When a UK tabloid newspaper reported earlier this month that some schools were outlawing the "dunce's corner" because it could breach a child's human rights, it received a flurry of online comments supporting the story's implication that this was just the latest example of "human rights culture gone mad".
This is despite the fact that the practice is not widely used and is seen as ineffective, as many have pointed out, including the National Union of Teachers.
The debate seemed to crystallise the communication challenges surrounding the Human Rights Act 1998, which enshrined into UK law a set of minimum necessary fundamental rights and freedoms for all.
Public sector bodies – including schools – are required to act compatibly with those rights.
Last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) set up an inquiry to examine the extent to which respect for human rights for individuals is embedded in public service delivery. The inquiry heard how human rights had helped organisations improve the services they provide.
For example, schools introducing a human rights approach to education had seen improvements in student behaviour and "a notable decrease" in bullying and school exclusions.
However, the inquiry concluded that public bodies could be doing much more to use human rights to improve service delivery.
It stated: "A true understanding of human rights as a tool for improving people's lives is not widespread … improved knowledge and understanding is essential."
There was a need, said the inquiry, for greater recognition that human rights are not merely "abstract concepts" but an "effective tool" for delivering organisational success and better services.
How to make human rights a reality in schools was the focus of a recent roundtable discussion convened by Society Guardian in partnership with the EHRC. The event was conducted under the anonymity of reporting allowed under the Chatham House rule to encourage frank debate, so this report reflects the themes discussed, without attribution.
The bigger picture
Much media coverage of human rights in schools has focused on cases linked to religion, from veil bans in France and the UK, to Italy's recent outlawing of classroom crucifixes. According to one participant, "we shouldn't underestimate the amount of ignorance and opposition to human rights; the things that people read about in the Daily Mail and so on."
Roundtable participants were reminded of the bigger picture and that a human rights approach is relevant to every aspect of schooling, from bullying and exclusions to accessible transport. But the debate should be "more than just about what students need and how they are protected".
Schools should also consider how teachers, as public sector employees, have their rights protected at work.
The EHRC believes that a human rights approach can help schools to achieve the aims of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the UK government's Every Child Matters agenda.
However, it recognises that, when it comes to turning this approach into action, "education is a bit more complex" than other public sector areas.
The challenge of getting the balance right in schools was a recurring theme of the debate. Teaching, said one participant, is "all about balance", from the balance between the language of values and that of rights to "balancing individual rights with those of the collective".
Some of the teachers thought of as most successful are "those who have least respect for children's rights", it was argued. The General Teaching Council's code of conduct for teachers (revised last year) "puts a clear duty on teachers to regard children's human rights".
But if a child's behaviour is "intolerable", are those rights always respected?
Participants were reminded that the concept of proportionality – the approach of "not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut" – could help schools ensure a fair process for balancing rights.
"One of the problems with human rights is that it gets individualised," claimed one participant, who suggested that schools should focus discussion and find solutions "for the collective".
For instance, concerns about personal safety could justify a school or college adopting a tougher door policy to check for knives. One criticised the EHRC's inquiry summary for being "very much predicated on the individual" while, in essence, "education is a collective act".
However for children with special educational needs or other disabilities. it was "really important" to consider whether an individual's human rights were being infringed by their education environment. "If education is to promote human rights, then inclusion must be recognised," said one participant. "Not everyone can be in the same classroom all the time, but they can come through the same gate and play together."
The Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) will put the focus on the rights of refugee and asylum-seeking children with a campaign next month to address the barriers to them accessing education. As another participant argued, the rights agenda is about "protecting individuals who may be overlooked, who are more vulnerable".
So what frameworks are in place for schools looking to adopt a human rights approach? Several participants referred to Unicef's rights-respecting schools award (RRSA). Launched in 2004, this scheme helps UK schools to formulate a "values framework" based on the UNCRC. To date, more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have registered for the award.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families has funded Unicef to expand the pilot scheme in partnership with five local authorities. Emerging findings from year two of an evaluation of the scheme by University of Sussex show increased self-esteem in pupils, reductions in bullying and much greater acceptance of disability and ethnicity. Significantly, seven of the 12 schools being evaluated have seen a rise in standards and five have increased attainment – evidence, say researchers, that the RRSA scheme can lead to "an improved climate for learning".
Many around the table agreed that linking the human rights approach to school outcomes was crucial. "Increasingly we are seeing evidence that a rights approach produces better outcomes – improved behaviour, staff satisfaction and so on," said one participant. While parents, governors and the wider public might not care about "legalistic approaches and international conventions", they will pay attention to improvements in attainment and behaviour, it was suggested.
There was a need for "more robust data" to support the business case for a human rights approach. And if, as the EHRC inquiry found, people are not happy using the term "human rights", how do you promote rights without actually talking about them? One attendee asked: "If human rights is the next dirty word, how do we make it clean again?"
So how, as one participant put it, can schools "think clever" so that they "imbue a culture of thinking about human rights"? Some felt that language and approach had important roles to play. "It's about turning this round so we're not saying: 'We're doing something on rights now', but asking: 'How do you want this community to operate?'"
Stronger leadership was also important, participants agreed. "Heads who know how to make these things happen will have better schools," offered one. The new generation of headteachers is much more aware that school ethos is important. And another asked how to persuade heads who have been doing the job for years to think differently. This question applied to school governors too.
Many felt that more effective teacher training on human rights was needed. "Initial teacher education manifestly fails to engage trainees and get the rights of the child into their consciousness," said one.
Could there be some guidance, as one suggested, from the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services, to show how teachers get outcomes from schools adopting a rights approach? Another felt continuing professional development is "of terribly variable quality" and called for "kite-marking" of human rights training – a role that the EHRC could perhaps adopt.
The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR), in partnership with the Ministry of Justice, is developing initial teacher education training materials and continuing professional development teacher training materials for secondary schools. It has also produced Right Here, Right Now, a curriculum resource on human rights for key stage 3 pupils on human rights. Materials for key stage 2 are planned.
Should there be a statutory duty on schools to promote human rights? The overwhelming majority felt this would be a good idea once a full understanding of human rights approach had become established in schools.
Governors "like compliance because they can tick a box"; having a statutory duty is "a powerful driver that can change people's behaviour". The danger of not having a duty "is not having a baseline". The role of Ofsted should be to look at outcomes for schools and perhaps recognise those adopting a rights-respecting school approach.
With the uncertainties that a general election and new government can bring, one participant said schools should "drop the rights word" and emphasise the "outcomes word". But another participant countered this by saying: "I think now is precisely the time to emphasise the rights agenda. There are good examples of where a rights agenda can be used to improve outcomes... and greatly improve schools."
• Roundtable report commissioned and controlled by the Guardian. Discussion hosted to a brief agreed with the EHRC. Paid for by the EHRC. For information on roundtables visit: guardian.co.uk/supp-guidelines