Children’s Rights in the History of Education Collection, UCL Institute of Education

Thursday 10th December is International Human Rights Day. In readiness for this Sally Perry and I have put together a display of materials from the Curriculum Resources and the Special Collections. The materials from the Special Collections are from the History of Education Collection and focus on Children’s Rights. The following highlight some of the materials that are exhibited in the Library.

Children’s rights are a relatively new concept unlike human rights which were first discussed in the 17th century. Philosophers such as Grotius, Hobbs and Locke wrote about ‘natural’ rights and ‘the rights of man’ but it was not until after the publication of  Rousseau’s Emile ou, De l’éducation (1762) that the notion of childhood was established.  And, it was not until the 19th century that the rights of children were discussed.

Report on the Employment of Children in the UK by constance smithIn the 1909, Constance Smith, previously a Senior HM Lady Inspector  of Factories and a member of the British Association for Labour Legislation, published the Report on the Employment of Children in the United Kingdom. In the preface to the report, Smith who was also the Secretary of the Committee on Wage-Earning Children, highlights the discrepancies of age in the definition of the child: “Since the definition of a ‘child’ is not constant and uniform in the industrial codes of different nations, but extends in some countries to workers who under the Factory and Workshop Acts of the United Kingdom would be classed as young person… readers of this Report are requested to take note that, wherever the expression ‘child’ is used in the following pages, it means a person under the age of fourteen years.”[1]

The law relating to child-saving and reformatory effortsThe 1909 publication The law relating to child-saving and reformatory efforts: being extracts from Acts of Parliament and other information (4th ed) compiled by Arthur J. S. Maddison, the secretary of the London Reformatory and Refuge Union (HC2505) lists the General Acts, the Poor Law Acts and the Local Acts, Regulations and Bye-Laws that protected the young from 1851 to 1909. The Reformatory and Refuge Union was responsible for providing safe houses to the destitute young, especially “young women who have fallen from virtue, and are anxious to make an earnest endeavour to enter on an honourable and useful life.”[2]


Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928)

After the Great War in 1919, a British teacher Eglantyne Jebb, together with her sister Dorothy, founded an emergency relief fund for starving children of Europe. The International Save the Children Alliance was created as a response to Jebb’s own experience with child victims of war.  A posthumous essay, Save the Child!,  published on the first anniversary of her death, is held in the History of Education Collection (HC429)

“We cannot leave defenceless children everywhere exposed to ruin – moral or physical. We cannot run the risk that they should weep, starve, despair and die, with never a hand stretched out to help them” – Eglantyne Jebb, 1919

At the same time, the newly formed League of Nations (later the United Nations), established a Committee on Child Welfare in 1919. The League of Nations was instrumental in protecting basic human rights and in 1924 adopted Jebb’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child – the first international treaty concerning children’s rights. In five chapters, it gives specific rights to the children and responsibilities to the adults. The chapters read as follows:

THE CHILD must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.

THE CHILD that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and waif must be sheltered and succoured.

THE CHILD must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.

THE CHILD must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.

THE CHILD must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow-men.

Save the Child 2

Eglantyne Jebb’s posthumous essay published in 1929 on the first anniversary of her death.

However, it was not until 1959, that the United Nations (previously the League of Nations) adopted the declaration of the Child. Eleven years earlier, after the Second World War, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It took another twenty years before the International Year of the Child was established in 1979.  In 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defined a child as “a human under the age of eighteen”.  Prior to this, the rights of children tended to be focused on protection rights such as the Employment of Children Act (1903), the Prevention of the Cruelty to Children Act (1904) and the Children Act of 1908.

The UCL Institute of Education’s Archives hold the papers of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE). CRAE was founded in 1991 after the UK’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to monitor the UK Government’s commitment to upholding the document. In 2000, the United Nations introduced the optional protocols specifically on the involvement of children in armed conflicts, the sale of children, childhood prostitution and child pornography.

For more information on the History of Education Collection, see:


[1] Smith, Constance (1909). Report on the employment of children in the United Kingdom (2nd ed). London: British Association for Labour Legislation. (History of Education Collection Hub SMI)

[2] From: Archer, Thomas. (1870) The Terrible Sights of London. London: S. Rivers.

About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
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