What is the right to education?

Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights. Education is essential for the development of human potential, the enjoyment of the full range of human rights and respect for the rights of others.

It is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalised adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities. Throughout the world, education is seen as one of the best financial investments that a State can make. The importance of education is not just practical. A well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence (UN Economic & Social Council, 1999).

The right to education straddles civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. Core elements of the right to education, as specified in international treaties, include:

  • Entitlement to free and compulsory primary education.
  • Availability of different forms of secondary education.
  • Access to higher education on the basis of capacity and on non-discriminatory terms.
  • Availability of accessible educational and vocational information.
  • Measures developed by the State to ensure full participation in education.
  • Availability of some form of basic education for those who may not have received or completed primary education.
  • Protection and improvement of conditions for teachers.
  • Respect for the right of parents/legal guardians to choose for their children schools other than those established and funded by the State, and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children conforms with their own convictions.
  • Respect for academic freedom and institutional autonomy. This includes the freedom of, and accompanying obligations on, individuals to express opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of sanction, and to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.

Katarina Toma s evski , United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the right to education, proposes a set of four broad standards (the 4-A scheme) as the basis for assessing the achievement of the right to education. The standards include:

  • availability: ensuring free and compulsory education for all children and respect for parental choice of their child's education
  • accessibility: eliminating discrimination of access to education as mandated by international law
  • Photo shows child drawing a bee.
  • acceptability: focusing on the quality of education and its conformity to minimum human rights standards
  • adaptability: ensuring that education responds and adapts to the best interest and benefit of the learner in their current and future contexts.

These standards have been adapted for use in the New Zealand context in the form of a Right to Education Framework, He Whare Tāpapa Mātauranga ( Figure 1 ).

Figure 1: The right to education framework: He Whare T āpapa M ātauranga

This diagram shows the UN framework on the right to education. Link to a detailed description of the diagram on the UN framework of the right to education.

The right to education involves three key factors: the Government as the regulator, provider and funder of schooling; the student as the bearer of the right to education and the duty to comply with compulsory education requirements; and the child's parents, who are the 'first educators'