The Right to Education

Education is an essential human right benefiting both individuals and whole societies. It is fundamental for human, social, and economic development and a key element in achieving lasting peace and sustainable development. It is a powerful tool in developing the full potential of all human beings and in promoting individual and collective well-being. Education provides a means through which all people can become aware of their rights and responsibilities, an essential first step for achieving the equality, peace, and a culture of human rights.

The right to education is explicitly stated in Article 26 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948):

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Article 26 (2) goes on to describe the goals of education as working toward –

… the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, Women’s Convention, 1979) addresses many forms of discrimination that limit women’s right to education, including “the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women,” the encouragement of coeducation, and the revision of textbooks, school programs, and of teaching methods.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) goes beyond basic literacy and numeracy to define a quality of education that includes –

  • School discipline that respects the child’s inherent dignity
  • Access to science and technology
  • Modern teaching methods
  • Education in human rights
  • Respect for the child’s parents, identify, culture, language, and values
  • Respect for civilizations other than one’s own
  • Preparation for “responsible life in a free society.

The Content of the Right to Education

The right to education encompasses both entitlements and freedoms, including:

  • Right to free and compulsory primary education
  • Right to available and accessible secondary education (including technical and vocational education and training), made progressively free
  • Right to equal access to higher education on the basis of capacity made progressively free
  • Right to fundamental education for those who have not received or completed primary education
  • Right to quality education both in public and private schools
  • Freedom of parents to choose schools for their children which are in conformity with their religious and moral convictions
  • Freedom of individuals and bodies to establish and direct education institutions in conformity with minimum standards established by the State
  • Academic freedom of teachers and students.

The Four A’s Framework

Katerina Tomasevski, the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, developed a “Four A’s Framework” that proposes that educations, in order to be a meaningful right in all its forms and at all levels, should exhibit these interrelated and essential features:

  • Available: Education is free with adequate infrastructure and trained teachers able to support the delivery of education.
  • Accessible: The education system is non-discriminatory and accessible to all, and positive steps are taken to include the most marginalized such as homeless, refugee, or working children, and children with disabilities.
  • Acceptable: The content of education is relevant, non-discriminatory and culturally appropriate, and of quality; schools are safe and teachers are professional.
  • Adaptable: Education evolves with the changing needs of society and challenges inequalities, such as gender discrimination; education adapts to suit locally specific needs and contexts

Responsibility for the Right to Education

Many UN agencies such as UNICEF and UNESCO and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work to realize the right to education. However, the principal duty bearers are governments, which are obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill this right.

As with other economic, social, and cultural rights, lack of resources can limit the full realization of the right to education. However, no matter how limited the resources, all governments have immediate obligations to implement these aspects of right to education:

  • Ensure minimum core obligations to meet the essential levels of the right to education, which includes prohibiting discrimination in access to and in education, ensuring free and compulsory primary education for all, respecting the liberty of parents to choose schools for their children, and protecting the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions.
  • Take appropriate steps towards the full realization of the right to education to the maximum of its available resources.
  • Not to adopt retrogressive measures, meaning that the State should not take backwards steps or adopt measures that will repeal existing guarantees of the right to education (e.g., introducing school fees in secondary education when it had formerly been free of charge).[1]

Related Human Rights Instruments:

[1] For a more detailed discussion of the right to education, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 250: