In November 1989 the world was changing. With the Berlin wall crumbling and the world ushering in a new age, countries found common ground in defending the rights of children. “Humanity owes its best to each and every one of you,” stated UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to an audience of children, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted on the 20th of November 1989. It would go on to become one of the most widely ratified human rights treaties in history.
The Convention’s articles 28 and 29 are clear: education is a right, not a privilege. Free and compulsory primary education was mandated while states were encouraged to ensure secondary education was “available and accessible to every child”, including by introducing free secondary education. Higher education was to be made accessible to all, “on the basis of capacity”. School discipline was to respect the child’s human dignity. The purpose of education was defined as “the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential”, in preparation for “responsible life in a free society”.
Thirty years on, we’ve seen massive progress, with more children in schools than ever before. But we do not lack for challenges.
Since the Convention was adopted, the world has witnessed the instrumentalisation of educational settings, and of the very content of education during armed conflicts. We have seen a pattern of attacks on schools in countries affected by conflict, insecurity and weak human rights protections. Students, teachers, education unions, academics and schools have been intentionally targeted. In too many contexts, schools are damaged, closed or even taken over by armed groups. Thousands of children miss out on their right to education as a result.
Worse still, education itself has become a target. Only seven years ago, Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Pakistani Taliban for supporting the very right to education enshrined in the Convention. Two years later, in 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from their school in Nigeria; 112 of these girls are still missing today. These are just some of the cases that made the headlines – many more students and teachers fell victims to these groups without the world paying attention. Both the Taliban and Boko Haram (which translates to ‘Western education is a sin’) see education, especially the education of girls, as a threat to the unequal societies they seek to impose in their respective countries.
Another big challenge has been the high numbers of people displaced by conflict, persecution, failing states and economic hardship. In 2018, children under the age of 18 accounted for about half of the world’s 25.9 million refugees. In terms of access to education, the situation is critical: only 50% of refugee children have access to primary education (the global level stands at over 90%) and only 22% of refugee adolescents are in lower-secondary school.
To address these challenges and many others, the world mobilised around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Global ambitions grew from trying to achieve universal primary education (MDG2) to the much broader scope of SDG4, which covers all levels of education, aims for improved quality of, as well as access to education, and embraces a broader vision of education, beyond literacy and numeracy. With SDG Agenda 2030, governments have committed to addressing the concrete barriers and ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Notably, SDG4 recognises that there can be no quality education without qualified teachers and safe, non-violent and inclusive learning environments.
However, four years since the adoption of the SDGs, the world is already lagging behind and off track when it comes to achieving SDG4, and honouring the right to education of every single child.
This is why the work of education unions is essential. We advocate for free, state-funded, quality, public education for all. We evaluate the progress made and hold governments and international institutions to account. We expose the threats of applying market-based thinking to education and allowing privatisation and edu-businesses to put profit before students. We work to ensure teachers have the necessary employment and working conditions, initial training, and continuous professional learning and development to help all children reach their full potential.
The resolutions adopted by our 8th World Congress in July 2019 show the scope of the work still to be done to dismantle the persistent barriers to universal quality education. At Congress, we pledged to continue fighting against child labour and for inclusive quality education for all; to keep opposing the commercialisation of education; to take the lead in decolonising education across the globe; to support refugee children to access quality education; to make sure early childhood education is not a commodity, but the right of every child; to highlight the attacks on schools in Africa and the dire need to ensure their safety; and to champion the universal eradication of corporal punishment in schools.
The progress we’ve made over the past 30 years is commendable but there is no time to rest. As long as there are children who miss out on their right to quality education, and millions still do, our work is far from over.
EI General Secretary