What you need to know about the right to education


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that education is a fundamental human right for everyone and this right was further detailed in the Convention against Discrimination in Education. What exactly does that mean?

Why is education a fundamental human right?

The right to education is a human right and indispensable for the exercise of other human rights.

  • Quality education aims to ensure the development of a fully-rounded human being.
  • It is one of the most powerful tools in lifting socially excluded children and adults out of poverty and into society. UNESCO data shows that if all adults completed secondary education, globally the number of poor people could be reduced by more than half.
  • It narrows the gender gap for girls and women. A UN study showed that each year of schooling reduces the probability of infant mortality by 5 to 10 per cent.
  • For this human right to work there must be equality of opportunity, universal access, and enforceable and monitored quality standards.

What does the right to education entail?

  • Primary education that is free, compulsory and universal
  • Secondary education, including technical and vocational, that is generally available, accessible to all and progressively free
  • Higher education, accessible to all on the basis of individual capacity and progressively free
  • Fundamental education for individuals who have not completed education
  • Professional training opportunities
  • Equal quality of education through minimum standards
  • Quality teaching and supplies for teachers
  • Adequate fellowship system and material condition for teaching staff
  • Freedom of choice

What is the current situation?

  • About 258 million children and youth are out of school, according to UIS data for the school year ending in 2018. The total includes 59 million children of primary school age, 62 million of lower secondary school age and 138 million of upper secondary age.
  • 155 countries legally guarantee 9 years or more of compulsory education

  • Only 99 countries legally guarantee at least 12 years of free education
  • 8.2% of primary school age children does not go to primary school  Only six in ten young people will be finishing secondary school in 2030 The youth literacy rate (15-24) is of 91.73%, meaning 102 million youth lack basic literacy skills.

How is the right to education ensured?

The right to education is established by two means - normative international instruments and political commitments by governments. A solid international framework of conventions and treaties exist to protect the right to education and States that sign up to them agree to respect, protect and fulfil this right.

How does UNESCO work to ensure the right to education?

UNESCO develops, monitors and promotes education norms and standards to guarantee the right to education at country level and advance the aims of the Education 2030 Agenda. It works to ensure States' legal obligations are reflected in national legal frameworks and translated into concrete policies.

  • Monitoring the implementation of the right to education at country level
  • Supporting States to establish solid national frameworks creating the legal foundation and conditions for sustainable quality education for all
  • Advocating on the right to education principles and legal obligations through research and studies on key issues
  • Maintaining global online tools on the right to education
  • Enhancing capacities, reporting mechanisms and awareness on key challenges
  • Developing partnerships and networks around key issues

How is the right to education monitored and enforced by UNESCO?

  • UNESCO's Constitution requires Member States to regularly report on measures to implement standard-setting instruments at country level through regular consultations.
  • Through collaboration with UN human rights bodies, UNESCO addresses recommendations to countries to improve the situation of the right to education at national level.
  • Through the dedicated online Observatory, UNESCO takes stock of the implementation of the right to education in 195 States.
  • Through its interactive Atlas, UNESCO monitors the implementation right to education of girls and women in countries
  • Based on its monitoring work, UNESCO provides technical assistance and policy advice to Member States that seek to review, develop, improve and reform their legal and policy frameworks.

What happens if States do not fulfil obligations?

  • International human rights instruments have established a solid normative framework for the right to education. This is not an empty declaration of intent as its provisions are legally binding. All countries in the world have ratified at least one treaty covering certain aspects of the right to education. This means that all States are held to account, through legal mechanisms.
  • Enforcement of the right to education: At international level, human rights' mechanisms are competent to receive individual complaints and have settled right to education breaches this way.
  • Justiciability of the right to education: Where their right to education has been violated, citizens must be able to have legal recourse before the law courts or administrative tribunals.

What are the major challenges to ensure the right to education?

  • Providing free and compulsory education to all
  • 155 countries legally guarantee 9 years or more of compulsory education.
  • Only 99 countries legally guarantee at least 12 years of free education.
  • Eliminating inequalities and disparities in education

While only 4% of the poorest youth complete upper secondary school in low-income countries, 36% of the richest do. In lower-middle-income countries, the gap is even wider: while only 14% of the poorest youth complete upper secondary school, 72% of the richest do.

  • Migration and displacement

According to a 2019 UNHCR report, of the 7.1 million refugee children of school age, 3.7 million - more than half - do not go to school. 

  • Privatization and its impact on the right to education

States need to strike a balance between educational freedom and ensuring everyone receives a quality education.

  • Financing of education

The Education 2030 Agenda requires States to allocate at least 4-6 per cent of GDP and/or at least 15-20 per cent of public expenditure to education.

  • Quality imperatives and valuing the teaching profession

Two-thirds of the estimated 617 million children and adolescents who cannot read a simple sentence or manage a basic mathematics calculation are in the classroom.