It is simple. Preventing poor students from studying at the university is bad enough, but forcing primary-school children to work because they are too poor to pay for education which should be free is intolerable.

The State of the Right to Education Worldwide is the first global report to review the education laws and practice in 170 countries and to expose the hypocrisy whereby the right to free and compulsory education is loudly and universally proclaimed, and quietly and systematically betrayed.

Katarina Tomasevski, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education spent six years compiling this Report before her untimely death in October 2006. The result should serve as a wake up call to all those concerned with global education and poverty reduction. It exposes the global pattern of poverty-based exclusion from primary education, and calls for poverty reduction strategies to use the elimination of economic exclusion from education as a benchmark. The current reality – where education is priced out of reach of the poor – subverts human rights, and denies another generation its birthright: free and compulsory education worthy of the name.  

Free and compulsory education as a fundamental human right

Free and compulsory education for all the world’s children forms the backbone of international human rights law but does not shape global educational strategies.

The global human rights minimum standards mandate that education be free so that it can be compulsory until the minimum age of employment. Although the law is more than 80 years old, the bitter reality of economic exclusion from education is evidenced in no less than 22 different types of charges which are levied in open defiance of its requirements.

This report shows that the key problem is not the proverbial “insufficient public resources”. The resource in the shortest supply is the political will to acknowledge and reverse economic exclusion, the necessary first step to achieving the right to education.

How can the right to education be affirmed and yet denied within the international community?

A major difficulty in realizing the right to education is the labyrinth of global education strategies with different visions of education. The UN, and its lead agency on education UNESCO, are formally committed to the right to education but many other global stake­holders are not. The United States government and the World Bank lead those who deny that education is a universal human right. That education should be free and compulsory is absent from the World Bank’s educational vocabulary. Instead, education is analysed in terms of supply and demand. This approach denies that compulsory education is a governmental responsibility. The result is that governments are pressurized not toprovide free education, but to transfer its cost to families and communities.

The “international community has made pledges to meet the “Millennium Development Goals” and the objectives of “Education for All” (EFA), including to ensure that by 2015 all children have “access to” and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality. Yet these political promises, which convert what should have been affirmed as every child’s birthright into a long-term development goal, can be broken with impunity. At the same time every country in the world, except the USA and Somalia, is obligated by international human rights law to ensure compulsory education free of direct, indirect and opportunity costs. Yet access to international development finance is not conditioned on human rights law, which is ignored. This report show the shocking consequence of how few countries uphold the right to free and compulsory education in their laws and policies.

The State of the Right to Education Worldwide highlights the abyss between the domestic policies of wealthy creditor and donor governments which keep compulsory education free, and their external policies which have made it for-fee. It demonstrates how policy and practice in 170 individual countries further or frustrate the right to education, showing why this is so, and the impact of the model whether chosen or imposed. It shows how the lack of global accountability means that today’s entitlements in public education are based on a country-code lottery. They are considerable for those lucky enough to have been born in the wealthy countries and absent for those who had no such luck.

While international human rights law requires progressive realisation of the right to education and anticipates that international cooperation will facilitate this, there is no global commitment in reality to share the burden of ensuring the core of the right to education – free and compulsory education – internationally. The exclusion of international human rights law from international education strategies facilitates abuse of power by individual governments and by intergovernmental agencies including the World Bank.

Governments which are human rights violators, including rich governments of poor countries, make bad educators, whether prioritising military expenditure over the right to education or transforming education into institutionalised brain-washing, and where their populations have no means to hold them accountable. In such situations, political promises to increase the numbers of children in education have little meaning. Human rights law, which matches individual rights to clear government obligations, provides a framework for ensuring that education is available, accessible, acceptable and adapts to the individual.

Why should we care?

Where children have to work so as to pay the cost of their primary school, double shifts leave them little time to sleep, let alone time and energy and freedom to organize protest campaigns. Katarina Tomaševski’s experience of living and working in innumerable countries around the world informs this report which shows what happens where children cannot go to school because it is priced out of their reach. Children and young people are silent victims of global bureaucracies, whose creative statistics and evasive vocabulary disguise their failure to translate any of the promises made into reality. The law, which mandates education to be free and compulsory, has been cast aside. Education should be free but it is for-fee.

Human rights law defines what governments should and should not do. Amongst the should-dos, ensuring education for all children tops the list. Using human rights as the lens for examining education necessitates challenging exclusion from education and also asking what education is for. Schooling, which is what global targets prioritize, is not the end but merely the means for education.

Without human rights safeguards, compulsory education can amount to institutionalization of indoctrination. Many governments today neither provide education for all, nor know who are educating the youth. The right to education also demands that public authorities take charge of education because it is simply too dangerous not to do so. Human rights law requires policy makers to ask the questions which bean-counters avoid.

Despite the clear requirements of international human rights law, and often in breach of national law, the private cost of primary school may be more than 30% of the annual family budget and five times more than the public primary education budget in some countries. The rule of law is threatened by governments and the World Bank which fail to fully finance free compulsory education for all children.

Read the report. Get angry. Help expose and oppose economic exclusion from education.