Good morning distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for the invitation to speak today.
That the EU has placed such importance on culture through the Commission is a reflection of my personal belief – and I am sure yours also – that play, leisure and creative activities are vital for the development of each and every child.
When I first came into post I asked Northern Ireland’s children and young people what was their priority. They highlighted play and leisure as one of the things that mattered most to them.
I also wanted to commend the title of this conference. It reflects the quotation from children’s author Dr Seuss when he said:
“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
They are citizens as well as rights holders and government must behave as the duty bearers for those rights.
When considering the best way to present to you all today I thought it best to begin with a story. It’s a story about a boy named John based on real circumstances.
John has a learning disability. It makes it difficult for him to mix easily with other children. But he is determined to try, having achieved a lot in school.
His mother worries about other children bullying John, or picking on him. He has also gotten into trouble before by doing things to please other children.
Where John lives there is not a lot for young people his age to do. There is a playground, but he is too old for that now.
John now barely goes out to play or even hang around with other young people. As soon as he gets home from school he just watches television or plays on his games console because his parents prefer to have him at home now he is a teenager, and in the words of his father “he can be easily led by others”.
Thanks to his father John enjoys trips to the theatre and art, but the opportunities are few and far between.
We’ll return to John’s story later, but the point I wanted to make is that access to the arts, play and leisure opportunities are not black and white issues where you either “have play” or “don’t have play”.
When we look at what can be done – what needs to be done to support the provision of play, culture and leisure facilities in line with Article 31 of the UN Convention and General Comment 17 from the Committee we must acknowledge the views of the ‘experts’ – and the real experts are our Children and Young People – as well as listening to Parents and policy makers.
We must however, not try to produce a ‘one-size fits all’ strategy.
As we all know children and young people come in all shapes and sizes. As a mother and grandmother I know this all too well. And, I know that what I consider play and leisure is a long way short of what my children and grandchildren think is play and leisure.
And, in this, the second decade of the 21st Century creative arts often relate, as much to graphic design, computer coding and creating ‘apps’ as they do to more traditional forms of creative arts.
Before continuing I’d like to take a moment to remind you all of what my ‘job’ entails.
When the Office of Commissioner for Children and Young People was created the legislation set out the function of the office which was to:
“Safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people.”
In doing so, the legislation says that I must “have due regard to any relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”.
Today’s theme is Cultural Citizenship – that is – a child’s right to engage in the arts and culture. It is vital that this is recognised by our NI Government and more importantly that every child living in N.I has this right.
Article 12 of the Convention reminds us that we must listen to the ‘voice’ of our Children and Young People:
“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”
I have been actively promoting that since coming into office. A duty in my legislation is that I must listen to the views of children and young people in how I carry out my work.
I am currently standing in a room of adults. No doubt we are all working in the best interests of children and young people, and no doubt we all want to do our best to protect those young people’s rights.
But are we doing enough?
Are we developing the capacity of children and young people to truly participate in decisions, including those on access to the arts, play and leisure?
Are we supporting them, when they seek to influence decisions?
Are we listening to what they say? Are we acting on what they say?
Will we change our plans and policies as a result of what they say?
Many of you already doing that involve children and young people, but a challenge we all face is to answer the question: “Could we do more?”
I’d also like to draw your attention to Articles 28 and 29 of the UN Convention.
Article 28 concerns the rights of children to an effective education, and it is vital that we ensure that creativity, play and the arts are included in the curriculum from the earliest age through to when a child leaves secondary level education.
Article 29 is very specific in terms of how education should be directed towards:
“The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential”
Talents – In the current climate policy makers sometimes focus on academic and vocational outputs in education and forget that talent can be expressed in many ways e.g. through the physical performing arts, creative arts through painting, writing, computer games design etc….
I could go on, but I want you all to focus on the aspirations underpinning that article of the Convention – i.e. to develop each child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities.
I have a Youth Panel of almost 60 young people who have formed opinions as to what way they’d like to see the world, in which they live, change. I would commend to you establishing ways to get the direct views of children and young people working for them and on their behalf.
As part of my work I actively promote participation, as the logical outworking of Article 12. I have done this through a variety of means, including asking government departments and local authorities to make a commitment to making the participation of young people a policy position.
So far, 11 of the 12 government departments and a majority of local councils have signed up to my Participation Policy Statement of Intent. Later this year I will publish the results of research aimed at establishing what changes have been made as a result.
If we begin to answer these questions posed earlier with positive action we can help develop the young person as an ‘active citizen’. That young person will have, through their participation, developed important skills that they can take forward.
These include: communication skills, negotiation, debating, public speaking, team work and many others.
I have seen for myself in past members of my youth panel how they have been able to develop a set of what human resources staff refer to as ‘transferable skills’.
When considering these transferable skills in the context of arts, play, leisure and cultural development we will have managed to not only equip our children and young people with a set of skills employers will look for, we will have enhanced and enriched their life experience.
Policy development in relation to accessing the arts, play and leisure – with children’s and young people’s participation – can mean so much more. It can promote an understanding of children and young people’s feeling of place and belonging.
Culture, Arts and Leisure also allow for an appreciation of a wider range of experiences. To make these experiences real, we must make sure that Government acts in a co-ordinated and thoughtful way.
Arts, Culture, Play and leisure for children and young people is not the sole responsibility of one department. It is not the responsibility of even two – it should be the responsibility for all.
All these departments touch and impact upon the lives of children and young people.
All these departments must act together in the interests of our children and young people.
All these departments should consider how best to co-operate based on listening to the views of children and young people.
And, all these departments can, if they really want to, take an active role in working for, and on behalf of children and young people to help them grow up in a society that values and encourages all aspects of a child’s life, not least the child’s ability to enjoy the rights embodied in Article 31 of the UN Convention.
With the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child publishing its General Comment 17 on Article 31 we have a framework that is designed to “enhance understanding of the importance of Article 31 for children’s well-being and development…”
It also provides the necessary “interpretation” of government’s obligations. stating that government must take the:
“legislative, judicial, administrative, social and educational measures necessary to ensure its implementation for all children without discrimination and on the basis of equality of opportunity”.
The obligations accepted by government are clear in the Convention. As well as Articles 12, 28, 29 and 31 there are clear obligations on government, as to how it must support creativity and how education must provide for the development of the ‘whole’ child.
Achieving these objectives must not just be an aspiration for government. This must be an objective that is realised.
An African proverb says:
“It takes a village to raise a child.”
In Northern Ireland, and indeed in all countries, the adults in positions of power and influence must act like the villagers helping to raise each child to ensure they can realise all their rights.
The American author and human rights activist reminded us all of the importance of creativity when he said:
“Creativity is the greatest expression of liberty.”
That is the liberty we must also achieve for our children.
In the story I related at the outset John struggled to find the opportunities to play and express himself. For every child and young person like John we must meet that need and fulfil that right.
He must have the equality of opportunity to explore his creativity through art, through play, through enjoying the art of others and through the right support / services provided at the right time.
He must have the support of all arms of government and the public sector to have the opportunity for purposeful and enjoyable opportunities.
He must be supported and protected when he expresses himself or plays, so he will not be “led” by those who do not have his best interests at heart.
John can be supported, John can be protected, John can enjoy a full range of play, creative and leisure activities and we can all help every child including John. That is, if we want to…
Thank you for your time and best wishes for the rest of the day.