top of page
  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Our Global Failure to Educate

“Knowledge is a very special commodity: the more you give away, the more you have left. Imparting education not only enlightens the receiver, but also broadens the giver—the teachers, the parents, the friends. Schooling not only benefits the person being schooled, but also others who are close to those being schooled. Basic education is a social good, which people can share and jointly benefit without having to snatch it from others”.[1]

Almost exactly 70 years ago the United Nations General Assembly adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under which Article 26 outlines the right to education. It begins simply with ‘Everyone has the right to education’.[2] The foundational notion of ‘education’ considers literacy, numeracy and basic essential life skills; skills so essential that the global goal is that they should be accessible to every single human on the planet. ‘Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory’.[3]

There are obvious reasons as to why such basic education is a fundamental right. Literacy and numeracy skills allow for participation in the democratic process, the ability to navigate public transport, the ability to manage finances, increase earning potential and lift people out of poverty. ‘Education is needed both for understanding poverty as a violation of human rights as also for advocacy for recognising it as such’.[4]

Since 2000, the net enrolment rate among children of primary school age has increased from 82% to 90% for girls, and from 88% to 92% for boys, as of 2016.[5] Despite the figures and statistics which demonstrate increased overall enrolment and the closer approach towards gender parity in primary education, there is still much to improve. We have not attainted access to education for all.

Yet, it is not enough for children to simply be in school; the education that they receive must be of high quality, effective and not merely academic. Around the world, 617 million children and youth are not getting to grips with reading skills and mathematics, despite attending school for some time.[6] Even basic education closer to home is not as effective as one might hope, with around 5.1 million adults in England being ‘functionally illiterate’.[7] Once the building blocks of a basic education are put into place we must go even further, as Heidi Gilchrist argues, not only should secondary education be a fundamental right but also higher education (although she argues only to those with the capacity, desire and ability to thrive in such an environment).[8] This is understandable, considering the vast wealth of information there is to absorb and utilise across so many topics, though we cannot hope to master all disciplines, our base-line knowledge should be elevated.

Education feeds into all of our other human rights by increasing awareness and concern about the plethora of issues which plague modern society, driving innovation to address them. UNESCO has stated that one of the purposes of education is to invoke ‘readiness on the part of the individual to participate in solving the problems of his community, his country and the world at large’.[9] Those who are well educated care more about environmental issues, political matters and inequality in society. Those who have had a secondary education are 3 times more likely to express support for democracy.[10] Across 54 countries, women with a secondary education are 4 times less likely to be vulnerable to domestic abuse or marry at an young age.[11] Everybody has the right to an education regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, disability or any factor which sets one individual apart from another. It is only by facilitating this right we may hope to alleviate the obstacles we face that hinder the furtherance of societal development.

However, to really become a well-rounded society capable of protecting and promoting all of our human rights, even pure academic schooling is not enough; we still lack effective education of other sorts. The UN recognises this, stating that a right to education ‘goes beyond formal schooling to embrace the broad range of life experiences and learning processes which enable children, individually and collectively, to develop their personalities, talents and abilities and to live a full and satisfying life within society’.[12]

Although we learn the basic principles of how to maintain our physical health with regular exercise, by eating a balanced diet and practising safe sex (although dispensing knowledge in this area is even somewhat lacking in many countries), we are still struggling to teach our children about fundamental aspects of life such as how to care for our mental health, which is becoming more of a prevalent issue, globally, than ever before. Lack of knowledge as a corollary leads to poorer mental health due to fewer opportunities to better ones’ life, resulting in dissatisfaction. Such ‘life-skills’ education should also be considered indispensable and as much of a human right as learning to read.

Despite the problems we face, we are making progress towards a better standard of pedagogy, as Lynch states, ‘while the role that education plays in the development of the emotional self has as yet not been taken seriously in education circles, there is an emerging discourse about the importance of emotional, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences’ and it is undeniable that we have made strides towards making schooling more accessible for those previously discriminated against.[13]

To continue on our path of progress, those of us who are privileged enough to have access to a thorough, high standard of education must appreciate this position but continue to advocate for those who still struggle to gain access, keep pushing to achieve total equality in schools and demand a better quality of teaching across the globe. We must also insist that we broaden our curriculum to acknowledge the more holistic education that we require to reach our full potential to be healthy, happy, intelligent and productive people. This is our right.

Rachel Towers

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

23 December 2018


[1] S E Lee, ‘Education as a Human Right in the 21st Century’ (2013) 21(1) Democracy and Education Journal p5

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Article 26(1)

[3] Ibid

[4] P Dhillon, ‘The Role of Education in Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right’ (2011) 43(3) Educational Philosophy and Theory p255

[5] ‘Primary School Age Education – UNICEF Data’ (UNICEF, July 2018) accessed 25 November 2018

[6] ‘3 things to know about education as a human right’ (Global Partnership for Education, December 2017) accessed 25 November 2018

[7] ‘Adult literacy’ (2017) accessed 25 November 2018

[8] H R Gilchrist, ‘Higher Education as a Human Right’ (2018) 17 Wash. U. Global Studies. L. Rev. 647

[9] General Conference of the United Nations Educ., Scientific and Cultural Org., Recommendation Concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education Relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, at art. 4(g) (Nov. 19, 1974)

[10] ‘5 ways education can advance peace and justice’ (August 2017) accessed 25 November 2018

[11] ‘5 ways education can help achieve gender equality’ (March 2018) accessed 25 November 2018

[12] UN. (2001). The Aims of education - Convention on the rights of the child (General Comment 1). Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[13] K Lynch, ‘Equality in Education’ (2001) 90 Irish Quarterly Review 405

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

32 views0 comments


bottom of page