Say No to Discrimination in Education, Join the 1960 Convention as it turns 60


Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education

The right to education is under increasing threat today and because of this, it needs buttressing by every mean – legal, financial, social and political.

International legal instruments matter. They can set the ground for breaking down national barriers that can be justifications for violating fundamental human rights – including to education.

The Convention against Discrimination in Education, adopted exactly 60 years ago by UNESCO’s General Conference, is a case in point. It may not be common knowledge that it was the very first and the only legally binding international treaty dedicated exclusively to the right to education.

Today it has been ratified by 106 countries. This is not enough. We need to push for universal ratification because equal opportunity for all in education is a condition for achieving the entire 2030 Agenda, and for building more inclusive and just societies. Close to 260 million children are deprived of their right to education, a crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 and hitting the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized youth the hardest, with consequences over a lifetime.

Ratifying the Convention triggers national measures to expand social justice, creating conditions that are more favourable to equality of opportunity. In this sense, entire societies benefit. There are plenty of examples to illustrate this virtuous circle over the past six decades, ranging from constitutional amendments, the adoption of laws to combat discrimination and the enactment of national education policies to promote access for the most vulnerable groups. Legislative reform and frameworks can lift barriers of injustice and be transformational, paving the way for education to reach those most in need and carry value for all.

But this is not enough either. The test lies in implementation – in the extent to which countries provide free and compulsory education and guarantee equal opportunities, among other provisions of the Convention.  Disability, language, gender, ethnicity, poverty and displacement, among other, continue to violate the right to education. And in the age of COVID-19, lack of connectivity has become a leading factor of exclusion. One-third of students could not access remote learning solutions, while 40% of the poorest countries could not support the most disadvantaged to learn during school closures.

This calls for reflection on broadening the scope of the right to education, drawing on knowledge gained over the past decades and shifting growth patterns. We would argue that the right to education should encompass the pre-primary level because investing in the early years in the most effective way to counter inequalities; as well as lifelong learning opportunities, because our societies are increasingly knowledge based and driven by rapid advances technology. Providing opportunities to learn throughout life and change career paths is not a luxury, it should be a right. Finally, the right to education has become increasingly dependent on connectivity – making digital inclusion a key to leaving no one behind.

Our campaign “Say No to Discrimination” aims to raise awareness on the power of the 1960 Convention, to strengthen its implementation and monitoring, and invite a global conversation on the evolving nature of the right to education, and global dangers threatening it. Climate change, displacement, migration and violent extremism are all factors that can prematurely uproot education and shatter an educational journey. A solid legal scaffolding is a pre-condition for ensuring that education systems stand on more solid, fair and inclusive ground.

Over the past decade, a growing number of countries have embarked on a process to ratify the 1960 Convention – proof of its relevance and muscle. We need to build on this momentum, to further strengthen the right to education and protect learners. Every target of the Education 2030 agenda is premised on prohibiting all forms of discrimination and countering inequalities in access, participation and learning outcomes at every level – in short on fostering a truly inclusive education for all.

 “Of all forms of discrimination, those that occur in education are the most pernicious – because they affect the very essence of the individual and society, namely the forming of the mind – and the most abhorrent – because the victims are first and foremost children”.

These words, written sixty years ago when the Convention against Discrimination in Education was adopted, resonate with chilling relevance today. Taking up this Convention is an essential step to set education on the journey towards inclusion – one that is rooted in fulfilling the fundamental right to education.