November 20th marked 25 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which had a major influence on the 1990 World Declaration on Education for All (EFA). Among all human rights treaties, this Convention is the one that has been ratified most rapidly and by the largest number of states.
The 2000 Dakar Framework for Action reaffirmed that EFA followed a rights-based approach and explicitly aimed for “free compulsory primary education of good quality.” Since 2002, the EFA Global Monitoring Report has systematically followed up on violations of the right to education, for example highlighting inequalities in access, participation, attainment and learning outcomes, looking at how education costs are shared between governments and households, and reviewing the state of education in the middle of armed conflict.
Many sense that the central principle of education as a basic human right is more equivocal today than in the past. This is apparent in the shaping of the global development agenda post-2015, where such concerns have resurfaced. The issue of whether the right to education can be reconciled with the sustainable development goals post-2015 was also posed in the Second World Human Rights Forum, which took place this past week in Marrakech. An extremely well attended session saw participants from all regions voice their deep concerns. They included the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education whose recent report sharply focused on the risks posed by increasing privatization of education in poorer countries.
While the agenda of the Outcome Document of the Open Working Group does take a human rights approach, there are gaps in how education targets have been formulated:
Literacy: The current formulation does not do justice to recent advances in how we conceive the right to literacy. The scope of the target needs to expand so that literacy skills are not seen just as the ability to read and count but as enabling individuals to fully participate in society.
Financing: A reluctance to explicitly refer to government obligations to allocate the necessary resources to meet education targets means that responsibility will remain with families, which hugely impacts educational opportunity for children from the poorest households. By contrast, a decision to focus on scholarships for higher education sends the wrong signal as to what financing mechanism should be prioritized to realize the right to education.
Equity: While there is a specific target on equity, the formulation in the Global EFA Meeting final statement in Muscat, which includes references to gender and marginalized groups in each target, better conveys the need to monitor inequalities across all levels of education.
Compulsory education: A reference to compulsory basic education is missing. The inclusion of at least a year of free and compulsory pre-primary education, as stipulated in the Muscat agreement, would have also been more compatible with a rights-based approach. Arguably, extending targets to upper secondary and tertiary education risks bringing governments in front of ever more difficult trade-offs that threaten the right to education for all.
Despite these challenges, some progress has been made when compared to the Millennium Development Goals. For example, the reference to free primary and secondary education is important. The growing trend in the privatization of education may be consistent with the right of parents to choose the education they want for their children as specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, it also poses the risk that governments may abdicate from their responsibility. The commitment to free education is therefore very important.
In addition, the proposed target on global citizenship reminds us that education is not only a human right in itself but also a means to secure other human rights, and to promote tolerance and peace. It sets the education community on the path to look deeper into how it can achieve these ultimate objectives.
Beyond target formulations, the real test of whether the post-2015 agenda can be reconciled with the right to education is the establishment of robust accountability mechanisms. Such mechanisms were practically absent from the development agenda after 2000. The post-2015 sustainable development agenda needs to carefully consider the instruments established by the United Nations Human Rights Council as an example of a possible way forward.