Rights-based Education: Rights in the Classroom

Together members: Barnardo’s and UNICEF Scotland

UNCRC Article 29 (right to quality education)  

Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full. It must encourage the child’s respect for human rights, as well as respect for their parents, their own and other cultures, and the environment.


“I recommend that children and young people’s rights education be made mandatory, including teacher training, as per the UNCRC’s recommendation in 2016, paragraph 73. Furthermore, this education must be about the rights beyond the UNCRC, Human Rights Act and the ECHR to empower us to be human rights defenders.”

Derry Moore MSYP (SYP Rights Review, April 2018)


“Rights are ours, they can’t be taken away from us. If anyone tried to prevent us enjoying our rights, we would be standing up for them and be outraged. Rights are for every child in the world, it’s the one big thing we all have in common.”

(Anonymous pupil at a Rights Respecting Schools Award ‘Gold level’ secondary school.)


Children and young people who know their rights are more able to claim them and are more likely to feel empowered to defend the rights of others. This case study looks at programmes led by UNICEF and Barnardo’s which are making a big difference to children’s experiences at school and in the community through helping them learn about their rights.

UNICEF UK is currently working with 1300 schools across Scotland as part of its Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA). The Award supports schools to embed children’s human rights into their ethos, culture and day-to-day practice, ensuring children know their rights and are empowered to claim them. The impact of the Award is clear, with children attending Rights Respecting schools (or those working towards an award) highlighting that they feel safer at school, more respected by adults and more engaged in their education. Children attending schools on the programme (particularly Gold schools) are also more likely to feel empowered to defend their rights and the rights of others, and to feel they can influence school decisions in line with Article 12 (right to be heard).


“In a Rights Respecting School you are so much more aware of what is right and wrong. In my old school if you had said we should respect others rights, they would have said ‘what are rights?’ Here it’s more open and we sort out any problems that come up.”

(Anonymous pupil, RRSA ‘Gold level’ secondary school.)


“It helps us to understand our own rights and raises awareness, it helps us to learn about others and makes adults remember to listen to our opinions. It also helps us to keep ourselves and others safe because if somebody isn’t getting their basic rights we need to tell someone.”

(Anonymous pupil, RRSA ‘Gold level’ primary school)


Headteachers are overwhelmingly positive about the rights-based approach embedded in their schools through the programme, additionally highlighting increased positive attitudes towards diversity and a reduction in bullying.

 “Pupils are becoming more passionate about injustice in the world and are keen to support campaigns for change. Exploring children’s rights has allowed children to develop their sense of discrimination and unfairness in the world that they were previously unaware of.

(Headteacher, RRSA ‘Silver level’ school.)


Barnardo’s Scotland’s work with schools and families aligns with a rights based approach. To address barriers to attainment, one of the areas Barnardo’s Scotland provide support in is the development of social and emotional skills through The PATHS® Programme for Schools (UK Version). These skills are essential for children’s health, wellbeing and future success, including their educational attainment.

The PATHS® Programme for Schools (UK Version) is delivered by teachers, through class lessons, and covers the 5 competencies of social and emotional learning; self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. The programme is rolled out and supported by Barnardo’s for 3 years. Although the programme is taught in class by teachers the best results are gained when the key principles and strategies are embraced and embedded as part of a whole school ethos.

Whole school ethos and relationships between adults and children (and adults and adults) in a school are the key foundation to a successful learning environment.

In terms of social and emotional skills, and whole school approach to social and emotional learning, Barnardo’s Scotland has found that the UNCRC articles are a key part of setting the ethos and culture of the school and establishing it as a safe space to learn. In addition, explicitly teaching social and emotional skills allows schools to support children’s rights:


“Almost all children’s health and wellbeing skills improved, in particular, their awareness of their own feelings, the feelings of others and their ability to effectively self-regulate. The results after one year have been unbelievable. Our children are evidently implementing the PATHS strategies learned across the school context and report feeling calmer, less stressed, have a better understanding of their feeling, and are more in control of their feelings to help ensure appropriate behaviours and responses towards difficult, uncomfortable or challenging situations.”

(Quote from a Headteacher at a PATHS® school.)


In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child made a recommendation to make “children’s rights education mandatory” in the UK. While initiatives like the RRSA and the emphasis on a whole school ethos are having a significant impact on the rights knowledge and education of pupils across Scotland, the uptake of rights-based education is not obligatory. As a result, the extent to which children have access to rights-based education is dependent on the individual school, willingness of their teachers and the resources available. In order to ensure that all children know their rights and are empowered to claim them, the support of the Scottish Government is key. Incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law would help elevate the participation rights-based education programmes from an optional ‘add-on’ to a crucial part of the curriculum. By doing so, Scottish Government would ensure that more children and young people are empowered to become Human Rights Defenders.

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