Children represent about a quarter of the world’s population, and in some countries, they account for more than half the inhabitants. Despite this, adults have traditionally not listened to children when making decisions that will affect them. Professor Laura Lundy of Queen’s University Belfast (Queen’s) has been instrumental in ensuring that policy makers and those who work directly with children—including the European Commission and United Nations— seek and listen to children’s voices in a meaningful way.
In 2007, Laura proposed what is now called the Lundy model of participation. This landmark approach has dramatically altered how decisions are made about children around the world. Explaining what children’s right to be heard means, Laura suggested that merely listening to children’s voices isn’t enough. Children must be provided with a safe space to express their views, the necessary information to come to an informed opinion, an audience that is responsible for listening to them and has the power to make a difference, and the influence to have their views taken seriously and acted upon.
“The model has enabled me to inform and empower others to involve children in decision making to bring about change in their lives. Globally, we have really changed how people do this in research as well as in practice,” she says.
Laura didn’t start her career as a children’s rights expert and, in fact, admits that children’s participation wasn’t something she took sufficiently seriously before she learnt more about it herself. She started her career by qualifying as a barrister-at-law at Queen's where she was then offered a unique opportunity at the age of 23 to become a lecturer in public law.
After 14 years, Laura decided to broaden her horizons by moving from the law school to the education school, which allowed her to get more involved in interdisciplinary research. She notes, “I’m a better academic because I moved and exposed myself to new ways of thinking, new theories, new methodologies. I don’t think I could be where I am, and as successful as I am, if I had not made that leap. Queen’s allowed and encouraged me to make that unusual move.”
It was in the education school that Laura’s interest in children’s rights crystallised. Northern Ireland had just appointed its first children’s commissioner, and Laura was the principal investigator for a research project on children’s rights in Northern Ireland. “We spoke to over a thousand children and their sense of frustration about not being heard, being dismissed or being considered to be cheeky when they gave their views, was simply overwhelming. It was like an epiphany for me. It absolutely changed how I looked at research and my own thinking. That’s where the Lundy model came from,” she says.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lundy model is helping governments understand how their policies are impacting children. Laura’s team developed a survey for the #CovidUnder19 initiative that received 27,000 responses from children in over 130 countries. The results were staggering. 60% of children reported they had access to better education before schools were closed to stop the spread of COVID-19. “Because they were unlikely to get very sick, children’s best interests were sacrificed to a large degree for the economy and public health,” says Laura. “But the balance was off and children got that. They told us time and time again, ‘You're not letting me go to school, but my mum and dad can go and shop. You’re thinking about the economy and not about us.’ A rights-based approach doesn't necessarily lead you to a definitive answer [about whether schools should be reopened], but it makes you weigh what's at stake for children and it requires you to hear what they have to say about that.”
Laura feels very loyal to Queen’s. “I always wanted to contribute here in Northern Ireland, where is a strong need for and focus on social justice. But it has also not stopped me from contributing globally and internationally, which is where most of my work is now. So I’ve actually had the benefit of both worlds.” Laura has four children and as someone who has managed work and raising a family, she commends the support given to young female academics by Queen’s, including the option of flexible working after maternity leave.
She also speaks passionately about the wonderful people working at the Centre for Children’s Rights where she is co-director, “Everyone is respectful of everyone else’s expertise. Together, we do these really exciting, brilliant projects all over the world. Our work is fun because we’re usually working directly with children and young people. And that’s never dull.”
Laura is Co-Director of the Centre for Children’s Rights and a Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. Her expertise lies in children’s right to participate in decision-making, the right to education, and the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in law and policy.