Teachers in the Canadian province British Columbia have been on strike since mid June. The summer has not brought a solution to a longstanding conflict between the provincial government and the teachers' union about class size and extra support for special needs children. Mediation was attempted just before the intended start of the new school year, but failed because the parties were too far apart according to the mediator. Parents and children were informed on Saturday evening 30 August that school would not start on Tuesday 2 September. A few days later the union made an offer to undertake binding arbitration to resolve the dispute, which was turned down by the government. The parties involved seem to have reached an impasse, and whether school will start anytime soon is unclear.
This scenario raises a number of legal questions, but the most interesting question from the point of view of a children's rights scholar was raised by a 16-year old school girl. In a newspaper opinion she stated that the lengthy strike is a violation of her right to education under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) ratified by Canada in 1991. She refers to article 28, which concerns a child's right to education.
The conflict appears to have a long and at times acrimonious history, of which I do not know the details. But do the details and the question of who is to blame for the current impasse matter if we approach the strike and the consequences from a children's rights perspective? Because what it comes down to is that all children in the public school system, including those in their final year of high school, are at present not at school but at home, waiting for school to begin.
Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that "in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration". These actions include both striving for good education and equal opportunities in the educational system as well as the path taken to realise these goals. Teachers are fighting for smaller class sizes and more support for special needs children, both of which would benefit children in the future, but being deprived of education for an extended period of time does not: a children's rights paradox.
The situation of children caught in the midst of the dispute between teachers and the government is reminiscent of the situation of children in the middle and aftermath of a high conflict divorce. In both situations adults are engaged in a (sometimes) nasty and continuing conflict and the way in which the conflict is played out is detrimental to the children. We ask parents in such cases to take a step back and to resolve their conflicts in a different manner, through mediation or with the help of a parenting coordinator and to put the interests of the children first, both during the conflict and for the future. It is interesting to note in this context that in the recently introduced British Columbian Family Law Act the child's best interests are the only consideration in cases concerning parental responsibility and parenting time after separation. That is food for thought.
It is very sad that this conflict has escalated to such extremities that a full strike appears to be the only option to the teachers, because even in the midst of a heated dispute concerning the future of children, their interests should be a paramount consideration. The government has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the children's rights enshrined in the Convention are implemented and respected. Whatever the cause of the strike and the major concerns of the parties involved, I think it is fair to say that closing down schools for an extended period of time is a violation of children's rights to education and certainly not in their best interests.