The role of civil society in ensuring education for all

Bente Sørensen, Senior MEL Advisor, EOL
Main image
Hempel projekt Riberalta Bolivia foto Arturo Quinteros from Fundacion Machaca Amawta (70).

Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the countries´ international legal commitments to provide universal free and quality education and the reality of ensuring such quality education for all. This is where Civil Society plays a crucial role.

Civil society organisations are important actors in social accountability processes that follow up on the equality generating effect and on the effectiveness of public education policies. The value of the knowledge, analysis and voice that CSOs can mobilise in representation of marginalised groups should not be underestimated.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that education is a human right and most countries have committed to guarantee the right to universal, free and compulsory education, through the ratification of at least the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Most countries have also ratified other international legal instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the International Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other ratified conventions, that oblige the respective government to take measures to assure the right to education for all without any kind of discrimination.

Closing the gap

Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the countries´ international legal commitments to provide universal free and quality education and the reality of ensuring such quality education for all. This is where Civil Society plays a crucial role and in the best of worlds can be seen – also by governments – as someone offering support, constructive critique and knowledge for the government to become more in tune with the establishment of a society based on human rights principles and the rule of law. Including ensuring education for all.

Those excluded from education

It is particularly poor and marginalised groups that are denied quality education, such as children whose families live in poverty; girls due to gender discrimination; ethnic or linguistic minorities; children with disabilities or those who are forced to work. Children that live in fragile and conflict affected countries (FCAC) or who are refugees are particularly in risk of being denied their right to education.

The situation in many countries demonstrates that many children and adolescents at the age of being in secondary school have not come further than primary school, and the % of secondary school age population in school is in general very low. It is also of great concern that being enrolled in school does not guarantee learning.

There are many causes for this, such as lack of trained teachers, inadequate learning materials, poor school facilities or the lack of social policies for the poorest families which means that children risk to meet up in school sick, tired from child labour or hungry, which impede them to pay attention in class and to actually learn.

Discrimination in schools

It is not uncommon either that discrimination takes place inside the schools that directly exclude or indirectly pushes marginalised or discriminated children and adolescents out of school: This may impact on groups such as pregnant adolescent girls, refugees, certain ethnic groups, homosexual adolescents, or those children or adolescents that come from families that do not have the minimum amount of money available to buy i.e. obligatory school uniforms and that end up expelled from school.

There is also a tremendous inequality problem among the richest and poorest groups of the population when it comes to receive quality education. It is not uncommon that education systems invest more funds in the education of the children and adolescents from richer families than in those coming from families with lower income.

Yet all these children and adolescents have the right to education independently of their status, individual situation or background. And therefore it is essential to have civil society organisations that can amplify the voice of underprivileged and marginalised groups in order to address structures and policies that reproduce or even deepen societal inequality.

What civil society can contribute with

There is a spectrum of reasons why governments have difficulty in complying with their obligation to guarantee free and quality education for all, from lack of political will or conditions to prioritise the education system, institutional incapacity or a general difficult economic situation or conflict situation of the specific country. There is also a spectrum of reasons why civil society should play a role.

  1. When Civil society organisations are participating in policy dialogues they have the possibility to receive information about the advances and shortcomings in the implementation of the education policies. They might also have the possibility to raise concerns related to the impact of the policies on the marginalised groups´ education situation in the country.
  2. The CSOs are particularly important when they have representation of the marginalised groups in their own organisations and can talk on their behalf. They can contribute with valuable information and arguments for shaping the education policies in favour of the poorest and most marginalised population groups.
  3. Civil society organisations can also advocate for monitoring that the learning goes beyond traditional reading and writing skills and to promote that the children and adolescents are also taught diverse life skills, such as communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and reflection.
  4. CSOs often have closer contacts with communities, and they can be the bridge so that student, parent or teacher concerns about the quality of education services reach policy makers. CSOs are also well placed to generate data and evidence through data collection from communities and analysis, research and evaluation activities in their respective countries and at the regional and global level.

CSO’s need support

However, in order to be able to fulfil these roles, CSOs need to be able to operate and they need to be strong and well-prepared with knowledge on technical topics, such as public education budgets. Education Out Loud supports civil society organisations that promote universal education.

The support aims at strengthening the organisations and enabling them to participate with constructive critique, proposals and knowledge in policy discussions on education; fulfil an important social accountability role and advocate for improvements in the education system. With the support, it is expected that the CSO's together can help moving the national education policies closer to reaching the goal of fulfilling the right to education for all and not leaving any child or adolescent behind.