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September 8
International Literacy Day

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World Teachers' Day

Background Information on the Global Themes > Education


The right to education as a human right

In a case from the European Court of Human Rights, the right to education was defined as "a right of access to educational institutions `existing at a given time' and the right to draw benefit from the education received, which means the right to obtain official recognition of the studies completed"16.


" both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights. As an empowerment right, education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalised adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities. Education has a vital role in empowering women, safeguarding children from exploitative and hazardous labour and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, protecting the environment and controlling population growth. Increasingly, education is recognised as one of the best financial investments States can make. But the importance of education is not just practical: a well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence17."

"Education is not merely a means for earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth. It is an initiation into a life of spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue."

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

The right to education is referred to in the following human rights instruments:

  • The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (art. 26)
  • The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (art. 2 of Protocol No.1)
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (art. 10)
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child (arts. 28 and 29)
  • The African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples' Rights (art. 17)
  • The Protocol of San Salvador to the American Convention on Human Rights (art. 13).
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (arts. 13 and 14). It is interesting to note that Article 13 is the longest provision in the Covenant and the most wide-ranging and comprehensive article on the right to education in international human rights law.

What are the present educational challenges?


In 1996, a Unesco commission provided an outline of the seven main tensions facing the world and affecting education:

  1. The tension between the global and the local;
  2. The tension between the universal and the individual;
  3. The tension between tradition and modernity;
  4. The tension between the spiritual and the material;
  5. The tension between long-term and short-term considerations;
  6. The tension between competition and equality of opportunity;
  7. The tension between the extraordinary expansion of knowledge and the capacity of human beings to assimilate it.

Unesco has highlighted what they have called the four `pillars' of learning, as a strategy that could help face and deal with these challenges:

  1. Learning to live together: Specifically, this means that education should strengthen in students the skills and abilities necessary for them to accept their interdependence with other people; to manage conflict; to work and plan with others common objectives and a common future; to respect pluralism and diversity (for example in gender, ethnicity, religion and culture); and to participate actively in the life of the community.
  2. Learning to know: This means that education should help students to acquire the instruments of knowledge: the essential learning tools of communication and oral expression, literacy, numeracy and problem-solving; to gain both a broad general knowledge and an in-depth knowledge of a few areas; to understand rights and responsibilities; and most importantly, to learn how to learn.
  3. Learning to do: Education should help students to acquire occupational skills and social and psychological competencies that will enable them to make informed decisions about diverse life situations, to function in social and work relationships, to participate in local and global markets, to use technological tools, to meet basic needs and to improve the quality of their own and others' lives;
  4. Learning to be: Education should contribute to developing the personality and enable people to act with greater autonomy, judgement, critical thinking and personal responsibility. It should aim to develop all aspects of potential, for example, memory, reasoning, an aesthetic sense, spiritual values, physical capacities and communication skills; a healthy lifestyle, and enjoyment of sports and recreation; an appreciation of one's own culture; possession of an ethical and moral code; an ability to speak for and defend oneself; resilience.

The complementary roles of formal and non-formal education

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance".


There are two key concepts that are being integrated in European educational policies: the vision of lifelong learning in a learning society. The idea is of a community where people are offered different opportunities to develop their competencies throughout their lives. It is important to note that there is increased recognition not only of the role of formal education but also of the opportunities offered by non-formal education, that is, the programmes outside the formal education system. Such programmes are often managed by non-governmental organisations, including youth organisations. They are able to address a wide range of topics and different methodologies, using flexible approaches, and may include ways of providing literacy and other skills to the millions of children and adults who are denied access to the formal education system or who are functional illiterates.

"as one of the principal means available to foster a deeper and more harmonious form of human development and thereby to reduce poverty, exclusion, ignorance, oppression and war18"

Can you think of examples of non-formal education programmes in your own community?

In the twentieth century, in Europe, public or state schools have also become the major institution for mass education, and formal education is widely accepted.

In recent decades, this tendency has resulted in increased budgetary allocations for basic education, in legislation making schooling compulsory, and in widespread media coverage of education and development issues.

Experts in education speak of the importance of "crossing boundaries" between formal and non-formal education, promoting communication and co-operation that will help with synchronising educational activities and learning environments in order to provide learners with a coherent set of opportunities.

The role of European youth organisations

At the European level, youth organisations have found ways of making their voice heard on educational issues. So too have student organisations such as the National Union of Students in Europe (ESIB) and the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU), which is the largest European platform of national school student organisations and unions, and is active in general secondary and secondary vocational education. These organisations work to facilitate the exchange of information, experience and knowledge between national school student organisations, and they play a seminal role in promoting discussion on new trends within the formal education systems in Europe.


To what extent are education systems generally keeping up with current challenges?

As the world has become more complex, school systems have expanded both in size and complexity. The sheer number of children in these systems has grown probably at a rate even faster than the growth of population: total primary enrolment in developing countries grew from 50% in 1970 to 76% in 1990 and to 82% in 1995. Most systems have stretched themselves to cover children of pre-school age, adolescents and adults more systematically than before.

Literacy rates in developing countries have also grown - from 43% in 1970 to 65% in 1990 and to more than 70% in 1995. Such expansion is largely the result of improvements in the quality of education, in more attention to schooling by governments and the international community and in the continued value attached to schooling by families. Education is valued for its own sake and it is also seen as a panacea to the everyday challenges faced by families.

However, in contrast to this picture, some evidence to the contrary can be seen in the stagnation of enrolments in a number of countries. Some experts have pointed out that in the past twenty years

"the rate of growth of primary, secondary, and tertiary (post-secondary) school enrolment was slower for most groups of countries. The rate of growth of public spending on education, as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), also slowed across all groups of countries"19

These patterns have had particularly negative consequences for educational achievements, including literacy rates, in countries that have seen less rapid improvement in the past twenty years compared to that in the previous two decades.


Key elements of globalisation, such as selective trade liberalisation, companies' ability to shift operations around the globe and tax evasion are threatening long-term funding for education. Tax problems have affected government funding for education. In the case of Ghana, the government is able to collect 12% of Gross National Product (GNP) in taxation. If it were to lose just 10% of tax revenue - i.e. 1.2% of GNP - then this would be equivalent to about half the primary-education budget. Protecting revenue-collection capacity is therefore of vital importance to achieving progress towards the goal of universal primary education.20


In many central and east European countries, economic recovery is still not a reality. What are the consequences for education?

"The decentralisation of social expenditures has had a substantial effect on available resources for education (Poland, 1999; Russian Federation, 1999; Romania, 1999). Several central European countries had introduced greater decentralisation of educational finance and governance prior to 1990, but in the rest of the region there have been new efforts to devolve responsibilities from central governments to local levels.

Thus, local governments have been given increasing responsibility for education provision from pre-primary to secondary schooling. In many cases, schools themselves have been assigned considerable authority. Measured in terms of expenditure responsibilities, regions are often responsible for a majority of spending on education and in some countries there are growing disparities in the ability of different regions of a country to finance educational programmes (Poland, 1999).

In some cases, local authorities, particularly in rural areas, are not allocated the financial resources to meet these new responsibilities and have few means to raise additional funds. Often, teachers' wages (representing the largest share of the educational budget) are still fixed by central authorities, which leaves schools with little autonomy over budgetary decisions.

However, the share of resources going to education is coming from a public budget that has been greatly diminished. Faced by large falls in national income and by reduced tax revenues, state support for education has been sharply reduced in real terms.

In spite of the difficulties associated with the transition process, countries have taken many concrete steps towards education reform. These reforms have focused on the areas of education legislation, democratisation of curricula and decentralisation of governance and finance. However, in some countries, the actual implementation of these reforms has been slow and often difficult"21.

"The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet."


Unfortunately, the available indicators on the condition of education worldwide make it evident that far too limited resources are being invested in this sector. In a world that is characterised by accelerating change, parents and young people are questioning the relevance of what schools teach. In addition, too many schools throughout the world are characterised by high teacher absenteeism, poor use of available instructional time and negligible attention to the interests and abilities of individual learners. It comes as no surprise that in such schools, where children may be getting little useful knowledge and much of their time is spent in rote learning, many children reject what education systems offer. Among those students who continue in school, many do not acquire elementary skills in analysing and applying their school learning to life-relevant tasks.

Experts from the Council of Europe have highlighted three main groups of young people who are particularly vulnerable within education systems:

  1. those who come from economically disadvantaged families;
  2. those whose parents have limited educational experience;
  3. ethnic minorities, immigrants and travellers.

"We are born weak, we need strength; helpless, we need aid; foolish, we need reason. All that we lack at birth, all that we need when we come to man's estate, is the gift of education."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Can you identify any other groups, not mentioned in this list, that are particularly vulnerable in your community?

In many parts of the world there is increasing scepticism concerning formal, uniform systems of education. People see growing disparities and gaps - in cost, quality, achievements, and certification - and this has led to a "crisis of confidence" in public schooling throughout much of the world.

If all children of primary school age were to receive a good quality basic education lasting for a minimum of four years, the problem of illiteracy would be resolved in the space of a single generation. Yet today:

  1. 125 million children of primary school age are not in school; most of these are girls.
  2. Another 150 million children start primary school but drop out before they have completed four years of education. The vast majority leave before they have acquired basic literacy skills.
  3. In much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, children can expect to receive about 4 to 7 years of education. In the industrialised countries they can expect 15 to17 years.
  4. Today 870 million people are illiterate; 70% of these are women.

"Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army."

Edward Everett

Can you think of reasons why such a large percentage of illiterate people are women?

Fifty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed free and compulsory education to be a basic human right. In 1990, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by all but two of the world's governments, reaffirmed this right as a legally binding obligation.

Since then, there have been many high-level international commitments to this fundamental human right.

Developed countries have repeatedly committed themselves to greater development co-operation, in order to achieve the goals that were set at international summits during the 1990s. The world's governments met in 1990 at the World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien, Thailand. Here they set goals so that, within a decade, all of the world's children would be provided with the opportunity to develop their full capacities. That commitment covered universal access to good-quality primary education, and an end to gender inequalities.

The most recent commitment by states and heads of governments for universal primary education aims to achieve this by 2015. On current trends, even this less ambitious target will be unattainable. If the world's governments fail to act now, 75 million children will be deprived of basic education in 2015.

Yet the most recent world summit on education (Dakar, 2000) stressed that

"Education is a fundamental human right. It is the key to sustainable development and peace and stability within and among countries and thus an indispensable means for effective participation in the societies and economies of the twenty-first century."



Building Bridges for Learning, Youth Forum, Brussels, 1999. Education for All - country reports, 2000.

Education Now Campaign, Oxfam

European Youth Trends 2000, Council of Europe, 2001.

Learning: The treasure within, Unesco, Paris, 1996.

World Education Report


16. Belgian Linguistic Case, relating to certain aspects of the laws on the use of languages in education in Belgium. Judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, 23 July 1968, Publications of the Court, Series A, vol. 6, p. 31.

17 .The right to education (art.13), 08/12/99. E/C.12/1999/10, CESCR.

18. Learning: The treasure within, Unesco, Paris, 1996.

19. Weisbrot, M., Baker, D., Kraev, E., and Chen, J., The scorecard on globalisation 1980-2000: twenty years of diminished progress, Centre for Economic and Policy Research,

20. Watkins, K., Education now - Break the cycle of poverty, Oxfam International, 2000.

21. Extracted from Motivans, A., Education for all, central and eastern Europe - Synthesis report, Unesco Institute for Statistics, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, February 2000.


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