Skip to main content

Children’s rights to safety and to a holistic education

Children's Children's Rights

Good morning everyone and thank you Katharine O’Donnell, ANZELA National President, for inviting me to be part of what I hear has been a stimulating event to date and to present the Dr Ann Shorten Memorial Lecture.

I too would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to elders past, present and future.

It’s fantastic to be here today amongst so many people who are committed to the safety and wellbeing of children in Australia, and who play such vital roles in upholding the rights of children. I’m sure that the wealth of information that has been shared so far has been invaluable and that will undoubtedly be the case for the rest of the day’s events.

To start with a bit about myself, the work I do as the National Children’s Commissioner involves:

  • promoting awareness of children’s rights;
  • promoting children’s participation in decisions that concern them;
  • ensuring that laws, policies and programs uphold the rights of children;
  • encouraging good practice; and,
  • submitting an annual report to parliament in which I highlight issues and challenges facing children and young people

Everything I do is informed by children’s rights, and human rights more broadly, so that’s what I will focus on today. Before I jump in, I’m going to take this opportunity for a bit of free advertising to plug one of the many educational resources that the Australian Human Rights Commission has freely available on our website.


This video is a fun history lesson about the Magna Carta and how it’s linked to human rights in Australia today. It won a Good Design Award in 2015 and comes with an interactive infographic and teacher resources.

Hopefully as educators and legal practitioners, you appreciate the work that went into making this topic a bit more exciting and kid-friendly. Of course, in the thinking of those kings and barons: the rights of women, children, and the generally impoverished masses were not top of mind, and thankfully this has changed over time. Reforms in this area can largely be attributed to the suffragette and labour movements and for children, it was the establishment of the UN and its treaty regime, following the Second World War that has been the game changer.


Although the international human rights instruments that Australia signs up to do not generally have the enforceability of laws that are enshrined in legislation, they do provide important guidance as to what our laws, policies and programs should aspire to achieve.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the international treaty that sets out the rights in international law to which all children in the world are entitled. The Convention was adopted by the United Nations in 1989 and Australia signed and ratified the Convention in 1990. Children have the same human rights as adults, however the Convention recognises that children are entitled to additional rights because of their unique vulnerabilities and attributes. It is the most ratified of all human rights treaties.

Today I will speak about the intersection between children’s rights to education and to safety. I want to highlight how a holistic education that encourages children to be self-aware, develop respectful relationships and have their voice heard can contribute to their safety and wellbeing.


Article 19 of the CRC ensures that children are cared for properly and protected. It is the responsibility of parents and anyone who takes care of children to make sure they don’t experience violence, abuse or neglect. Article 34 of the CRC draws particular attention to protecting children from sexual abuse. These articles, much like most discussion of child safety, focus heavily on some of the most serious forms of child maltreatment – and rightly so as the impacts of such harm are severe and long-term. But it is also important to remember that child safety necessarily includes child wellbeing. Creating environments and organisations where children are safe and well involves creating welcoming, inclusive places as well as taking measures to prevent serious child harm.


Providing children with a holistic education can contribute positively to Creating welcoming and inclusive places. Article 28 of the CRC guarantees the right to access to education and Article 29 sets out the aims of education and emphasises the importance of the holistic development of each child.

This article essentially summarises a child-rights based approach to education. A child-rights approach to education incorporates teaching and learning practices that exemplify human rights principles, such as equality, fairness, non-discrimination and respect. Additionally, it involves empowering children to stand up for their own rights and the rights of others.


The aims of education in the article includes the preparation of children for ‘responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin’. It broadens our understanding of the importance of the right to non-discrimination – one of the guiding principles of the Convention. Not only is there a right not to be discriminated against, there is a responsibility to be accepting of others.

Children themselves intrinsically know the importance of this.


During the Big Banter, a national listening tour I conducted at the start of my term in 2013, children and young people demonstrated a keen interest in fairness and justice, as these quotes demonstrate.

I would like every child to be treated in the same good way”.

I asked children to complete the sentence, “Life would be better if” and some responses included... “if there were equal opportunities for everyone” and “if we were treated fairly”.

Coincidently, unicorns, chocolate, rainbows, waterslides and jumping castles, according to children were equally important.

Concepts of fairness, understanding and non-discrimination are inherently related to safety because we know that feeling included and accepted is important to children feeling safe and well.


Schools are an ideal place to address children’s concerns about these issues. Doing so creates a sense of connectedness. Research by Chapman et al. (2013) suggests that schools should aim to foster school connectedness in children. School connectedness is defined by “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others in the school social environment” and varies widely depending on the school environment.

School connectedness has a positive effect on school attendance, academic achievement, and the emotional and physical health of children. There is also a correlation between high levels of connectedness and a reduced likelihood of engaging in risky behaviour as an adolescent. Conversely, children experiencing a lack of school connectedness tend to engage in risk taking activities such as alcohol consumption, drug use, cigarette smoking, delinquency and violence.

In this way, school connectedness is a “protective factor” in reducing adolescent risk taking behaviour and related physical or mental harm. It is therefore critical that schools create an environment that enhances a child’s sense of school connectedness if they are to develop their personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential, in accordance with the Convention.

Chapman found that students who felt that they had some level of influence over school administration and policy (by being a member of a student representative council, for instance) had higher levels of school connectedness. This is a concrete example of how nurturing a child’s talents and mental abilities (Article 29(1)(a)), developing their sense of responsibility for others (Article 29(1)(d)), and encouraging them to freely express their own views (Article 12) enhances a child’s natural affinity with their school environment. In turn, children feel a greater sense of belonging and internalise values such as resilience, responsibility and student caring.

As I have visited schools around Australia it is clear the moment you walk in the gate which schools have achieved this connectedness, and there is a palpable difference in the behaviour and attitudes of the students in those schools, right across the student body.

I visited schools earlier this year to complete some consultations around the question of child safety and wellbeing. It was clear that while some young people feel safe and welcome most of the time, many feel unsafe or unwelcome in public or private spaces, including at school or while accessing out-of-home care or related services. This was often due to their age or culture.

Here are some things that the young people said:

“A lot of the time it’s not feeling unsafe, it’s feeling unwelcome - it’s the way that people look at you.”

“People look down on me. They don’t like my culture or my country. Or, they don’t want to understand.”

“Some people just have a thicker skin than other people, but the reason why most kids don’t go to mainstream schools, or don’t go to schools, or anywhere really - like hospitals or anything, because there’s a sense of judgment and people who feel judged don’t feel welcome.”


This connection between feeling accepted and child wellbeing was explored in the Australian Child Wellbeing Project. This collaborative project investigated the wellbeing of children aged 8 to 14 and developed profiles for different groups of young people, with a particular focus on marginalised young people in their middle years. They surveyed over 5,400 students in Australia in 2014 and held in-depth discussions with over 100 young people in 2015.

The research found that 19% of Year 4 and 6 participants reported being bullied at least weekly. More telling are the figures comparing marginalised and non-marginalised groups. Marginalised children include those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Indigenous backgrounds, children with a disability, who are carers and children who are materially disadvantaged.

Only one in seven participants in non-marginalised groups reported weekly bullying compared to more than a quarter of participants from culturally and linguistically diverse and Indigenous backgrounds. This figure is higher still, at more than a third for marginalised participants including children with a disability, young carers and those who are materially disadvantaged.

These figures reinforce the need to teach young people to respect and empathise with those who are different to themselves.


A vital aspect of making sure children are safe is actually asking them what makes them feel safe and unsafe and what they need adults to do. Hearing from children is not only empowering for them, it helps adults to get things rights. Every day, policies, programs and laws are being shaped that impact directly or indirectly on children and young people. As experts in their own lives, ignoring children's experiences and perspectives will invariably lead adults to intervene in ways that just don't work.

This is also an important guiding principle of the Convention as Article 12 expresses that "Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account". As National Children's Commissioner this is a core responsibility in my work.

I encourage all of you who work with children and young people to actively listen and to create opportunities for children to contribute meaningfully about what is going on in their lives. It's important not to make assumptions about how they feel or what they need to feel safe.

In August 2015 I launched the Taking Us Seriously report, which was part of a study conducted for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The study surveyed and talked to children and young people said about their safety, particularly in organisations such as schools, sports clubs and holiday camps. Children and young people talked how safe environments made them ‘comfortable’ and ‘relaxed’, encouraging them to be ‘confident’ and ‘resilient’.

They explicitly stated the importance of being included in discussions around safety. One child reflected on their participation in the study, saying:

Every school should do what we just did. Talk about what risks there are and if it’s a big risk and what’s been done and what we think should be done. How else can they find out what young adults think and how can we hear what’s been done?

Another child acknowledged that talking about safety creates a sense of trust between adults and children in an organisation, saying:

Kids will see that adults want to hear from them and if something was wrong they might come forward because they know that adults want to know and are taking it seriously.

Children and young people identified problems such as adults misusing their power or children not being trusted when they raise concerns about their safety.

Believe us when we say that we’re being hurt because why would we make that [stuff] up?

They need to trust our gut feelings because it’s real, and even if it’s not, if a kid feels unsafe adults have to take notice because it’s real to them. Yeah adults shouldn’t ignore it or say ‘don’t worry, settle down’ just because it’s a kid.

Something that we need to be aware of is that children will perceive different safety issues than we will as adults and therefore children are instrumental in not only identifying the issues but also developing strategies and approaches to addressing the issues.


Another area where the right to be free from harm and right to a holistic education overlaps concern children’s ability to have respectful relationships with those closest to them – their friends and family. The importance of respectful relationships was emphasised when I reported on the impact of family and domestic violence on children and young people in 2015.

Part of this work involved canvassing the views of experts about the nature and value of educational campaigns and their potential role in changing the attitudes of young people to violence.

The need to change attitudes is evidenced by research commissioned in 2015 by OurWatch which surveyed 3,000 young people aged 12 to 24 about their attitudes towards violence. The survey revealed that:

  • 1 in 4 young men believe that controlling and violent behaviours are signs or male strength ; and
  • 1 in 4 young people don’t think it’s serious if a guy, who’s normally gentle, sometimes slaps his girlfriend when he’s drunk and they’re arguing.

I received many submissions that advocated for respectful relationship education including from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, the NSW Government and North Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Service.

The message across the board was not only that respectful relationships education should be part of a broader approach to preventing family and domestic violence, but additionally, that programs should begin in pre and primary school levels.

Teaching young people to value the safety and agency of their peers as well as how to empathise and understand the perspectives of others helps foster respectful relationships from an early age, so that the values attached to this are carried into healthy non-violent adult relationships.

The work I am involved in under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 involves working with governments, key organisations, the community sector and individuals to prevent and respond to domestic, family and sexual violence. Prevention and early intervention is a priority area in this National Plan and there is now a particular focus on the needs of children affected by family and domestic violence, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and ensuring children’s environments are safe from violence.


A place where children’s safety, relationships and education is a constant challenge is online. Online safety is an interesting space to explore as we endeavour to balance the children’s rights to safety with their rights to education, to access information, and to communicate with each other.

If you’re anything like me, you’re definitely not fully across what’s going on in the digital world. We don’t understand it and we can’t control it. It feels unnatural. Words like friends, likes, stories and privacy mean entirely different things in the digital age.

Children and young people seem to have formed an impenetrable secret cyber society with its own language and meeting places from which we are banned. As soon as adults got onto Facebook and Twitter, young people move off them. We’re concerned about children inside their cyber society and space, we imagine them doing all sorts of things that are bad for them and put them at risk, but we don’t really know what goes on and what we can do about it.

One element of effective protection of children and young people from the adverse impacts of is education. This includes information and education about safety online, critical discussion of pornography as part of age-appropriate education about sex and healthy and respectful relationships, and human rights education.

My consultations with children and young people in 2013 and beyond reveal that most do not see a clear distinction between the online and physical worlds. They also report, at quite young ages, frequent inadvertent access to pornographic material in their everyday computer and mobile device use, and expressed some anxiety about this. Further, they reported that they were often reluctant to report their experiences to parents due to both embarrassment and for fear of being negatively judged.

While keeping children safe is a priority, we cannot keep children in the dark. First this won’t work and second it is counterproductive and works against the realisation of children’s rights. What I’ve highlighted so far about welcoming and inclusive places, respectful relationships, and talking and listening to what children have to say about their own safety and wellbeing remains applicable to keeping children safe online.


To conclude I want to speak about a project that I am leading to develop a National Statement of Principles of Child Safe Organisations.

As you all know, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is due to report at the end of the year after over four years of hearings, research and deliberations. It is understood that the Royal Commission’s final report will include an entire volume on making institutions child safe and recommendations about implementing the child safe elements.

In November 2016, all Community Services Ministers in Australia agreed to the development of a National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations.

The National Statement of Principles is being developed over an 18-month period under a phased approach, through a cross-sector consultation and engagement, involving everyone from sports to health services, from very small clubs to highly structured businesses. The timing of this development has been designed to take into account the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

The draft National Statement of Principles is underpinned by a child rights approach to building capacity to deliver child safety and wellbeing in organisations, families and communities. The goal is to build child-safe cultures in all organisational settings to advance the safety and wellbeing of children and young people across Australia. The draft Statement of Principles consists of 10 principles largely based on those developed by the Royal Commission.

The first four principles emphasise getting the organisational culture right as well as children learning about and enacting their rights. Principles 5, 6 and 7 are about the processes for recruiting, training and supporting staff and dealing with concerns, complaints and incidents. The final three principles are about the environment in which the organisation operates.

As people directly engaging with children and young people, these principles can help guide your work. They are not compulsory. Organisations will still need to adhere to legal requirements as well as state and territory regulations. But the child-rights approach we have taken in developing the National Statement of Principles.


Considering that we have looked at online safety, I would like to draw your attention particularly to Principle 8 –

Principle 8 - Physical and online environments promote safety and wellbeing while minimising the opportunity for children and young people to be harmed. Staff and volunteers should identify and mitigate risks without compromising a child’s right to privacy, access to information, social connections and learning opportunities.

Examples of how this could be achieved include having education and being proactive in identifying, reducing and addressing risks or issues as well as having a code of conduct which both children and adults adhere to both in physical and online spaces.
As global and digital citizens, both adults and children have the responsibility to make physical and online spaces safe. Organisations working with children have the opportunity to educate, inform and involve children in engaging with their rights as well as developing appropriate skills and responses.

We are at an exciting stage on the Child Safe Organisations project where we are establishing and consulting with representatives from across all sectors working or volunteering with children. As is good practice, I will also be engaging with children to make sure that the National Statement of Principles is relevant and appropriate for them in an accessible version.

Once finalised, the National Statement of Principles will drive implementation of a child safe culture across all sectors providing services to children to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children across Australia. It is intended that the Principles will apply to all organisations dealing with children, regardless of their location or sector. The Principles are high level so as to be relevant to the broad range of organisations across different sectors and of different sizes.

In a few weeks time we will be launching a project page on the Australian Human Rights Commission’s website for Child Safe Organisations. On this page you will be able to find out more information as well as access tools and resources. You can also sign up to our mailing list to receive updates on the project.


In talking to children and young people about human rights, it has become clear to me that rights knowledge is both empowering and safeguarding for children and young people. It strengthens their capacity, agency and capabilities, and engenders respect for the rights of others. It also builds their expectations that adults will help to protect their rights, and that they are able to raise concerns if they are distressed or if their rights, or the rights of other children or young people, are breached.

Equipping children and young people with knowledge of their rights, and providing them opportunities to be heard, empowers them to build relationships with trustworthy adults and peers, and promotes resilience and help-seeking behaviour.

And while the work I am leading on child safe cultures is currently focusing on organisations, the same principles should equally apply within family and community settings so that children are both protected and empowered in all the spaces and places they inhabit.

I encourage you to implement and share what has been discussed at this conference, and continue to advocate for a holistic approach to education and promote children’s rights in Australia. As educators, legal practitioners, carers, parents and community members you have the opportunity to be change makers; and equip young people with the skills to live a responsible life in free society.

In the words of the Committee on the Rights of the Child:

Basic skills include not only literacy and numeracy but also life skills such as the ability to make well-balanced decisions; to resolve conflicts in a non-violent manner; and to develop a healthy lifestyle, good social relationships and responsibility, critical thinking, creative talents, and other abilities which give children the tools needed to pursue their options in life.

Speech delivered on Thursday 5 October 2017 at the ANZELA Conference

Megan Mitchell, Children's Commissioner