27 Apr 2004

Speech by Marlene Kinghan Head of Communications and Participation, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. Given at the launch of the first ‘Safe Routes to Schools’ Conference organised by Sustrans on 27 th April 2004 at W5 Odyssey Belfast.

Children, young people, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today.

Before I begin can I pass on a message from Nigel Williams, the Commissioner. Nigel, who unfortunately cannot be with you today due to illness, sends his apologies and his best wishes for the day. As a keen cyclist himself he has a particular interest in the future development of this Sustrans programme.

I would like to stop for a second here. And can I ask the children and young people to stand up please?

Please - adults, put your hands together and show your appreciation for the children and young people – not just for their tremendous work today, but also for the work they are doing each and every day on issues such as this.

Thank you.

So why, might you ask, do children and young people need a commissioner just for them?

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, as the name suggests, is about putting children and young people first. Of course that is easy to say.

Putting Children First.

But what does it mean? Is it another report from a government agency with a catchy title? Is it a consultation on children? Is it the quick way to get into the queue at Mc Donald’s?

No for us Putting Children First is the reality that we have seen here today; a process that means children’s rights and interests are given their proper place; a process that means children participate in the decisions that affect them.

And that means children REALLY have to be involved. We have seen real examples today, but sadly it’s not always the case.

When the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People’s office was being set-up children and young people were involved every step of the way !

When I applied for my job children and young people interviewed me! Children and young people interviewed all my colleagues and the commissioner himself. When we designed the website – yes you guessed it; children and young people helped. And the logo, our watchdog, the new offices – children and young people were involved in all of them.

The commissioner’s role is to find new and good ways to involve children and young people.

The commissioner’s role is also about looking out for the interests of children and young people.

Looking out for children and young people sounds fine, but what does it mean?

First of all it means that the commissioner can investigate complaints you as children and young people may have. He can look at the complaint and help you.

To give you one example of how we deal with complaints, we have received several complaints from children about not having lockers in school because their school bags are very heavy. Sustrans has helped some schools find money they can use to buy lockers, but many schools still don’t have lockers. In fact very few have lockers. And children told us just how heavy school bags are.

When we received the complaints we wrote to the Department of Education, and to the Health and Safety Executive asking them why there were no lockers and could they help schools provide them.

By doing this we are working to convince schools of the importance of providing lockers. And if children would like us to write to their school about lockers or any other problem contact us.

The commissioner can also investigate things that may be wrong with the way that children and young people are treated, or with services they receive.

But importantly the commissioner’s job is part of the law of Northern Ireland. So Parliament – and our assembly - agreed that when the commissioner needs to act for children and young people he can do so as if he was a judge in a court investigating on your behalf.

If you want to find out more please go to the commissioner’s web site at www.niccy.org, where you can learn more about what the commissioner can do for you and with you! And please, tell us what you think.

Working with children. What does that mean? It’s what teachers do, isn’t it?

At least that’s what they say!

When I go into work my job says I am the Head of Communications and Participation.

The communications part of that means I have to help the commissioner communicate with you. That means more than just telling you, it also means listening to you. I have to make sure that you understand what the commissioner is doing, and that he understands the things that are important to you.

To help us get started we have asked Queen’s University here in Belfast do some research. That research will help us understand some of the things that we should look at first. The commissioner will publish the results of that research in October. And who knows, Safer Routes to Schools may be one of the things the Commissioner is asked to look at.

The second part of my job is Participation . That doesn’t just mean me participating in events like today. It means finding ways that children and young people can participate in the decisions that affect them.

What I have seen and heard today shows the power of participation – the power of children and young people that participate in the decisions that affect them.

You will all have seen that children have told Sustrans that they want to be able to cycle and walk to school. Sustrans has helped that happen.

Working with other organisations; working with government departments; working with schools - Sustrans has made this happen.

But most importantly they have been working with Children and Young People. Not telling Children and Young People what was going to happen. Not telling Children and Young People what should happen. Not telling Children and Young People what to do, what to write, what to think – instead listening to children and young people. Listening to what children and young people want to happen about issues that affect them.

And the successes! Children and young people have succeeded in making happen what may have at first seemed like small changes, but more importantly are the first stage in huge changes in the way we in Northern Ireland travel.

Participation also means partnership.

Sustrans has an agenda for sustainable transport.

Government departments have an agenda for improving all forms of transport and keeping our roads safe.

Schools want to make sure their pupils are safe and fit.

Most importantly, children and young people want to get to school safely using the means they prefer.

Participating in a powerful partnership such as this can make change happen. It is happening already! As we’ve seen here today.

Before I finish I would like to issue two challenges.

Firstly to all the adults here; I challenge you to find ways to include children in your decision making. Whether you are a school teacher, civil servant or public servant, find a way.

Secondly to all the children and young people here; I challenge you to make your voices heard. When there is an important issue that affects your lives write, phone, e-mail and talk to the people who are making the decisions. Get together in groups in schools; work with organisations like Sustrans - but you need to participate too - don’t wait to be asked to participate, do it now!

And if an organisation isn’t listening to you, get in touch with the children’s commissioner!

Thank you all, good luck with the schools projects and have a safe - sustainable - journey home.

Marlene Kinghan

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