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Learning to Live Together: children’s rights, identities and citizenship

Learning to Live Together: children’s rights, identities and citizenship

Getting it right: Towards a rights based approach to education, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

MA Development Education

Institute of Education, University of London

Tobias Troll0.   Introduction

The UN Convention  on the Rights of the Child (United  Nations  1989, CRC) is a binding international  contract in the framework of the United Nations, and thus obliges legally the ratifying  nations  – indeed  all UN  members  besides  the  United  States  and  Somalia  – to implement  its  provisions.  This  is a mayor  milestone  to  recognise  children,  i.e.  everyone under  the  age  of  18,  as  citizens  with  human  rights,  and  consequently  responsibilities. Through  this  convention,  children  are  conceived  as subjects  of society  – like  all human beings  – and  not anymore  as mere  objects  of protection  (Verhellen  2000).  This  shift  in conception  of  young  people  under  18  has  major  consequences   for  their  place  and consideration in society, and in particular for the field of education. However, this is only the theory – in practice, the way education is organised in many countries and contexts is still very much based on the consideration of needs (and not always primarily the needs of the child, but also needs of the economy or the educational institutions) and not of rights of the children. For example, Osler and Starkey (2005:67, referring to Tomaševski) state “the Department of Education and Skills (DfES) rarely makes reference to rights in education in the context of England”. Children would be considered as pre-citizens, whose incompetence has to be addressed through education and who have to be prepared for a future role in society, rather than essential members of society with specific characteristics and a potential to contribute to the collective like any other social group (Osler and Starkey 2005).

The implementation of a rights based approach in education is a challenging endeavour, not only because the conceptual move from seeing children as objects of care to subjects of society  in  their  own  right is  far  from  being  common  sense  in  many  societies,  but  also because  the  human  rights  framework  itself  is  complex  in  its  internal  interlinkages  and possible contradictions.  This short essay will examine the role of rights to, in and through education as an essential contribution to the implementation of the CRC and to quality education,  which  is,  as  lined  out  in  article  29  of  the  CRC,  truly  emancipatory  learning enhancing the potential and participation  of the learner in the creation of a more just and sustainable world .

Osler  and  Starkey  (2005)  propose  to  categorise  the  rights  in  the  CRC  according  to protection, provision and participation, and suggest that three other Ps – policy, pedagogy and principle – are paramount in the implementation of children’s rights in education. I will attempt to use these Ps to outline implications in the implementation of rights through, in and to  education  by  schools  and  more  in  general  the  educational  system.  I  will  start  with reflections on the aspect of rights through education (the way human rights are promoted or not through the educational system), considering that without broad awareness of the rights, their  implementation  is  futile.  Furthermore,  we  will  consider  rights  in  education,  which highlights the question of implementation of rights in schools, and finally move to the right to education, which is only one – though important – provision of the CRC, with a particular focus on the right to quality education.

1.   Rights through education – human rights as principle

Education has a paramount role in the implementation of the historical conceptual shift from seeing children as citizens to-be to social subjects with specific rights and responsibilities. This shift in mindset is far from being achieved. As stated above, education is still broadly seen as an approach to address incompetences of young learners (Osler and Starkey 2005), or to meet societal needs, e.g. regarding labour markets rather than an approach to build full citizens (King and Palmer 2008). Article 29 of the CRC puts human rights at the very centre of education, including the learning about human rights and responsibilities,  as outlined in UN human  rights  agreements.  Part II of the CRC details  how the implementation  of the convention should be assured, including (Article 42) through making “the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known [..] to adults and children alike” (United Nations

1989:12). These provisions of human rights education and information about the convention – to learners and teachers alike – are essential to implement a rights based approach to education. However, in order to become common sense and practice, they also have to be implemented.  Therefore,  article  12 on participation has  a central  role  to play:  According children freedom of expression and the right to be considered in decision making processes is indeed their recognition as citizens with political rights. The implementation of these rights in school context, for example through formalised consultation and co-decision mechanisms, is essential to strengthen human rights through education, with a learning effect not only on children  but  on  all  actors  involved.  Considering  the  particularly  vulnerable  situation  of children, protection from human rights violations,  for example from bullying (article 16) or harmful  material  in  media  (article  17)  is  important  in  order  not  to  counter  human  rights education through lived experience.

Promoting a human rights based approach at the very centre of education, going far beyond human  rights as just another  learning  topic, as overarching  and legally binding principle, broadly owned, applied and promoted in the whole curriculum as well as in the philosophy and functioning of an institution seems to be the basis of any meaningful application of the CRC in education, and the best way to learn about rights through education.

2.   Rights in education – a pedagogy of emancipation

As stated above, the application of the CRC in education can’t be limited to learning about human rights – not only because learning should always imply an element of application and doing in order to be meaningful, but also because the rights have all an independent value by its own. The CRC gives young learners political rights to be heard and to participate in matters of their concern (article 12) – and their education certainly falls in this category. Co- decision  mechanisms,  both  in  terms  of  institutional  processes  as  well  as  regarding  the learning  set-up  in the  sense  of a Freirian  emancipatory  and  dialogical  pedagogy  (Freire 2005), can contribute to fostering the development of full and responsible citizens. However, they  cannot  be  separated  from  rights  related  to provision and  protection: Democracy  is meaningless,  if  learners  with  special  characteristics,  for  example  refugees  or  disabled students,  are  not  provided  particular  care  to  participate  (e.g.  articles  22  and  23).  Also, protection  from  violence,  may  it be  through  students,  teachers  or  other  adults  within  or beyond the school setting, is a precondition for a meaningful participation in school life and the exercise of rights.

The implementation of rights in education is the central element of a rights-based pedagogy, as it can enable children “to address questions of identity, rights and participation”  (Osler and Starkey 2005:89).

3.   The right to education – shaping educational policies

Without access to education, both learning about human rights and the application of rights in schools is futile: The provision of education as a right of the child features prominently in the CRC (article 28) and implies for example free and compulsory primary education. This goes along with the protection of children from anything that would contradict this right to education, for example child labour (article 32) or participating in wars (article 38). However, making schooling compulsory  and increasing enrolment rates in formal education, as it is constantly happening all over the world1 is not enough: The quality of education and schools is at least as important than the bare enrolment. The right to the mother language, even if not  majority  in  a  given  context  (article  30),  the  right  to  information  and  the  freedom  of expression (article 13), the central role of human rights principles in education (article 29) or the right to have one’s views taken into account (article 12) are features of participation that have  to be fully  embraced  by a given  educational  system  in order  to make  the  right  to education  meaningful  – indeed,  these  participatory  principles  are  central  elements  if not preconditions for quality education. Enrolment in an institution which does not respect these principles, and all others outlined in the CRC, might after all be in contradiction with article 3, which  states  that  the  best  interest  of  the  child  should  be  the  primary  consideration. Regarding  the  board  damage  that  is  done  through  formal  education  to  generations  of children through a system that produces constantly losers and reaffirms social barriers (Jain, S. 2003), we cannot separate this right to education from an urgently needed broad societal debate on educational policies. In a context where education is primarily considered as a means to provide survival skills in a ever more competitive economic system, we should not boldly ask for “education for all” as the answer to a “right to education”, but rather re- create educational institutions in line with the provisions and philosophy of the CRC.

4.   Conclusion

Rights  through  and  in education  and  the  right  to education  are  closely  interlinked  when looked  at  through  the  lens  of  the  CRC:  Rights  related  to  protection,  provision  and participation are necessary elements of each of these aspects, and they overlap largely both in the theoretical reference to particular parts of the CRC, as well as regarding the concrete provisions in their application they require. However, there seems to be a distinction within the discussed triplet when it comes to the other Ps of principle, pedagogy and politics: Rights through education imply putting human rights at the very heart of education, as overarching principle regarding content as well as methods and the institution itself. Rights in education refer to the application  of rights in the institutional  pedagogy.  And the right to education requires changes in policies (or maybe even politics, going beyond the topical and technical issue of educational policies to the bigger picture of setting societal debates). Schools play and should play an important part in the application of these rights. However, a qualitative shift  towards  a truly  human  rights  based  education  has  to  be  based  on  a broad  public debate.  This would  include  a shift in the collective  mindset  of seeing  schools  mainly  as training  camps  for  labour  markets  and  social  requirements  towards  a  concept  of  social orchards stimulating the flourishing of varieties of humans which all play crucial roles in the social system. Schools can stimulate this process, but all of us have to embrace it in order to become meaningful.

1 See for example UN Fact Sheet on Millenium Development Goal 2 „Achieve Universal Primary

Education“ at (accessed 4 November 2012)



Implementation  of rights

Characteristics  of rights


Rights through education

Provision of human rights education

Participation as active learning of human rights

Protection from HR violations


Human rights as overarching principle

of education.


Rights in education

Participation in decision making

Provision of particular care for students with special characteristics

Protection from situations countering the exercise of rights


Application of rights as central element of a rights-based pedagogy.


Right to education

Provision of access to education

Protection from situations harmful to the right access education

Participation as precondition for quality education


Rights-based reforms of the educational system through policies towards quality education for all.

Table 1: The rights triplet and the “six Ps”


Freire,  P.  (2005)  Pedagogy  of  the  oppressed –  30th  Anniversary  Edition  (New  York  – Continuum)

Jain, S., Jain, M., Farenga, P. et. al. (2003) McEducation for All? opening a dialogue around UNESCO’s vision for commoditizing learning [, accessed 4 November 2012]

King, K. and Palmer, R. (2008) Skills for work, growth and poverty reduction. Challenges and opportunities in the global analysis and monitoring of skills. British Council and UK National Commission for UNESCO, London. [, accessed 4 November 2012]

Osler, A. and Starkey, H. (2005) Changing citizenship: democracy and inclusion in education (Maidenhead: Open University Press) [ISBN 033521181X]. Chapter 3: Children as citizens.

Osler, A. and Starkey, H. (1998) Children’s rights and citizenship: some implications for the management of schools, International Journal of Children’s  Rights, 6: 313–333.

United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child (New York- UNICEF)

Verhellen,    E.    (2000)    Children’s    rights    and    education, in: A. Osler (ed.) Citizenship and  democracy  in  schools:  diversity,  identity,  equality (Stoke-on-Trent:  Trentham)  [ISBN 1858562228].