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Defining the right to education

©David San Millan/ ActionAid
©David San Millan/ ActionAid

The right to education has been universally recognised since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (though referred to by the ILO as early as the 1920s) and has since been enshrined in various international conventions, national constitutions and development plans. However, while the vast majority of countries have signed up to, and ratified, international conventions (such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) far fewer have integrated these rights into their national constitutions or provided the legislative and administrative frameworks to ensure that these rights are realised in practice. In some cases the right exists along with the assumption that the user should pay for this right, undermining the very concept of a right. In others, the right exists in theory but there is no capacity to implement this right in practice. Inevitably, a lack of government support for the right to education hits the poorest hardest. Today, the right to education is still denied to millions around the world.

As well as being a right in itself, the right to education is also an enabling right. Education creates the “voice” through which rights can be claimed and protected, and without education people lack the capacity to achieve valuable functionings as part of the living. If people have access to education they can develop the skills, capacity and confidence to secure other rights. Education gives people the ability to access information detailing the range of rights that they hold, and government’s obligations. It supports people to develop the communication skills to demand these rights, the confidence to speak in a variety of forums, and the ability to negotiate with a wide range of government officials and power holders.

Read more:

What is a human right

International Law and the Right to Education

Understanding and using int. law

Gender and the Right to Education

Rights and Obligations

Rights Based Approaches to Education

Local to national

Human Rights Education

There is - of course, one might say - no absolute agreement as to how to define human rights, but among ESC rights, the substance ofg the right to education is relatively well defined: universal access to free and compulsory primary education, universal availability/accessibility of secondary education, in particular by the progressive introduction of free education; equal access to higher education on the basis of capacity, in particular by the progressive introduction of free education. These standards are much more clear than, for example, the standards regarding the right to health, the right to housing, the right to participate in cultural life, or the right to an adequate standard of living. This doesn't mean, of course, that these standards exhaust the definition of the right - the issue of quality issue remains a big definitional problem.

Some of the aims and objectives of education, as defined in the international covenants and treaties, may include the following:

The development human personality and individual talent, a sense of dignity and self-worth, and mental and physical ability.

To instill respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as for cultural identity, language and values.

To enable people to participate effectively in a free society.

The promotion of understanding, tolerance, friendship among all groups, and to maintain peace.

To promote gender equality and respect for the environment.

However, it should be noted that these criteria are undoubtedly also among the most malleable and least enforceable with regards to the righ to education: it is much easier to check whether or not primary education is free and available to all, than to check whether or not education is has as its objective the development of a sense of dignity, individual talent or to enable people to participate effectively in a free society. These issues are not impossible to define, but they give States a broader leeway than accessibility or availability.