Equal Access to Quality Education is a Human Right

Equal access to quality education is a human right.  It is also a global imperative if we all are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  But worldwide, minority and Indigenous children are disproportionately denied this right with drastic consequences for us all. This is as true in Australia as in other countries.  According to Australian government statistics, over 50% of Indigenous children drop-out of secondary school before completion.  For girls, the figure jumps to 80%.  More than twice as many Indigenous adult women than non-Indigenous women never attended school at all.  Upwards of 660 additional teachers are needed to meet full-attendance needs in the Northern Territory alone.  Disaggregated data is harder to find that would reveal the educational needs of the African and Muslim minorities in Australia.

Something is desperately wrong.  The government admits that more money is needed to close education gaps.  While this may be an explanation, it is not a defence.  While the principle of ‘progressive realization’ applies to implementation of the right to education in general, the right to non-discrimination is immediate and non-derogable.  And, disparities in drop-out rates between Indigenous and minority students, on the one hand, and children of the majority culture, on the other, must be seen as a failure of the government to guarantee these rights.

But Australia is certainly not unique.  Worldwide, minority and Indigenous children suffer disproportionately from unequal access to quality education.  They are likely to be the poorest of the poor in every country and are far more likely to receive an inferior education than a good one.  Minority and Indigenous children are more likely to start school later than the prescribed age, if at all; they are less likely to be ready or well prepared for school; and more prone to drop out or fail to achieve in school.  That perpetuates the cycle of poverty leaving them unable to later fulfil their human potential, to gain meaningful employment and to become respected members of society.

Girls may face particular barriers to education based on traditional or religious customs or practices, including those governing their freedom to leave the home without a male escort.  Their exclusion from education has a profound impact on their ability to later claim other rights, such as economic independence and freedom from domestic violence.

These were some of the issues discussed at the recent UN Forum on Minorities and the Right to Education held in Geneva in December under my mandate as UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues.  The Forum sought to go beyond the traditional focus of minority rights which situates the importance of education primarily in the context of preserving the distinct languages and cultures of minority groups.  These are imperatives that minority populations share with Indigenous peoples, despite the fact that minorities, unlike Indigenous peoples, do not have a right to self-determination which underscores the demands of Indigenous peoples to control their educational institutions.

The recent adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the General Assembly and a General Comment on the rights of indigenous children by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (see CRC, General Comment No 11: Indigenous children and their rights under the Convention(2009)), have strengthened standards which place Indigenous children’s right to education, within the broader context of the realization of their collective rights.

The Forum on Minorities, however, also focused on a second imperative shared by minorities and Indigenous peoples, which is the right to equal quality educational outcomes and the right to participate in determining the content and the implementation of those standards.  With respect to minorities and Indigenous children their right to be taught in their mother tongue is an essential element in their accessing quality education and, when implemented, it enhances their ability to gain fluency in other languages.  Barriers to education caused by language remain among the greatest obstacles to the right to education for minorities.

For many children from minorities, the language and culture of the classroom are unfamiliar.  Curriculum materials may neglect the cultures, histories and contributions to society of minorities.  Classroom interaction and instruction may be in a language they do not speak at home and teaching methods may be unrelated to cultural learning styles.  Mother tongue instruction, in conjunction with culturally inclusive curricula, seeks to provide learners with the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from national society without forcing them to sacrifice their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Minority and Indigenous children also often find that the classroom or school is a hostile environment where there are gross disparities in the treatment, and consequently the educational performance and relative success, of minority students.  In some countries, minority boys face disproportionately harsh disciplinary actions as compared to non-minority boys who commit the same offences.  In other countries minority children face unwelcoming environments, racist attacks and hate speech.

Teachers are a key component in the learning experience.  The actions of teachers can do much to overcome discrimination; equally their practices may have an adverse effect on the experiences of education by minorities.  Teachers, administrators and the student body must be trained to actively work toward the elimination of prejudices and must be held accountable for conduct that conflicts with that overall objective.

Guaranteeing equality in educational outcomes to minorities will have budgetary implications that must be seen as an integral part of meeting the state’s international legal responsibilities.  The special needs of these communities that have been neglected or denied for long periods will require extra resources and extra efforts.  And no argument should be advanced that, in these situations, ‘extra’ violates the principle of non-discrimination.

To achieve high quality education for all children will require special attention to those children who have been neglected.  In order to create an even playing field, targeted, specialized programmes must be employed that take into account the existence of structural factors that have impeded the full participation of minorities.   The principle of non-discrimination does not require uniform treatment in the field of education regardless of circumstances, but rather that differential treatment of individuals and groups is justified when circumstances warrant it.

Gay McDougall is the United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues and a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.