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Education: a fundamental right unavailable to many A celebration or a call for action?

Education has been considered a fundamental human right since Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into force in 1948. In this article it is declared that education shall be free and compulsory; therefore, making it accessible to all. Numerous campaigns, conventions, and movements by UNESCO such as #RightToEducation (2018), #Makeitpublic (2018), Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960), Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and Education for all (2005) have continued advocating for accessible education and pushing governments to act. Without doubt, the accessibility of education has augmented and in its 60th anniversary, the campaign #RightToEducation celebrated that 155 countries legally guarantee 9 years of compulsory education. However, there are still over 30 countries where compulsory education only lasts 0-6 years and even in the other 155 countries mentioned, the right to education remains problematic and requires attention. Can we celebrate our achievements or does the current situation continue to be worrisome?


Protest in late October 2019 in New Delhi, India demanding affordable education for all

Source: Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera


Out of the list of 155 countries that profess to offer 9 years or more of compulsory education, some have a deceiving reality due to unfixable circumstances. For example, children in zones of conflict do not attend school even if education is compulsory. Barriers such as damaged buildings or materials, recruitment of child soldiers, economic hardship, or displacements impede them to do so. In Syria, 2 million children were left out of school even though education is compulsory from grade 1 to 9.

Other examples of countries where legislation depicts an ideal instead of a fact include India where child labor affects 10.1 million children, Bangladesh where 15 million child brides were married under the age of 15 and the Asia-Pacific region which is known to be one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world leaving 20 million children in a vulnerable position. In these countries primary and lower secondary education is compulsory, but the numbers show that 45.1 million children are out of school in these areas.

Inside schools in former colonised nations the situation continues to cause concern, even for children who are enrolled and attend school frequently. Due to the conditions, the extent of how much students are learning can be questioned; the classrooms are overcrowded, there is a lack of essential learning materials, the language of instruction varies from the student’s mother-tongue and 15% of primary teachers around the world are inadequately qualified, with this number rising up to 64% in certain African countries. Moreover, children may struggle to concentrate in schools due to hunger, illnesses, violence, or traumatic experiences. On top of this, girls are less likely to attend school because families who struggle financially may not be able to send all their children to school and therefore prioritise the education of their sons. When girls do go to school, the journey can be dangerous and can result in abduction or sexual harassment. School is not considered safe either as they may face discrimination, gender-based violence or a lack of means to meet their hygienic needs. In fact, when girls start their periods, they are more likely to be discriminated against and become victims of violence. Because of this, many girls drop out of school once they start menstruating.


A group of 4 girls from a village in Nepal going to school in their uniforms.

Source: Pirozzi/UNICEF ROSA


Early industrialised countries in the West are also facing difficulties that need to be overcome before education can be classified as accessible for all. For example, dropout rates have raised concern in certain EU countries such as Malta, Portugal, and Spain with over 20%* of enrolled students dropping out after lower-secondary school. These students have been labelled as early leavers and high percentages are linked to poverty and social exclusion and problems related to economic growth and employment. Causes for students to leave school early include socio-economic situation, family’s educational background, poor relationship with the school, and a lack of quality programmes offered. Spain focused on making a change by improving their special programmes but in 2012 it recognised that it had been over abusing them. It claimed that, although they had helped a few students, it was ineffective and more could be done. Countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary have preferred to adopt measures consisting of early warning mechanisms, reaching out to families, and improving collection and exchange of information between institutions to better identify out-of-school children and students at risk of dropout.

Young people with a migrant background are especially at high risk of leaving school early according to the European Commission. The difficulties first arise when enrolling in schools. Students with a migrant background are more likely than native-born peers to be sent to a school with lower-achievement levels and a high share of socially disadvantaged pupils. This type of setting can lower the educational expectations students have of themselves and result in less successful outcomes. Furthermore, migrants are more likely to be placed in a lower grade than the one that corresponds, which also affects students’ self-expectations and self-confidence. In these situations, teachers can have a significant positive impact if they make the students feel welcomed, supported, and accepted but some teachers may hold harmful low expectations

Students from a migrant background may face challenges when interacting with their native peers since they may have different interests and temperaments. These differences are often the lead cause of bullying and discrimination and in some cases, children decide to bully migrant students because they believe it is just. This could explain why the rate of victimisation against migrant students is 6% higher than against other children. Being bullied can make a child feel lonely, sad or change their eating and sleeping pattern and can even lead to anxiety and depression. The overall experience of a newly arrived migrant child with their friends will also impact their emotional, social, and behavioural development so it is important that the school and the teachers support healthy relationships between the students.

Again, if the right measures are not taken, this will contribute to a higher risk of drop out. Not getting along with peers and feeling unsafe are two reasons why students drop out and unfortunately, migrant children are more likely to experience both of these.

Thankfully, several actions can be taken to help migrant children create strong friendship bonds. For example, the U.K. recommends that migrant children should be involved in the wider school life as soon and as much as possible, including forming part in extracurricular activities like drama or art. Another good strategy is to include the child’s mother-tongue inside the school. This can be done by introducing the student to another child who speaks the same language, offering resources such as books in the child’s mother-tongue and providing the opportunity to study a GCSE in the preferred language. Alternatively, mentor programmes are very popular in the U.K. and consist of young people with a migrant background aged 13-19 being trained to support younger migrants.


Children from Bure Park Primary school in Oxfordshire, England learning to play the recorder as part of their extracurricular activity.

Source: Bure Park Primary school


In total, 258 million children and youth are out of school. Should we turn a blind eye and pop champagne bottles because 155 countries have “compulsory” education, or should we be critical and realistic and realise that there is still a long way to go before education is truly accessible for all?


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About the Author




Isabel is a Primary Education student who volunteers at Conversation Over Borders as a teaching consultant. She has a special interest in international and comparative education and would like to complete further studies in this area. In her free time she enjoys playing piano and reading.

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