THE EDITOR: A few days ago, a caller to one of our radio programmes made a startling pronouncement that education was “not a right, but a privilege.” I expected the host, who, generally, has no compunction in telling a caller that he was talking nonsense, would do so in this case. Like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, I waited in vain.
“The unkindest cut of all” was that this occurred just before Human Rights Day, December 10, a day on which we commemorate the anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and less than a month after November 19, when we marked the 28th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Article 26 of the declaration states: “Everyone has the right to education,” while article 28 of the convention enjoins States/parties to recognise “the right of the child to education.”
Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urges States to make primary education compulsory and available and free to all.
The declaration, convention and the covenant all mandate that primary education be compulsory and available free to all, but do not make secondary or tertiary education obligatory. Because education is a socio-economic right, States have the obligation to fulfil this right progressively “to the maximum extent of their available resources.”
Once States have progressed beyond providing free compulsory primary education to implementing free secondary and tertiary education, States should not take any retrograde steps, which would interfere with the enjoyment of this right, unless these are fully justified in the circumstances.
The fact that a State cannot provide secondary or tertiary education for all does not make higher education a privilege. Education remains an inherent human right, even though it might be inaccessible at a particular level at a specific time in that State.
The right to education is also included in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and is one of the Millennium Development Goals.
Its inclusion in so many international instruments points to the recognition by the international community that education is vital to the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.
Education facilitates the empowerment of individuals with the abilities, knowledge and skills to emerge from poverty and ignorance, prepares them for a better future and enhances their ability to contribute to the development of the society. Education is an investment by the State in its human resources for its sustainable development.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child, to which States must report periodically on the measures they have taken to implement the convention, has repeatedly reminded States of their obligation to make the convention widely known to adults and children alike. Yet many are unaware of child rights.
The committee has also consistently recommended training in child rights for all sectors of society. They include principals, teachers and parliamentarians, who, at times, contravene the convention’s fundamental principle of non-discrimination.
This principle dictates that a child within the jurisdiction, even though an undocumented migrant, has a right to education. Accordingly, school principals and the Ministers of Education and National Security should rethink existing policies.
The same criteria used to decide between two TT citizens for admission to school should be applied when deciding between a national and a non-national.
Documentary evidence of legal residence should not be required for admission to a school. Both policies contravene the convention’s principles of non-discrimination and the child’s right to education.
HAZEL THOMPSON-AHYE, child rights advocate