The State of the World's Children 1999

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Industrialized countries and the right to education

Of the primary school age population in industrialized countries, 98 per cent are enrolled in school.

Reading.  Copyright © UNICEF/98-0122/HartleyIn industrialized countries, nearly every school age child attends primary or secondary school. But, once enrolled, do these children learn to read, write, count and think well enough to succeed in the labour market? According to an analysis of 29 member countries by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the answer is no. A sizeable minority of students -- 15 to 20 per cent in many countries -- leave school without the qualifications necessary for finding and keeping a job.

Nor, the critics say, do students graduate with the life skills needed to meet the complex challenges of the modern world successfully: knowing how to manage conflict, respect diversity, work with others, or how to think critically and creatively as they go about their daily lives. "Going to school and coming out unprepared for life is a terrible waste," says Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), in The State of the World's Children 1999, which this year focuses on education. "Yet for many of the world's children, this is exactly what happens."

In industrialized countries, one of the most obvious problems to surface is academic underachievement, especially in mathematics and science, subjects considered to be the foundations for employment and success in contemporary society. In 21 of the 26 countries surveyed by OECD in 1994, the bottom 25 per cent of eighth-graders scored lower in math than the average seventh-grader. In France, for example, underachievement is a common phenomenon in many urban areas, OECD reports, and 25 per cent of secondary school students eventually leave school without employable skills. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, according to published reports, thousands leave school at age 16 without useful qualifications, and 80 per cent of them are boys.

Even in countries where students rank high on international mathematics and science tests, there are concerns about what values they might be learning in school. The Republic of Korea, for example, ranks highest among OECD countries when comparing the average test scores in mathematics achieved by 14-year-olds in the eighth grade and third when science scores are compared. However, on reviewing a report submitted by that country on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its concern that the highly competitive nature of the country's educational system "risks hampering the development of the child to the fullest potential of his or her abilities."

And violence, according to many reports, is as major a problem in schools in industrialized countries as it is worldwide. It encompasses not just the relatively isolated incidents of armed children shooting at teachers and classmates, but it also pervades everyday life. Children in the United Kingdom, for example, are frequently bullied by other children in the school yard. In the United States in 1995, 4 per cent of students 12 to 19 years old reported experiencing violent victimization while in school.

In Sweden, according to some reports, each semester 1,500 boys and 500 girls, on average, require medical treatment following attacks by other students.

Answers to "What happens after children enter school?" run like a litany of complaints about education or a list of necessary corrections. In fact, they are a violation of child rights as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights instrument that has been ratified by all the world's countries except Somalia and the United States. Among their rights as assured by the Convention, children enjoy the right to an education that prepares them for an active adult life.

Within this context, then, changes in education are necessary not merely to prepare skilled workers nor solely to adjust the wrongs of a system. They are needed to ensure children their full complement of human rights.

  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most universally accepted human rights instrument ever.

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