articles, opinions, and research about teaching and learning

Implications of the Convention of the Rights of the Child for Education Activities Supported by UNICEF

Mary Joy Pigozzi, UNICEF New York

The purpose of this document is to provide a practical interpretation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in terms of its implications for implementation of the policy on basic education instituted by the UNICEF Board of Directors in May 1995. This policy is consistent with our role as a partner in the Jomtien conference on Education For All (EFA) held in 1990. In January 1996, UNICEF reaffirmed its commitment to the CRC in its Mission Statement.


A commitment to work within the CRC as a frame for UNICEF support in education has far reaching implications for our work. The first part of this document addresses what the CRC implies in general about education. It is followed by a second part that considers more detailed aspects of application of the CRC.

Starting from a child's rights perspective there are a number of overarching principles that relate to education.

Education is a right.

Education is also an enabling right, a right that facilitates children and adults access many of their other rights throughout their lifetimes. In this regard, education has an important role to play in empowerment because it supports democratic action, is a means to promote child rights and social rights, and can equip individuals and groups with the skills to move on in their lives. Thus, education is a very profound right.

Education must be available without discrimination. This underscores the UNICEF commitment to reach out to those that have been traditionally unreached including, the poor, girls, working children, children in emergencies, the disabled, and those with nomadic lifestyles. But it is not merely a concern with quantity. Children have a right to a quality education that will serve as the basis for lifelong learning.

Education must address the best interests and ongoing development of the whole child. This means that, in addition to being child centred, education is much more than attention to cognitive development. It is also concerned with the child's social, emotional, and physical development. It also calls for more than the conventional integrated approach. Rather education must be conceptualised from the child's point of view and with an understanding of the inter-related nature of the child's needs which vary according to level of individual development.

Education must accord dignity to every child. Thus, respect as a value is critical.

The CRC also establishes the indivisibility of rights. That is, that we must address all rights equally, and it is here that there are significant further implications that go to the very core of the conduct of educational activities. In addressing education in a CRC framework it means going far beyond Articles 27, 28, 29, and 32. Every other article needs to be considered in relation to those articles that specifically address the right to education. Furthermore, an added challenge is considering how education can and must address a child's right to protection. The rest of this paper looks at these interrelated aspects of the convention as they might be played out in educational activities.

Implementing UNICEF's education strategy using a CRC perspective has very practical implications with regard to the education indicators that we select and measure. This is not to suggest that previously used education indicators are not appropriate. But, they must be re-examined and probably supplemented with measures that provide information related to a child's rights.


Rather than consider each Article on its own, the rest of this paper takes an educational perspective and begins to outline the implications of the Convention. It addresses what a rights perspective means for education systems in general and what it means for specific elements within that system. The major focus is on primary education with adult education and young child development as supporting strategies because that is consistent with UNICEF policy on basic education. A final section provides suggestions regarding education indicators in relation to monitoring implementation of the CRC.

It must be recognised that continued attention to supporting child rights does not mean that education systems and processes can be expected to change overnight. This would be unrealistic. What it does mean, however, is that whenever educational decisions are made, or educational activities assessed, the CRC and what it stands for must be in a central position. Thus, every Country Programme of Co-operation and national education system can begin to work to support the CRC immediately. There are no excuses for not working to implement a rights perspective right away. At the same time, there is no single recipe. It is unlikely that two countries or Country Programmes will have exactly the same route

What does the CRC say about education overall?

It is clear that the majority of education systems around the world are not responsive to many, and in some cases most, aspects of the Convention as it relates to education. In many cases, the policy environment is not conducive to an education system that supports the rights of children. There may be a need for careful advocacy.

Education systems must change. They must adjust if States Parties are to uphold their responsibilities to children as pledged when they ratified the CRC.

Education systems must become more diverse and flexible. Without this they will not be able to meet the needs of children in differing circumstances. They must expand and become gender-sensitive. They must meet the needs of children who have non-exploitative work responsibilities.

Education systems must recognise that children are important stakeholders. As they change to take children's opinions and needs into account, they must also open up for others, such as parents, communities, and research institutions, to be active participants as well.

The CRC is clear that associated with these rights is a set of responsibilities. Responsibilities of parents and adults to guard and ensure each child's rights. Responsibilities of institutions, organisations, nations, and the state to provide these rights. But children, have responsibilities, too, and these also need to be considered within education. One of these is the responsibility to learn.

There must be an enabling legislative framework that does more than pays lip service to guaranteeing children their right to education. It must facilitate these necessary changes in the education system, both at the macro and micro levels.

The cost of education

The CRC calls for free compulsory education. It is recognised that this might not be possible immediately especially as universality is not yet a reality in many countries, but plans must be put in place and immediate action initiated toward this end. In the short-run, it is essential that any costs of education be equitable.

It is important to obligate the state, the trustee of the nation, to provide education for all. Too often, compulsory education is seen as a legal framework that places parents and children in the negative role of criminal or victim. It is not to make children and families obligated to something they cannot achieve, but rather to place the burden on states, to require states to make quality primary education accessible to every child. Only after that is it appropriate to place the burden of proof on children and families. This will require dialogue and, sometimes, pressure and advocacy for the border between family and state responsibility is not one that is well defined and may vary according to context.

Structure, organisation, and management of education

This section relates to the way the system of education is conceptualised and managed rather than what happens within the learning environment, which will be addressed later. Although it is recognised that the structure and organisation of education usually serves as the philosophical underpinning for what occurs throughout the system, whether in the university, the school, or the curriculum development unit of a ministry of education.

Education must be structured and organised such that it is children-centred. Currently very few institutions and/or bureaucracies are children-centred. A children-centred ministry of education is one where the needs of children are put before those of the bureaucracy. Where, for example, inspection focuses on learning rather than on teacher attendance, efficiency is measured by the impact on children in relation to budgets rather than on budgets alone, where teachers understand child development as well as they understand what is on the examination, and where different approaches are used according to the context.

Education must be accessible to all children. This means it must be expanded in most cases to ensure that there are sufficient places; this is consistent with use of both formal and nonformal modalities within a unified system as long as there is equivalence among modalities. The Convention talks about education rather than schooling--full recognition that it is what the children learn that is more important than the modality that is used. It must be flexible. Learning environments must be comfortable for poor children as well as rich ones, for girls as well as boys.

Where children are working in non-hazardous labour the structure and organisation of education must take this into account. For example, it may be necessary to have flexible school schedules to accommodate agricultural cycles. Or, developmentally appropriate workloads might need to be better distributed among children--girls and boys, younger and older--to ensure that all children can avail themselves to their right to education. Timetables must also be flexible enough to be able to keep children at risk from dropping out or otherwise losing their right to education.

Education must be approachable by parents and communities. They must feel positive and comfortable about their roles in the educational process. The Convention lays out significant responsibilities for parents and other adults (as well as for children). Parents and communities will not be able to hold up their part unless the education system is open to and facilitative of their participation. For example, parental participation might be well expressed through functional parent/teacher associations that contribute to better school management. This will not occur without an enabling structure and organisation of the education system at all levels.

It is clear that the structure, organisation, and management of education play an important role in providing the checks and balances that are necessary in any system. This means that involved institutions, such as teacher training colleges and research institutes, are also key in educational activities that are consistent with the CRC. Yet, in the final analysis, the system cannot be separated from the human element, from the people who operate it and interpret its rules on a daily basis.


Curriculum, or what happens in the classroom, plays a central role with regard to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Here curriculum is defined to include the knowledge, skills, values, and processes that constitute primary education. Each of these will be discussed giving illustrative examples as it is not possible to be comprehensive in a paper this brief.

Knowledge. Every child has a right to the core of primary education. That is to language (reading and writing), mathematics, and basic science, which includes natural science, social science, and life skills. All children should also learn their rights and the associated responsibilities in very simple and practical terms. For example, children must know when work becomes hazardous and exploitative, they must understand what substance abuse is and why it is to be avoided, they must be comfortable with their bodies and understand that they have a right not to have their bodies sexually exploited by anybody.

Skills. Every child must learn basic skills such as numeracy and literacy, which serve as the basis for much other learning. In addition, children must learn social skills including demonstrating respect for others and how to resolve conflict. Although life skills were mentioned above, particularly with regard to science, they also must be considered under social skills. Examples might include how to handle money with regard to the local banking system or answering the telephone.

Values. There are some core values that are global in nature. For example, every child must understand what is meant by human rights and how these can be described and acknowledged in simple language using examples that are common in that child's daily life and experience. Among these values is the importance of respect, which must be obvious in peer interaction, for example. Other global values include honesty and responsibility. Another key value is the right to privacy, which must be understood by children and respected by teachers and other educational leaders.

Processes. How knowledge, skills, and values are transmitted is as important a part of curriculum as what about these is learned. Because, in fact, the process is part of what is learned. Learning should be child-centred, using approaches that are appropriate to and build on the developmental level and abilities of children.

But the processes are much more than this. Within the learning environment children must be able to express their views, thoughts, and ideas--to participate fully; to associate freely; and to feel comfortable about who they are, where they come from, their gender, and what they believe in. They need to be given dignity. Without this kind of a learning environment, children will not develop the self-esteem that is essential for decision-making throughout life. Educational processes can also help children develop a sense of self-discipline that will help them pursue their goals throughout their lifetimes. The learning environment must also recognise that children have a right to joy, to play, to leisure. These also provide excellent modalities for learning.

Children must be in environments free from mental and physical violence. This may mean that countries that allow corporal punishment may need to carefully review guidelines. Children under 15 years of age must not have their learning diverted due to involvement in hostilities. Education can contribute to the physical and psychological recovery of children who have been subjected to unusual stresses.

Considering all of the above, what children learn and how they are taught must be appropriate to their development and linked to their own experience so that education opens new avenues for exploration and learning rather than alienating children from their history and society. The emerging view of child development is especially important here.

New research suggests that child development is not a linear age/stage process. Rather children have multiple capacities, which develop differently in relation to how they relate to their environment. This indicates that children play a key role in their own development, suggesting that their actions, their participation, must be treated very seriously and with delicacy. The research also suggests that the various capacities develop differently in different environments, indicating the importance of flexible learning options and acceptance of a wide range of learning sites and learning environments, including the home and the community as well as conventional schools.

Teachers and teacher preparation

Much of the day-to-day curricular activities are primarily the responsibility of the teacher, so a commitment to a rights perspective in education has serious implications for teachers and for teacher education. Teachers need to understand the Convention and its implications for the daily lives of children and for the responsibilities that teachers have towards children both as key mentors in the learning process and as adults who serve as important role models and as protectors of children. Teachers may need to change their classroom behaviours significantly in order to respect the rights of children. They may also have to change their interactions with communities, parents, educational leaders, and educational institutions within the education system as each component changes to be more sensitive to meeting each child's right to a quality basic education.

One obvious entry point for working with teachers' knowledge and teaching behaviour is through teacher preparation and training. Both pre-service and in-service education will have to provide teachers the knowledge to understand CRC issues so that they meet the learning, protection, and other rights of children that come with the right to education.

Educational activities implemented with a CRC perspective provide an opportunity for teachers, in collaboration with parents and communities, to have another important role in the lives of learners. They can be trained to monitor child rights and identify children at risk or those who are abused. In this regard, they also stand to assist children whose rights have been violated and to institute preventive mechanisms to assist children at risk. Fulfilling this kind of role will require some significant changes in current teacher preparation practices.

This role can be further extended into the data collection and utilisation role that is critical in all effective schools. Teachers, as data collectors and users, can include statistics on children at risk and those whose rights have been violated as a first step to finding solutions.

Educational materials

Equitable access to sufficient educational materials has long been recognised as essential for learning. The word sufficient is important--it is not necessary to invest unreasonably in expensive textbooks, just to ensure that there are materials for every child. Low cost materials can facilitate learning as well as expensive ones. But the materials themselves need to be reviewed in light of what they convey about child rights in ways similar to their review to determine what they denote or connote with respect to gender.

The learning place

School buildings have not changed much in design in over a century; since a time when a convention on child rights was not on the global agenda! Looked at in light of the Convention, learning facilities need to be reconsidered. There is nothing in the CRC that obligates communities or nations to provide expensive conventional buildings. Children do need space where they can learn and this can be distinguished by several features.

Children's education facilities must be accessible to all, including the disabled.

Educational facilities must be safe. Children must feel and be safe and secure--free from harassment and other forms of physical violence, prevented from being preyed upon by individuals selling drugs or encouraging other forms of self-destructive behaviour, and protected from the elements. Buildings must be properly constructed so as not to be hazardous.

Within or near the facilities that are used for education there must be appropriate water and sanitation facilities so that health and privacy rights are protected. There must be appropriate space for recreational activities.

The place where learning occurs must be environmentally sound. Buildings and furniture must be child-friendly. Too many children have to climb onto furniture that was built for adult bodies. Too many children work in rooms where windows and entryways were designed by adults for adults.

Adult education

Within the context of adult education serving as a supportive strategy for universal primary education, there is much that can be accomplished through adult education in support of the Convention. Actions consistent with UNICEF policy are quite varied.

Public education on the Convention may be very important. This must be viewed broadly so that public education addresses all aspects of the CRC including health care, protection, nutrition, and legal aspects, for example. Not only will adult education serve to educate about the responsibilities of adults with regard to young citizens, whether they have their own children or not, but it can also put to rest many of the fears that the Convention may erode parenting rights and responsibilities. It can also contribute to changing traditions that have not been in the best interest of children.

Adult education can be aimed directly at parents, helping them better understand both their own rights and the responsibilities they have towards all their children--assisting them be better parents. Among topics for consideration might be information on health, nutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, and female genital mutilation, for example. At the same time, adult education activities that improve the competencies and empower adults so that they can be better parents and adults around children are also supportive of the CRC.

If education systems are to change there is enormous scope for training the wide range of actors in the education system. This might include head teachers and teachers, inspectors, administrators, planning officers, university professors, researchers, and para-teachers.

Children have a right to responsible mass media. This is a very big challenge that includes adult education aimed in several directions. First, to the media themselves. But also to educators, parents, and concerned citizens so that they demand coverage from the media that is sensitive to children, to their developmental stages, and responsive to the kinds of education that the nation is supporting.

Young child development (YCD)

The early years serve as the foundation for learning throughout life. Thus, their importance cannot be underestimated. And, with YCD playing the role of a supportive strategy for universal primary education there is much benefit to be gained from linkages among the young child, the family, and the community.

It is here perhaps more than anywhere else in education that the critical importance of intersectoriality must be recognised. Children develop so much from birth through the first ten years of life that all aspects are important--their rights to nutrition, health care, socialisation, and stimulation, for example.

While health, stimulation, and nutrition are well recognised and regularly included in programming, aspects that are essential to the creation of self concept and a strong self image are often less often attended to. One of these is gender socialisation. It is critical that young girls no longer be disadvantaged starting from these early years. At this point in a child's life acquisition of values is also very important and parents and other adults provide essential guidance in these matters--thus linking YCD and adult education as cross-supporting strategies for primary education.

Childcare services need to be provided where necessary. These should be family or community based.

Children have the right to both parents, starting from the early years when they are less able to control access to adults. This has significant implications for programming and how UNICEF works with men in relation to women and children.

Education indicators in monitoring implementation of the CRC

The preceding pages provide some information on the kinds of data from an education perspective that can contribute to the extent to which the CRC is being implemented. For example an education system, or a school, could be ranked on the following:

  • the extent to which inspection focuses on learning rather than attendance on teachers records

  • the extent to which efficiency is measured in terms of expenditures in relation to achievement rather than to unit costs

  • the extent to which teacher education focuses on child development as well as on the curriculum subject matter

  • the extent to which girls are as comfortable as boys in school and well off children are treated the same as children from disadvantaged environments

  • the extent to which children can participate in an reach equivalency in a wide range of modalities for primary education

The point is that it is not that difficult to monitor how well education activities are consistent with implementation of the CRC. Education indicators already exist. Many are already measured. It will not take that much more to reorient our monitoring to address CRC issues.

The author wishes to acknowledge the thoughtful comments from Ikem Chiejine, Steven Esrey, Garren Lumkin, Elaine Furniss, Bill Myers, Martin Pittman, Sheldon Shaeffer, Dominique Tallet-Brasseur, and Nurper Ulkuer, as well as those of the other members of the Education Section in New York.

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Last revised April, 1999
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