The goal of a human rights-based approach to education is simple: to assure every child a quality education that respects and promotes her or his right to dignity and optimum development. Achieving this goal is, however, enormously more complex. The right to education is high on the agenda of the international community. It is affirmed in numerous human rights treaties and recognized by governments as pivotal in the pursuit of development and social transformation. This recognition is exemplified in the international goals, strategies and targets that have been set during the past 20 years. The Education for All goals were established at Jomtien (Thailand) in 1990 and reaffirmed at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar (Senegal). In the Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000, the world’s governments committed to achieving universal access to free, quality and compulsory primary education by 2015. In ‘A World Fit for Children’, the outcome document from the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children in 2002, governments reaffirmed these commitments and agreed to a range of strategies and actions to achieve them. More ambitious targets have been established in many regions. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, are increasingly making school attendance compulsory for children of preprimary age.5 These various strategies have had an effect: In 1948, when education was recognized as a human right, only a minority of the world’s children had access to any formal education; now a majority of them go to school, and participation in formal education beyond the elementary stages has increased.
The development of a human rights-based approach to education requires a framework that addresses the right of access to education, the right to quality education and respect for human rights in education. These dimensions are interdependent and interlinked, and a rights-based education necessitates the realization of all three. The right to education requires a commitment to ensuring universal access, including taking all necessary measures to reach the most marginalized children. But getting children into schools is not enough; it is no guarantee of an education that enables individuals to achieve their economic and social objectives and to acquire the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes that bring about responsible and active citizenship.
To ensure quality education in line with the Dakar Framework for Action (2002) and the aims of education elaborated by the Committee on the Rights of the Child,24 attention must be paid to the relevance of the curriculum, the role of teachers, and the nature and ethos of the learning environment. A rights-based approach necessitates a commitment to recognizing and respecting the human rights of children while they are in school – including respect for their identity, agency and integrity. This will contribute to increased retention rates and also makes the process of education empowering, participatory, transparent and accountable. In addition, children will continue to be excluded from education unless measures are taken to address their rights to freedom from discrimination, to an adequate standard of living and to meaningful participation. A quality education cannot be achieved without regard to children’s right to health and well-being. Children cannot achieve their optimum development when they are subjected to humiliating punishment or physical abuse. This conceptual framework highlights the need for a holistic approach to education, refl ecting the universality and indivisibility of all human rights. The following sections set out the central elements that therefore need to be addressed in each of the three dimensions mentioned above.
1. The right of access to education
- Education throughout all stages of childhood and beyond
- Availability and accessibility of education
- Equality of opportunity
2. The right to quality education
- A broad, relevant and inclusive curriculum
- Rights-based learning and assessment
- Child-friendly, safe and healthy environments
3. The right to respect in the learning environment
- Respect for identity
- Respect for participation rights
- Respect for integrity
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