . As the pandemic begins a quarter of our children are already in poverty, and their families will be disproportionately affected by this crisis.
For many families, not being able to access free school meals will have a massive impact.
Children being at home indefinitely will affect families’ budgets, and we need to make sure that more children don’t go hungry. Access to good nutritious food is a human right.
We also need to give people certainty about housing and paying bills . Families need to know that they will be able to continue to provide a safe and appropriate housing for their children. Many don’t have this at the moment.
I fully support the Child Poverty Action Group and other civil society organisations’ specific calls to the Scottish Government and the UK Government to help alleviate the immediate financial pressures on families.
That’s why the Scottish Government’s commitment to providing local authorities with the financial means to support low income families is much needed. This needs to happen immediately. I’d like to see a cash payment be made available to any family normally in receipt of school meals. This helps people keep their dignity and reduces stigma.
Low income households must be able to self-isolate without worrying about whether there will be enough food to eat or pay the mortgage or rent. The Scottish Government has announced emergency action for renters and will ask the UK Government to ask for 6-month mortgage holidays for landlords— and that’s welcome.
No digital barriers to rights
As well as providing the food and shelter that children need, we need to make sure their rights to education are not hampered by digital exclusion. Not every child or young person has access to a laptop or wi-fi at home. Even in families that have these, they are often shared between several family members.
Young people told us that not everyone having access to homework online was a problem before coronavirus. We need to support or provide access to online working if that’s expected.
We know that digital exclusion is a complex issue in Scotland. Many of our island and rural communities still have poor access to the internet, and there are families who struggle to afford access in communities we tend to think of as privileged. We will need to work to make sure no one falls through the cracks due to gaps in our understanding of how digital exclusion takes place.
How can we make sure children are safe?
There are other areas where we need to be careful that children don’t fall through the cracks. I said earlier that schools can be places of safety for children and young people who may live in chaotic and challenging home environments.
We need to make sure that children are able to stay safe as social work and community healthcare services are put under increasing pressure, so I am pleased to hear that the Scottish Government and Councils are working to ensure this is in place for children who need it
And we need to be aware of concerns about possible escalation of domestic abuse with self-isolation, as if that happens we know that children will be at risk.
What should the UK Government be doing to keep human rights promises to the children of Scotland?
All children have the right to access social security, and a lot of the measures that need to be put in place around this will need to be done by the UK Government.
An increase in access to statutory sick pay should be extended to include those people who are in insecure work: on temporary or zero-hour contracts, who are self-employed or who are working freelance. That will make a difference to families.
Lifting the two-child cap with child benefit would make a difference, too. I’ve called for that before, and it is needed even more now.
Alleviating the financial burden on their families will make a massive difference to the coming months.
What have people said to me about the closure of Scotland’s schools?
The parents, carers and teachers I’ve spoken to have all been very much in agreement with the decision to close Scotland’s schools. But people are understandably nervous, and have a lot questions.
I’ve been in contact this week with my Young Advisers, a group of young people from all across Scotland who advise our office on the work we do. They had a lot of questions too: about how education will continue, about children experiencing poverty, and about the impact of all of this on mental health.
These conversations make it clear that communication is absolutely essential over the coming days and weeks. We know that things are developing on a daily basis, so it’s important that we keep communicating with children and young people about what we know when we know it.
We don’t have all the answers, but we do need to keep talking about what is happening.
There are already a lot of resources online to help explain coronavirus to children. Young Scot have created a brilliant resource for older children, and UNICEF has produced some excellent material on how to talk to younger children.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that the media has a vital role to play at a time like this , whether that’s broadcast media, print or online. It should be communicating key messages and information about what’s happening, and help support children’s education at home.
My office will be collecting resources like this over the coming days and months to help children and young people understand their rights, and to help give their families the support they need to make sure rights are fulfilled in these scary times.
And we will be taking questions from people of all ages about how the coronavirus pandemic impacts on the rights of children and young people, and questions about what to do when rights aren’t respected during this crisis. We’ll update this regularly as the situation develops.
Children tell us the world is a scary place at times. For many of them, it just got a whole lot scarier.
But as adults we must play our part in providing them with the support they need, and in helping them grow up in an environment of happiness, love, and understanding even in difficult times. Those are three things all children and young people will need in the days ahead.
And we’ll do all we can to help you put that support in place.