From Convention to Classroom: Advancing Human Rights Education in Australia

‘If you are thinking a year ahead – plant seeds.

If you are thinking 10 years ahead – plant a tree. If you are thinking 100 years ahead – educate the people.’ - Kuan-Tzu (4th – 3rd Century BC) China

As Federal Attorney-General, I want to leave a legacy that will last 100 years, so my focus will be on educating the people, specifically about human rights.  I am all too aware that Australia presents itself to the international community as a strong supporter of human rights education (HRE).  We have ratified numerous treaties containing provisions mandating HRE, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, art 29(1) of which states:

States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to: …

(b)           The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;

Not only has Australia committed itself to implementing this provision but we have also been a key player in other international HRE initiatives.  For example, we signed up to the UN Decade for HRE (1995-2004) and, in 2004, actually introduced in the UN General Assembly, the draft resolution proposing the World Programme for HRE (2005 – ongoing), which was duly proclaimed.  Thus to all the world, we look like a State that takes its HRE responsibilities very seriously.  However, I know that children in Australian schools do not generally learn about human rights.  There are many reasons for this, including:

  • human rights are not part of the formal curriculum in any state or territory;
  • teachers are not trained in how to teach human rights as part of their teacher training;
  • there is a lack of understanding about where/how to teach human rights (should there be a separate subject devoted to human rights, or should it be incorporated into exiting subjects like English, History or Civics?); and
  • the ‘crowded curriculum’ phenomenon whereby teachers struggle to teach everything that is already in the curriculum within the available time, and therefore resist efforts to add even more material.

I know we have a national Human Rights Education Committee, but it does not appear to have been very active of late.  One of my first tasks as Attorney-General would therefore be to re-invigorate this body, and assign to them the task of developing a National Human Rights Education Plan that is comprehensive, effective and sustainable.  I would stress that I want the Plan of Action to be a practical guide as to the steps that need to be taken in order to ensure HRE is part of the educational experience of every child attending school throughout Australia.

The next step I would take as Attorney-General would be to request a meeting with the recently established Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.  I know that they are working on a uniform national curriculum and I want to make sure that HRE is an integral part of the end product, so that our domestic practises reflect the international persona we seek to portray in this field.

I have looked at the way human rights education is addressed in our two domestic Human Rights Acts (Victoria and the ACT) and note that in Victoria, for example, the responsibility ‘to provide education about human rights and this Charter’ falls on the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (s 41 of the Charter).  To imbed HRE in the school curricula is too large a task for the Commission, and clearly needs to be part of the portfolio of the Department of Education.  If we are to have a national bill of rights, I will make sure that this mistake is not repeated, and that education about human rights, at least within schools, is the responsibility of the Department of Education.  I will lobby my mate, the Treasurer, to ensure that there is money allocated in the budget for this undertaking.

In addition, I would encourage the Australian Human Rights Commission to continue to publish excellent resources for teachers and students about human rights, but to work more closely with relevant Education Departments to ensure greater use of these materials in schools.  This should be possible once HRE becomes part of the formal school curricula.

Finally, I would research the way human rights are incorporated into the school curricula in other countries.  I gather that South Africa, Canada and Ireland have all enjoyed some success in this regard.  No point in re-inventing the wheel, let’s see what we can learn from their experiences.  Come to think of it, maybe I should check my travel budget and see whether I can manage an overseas study tour so that I can get some first-hand knowledge about HRE in practice…

Once all these initiatives come to fruition, we should see a generation of young Australians who understand, respect and promote human rights, and start to build a culture of human rights.  Hopefully, it won’t take 100 years for this dream to be realised!

Dr Paula Gerber is a Senior Lecturer at Monash University Law School, a Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, a Sessional Member of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and author of the book From Convention to Classroom: The Long Road to Human Rights Education (2008) VDM Publishers, Germany.