SDE and the UNCRC Part 2: Education as ‘Compulsory’
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the child’s right to an education that is child-friendly and empowering, and that enables the child to enjoy the full range of human rights. Yet, it also makes this ‘compulsory’. Is this the contradiction that it seems to be?

This is part 2 in a series of articles exploring the relationship between SDE and the UNCRC. Go to part 1


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) details the right of the child to education, starting off with the following words:

“1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;” from Article 28, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN General Assembly, 1989.

It’s easy to imagine how this wording came about. Three very different agendas converged.

Three Different Agendas for Making Education “Compulsory”

a family
Photo by Pixabay

First – and I believe foremost – a recognition that children are vulnerable, and often exploited by unscrupulous adults. How does a child get an education if parents keep them home to help with the housework, or send them out to earn, or beg for money for the family? How does a child get an education if nobody provides them with any resources or support? How do we make sure that each and every child has the opportunity to get an education? It cannot be optional for governments to provide resources. It cannot be optional for parents to allow and assist their children to access those resources. Where governments and/or parents are unwilling to support the child’s right to education, they must be compelled to do so. A certain level of basic education must be ‘compulsory’ for adults to support.

Second, a far more sophisticated and veiled agenda. Education is an excellent tool for enculturation and indoctrination. It’s a citizen shaper. It can be used to annihilate tradition and replace it with colonial values or the party line. It can be used to suppress dissidence and program conformity. To achieve this, the education we inflict on whichever populations we wish to dominate, will need to be standardized and homogenized. It will have to be universal. Some will want to resist, so it will have to be compulsory.

The third – and I think most insidious – is rooted in a deep prejudice about children, so deep that it’s most often not conscious. We don’t want to think that we’re ‘childist’, and yet... just as many colonial officials and slave owners once truly believed that people with dark skin were foolish and incapable of running their own lives without paternalistic guidance, or romanticized the “noble savagery” of the enslaved; just as many men believed that women were foolish and incompetent, or that empowerment would taint their ‘femininity’; many of us may feel in our hearts that children are silly and impulsive and can’t really choose wisely, and that empowering them will spoil their ‘cute innocence’. We then believe that children must be protected – from themselves. We may think that we must force them to eat healthy food instead of junk, and force them to work at lessons or they will learn nothing. The rights we’re according to children here are not like the human rights we accord to adults. They’re more like animal rights. They’re meant to ‘protect’, not to empower.

The convergence of these three agendas in the making of education ‘compulsory’ leads to two very different common interpretations of Article 28.

Different Interpretations of ‘Compulsory’

On the one hand – appropriately – “compulsory” is often understood as compelling the state and the parent to provide resources and opportunities for children to fulfill their right to education. It could (and maybe should) be reworded as “every government and parent shall ensure that every child has free and unlimited access to good quality educational resources, and no person shall overtly or covertly interfere with or prevent any child from fulfilling their right to education.”

head on desk reading
Photo by umjanedoan

On the other hand – problematically – “compulsory” is often (mis)understood as compelling the child to attend and comply with Imposed Schooling, giving them no choice in the matter.

The labeling of the first interpretation as ‘appropriate’ and the second as a ‘misunderstanding’ could be construed as nothing more than my own bias, unless we extrapolate and look at the results of each.

When we interpret “compulsory” as the compulsion of the state and the parent to support the child in fulfilling their right to education, the only problem that results is a practical one: how will we monitor and enforce this?

When we interpret “compulsory” as the compulsion of the child to attend and comply with Imposed Schooling, monitoring and enforcement become a lot easier, but a number of other problems arise, and these are more than mere practicalities.

The Result of Misinterpreting the Word “Compulsory”

The most problematic result of interpreting the word “compulsory” in the second way is the internal contradiction that then arises within the UNCRC.

If we make it compulsory for children to attend and comply with Imposed Schooling against their will, then the integrity and legitimacy of the entire UNCRC is undermined, making nonsense of children’s rights.

Doublespeak is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words.” – Wikipedia definition.

Making any ‘right’ ‘compulsory,’ in the sense of forcing a person to fulfill their right in one specific way, is automatically doublespeak. It stops it from being a right, and makes it instead, a euphemized tool of authoritarian control.

Even the right to life itself cannot be made ‘compulsory.’ We have acknowledged that any person of sound mind may refuse life-saving treatment; and laws criminalizing suicide are considered archaic and are being phased out.

If we take any adult right and make it ‘compulsory,’ in the way that Imposed Schooling has been made ‘compulsory’ for children, the doublespeak becomes obvious:

You have the right to food, so you will be compelled to eat in a government canteen every weekday and be weighed weekly so that your caloric intake can be monitored. Okay?

You have the right to freedom of speech, so you will be compelled to publicly speak your mind not less than once a week, and a psychologist will assess whether this is genuine self-expression. Okay?

These examples are laughable. Let’s try a more direct parallel.

“(1) Everyone has the right to education... Elementary education shall be compulsory.” Article 26, UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948

So, illiterate adults who have not completed elementary education can be forced by law to attend adult literacy classes, right? We can keep them away from their careers and hobbies until they pass their exams. Okay?

No! Of course not!

school children
Photo by Capt. John Severns

I Googled to find out if this has ever happened, and in the only documented instance I could find, in The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan the author N. Nojumi says that the (very authoritarian) way it was done “bored many adult students and turned them off to the idea of continuing their education.”

If we can see that legally forcing adults into elementary education is not appropriate, why do we consider it an acceptable thing to do to children?

Misinterpreting The Word “Compulsory” Unravels Children’s Rights

There’s only one way to resolve the apparent contradiction: we must assume children are not to be seen as fully human, and that their rights are not the same kind of rights as adults’. The implicit message is that we shouldn’t take the UNCRC at face value, but that we should treat it as doublespeak.

This is exactly what I have seen in practice. I have heard children told almost verbatim: “Rights go with responsibilities. You have the right to education, therefore you have the responsibility to obey the teacher and do all the work you are given, whether you want to or not.”

Doublespeak: We say that children have rights, but we really mean that adults have a new, politically correct way to bend children to adult will.

And from there, the whole UNCRC unravels. Using this one weapon of ‘compulsory’ education, we can, and do, undermine all the children’s rights that have more to do with empowerment than protection.

We can make nonsense of their freedom of association by forcing them to ‘learn’ from any adult we assign, with any companions we assign, and forbid them from communicating with their peers for the bulk of the day.

We can make nonsense of their freedom of thought, belief and expression by tightly controlling what they will study, and penalising them for giving any answers other than those we prescribe.

Photo by Brett Hammond

We can cripple their right to play by giving them long school hours, little or even no recess, and loads of homework.

We can completely ignore their right to have a say in decisions that affect them, forcing them wholesale to learn where, when, what, how, for how long and with whom we tell them to.

Once we get away with all that, it’s a slippery slide back to the practices that traditionally go along with children having no rights. So in Imposed Schooling, in places where children’s rights are implicitly and thoroughly de-legitimised in this way, we see outright abuse entering the school grounds. Where children are disempowered, their rights are doublespeak, and they have no real voice, adults can get away with anything, and do. Children publicly handcuffed to railings for using cellphones without permission (USA). Children forced to have sex with a teacher to get a pass mark (South Africa).

In a document intended to help clarify what is meant by Articles 28 and 29 dealing with education in the UNCRC, it states that “Children do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates.” – UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 1 (2001), Article 29 (1), The aims of education, 17 April 2001,

Yet, when we interpret ‘compulsory’ to mean compelling children to attend and comply with Imposed Schooling against their will, that’s exactly where we end up.

We Need to Raise Awareness of SDE

Clearly, the Imposed Schooling interpretation of ‘Compulsory’ is a misunderstanding. Or else, there’s not much point to having the UNCRC, at all.

So why do so many children’s rights advocates and educational policy makers go along with this misinterpretation, aiding and abetting the forcing of children into Imposed Schooling?

a classroom

Why are the millennium development indicators worded in the self-defeating way they are, conflating education with schooling, and prioritising ‘enrollment’ and ‘attendance’?

Why are poor and developing nations pressured to waste money on classrooms, desks and textbooks they can’t afford, while effective, affordable child-friendly solutions such as reading clubs and toy libraries are treated as nice-to-have ‘extras’?

Most children’s rights advocates certainly aren’t ‘childist’, or supporting the old colonial agendas of cultural obliteration.

So, why?

Quite simply, they mostly don’t actually know about SDE.

Often, all they know about is Imposed Schooling. They assume that is ‘education.’

Many of them are struggling, desperately trying to find ways to reconcile the child’s right to education with the child’s right to play – simply because they have not yet seen the evidence: that never-ending ‘play’ in an educationally rich environment delivers everything a child needs to fulfill their right to education.

They are not aware that a form of education that fully embodies every right enshrined in the UNCRC already exists: with no conflict and no compromises of one right for the sake of another. A form of education that children love and naturally embrace, like breathing. A form they don’t resist and shirk, because it’s all their own passion anyway.

A form of education where the child’s best interests are served through the child’s own choice.

A form of education that originated in a profound acknowledgment of children’s rights, even before the UNCRC was drafted.

A form of education that is, in its essence, a practical implementation of the whole UNCRC.

So many don’t know about SDE. It will be good news indeed.

Let’s tell them!