Annual Review 2015/16

Reframing the global debate on child protection

Collaborative research and a spirit of openness are helping to put child protection policy into practice worldwide

Dr Deborah Fry
Dr Deborah Fry

On 10 December 2015, the Peruvian Congress voted to outlaw corporal punishment in schools and all other settings. The work of Dr Deborah Fry, Lecturer in Child Protection at the University’s Moray House School of Education, was instrumental in prompting this momentous decision. 

Since joining the University from the New York City Alliance in 2008, Dr Fry has worked with government ministries and United Nations (UN) offices across the world to provide evidence that has helped change child protection policies.

“I always talk about relationship-driven research”, says Dr Fry. “It’s because of relationships that we are able to join high-level meetings, hear about parliamentary discussions and have direct conversations that respond to key issues around violence against children.”

The study that led to Peru prohibiting corporal punishment was part of a multi-country, action-research project Dr Fry worked on in partnership with UNICEF’s Office of Research-Innocenti and its country-level offices. Focusing on four countries – Italy, Vietnam and Zimbabwe as well as Peru – and using pre-existing data, the project sought to understand what causes violence that affects children, and what can be done to prevent it. 

“I think that working with a UN agency whose main client is government was crucial”, Dr Fry explains. “The agency’s main aim is to inform policy and help governments make better decisions around children, so colleagues there played a key role in facilitating dialogues.”

Opening up the conversation

The conversations were not always easy. Early on in this process, Dr Fry and her colleagues discovered that the Peruvian Government had previously funded a nationally representative school-based survey, which found that 80 per cent of children had experienced at least one form of violence. Ministers were initially reluctant to use the information, but, through advocacy work alongside UNICEF’s Peru Office, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations, they agreed to revisit the data. This allowed Dr Fry to collaborate with the Peruvian National Institute of Statistics to examine the data, which led to their jointly authored journal article. 

The published work resulted in a turnaround that prompted a senior government official to discuss the survey at a Pan-American Health Organisation meeting, and the dataset is now open access.  

Moray House has a strong reputation for its work in social justice, child protection and inclusive education, and there are so few people doing research at the intersections of these issues.

Dr Deborah Fry

At the same time, Dr Fry was working with a Young Lives project based in Peru and the UK – at the University of Oxford – in order to include their longitudinal data. The project team examined statistics on violence and bullying and analysed them against educational outcomes. The findings are some of the strongest in the world for showing the negative impact of corporal punishment on learning. 

Dr Fry believes that by working together and helping governments make sense of the information that they already have, countries can make informed decisions to change policy, legislation and programming. 

“The international academic technical expertise, alongside UNICEF advocacy, changed the framing of the discussion,” comments Dr Fry. “Corporal punishment had been debated in Congress annually for the past eight years, but when we provided a briefing that proved violence in schools has a significant negative impact on learning outcomes, that’s what caused the tipping point.”

Following the multi-country study, a methodological toolkit called Research to Practice Policy Process (R3P) has been developed. This enables countries to navigate their own data and understand what drives violence against children – and what public policymakers can do about it. R3P has resulted in Moray House linking with four further countries, including more involved engagement with governments in the Philippines and Swaziland.

Supporting teaching at home

Dr Fry’s research also investigates matters closer to home. In 2012, she secured a Marie Curie Fellowship to examine how new teachers in Scotland respond to issues of bullying and safeguarding. The three-year study provided information on how best to support teachers in complex classroom environments. 

In 2015, world leaders made a commitment to end all forms of violence against children as part of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. While legislation is the first important step to change legal norms, much work needs to be done to change practice. This is where the Safe Inclusive Schools Network comes in. The Network is a new research group led by Dr Fry, and her Edinburgh colleagues, the Bell Chair for Education, Professor Lani Florian and Dr Gillean McCluskey. 

“It is very rare to have this expertise within a School of Education,” Dr Fry explains. “There are some distinct advantages to this, as Moray House has a strong reputation for its work in social justice, child protection and inclusive education, and there are so few people doing research at the intersections of these issues.” 

“We’ve been working with colleagues in Geography and Edinburgh College of Art, to explore how we can create safe, non-violent and inclusive schools,” Dr Fry continues. “We are currently developing a conceptual framework and hope to position ourselves for a Global Research Challenge Fund grant. We want Edinburgh to be the leader in this area.”

“The University has been a great incubator of this work,” reflects Dr Fry. “It recognises its own unique contribution and encourages researchers like me to collaborate and look beyond the four walls of my office, which is important if we are going to tackle some of these really big issues.”  

Professor Dorothy Miell, Vice-Principal and Head of the University’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, commends the approach: “The collaborative aspect of this research has been very effective and is something that we are pleased to support and encourage. By bringing together a range of expertise, the Safe Inclusive Schools Network will further build on Edinburgh’s strong reputation in child protection and inclusion, at both a local and international level.”


Photo © Tricia Malley Ross Gillespie