Education: the universal human right

We should understand our common humanity in order to put our differences in perspective. Values and rights need to apply to all to be effective. Education should be a global human right, provided on the same basis to all.1

Universalism in education means regarding learning, knowledge and skills as part of a universal human inheritance which we have a duty to share as widely as possible. It means rejecting any notion of an education which is for the benefit of a minority, an advantage to be sought or a commodity to be bought with all the restrictive practices and cultural protectionism this implies.

A universalist curriculum would be a curriculum for global citizenship where even the most local and parochial of knowledge is connected to an understanding of the greatest global challenges and vice versa. It would reinforce learners’ growing sense of being part of a wider community; at the global as well as the local scale. It would help learners understand and analyse discriminatory and exclusionary beliefs and practices so as to expose them to scrutiny and judgement on the basis of equality, human rights and respect for all other humans. Such a curriculum would not shy away from fundamental difference or disagreement but would aim to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

There is a school of thought which argues that cultural diversity inevitably leads to a weakening of social solidarity as people are ‘less prepared’ to contribute to supporting people who are culturally or ethnically different to them. We cannot allow its advocates to get away with the claim that cultural diversity or multiculturalism inevitably lead to a weakening of universal values and social solidarity when the real threats come from cultures of excessive individualism, xenophobia and alienation.

Others have argued that the diversity of our big cities requires more diverse educational provision. In other words the comprehensive school may be a good model in more homogeneous communities but does not serve the more heterogeneous urban community with its clamour for diversity of provision. This may seem intuitive, but a very diverse community surely needs the common school as much as any other because it is the very place where young people can experience and understand diversity by learning and working alongside a wide range of others who are different to themselves, while sharing their common human concerns. If we allow young people to be segregated by class, faith or ethnicity how can we hope to build the good society we need to address our shared problems? The social engineering of selection and segregation simply reinforces existing social inequalities and is the very opposite of universalism. The common school is one of the most common-sense expressions of our shared common values.

One of the key functions of education in a good society should be to put into practice agreed universal values. Our schools and colleges should aim to model the good society, to promote solidarity and egalitarian and democratic practices even if the society around them is deficient in these. As Eric Robinson said at the end of his 2009 Caroline Benn lecture: “In evading the cultural, social and moral dimensions of education we are betraying our children and cheapening ourselves”.

We need to ensure that public investment in education reaches learners according to need and is targeted in a way which helps to reduce inequalities and promote learning. This inevitably means allocating greater resources to those who face the greatest barriers to success as well as keeping educational routes and opportunities open for all learners throughout life. In this context, the pupil premium, targeted at children in receipt of free school meals in England, can be an effective mechanism for redistribution and promoting universal access to a good education. However, in the context of reduced public spending per capita overall on education, any such resource is not buying additional provision for the least privileged but simply redistributing the cuts faced by all students.

The best way to guarantee a universal entitlement to high quality education is to maintain and defend a publicly owned and controlled system. Only collective community ownership and involvement can protect the principle of universalism. Such a system need not be uniform, monolithic or unchanging. It must be subject to constant questioning and allow for vigorous debate about its aims, outcomes, structures, standards and methods. It must avoid complacency or sclerosis and allow room for experimentation and innovation and allow people time to make judgements about what works best.

Advocates of the market claim that it is more responsive and innovative than the state. In a market, consumers do not have equal stakes and market innovation requires much market failure along the way. The “choice and diversity” agenda is predicated on the notion that greater choice between diverse providers is more likely to give people what they want from education. Like all market models it requires consumers with unequal ‘purchasing power’, whether of the financial or sharp-elbowed sort, to make market choices between unequal products. Those who already have the most generally benefit the most from such arrangements. In contrast, the idea of the common school is founded on the universalist belief that it is possible to meet the educational needs of all young people within a single common framework; one which acknowledges diversity and responds to individual needs.

Widening our scope to learning throughout life, universal opportunities for lifelong learning have been much reduced in England over recent years as a result of substantial cuts in every kind of adult education. Educational success is mostly measured in age-related milestones and from the first standardised tests in primary school, some children are defined as being below average, a judgement with great predictive value which sticks with them fairly deterministically.  Rather than being regarded simply as late developers, less successful children are faced with a narrowing of their options as they progress. In particular, major choices between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways are often determined by a young person’s GCSE grades at age 16 as if young people themselves can be categorised so easily. Those who are able to catch up and achieve success later than their peers often face greater obstacles in seeking to progress to university or to combine employment and part-time study.

A genuinely universal education system needs to acknowledge differences between learners and the various obstacles faced as a result of people’s social and economic context, racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination. It must also recognise their different needs at different phases in their life and create opportunities to move in and out of full or part-time learning. Above all, it should be based on a belief that education is a universal lifelong right rather than a once in a lifetime competition for limited ‘goods’ with many more losers than winners.

On a global scale, an even more pressing case for levelling up is the grossly unequal access to education across the planet. The United Nations’ Education for All targets for schooling rates and literacy are still far from being achieved, with 72 million primary aged children and 71 million teenagers worldwide without school places and global illiteracy standing at 759 million people, two thirds of whom are women2. This is a global scandal which needs to be urgently addressed, but it seems likely that the global economic downturn will make this situation worse. Investing in education is one of the most effective means of combating inequality but it requires long term political commitment at the planetary level.

Education should address the needs of the whole person as well as the whole society. It should be prepared to address any and all areas of human activity, human knowledge and skill and not restrict itself in ways which are circumscribed by current power structures. Education is a lifelong process of deepening and widening understanding which combines the development of each person with that of the society they live in. Learning is fundamental to the human experience and we need to ensure that access to the benefits of learning really is universal.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Jane Addams


The image is a poster designed by Roxanne Dupont for the 100 posters exhibition in 2011/12 sponsored by Human Rights and Peace Centre and shown at the Makerere Arts Gallery, Makerere, Uganda.

1. One of my 10 principles to shape education

2. Education for All Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO/OUP 2010

See also:

Unlimited potential part 1

Unlimited potential part 2

The selection debate

Many colleges in one



About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
This entry was posted in Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s