Out of school, excluded from a human right

In Article 26.1, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to education, education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. (…)”. (United Nations, 1948). It has been stated that it should not only be a right but also, to a certain extent, an obligation. Every member of the society is responsible for their own future and determines the future of the society they belong to. Thus, the lack of basic education can limit the ability of citizens to take decisions that are consistent with their interests.

Given the possibility of access to education, it is in everyone’s responsibility to make use of the education system to acquire the required knowledge, and therefore participate in the development of society. Nevertheless, is education really as free as it should be? Is universal access to education easily achieved?

The data in the field of education access is both striking and discouraging. Although school attendance has improved over the years, still more than one in seven children in primary school age does not go to school in low-income countries. This rate declines as income increases, amounting to 9.3 percent for low-middle income countries, 7 percent for middle-income countries, 3 percent for upper-middle and only 1 percent for high-income countries (UIS data, 2020). Globally, more than 59 million children cannot access primary school, which shows clearly that this Universal Right has not yet been fulfilled. Consequently, the United Nations has stressed the necessity to work toward improving schooling by establishing the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 4. It aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. One may wonder what are the causes that lie behind the exclusion of these children from education, who are these “excluded”, and what is the magnitude of the challenge.

The causes are diverse. Living in a country in conflict is an obvious reason; children there are twice as likely to be out of school as in non-conflict areas (UNESCO, 2015c). Wars prevent the government from functioning properly, and keep children from accessing their schools which are often destroyed. A similar problem scheme applies to areas affected by natural disasters. Without support, communities are often incapable of rebuilding their schooling facilities, resulting in children losing their opportunity to access education.

Constraints related to family background or financial capacity are also causes of exclusion. Poorer households face budgetary constraints that prevent them even from affording this “free” education. In the pursuit of universal primary education, many developing countries have eliminated school access fees. However, some families still cannot afford to send several children to school due to other costs that are not covered, such as uniforms, food, transport, and books. This is the case in rural Ghana where these costs still represent a barrier to education (Akagury, L., 2014). These costs may particularly affect ethnic minorities living in remote areas of developing countries.

In addition, one must take into account the opportunity cost of attending school. Chandrasekhar and Mukhopadhyay (2006) analysed the case of India, finding that these indirect costs of schooling indeed reduce the likelihood of children attendance. As the authors state, this factor can even “offset the improved probability of attending school on account of slashing of direct costs of schooling”. Thus, it becomes essential that governments consider these extra costs to promote primary education attendance.

Marginalised groups, such as children with disabilities, face even higher obstacles in accessing education. Fortunately, substantial improvements have been made over the past decade to expand access to education for these children, both in developed and developing countries. Nonetheless, for some of the latter this remains a challenge that has not been fully met with solutions. Several issues have been identified. One of them is the lack of data which makes it more difficult to identify the population in need. How can we tackle a problem that we do not even know the extent of? In addition, the lack of resources to make education more inclusive is also critical. Strengthening the abilities of teachers and investing in proper training has indeed been set as one of the targets of the 4th SDG. Finally, the accessibility of schools and the provision of adapted equipment is a third issue that discourages disabled children from engaging in the current education system.

As analysed by the 2015 World Education Forum, from the point of view of investment in human capital, the lack of investment in learners with disabilities carries a substantial cost to society. The returns on investment in their education are actually two to three times higher than those of people without disabilities (UNESCO, 2015a). Thus, neither from an ethical point of view, nor from an economical perspective, should inclusive education be neglected.

Although the number of out-of-school children is smaller for developed countries, some children still face barriers that cause them to drop out of school. For many OECD countries, refugees’ integration in education has become one of the crucial challenges of recent years. Their integration into the educational system would foster their social integration and subsequent contribution to the labour market. Therefore, overcoming barriers such as social norms, language learning or access to the educational system plays a crucial role in preventing their marginalisation.

The Global Education Monitoring Report (UNESCO, 2019) emphasizes the estimated annual funding gap that existed in low- and lower-middle-income countries. It amounts to at least $39 billion dollars a year from 2015 to 2030. Although further reforms and additional investments should come from the countries concerned, international cooperation has also been called for. On this regard the chasm seems too large for low-income countries, making it difficult to close it by domestic resources alone. The gap could, however, be filled if all OECD Development Assistance Committee donors and selected non-DAC donors assigned 0.7 percent of their Gross National Income to aid, allocating 10 percent of their aid to basic and secondary education. (UNESCO, 2015b).

In conclusion, what is defined as a Universal Human Right and a compulsory provision, is not yet achieved. Poor households, minorities, disabled children, and migrants are some of the groups that still face major hindrances to accessing primary education. In both developing countries and developed ones, commitments must be made. Improving inclusion capacities for these excluded children, analysing context-specific policies, and increasing international aid on education are necessary and urgent steps forward.


Chandrasekhar, S., & Mukhopadhyay, A. (2006). Primary education as a fundamental right: cost implications. Economic and Political Weekly, 3797-3804.

Luke Akaguri (2014) Fee-free public or low-fee private basic education in rural Ghana: how does the cost influence the choice of the poor?, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 44:2, 140-161

UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III).

UNESCO (2015a) World Education Forum 2015, Final Report. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000243724

UNESCO (2015b). Pricing the Right to Education: the Cost of Reaching New Targets by 2030. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO. (2015c). Humanitarian aid for education: why it matters and why more is needed. Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Policy Paper 21.

UNESCO (2019) Global Education Monitoring Report 2019:  Migration, Displacement and Education – Building Bridges, not Walls. París, UNESCO. UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2020). Rate of out-of-school children of primary school age (%). Retrieved in January 2020. Accesible in: UIS.Stat

by Marina Navarro


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