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Welcome to the RFK Human Rights UK blog. Here you will find articles about current topics,  opinion pieces as well as updates on our work.

Writing the wrongs of inequality with children in Manchester

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

“No matter what you look like or how you act, when you’re born you don’t get to choose who you are or what position you’re in.” – Hassan, age 11, Wythenshawe

At age 11 I had little awareness of national or global issues beyond what I was taught in the classroom or watched on Newsround. My school break times were spent swapping football stickers or trying to reclaim the stack of Pogs Danny Worthington cheated his way to winning by using an illegal slammer. Social media didn’t exist, mobile phones were reserved for grown-ups in suits, and Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia was the keeper of all knowledge.

 

Access to the internet and social media means that children and young people growing up today are more aware than ever before of global events. Many adults tell us that they find it difficult to start conversations about these things, but just because they’re not talking about them, it doesn’t mean children aren’t thinking about them. It is rare for children to have the opportunity to discuss challenging issues in a safe environment. This was part of the motivation for creating our programme of equalities workshops.

 

Two school children sat around a table with a workshops facilitator

Over the past seven years we’ve delivered discussion-based workshops for primary and secondary schools, exploring equality, equity, and rights with thousands of young people across Greater Manchester. As part of Manchester City Council’s ‘2022: Our Year’ campaign, aimed to bring UNICEF's 'Child Friendly City' recognition for the city, we were commissioned to record a podcast with Year 6 students. Small Voices is a special edition episode of our podcast, Box Tickers, it explores what equality means to young people in Manchester and what adults can do to make things better for the next generation.


Know your rights


It wasn’t until my late teens that I was aware that the UN convention on the Rights of the Child existed, despite it being ratified in 1989. The convention which features 45 articles sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. Though I was born during the hardship of Thatcher’s political reign, I was lucky that my rights as a child were met, even if they weren’t always protected by those in power.

 

As an adult I’ve noticed that conversations around children’s rights are often focused on safety, protection, education, and health. This is usually a result of those conversations happening in the wake of a humanitarian crisis, such as the devastating situation in Gaza. When a child’s life is at stake, understandably, the conversation is about survival. As a society, I would like us to move towards more proactive, positive conversations centred around ensuring that all children have the tools they need to thrive in life, not just survive.

 

Two children lie on the floor drawing on a piece of paper

Article 13 of the UN convention on the Rights of the Childstates; Children have the right to share freely with others what they learn, think and feel, by talking, drawing, writing or in any other way unless it harms other people.

 

Small Voices started with a series of workshops for year 6 students focusing on equality, equity, allyship, rights and identity. These workshops were followed by writing sessions with renowned poets Louise WallweinMBEmandla and David Viney, working with the students to create poems and provocations for the podcast.

 

The children’s poems spoke of their hopes for a kinder, fairer future in which all citizens were treated equally. They demanded “equality for all citizens”, wanted “everyone to have the money they need and for poverty to end” as well as a “peaceful future with no wars”. They proudly declared, “we welcome refugees and we respect all distinct cultures and traditions” and they told us that they “stand for love, respect, help and care.” The students expressed frustration that the adults in their lives don’t listen to them, and that the people with power use it unfairly.


Creativity and the Curriculum


Article 31 of the UN convention on the Rights of the Childstates; Every child has the right to rest, relax, play and to take part in cultural and creative activities.

 

At primary school I had plenty of opportunities to take part in creative activities and cultural experiences. We visited local museums, art galleries and heritage sites. I took part in school plays, performed in a dance show, and mimed through choir practice. Thanks to the passions of one music teacher, our school even had a folk society where you could try clog dancing!

 

School children and a workshop facilitator life and smile

I went to a state primary school where these activities were either free to take part in, or heavily subsidised. While it is true that most extra-curricular opportunities existed due to the dedication of teachers who willingly sacrificed their lunch hours, creativity was deeply ingrained within the school curriculum. Due to ongoing education reforms, the current curriculum has undergone significant changes, with a growing emphasis on exams. Teachers are grappling with overwhelming workloads, leaving limited time for creative activities.

 

The state of secondary education is equally bleak. In the same month we released Small Voices, The Guardian published an editorial which described a ‘creativity crisis’ in state schools.

“Since 2010, enrolment in arts GCSEs has fallen by 40% and the number of arts teachers has fallen by 23%. This shift is most pronounced among state schools in deprived areas… As fewer state students have the opportunity to engage with arts or music, fewer go on to study these subjects at A-level or university… shrinking the cultural horizons of everyone but the elite.”

 The schools we collaborated with for Small Voices are located within the Manchester City Local Authority, where approximately 45% of neighborhoods rank among the 10% most deprived areas in England according to the Index for Multiple Deprivation. Small Voices was specifically designed as a model to empower children by fostering their creative expression and prioritising their voices. Through this project, students were introduced to poetry, honed their writing skills, and gained confidence through the performance of their own work.


An electronic billboard poster next to a monument in Manchester City Centre reads ‘Rearrange the world into the shape of Fair. Solve the puzzle of people. Maybe the world is what we win.’

No Voice Too Small


“Art transforms lives as well as being a vital part of our economy. It is incredible to see how it can change a child, unlocking their talent, building resilience, confidence and communication skills. These are skills needed for any job.’ - Andria Zafirakou, Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize Winner, The Times (2018)

Research consistently shows the transformative effects that creativity and culture can have on the lives of young people. When I was 21, I had the opportunity to participate in a pilot programme called Re:Con, which was Contact Theatre's young producer's scheme. This opportunity came at a crucial time for me, as I had recently left university due to health reasons. Re:Con offered a pathway into the industry that didn’t require a degree. We received invaluable mentorship from experienced staff who guided us in understanding the logistics of theatre production and budget management. At the end of our course, we produced our own pop-up arts festival. This experience had a life-changing impact on me. It boosted my confidence and provided me with new skills, as well a community of creatives peers.

 

A child speaks into a microphone

Throughout Small Voices, we saw a significant change in the students. They started off as shy participants, but soon blossomed into confident poets and performers. It was truly inspiring to watch even the quietest children in the class step up as leaders in discussions and debates. The chance to explore their creativity not only helped them better understand the world, but also sparked their hopes for the future. What made it even more incredible was how much of an impact children can make when they're given the freedom to express themselves creatively and a platform to share their own thoughts and opinions. Here is a snapshot of the impact that the student’s work has had:

 

• The words of year 6 students were broadcast on over 100 digital billboards across Manchester from Piccadilly Gardens to the Mancunian Way.

• Over 600 people and counting have listened to the children’s podcast reaching people across the UK and as far as Canada!

• Students were invited to perform poetry at Manchester Central to representatives from UNICEF and politicians from Manchester City Council.

• In one school, students delivered a presentation on equality to the school board.

• Students wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the changes they want to see him make and received a reply from his office.

• Two students created a ‘4-step plan to be a good ally’ to help other children.

• Small Voices is a finalist at Manchester City Council’s Culture Awards under the category of ‘Promotion of Culture and Education’.

• When global art project, The Human Rights Tattoo, came to the UK for the first time, the children’s podcast was broadcast during the event.



A Generation of Allies and Activists


“Please listen to all the children, please listen to us. Children can actually make a difference.” Yasmin –Wythenshawe

In recent years young people have made headlines for speaking out on a variety of issues, sparking debates on whether it is appropriate for children to protest during school time.


Students have held walkouts in protest of climate change, marched to a local MP’s office to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and staged sit-ins in response to discriminatory uniform policies and hair policing.


The next generation is one of activists and allies, politically engaged and passionate about a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, the current education system is ill equipped to support them, with many schools opting to suppress discussion rather than provide space for nuanced conversation. With the introduction of the Public Order Bill restricting people’s fundamental rights to peaceful protest, increased police presence in schools and a rise in Palestine-related Prevent referrals, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. Yet we know from history that without protest, there is no social progress.

The next generation are going to continue to speak up. If we want to keep up, we are going to have to stay informed, keep an open mind and most importantly, listen.

Rachel Moorhouse, Co-Creative Director, Art with Heart

Co-Directors of Art With Heart, Rachel and Sarah pose together inform of a metal shop shutter.

You can listen to the Small Voices podcast on Spotify or on iTunes. You can watch a subtitled version of the podcast on Youtube.

If you are an educator or work with young people, you can download a free education resource pack featuring equalities activities to try in your own classroom.

You can find out more about Art with Heart here.

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