George Heriot’s, an all-through independent school in Edinburgh, has been a Rights Respecting school since 2011. The secondary school was first accredited at Gold: Rights Respecting in 2015, while the junior school became Silver: Rights Aware in 2014. In May 2018 the two schools were accredited as one at Gold, marking the pinnacle of a seven year journey.
Neil Seaton, the Rights Respecting coordinator at George Heriot’s secondary school, has been a teacher for 19 years. Neil teaches history and politics and is the schools’ Head of Pastoral Care. From the start of his career he believed mutually respectful relationships must underpin work in the classroom.
“When I started out at 23, I didn’t have a whole list of rules in my classroom. I didn’t talk about rights because I didn’t have the language then. I said, ‘We have to respect one another. I won’t shout at you and you don’t shout at me, we’ll have a conversation instead.’ It was the only ‘rule’ I had.”
When Neil learned about UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting Schools Award he felt it could be valuable for the school and a celebration of the school’s existing ethos. There was no way of foreseeing the direct and indirect effects teaching and learning about rights would have on inclusion, diversity and empathy within the school.
“Going through the process we found gaps in our provision. Children and young people were unaware of their rights. Relationships, although good, weren’t excellent. We found that if you were an LGBTQI young person you might not have felt you were well represented in the community and while we had a pupil council, sadly there were pupils that felt that their voice was not listened to.”
Young people have a right to express their opinion, to hold these values and the LGBTQI members of our community need to have their rights upheld. It gave young people who wanted advocacy a language.”
“Before we became a Rights Respecting school, if young people wanted to put up posters that challenged homophobia in school they were often told to take them down as they were seen to be ‘too angry’. But after we began our journey students could say ‘why would you ever ask us to take posters down which celebrate diversity in our community?’ Young people have a right to express their opinion, to hold these values and the LGBTQI members of our community need to have their rights upheld. It gave young people who wanted advocacy a language.”
The work that George Heriot’s has done to adopt an inclusive approach to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students was recognised in 2017 when the school became the first in Scotland to receive a Gold LGBT Youth Scotland charter award. Respecting rights has also provided a context for the school community to navigate issues around consent, exploitation and gender quality.
“When we explored the issue of the exchange of naked photos and particularly the impact of that on young women, our young women came forward and said they wanted to campaign for gender respect and equality in school. They campaigned for girls to be able to wear trousers as part of their uniform and it became hard for leadership to say that we couldn’t allow that when they also said ‘we’re a Rights Respecting school’ as young people are using rights-based language to advocate for this change,” said Neil.
As a school that has been accredited at Gold twice, knowledge of rights underpins all aspects of school life in explicit and non-explicit ways, and being rights respecting has improved facets of life beyond diversity and inclusion. Relationships have improved along with an increased sense of empathy.
Neil said: “Relationships are better because young people feel they’re empowered to say what they think. Not in a way that they challenge adults, but on the basis that they know what their rights are. Rights give adults a language for appropriately responding to that.
“Being Rights Respecting has also allowed us to tackle anti-social-style behaviour. So when for example a teacher has a dialogue about certain behaviour concerns they wouldn’t say ‘you just can’t behave like that’, you would say ‘this is a rights respecting school and your behaviour has impacted on the rights of other pupils’ and put it within that context [of rights].
“So,” says Neil, “it gave us a language and that was helpful to discuss behaviours and issues when it came to issues such as equality and discrimination – we’re very clear about those behaviours not being part of our culture as a Rights Respecting school. So if you say something racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminate against someone with a disability, we deal with that, and that would be because we’re a Rights Respecting school and your behaviour is making someone in our community feel unsafe.”
George Heriot’s was originally founded in 1628 as a school for the ‘fatherless bairnes’ of the city of Edinburgh. Today the school selects children mainly on the basis of their academic ability, as well as their ability to pay school tuition fees. While the school still has between 80 and 100 foundation students a year who will be admitted based on their personal situation, the majority of young people are from privileged backgrounds. Many – although not all – will never have experienced what it is like to have a right denied. In this context, teaching and learning about children’s rights can be an invaluable tool to develop empathy and empower them to advocate for the rights of other people.
“Independent schools in particular can be fearful that the whole edifice on which they’re based will come crumbling down around them, says Neil. “That they’ll suddenly have to abandon their uniform policies, that they’ll have to abandon their behaviour or selection policies. Our experience is that’s not what happens.
“You don’t have to dismantle everything but you do have a responsibility to young people to empower them, to advance their human rights as future leaders. It’s about ensuring that young people who come from largely privileged backgrounds know that they have a lot of their rights met and they need to look more globally and locally to understand that. And if internally, that brings a greater understanding of diversity, of minority groups in school who felt they’re not well represented in their community, that’s not a bad thing either!”