At what age?
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), national laws and policies concerning children must be directed to their best interests. They must also strike a balance between safeguarding children from abuse, exploitation or a premature end to their childhood, on one hand, and providing them with the skills, knowledge and learning necessary to live in dignity, on the other. Nowhere is this equilibrium more crucial to securing children’s full development than in education, straddling - as it does - both protection and participation: by ensuring compulsory education, the State protects the child from the harmful consequences of risky or detrimental activities; through education, the State facilitates the child’s full development and participation in social life. Yet, such safeguards are often ignored and the right to education continues to be undermined by conflicting laws and policies.
What are the implications for children’s development if the age at which they complete their compulsory schooling is 14 but the legal minimum age for employment is 12? Or vice versa? What happens if a girl can legally be married before finishing compulsory education? Will she return to school and develop her potential to the fullest? And who ensures that relevant education of good quality is in place to prevent juvenile delinquency or to facilitate the reintegration into society of children in conflict with the law?
These are some of the questions raised in At what age?... are school-children employed, married and taken to court? – Trends over time. Covering 186 State reports over a period of 18 years, this research confirms that States have not yet fully upheld the right to education in their legislation. Nor have they agreed standards for the transition from childhood to adulthood, either domestically or internationally.
N.B. The 2011 update of this research is summarised in the overview comparative table, and the detailed excerpts from the CRC reporting process on which the research is based are available on the country pages of this site. The annotated version contains excerpts from State reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The 2004 edition of At What Age...? is available here.
As explaied in the methodology, this research is extensively based on States Parties' reports under the CRC, and therefore reflects States' accounts of their own practice. At what age? brings to light problems that should be - but are not - effectively and urgently addressed. The main research question is concordance or discord among the age at which children should be at school and the ages at which, instead, they are legally allowed (and often compelled) to work, marry, or face criminal proceedings. The principal finding is that 18 years on from the entry into force of the CRC, incoherence in domestic legislation governing the actions of children and young people remains the norm rather than the exception. Instead of safeguarding children’s security and development, as they should, some laws on legal minimum ages actually pose serious obstacles to children’s enjoyment of their universally recognised rights.
The data emerging from this research illustrate this point very clearly: in at least 35 countries of the world there is no specific age for the completion of compulsory education; at least 25 States have no minimum age for employment; in 48 countries girls can be married earlier than boys; and in at least 142 States children may be taken to court for criminal acts at an age between 6 and 15, which often coincides with the age range for compulsory education. Moreover, in the same country, it is not rare to find that children are legally obliged to go to school until they are 14 or 15 while a different law allows them to work at an earlier age or to be married at the age of 12. This widespread inconsistency between compulsory education and other related legislation jeopardises the development of the child's personality (which is the key aim of education according to human rights law) and leaves children more vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.
At what age? also raises questions about the extent of State compliance with the outcomes of the CRC monitoring process. While information concerning some countries may not reflect the most recent developments, due to the very specific choice of sources and the backlog in the reporting procedure, the general picture in terms of State compliance is currently mixed, at best. Trends over time show a few instances of progress, many cases where the status quo is maintained, and some retrogression, too. If minimum ages continue to be inconsistent or illogical, despite the Committee’s persistent recommendations towards harmonisation and conformity with the thrust of the CRC, questions need to be asked as to what can be done better to ensure that children are protected, the right to education is fully upheld, and the Convention and its monitoring mechanism are taken seriously. This research offers some recommendations in this direction in order to encourage discussion on how to enhance the impact of the Convention and its Committee on States Parties’ laws, policies and practices.
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School leaving age