Rights literacy is core to inclusion and wellbeing and should underpin schooling, argues Hilary Hunt, who here explains what you need to know about human rights education

On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2004, Kofi Annan, then United Nations secretary general, said ‘Human rights education is much more than a lesson in schools or a theme for the day; it is a process to equip people with the tools they need to live lives of security and dignity.’

This reminder about human rights education is particularly timely in the aftermath of Unicef’s report which revealed that the UK is nearly bottom of the richest nations’ class for children’s educational wellbeing (Unicef, 2007). After all, human rights are the core universal values uniting us as members of the human race.

All the eggs
The authority of human rights is rooted in over 60 years of international commitment. An explicit, overarching human rights framework for education is not only compelling but offers enduring coherence for all less permanent initiatives.

Human rights education, as the very foundation of school culture, is the inclusive tool for learning for life. It is a combination of knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviour and action integrated through the curriculum and school philosophy. PSHE and citizenship have the advantage of already being human rights education by another name and can be entry points for universally validated practices of inclusion and wellbeing.

On a plate
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) offers, on a plate, a framework of existing values evolved from millennia of human experience in all major civilisations. The international community continues to reaffirm that these values are the prerequisite of a decent world for all. Translating reaffirmation into action would endorse values and promote skills that enable young people to confront the uncertainties and complexities of daily life in an interdependent world through:

  • mature critical thinking  
  • making informed choices
  • raising self-esteem
  • confident self-expression
  • responsibility for personal behaviour
  • valuing difference and caring about others.

Every UN member is committed: 

  • ‘to achieve international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights’ (UN Charter 1945, Article 1.3).

When signing up to an international human rights treaty, each state voluntarily makes a legal commitment to implement those rights. Consideration of those rights can stimulate discussions on how they are played out in the world. For instance, students can critically examine:

  • the reality of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in different countries (the UK signed up in 1992).

To their taste
In 1993 the international community made human rights education a priority, to fulfil our right: 

  • to know all our rights
  • to understand the responsibilities inherent in respecting them
  • to be able to deal maturely with inevitable tensions between different rights and between the different rights different people have at different times.

Hampshire County Council has taken the plunge for their young people. Their Rights, Respect and Responsibility (RRR) programme is based entirely within the framework of the CRC. In 2005, RRR teachers reported an increased sense of their own effectiveness and more positive attitudes towards students. In turn, students showed positive changes in motivation and learning behaviour. Rights literacy appeals to teenagers’ self-interest, as well as being internationally considered an integral component of quality education.

Now secondary schools are joining infant, primary and junior schools in RRR developments. This movement is further encouraged by Unicef UK’s Rights Respecting School Award (RRSA) scheme. RRSA schools place the CRC at the heart of their core values and ethos in a coherent framework to meet a whole gamut of requirements: from implementing Every Child Matters, to instigating anti-bullying policies, to raising achievement and developing global partnerships through the World Classroom initiative (DfID, 2006).

To your taste?
Much of what schools already do ‘counts’ as human rights education. PSHE and citizenship vocabulary can be rights vocabulary. The missing link is that it is not explicit and thus not recognised. It’s more difficult, but nonetheless urgent, for secondary schools to evolve a whole-school human rights framework. You can begin by: 

  • emulating RRR and RRSA 
  • charting the match between the UDHR/CRC and your school’s philosophy 
  • starting big, and going for it wholesale
  • starting small, with a timeframe for whole-school integration 
  • encouraging student-led school councils and Amnesty international school groups
  • initiating curriculum-led links to international human rights theme days 
  • joining UNESCO’s international associated schools project.

Main course
All young people have the equal right to rights literacy and its positive outcomes. It takes conviction to change a school’s established culture, whether in big or small steps. Without that conviction, schools increasingly risk unbridgeable distancing from international understanding. An Amnesty International survey of secondary teachers identified three main barriers to implementing human rights education:

  • teachers have other priorities
  • there is not enough space in the curriculum
  • teachers do not feel confident in tackling rights issues in the classroom.

Teachers at a recent workshop made these recommendations:

  • recognise what is already being done and carry on
  • continue work on boosting individuals’ self-esteem
  • have more specific discussions that relate to human rights
  • make human rights more explicit and international.

Hilary Hunt is a freelance human rights education consultant who is interested in hearing about good practice examples of explicit and integrated human rights education.

This article was first published in Learning for Life, April 2007