Image: Theme 'Education' by Pancho

Education is the process by which society transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another. In the broadest sense, education may include any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character, or physical ability of a person. It has a fundamental influence on the capabilities and potentials of individuals and communities to achieve development as well as social and economic success. It is one of the key factors for development as well as for empowering people. Education provides people with knowledge and information and also contributes to building a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence, and towards the realisation of one's potential.

Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights. As an empowerment right, education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities. Education has a vital role in empowering women, safeguarding children from exploitative and hazardous labour and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, protecting the environment, and controlling population growth.

General Comment 13 on the right to education on Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights1

Question: How has education influenced the way you think, feel and act today?

Education around the world

The earliest universal primary education system was established in Prussia in 1717. It was greatly expanded during the first half of the 19th Century and later copied by other European nations and the US. Many countries followed suit during the 20th century, and numeracy and literacy rose worldwide.

According to UNESCO the global literacy rate in 1950 was 56% and 76% in 1990. Since then there have been several international initiatives to push for a literacy rate of 100%. In 1990 the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand, set a goal of ”Education for All”. In 2000 the World Education Forum (WEF) in Dakar, Senegal adopted the Dakar Framework for Action to ensure quality basic education for all by the year 2015. The WEF initiative coincided with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs comprised eight goals with targets for addressing poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion-while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability by the year 2015. Goals 2 and 3 addressed education specifically.

The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015 ( summaries the situation in relation to education worldwide at the end of the project:

"Free the child's potential, and you will transform him into the world."
Maria Montessori

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education

  • The primary school net enrolment rate in the developing regions has reached 91 per cent in 2015, up from 83 per cent in 2000.
  • The number of out-of-school children of primary school age worldwide has fallen by almost half, to an estimated 57 million in 2015, down from 100 million in 2000.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has had the best record of improvement in primary education of any region since the MDGs were established. The region achieved a 20 percentage point increase in the net enrolment rate from 2000 to 2015, compared to a gain of 8 percentage points between 1990 and 2000.
  • The literacy rate among youth aged 15 to 24 has increased globally from 83 per cent to 91 per cent between 1990 and 2015. The gap between women and men has narrowed.

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

  • Many more girls are now in school compared to 15 years ago. The developing regions as a whole have achieved the target to eliminate gender disparity in primary, secondary and tertiary education.
  • In Southern Asia, only 74 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 1990. Today, 103 girls are enrolled for every 100 boys.

According to UNESCO global literacy in 2014 was 84%. Literacy - being able to read and write - is one of the most important aims of education. As a component of basic education and a foundation for learning, literacy contributes to the enhancement of human capabilities and provides benefits not only for the individual, but also for the family, community and society. Literacy helps eliminate poverty and broaden participation in society.

In 2015 there were 757 million adults still lacking basic reading and writing skills including 115 million youth, who still cannot read or write a simple sentence. Roughly two-thirds of them are female. Literacy among youth (aged 15 to 24 years) has risen steadily to 91% globally, thanks to better access to schooling for this generation. But in sub-Saharan African and South and West Asia, youth literacy rates are still just 70% and 84% respectively. South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are far from gender parity: women aged 15 years and older are 24% less likely to be literate than men in the same age group. Meanwhile, youth in East Asia and the Pacific have reached gender parity, joining adults and youth in Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Central and Eastern Europe.

Despite the advances, the EFA and MDGs goals have not been met and there is still much work to be done. To this end the UN at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, USA in September 2015 adopted an agenda for ”Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); goal 4, with seven targets, is about education.

Goal is about ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Targets of Goal 4:

  • 4.1          By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes
  • 4.2          By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood    development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education
  • 4.3          By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical,vocational and tertiary education, including university
  • 4.4          By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills,including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship
  • 4.5          By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with       disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations
  • 4.6          By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy
  • 4.7          By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to      promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality,promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

Human rights are indivisible from the SDGs. For reference, the linkages between the SDG 4 (quality education) and international human rights instruments are:

  • Right to education [UDHR art. 26; ICESCR art. 13], particularly in relation to children [CRC arts. 28, 29]; persons with disabilities [CRC art. 23(3), CRPD art. 24]; and indigenous peoples [UNDRIP art. 14]
  • Equal rights of women and girls in the field of education [CEDAW art. 10] 23(4), 28(3)], persons with disabilities [CRPD art. 32], and indigenous peoples [UNDRIP art. 39] (
  • Right to work, including technical and vocational training [ICESCR art. 6] International cooperation [UDHR art. 28; DRtD arts. 3-4], particularly in relation to children [CRC arts.

Education and women

“Investing in women’s literacy carries very high returns: it improves livelihoods, leads to better child and maternal health, and favours girls’ access to education. In short newly literate women have a positive ripple e f fect on all development indicators”. UNESCO’s Director-General,Irina Bokova, in her message for International Literacy Day 2010 when the theme was Literacy and women’s empowerment.
UNESCO's figures for 2010 showed that of the 796 adults in the world who were illiterate about two-thirds were women. The data for 2015 are not very different: 757 million illiterate adults of which 63% were women.

Question: Why do you think there are twice as many women than men among illiterate people?

Education as a human right

The right to education is core to the very idea of human rights. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed free and compulsory elementary education to be a basic human right. Education is seen not only as a right, however, but also as a means to the full and effective realisation of other human rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which entered into force in 1976 and was ratified by 160 countries4, reaffirmed the right to education as a legally binding obligation. Article 13 is the longest provision in the Covenant and the most wide-ranging and comprehensive article on the right to education in international human rights law.

If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people. 
Chinese proverb

Article 13

1.  The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education.
They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human
personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights
and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons
to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and
friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the
activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
2. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the
full realization of this right:
(a) Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all;
(b) Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary
education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate
means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;
(c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every
appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;
(d) Fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those
persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education;
(e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an
adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching
staff shall be continuously improved.
3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty
of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to choose for their children schools,
other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum
educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the
religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
4. No part of this article shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals
and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions, subject always to the
observance of the principles set forth in paragraph 1 of this article and to the requirement
that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards
as may be laid down by the State.

"He who opens a school door, closes a prison."
Victor Hugo

The right to education is upheld in numerous other human rights instruments too, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and various regional treaties (for example, the European Social Charter, or the African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples' Rights, or the revised Arab Charter) and conventions focused on particular groups of people (such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women).

All human rights instruments rely largely on knowledge and education about their standards and objectives. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognised this when observing that "a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge" to promote universal respect for and observance of human rights. It entails that education about human rights is essential to creating a world where human rights are respected.

Education should be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable. The concept of these  four As was developed by Katarina Tomaševski, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education.

  • Availability: education is free and paid for by the government; there are appropriate infrastructures, including trained teachers.
  • Accessibility: the system is non-discriminatory and accessible to all, and positive action is taken to include marginalised people.
  • Acceptability: the content of education is relevant, non-discriminatory and culturally appropriate, and quality is guaranteed.
  • Adaptability: education can evolve with the changing needs of society, and the system can be adapted to the local contexts.

Governments have to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education by making education available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable. However, there are other duty-bearing actors in the education process as well,  including the child, who benefit from the right to education and are supposed to comply with compulsory education requirements the child's parents who are the "first educators" and are responsible for providing guidance to the child; and education professionals.

Question: Is education available and accessible to everybody in your country?

Education and discrimination

"If discrimination is not fully exposed, it cannot be effectively opposed."
Katarina Tomaševski

The principle of non-discrimination with respect to education relates to a number of issues.
1.  The first is that education, at all levels, should be accessible and available to all without discrimination.
2.  The second is that the provision, quality and content of education should uphold non-discrimination.
3. The third is that education itself is aimed at the nurturing of respect and tolerance.

Regarding the first issue, the UDHR sets as an objective that elementary education should be free and compulsory. Technical and professional education should be generally available and higher education should be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has confirmed that the obligation of non-discrimination in relation to education extends to all persons living in the territory of a state party, including non-nationals, and stated that "the enjoyment of the right to fundamental education is not limited by age or gender; it extends to children, youth and adults, including older persons"5. The Committee has recognised the right of access to public education on a non-discriminatory basis as a minimum core obligation of states in relation to the right to education. Ensuring non-discrimination in terms of access to education requires that stereotypical perspectives, for example those impeding the right of girls or disadvantaged groups to access education, should be overcome.
The second issue is related to the idea that education itself should work in a non-discriminatory manner. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights highlights "acceptability" as an essential aspect of enjoyment of the right to receive an education. It is important that the quality of education should be equivalent in all public educational institutions of the same level. If separate educational institutions are maintained for particular groups of people, such as the two sexes, or religious or ethnic groups, the quality of teaching staff as well as school premises and equipment must be equivalent.

Question: Are boys and girls treated equally in educational institutions in your country? If not, in what ways are they treated differently?

"Why should society feel responsible only for the education of children, and not for the education of all adults of every age?"
Erich Fromm

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

The question of integrated versus segregated education has been hotly debated in recent years. The right to inclusive education is recognised in international human rights law. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities explicitly states that education for disabled children should be inclusive. However, inclusive education should not be limited to learners with disabilities or special needs, but to all marginalised, left-out, stereotyped people, including ethnic minorities. A learning environment with all kinds of people is beneficial to the more privileged as well, as it helps develop sensitivity to the needs of others, thereby enhancing social integration and tolerance.

Question: Are there any segregated schools in your community? For whom?

With respect to the third issue, the UDHR stipulates that education be directed to the full development of the human personality, human rights and peace, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child adds respect for the natural environment. Literacy and numeracy, as components of basic education and a foundation for lifelong learning, are the key to enhancing human capabilities; however, the right to education encompasses much more. Education is to prepare one for "responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin"6. Its crucial role in dealing with extremism and radicalisation, and promoting social cohesion overcoming gender and other stereotypes, developing a respect for pluralism, and strengthening the ability of people to participate effectively in democratic and pluralistic societies, is increasingly being recognised.

We all have the right to an education that is aimed at building and maintaining a human rights culture. We should be able to learn about human rights and study in an environment where human rights are respected. This is exactly what human rights education is about. So we can conclude that the right to education includes the right to human rights education as well.

The right to education includes the right to human rights education

As discussed above, human rights instruments guarantee the right to education to all, but it is not feasible without also ensuring equality of opportunity. In addition to making education accessible and available to all without discrimination, the adoption of temporary special measures might be required as well in order to support vulnerable groups or individuals in enjoying equal opportunity. For example, extra help may be needed by people with mental or physical disabilities, or simply learning difficulties, as well as by members of socially disadvantaged or marginalised groups, or by ethnic minorities facing linguistic and cultural barriers.

Education and vulnerability in Europe

Although many human rights instruments with binding force prescribe the right of everyone to education without any discrimination, the reality is that not everybody can enjoy this right to the same extent. There are some social groups whose right to education is violated more often than other people's. Experts from the Council of Europe have highlighted three main groups of young people who are particularly vulnerable within education systems:
1.  those who come from economically disadvantaged families
2.  those whose parents have limited educational experience
3.  ethnic minorities, immigrants and people with no fixed home (the so-called "travellers").

In Europe, the education dropout rate among young people aged between 18 and 24 was 14.4% in 2009, according to the official statistics published by Eurostat.8 This means that more than six million people, or one in seven young people, leave school with only lower secondary education or less. In 14 member states, however, that indicator exceeds the European average. The highest education dropout rates are in Malta (36.8%), Portugal (31.2%), and Spain (31.2%).
As the largest ethnic minority in Europe, the Roma are especially vulnerable to human rights violations regarding education. Social marginalisation, poverty, language difficulties and cultural differences may prevent them from taking full advantage of education legally available to all.  In some countries, Roma children are often placed in "special" classes or schools, despite not having any mental or learning disabilities, or are segregated into Roma-only schools. An estimated 50% of Roma children fail to complete primary education, according to a UNESCO report9. Primary education is compulsory, pursuant to international human rights law, so stakeholders should make all efforts to enforce it.

Question: Can you identify any other groups, not mentioned in this list, that are particularly vulnerable in your community?

Present educational challenges

"What if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation to become fully human?"
Paulo Freire

In 1996, a UNESCO commission provided an outline of the seven main tensions facing the world and affecting education in the 21st century10:
1.  The tension between the global and the local
2.  The tension between the universal and the individual
3.  The tension between tradition and modernity
4.  The tension between the spiritual and the material
5.  The tension between long-term and short-term considerations
6.  The tension between competition and equality of opportunity
7. The tension between the extraordinary expansion of knowledge and the capacity of
human beings to assimilate it.
As a strategy that could help address these challenges, UNESCO has highlighted "four pillars" of learning:
1. Learning to live together: Specifically, this means that education should strengthen in students the skills and abilities necessary for them to accept their interdependence with other people; to manage conflict; to work and plan with others for common objectives and a common future; to respect pluralism and diversity (for example in gender, ethnicity, religion and culture); and to participate actively in the life of the community.
2. Learning to know: This means that education should help students to acquire the instruments of knowledge: the essential learning tools of communication and oral expression, literacy, numeracy and problem-solving; to gain both a broad general knowledge and an in-depth knowledge of a few areas; to understand rights and responsibilities; and most importantly, to learn how to learn.
3. Learning to do: Education should help students to acquire occupational skills and social and psychological competencies that will enable them to make informed decisions about diverse life situations, to function in social and work relationships, to participate in local and global markets, to use technological tools, to meet basic needs, and to improve the quality of their own and others' lives.
4. Learning to be: Education should contribute to developing the personality and to enabling people to act with greater autonomy, judgement, critical thinking and personal responsibility. It should aim to develop all aspects of potential: these include memory, reasoning, an aesthetic sense, spiritual values, physical capacities and communication skills; a healthy lifestyle, and enjoyment of sports and recreation; an appreciation of one's own culture; possession of an ethical and moral code; an ability to speak for and defend oneself; resilience.

The complementary roles of formal and non-formal education

As our world changes ever more rapidly, the acquisition of new skills and competencies becomes highly important, as they allow us to respond better to new challenges. There are two key concepts that are being integrated into European educational policies: "lifelong learning" and "learning society". The idea is of a community where people are offered opportunities to develop their competencies throughout their lives. On the one hand, formal systems of education should become more open and flexible to meet this demand. On the other hand, non-formal education, with its wide range of methodologies and flexible approaches, may be able to adapt more quickly and easily to the ever-changing needs of societies and individual learners. 

Question: How is non-formal education present in your own community?

However, non-formal education is rarely recognised at the same level as formal schooling, either in administrative terms or in people's perceptions. Two key challenges of non-formal education are quality assurance and validation of competencies. Recognition and validation of non-formal learning has become an issue in European policy initiatives as well. Nowadays, there is increased recognition not only of the role of formal education but also of the opportunities offered by non-formal education, that is, the programmes outside the formal education system. Such programmes are often managed by non-governmental organisations, including youth organisations.
In 1998, the Conference of European Ministers responsible for youth identified non-formal education as a priority of the Council of Europe, and highlighted the importance of recognition and valorisation of the competencies acquired through non-formal learning. The partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth has coordinated the strategies of the two organisations and their partners for recognition of non-formal learning, notably through the common paper "pathways for Recognition"11.

Experts in education speak of the importance of "crossing boundaries" between formal and non-formal education, promoting communication and co-operation that will help with synchronising educational activities, and creating learning environments that provide learners with a coherent set of opportunities.

The role of the Council of Europe

The Council of Europe supports co-operation among its 47 member states in many areas, including education. The overall aim is to develop a coherent vision of the role of education, with particular emphasis on protecting and promoting human rights, democracy and rule of law, and the ability of our societies to engage in intercultural dialogue. The programme is based on a broad vision of  education that encompasses both values and competencies.  Common challenges are identified, solutions are proposed, and examples of good practice are shared.

The Council of Europe Pestalozzi programme aims to put into practice the guidelines and manuals developed within the framework of the above-mentioned co-operation activities, and offers opportunities for pro-fessional development, exchange and co-operation for teachers, school administrators and representatives of civil society organisations.

The member states have adoped several important texts, which provide a focus and spur for action at national level and a way of disseminating good practice and raising standards throughout Europe. These include the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (CM/Rec(2010)7), Recommendation on the promotion and recognition of non-formal education / learning of young people (CM/ Rec(2003)8), Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the education of Roma and Travellers in Europe (CM/Rec(2009)4), Recommendation on the public responsibility for higher education and research (CM/Rec(2007)6) and Recommendation on intercultural dialogue and the image of the other in history teaching (CM/Rec(2011)6E). 

Another area of co-operation is the right to quality education, developing policy and practice regarding the right to education for every human being as an enabling right which makes quality education a precondition for fully enjoying other human rights. This work includes defining public responsibility with regard to the right to quality education and recognising, protecting and promoting diversity through the exercise of the right to quality education.

The role of non-governmental organizations

The role of NGOs is crucial in promoting the right to education and other rights associated with it. Among them, trade unions, students' unions, teachers and parents associations have irreplaceable functions, especially at local and national level.

At European level, youth organisations have found ways of making their voice heard on educational issues. So too have student organisations such as AEGEE - European Students' Forum, the European Students' Union (ESIB) and the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU), which is a European platform of national school student organisations and unions active in general secondary and secondary vocational education. These organisations work to facilitate the exchange of information, experience and knowledge between student organisations, and they play an important role in representing the views of students in Europe. Like other youth and student organisations, they work directly to end discrimination in European educational systems, to promote improvements in the quality and accessibility of education provision in Europe, and to address educational equality and access.

The European Youth Forum, the main platform of youth organisations in Europe, takes education as a strategic priority for youth policy. It calls for holistic approaches to education which recognise and support quality formal education, non-formal education and informal learning. The main focus of the forum is "building a real life-long and life-wide learning society, in which all learning is valued, where young people can take ownership over their own educational paths and where youth organisations are recognised as the most important providers of quality non-formal education for young people"12.

The DARE network - Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe - is a Europe-wide network of NGOs and other organisations devoted to raising the profile of Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education, promoting transcultural and transnational co-operation, and enhancing the quality of education within these fields. One of their initiatives is Synchronised Action Days (SynAct), which take place every year around Human Rights Day (10 December).

The Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) is an international non-governmental organisation that supports human rights learning, the training of activists and professionals, the development of educational materials and programming, and community-building through online technologies (such as the HREA mailing list).


1 General Comment 13 on the right to education on Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 08/12/99. E/C.12/1999/10, para. 1;
2  The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010, Report 2010 En r15 -low res 20100615 -.pdf
3 Adult and Youth Literacy: Global Trends in Gender Parity, UIS Fact Sheet, September 2010, No. 3, issued by UNESCO Institute for Statistics
4 As at August 2011
5 General Comment No. 13 on Article 13 of ICECSR, 08/12/99. E/C.12/1999/10, para. 24.
6 Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc A/44/49 (1989), para. 29(1)(d)
7 The promotion of equality of opportunity in education, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, GE.11-12940, 18 April 2011:
8 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions; Tackling early school leaving: A key contribution to the Europe 2020 Agenda,
9 Early Childhood Care and Education Regional Report – Europe and North America, UNESCO,  WCECCE/Ref.4, 27 August 2010
10 Learning: The Treasure Within, UNESCO, Paris, 1996.