Why we need HRE4ALL

Human Rights Education for all….

"... so overdue it’s not true ... it's a necessary campaign ... and after all what is there not to like?"
In a nutshell
Human Rights are universal principles which are required for dignified living. Their realisation is key to genuine human progress in the context of the global challenges of the 21stcentury.

Human Rights Education (HRE) promotes critical thinking and wellbeing in an inclusive, just and sustainable world. There is evidence from many countries, including this one, that human / child rights based approaches have a positive impact on children and adults at many levels[1]. HRE, as explained below, builds on these approaches and can be a game changer.

In ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, Parliament actually agreed to human rights being a part of every child’s learning. Whilst there has been some progress in all three of the other UK jurisdictions, the Department for Education has done very little to translate this into policy and practice in England even in the areas of citizenship, and RE RSE and PSHE, where the opportunities are most obvious.
We therefore need to develop a broad coalition to campaign for Human Rights Education to be placed at the heart of all schools’ purpose and ethos.

Climate change?
Currently there are many in the present Westminster Government who want it to distance itself further from human rights based thinking. For example the current Prime Minister, when Home Secretary, said in 2011: “This is why I remain of the view that the Human Rights Act needs to go”.  (Theresa May, October 2nd 2011 to theConservative Party Conference, as Home Secretary. This statement was included in her repeating of a misreported deportation case involving a pet cat[2])

More recently, the Sure Start programme which began to address the right of all children to equal opportunity in the early years is being buried and many in the current administration would love to cold-shoulder the European Convention on Human Rights (which UK lawyers did so much to help draft and is not to be confused with the European Court of Justice).

This trend is taking place in the context of wider and sustained disinformation about, and cynicism towards, Human Rights in this country, in much of the media and amongst politicians, going back over 30 years[3]. This is typical of the propaganda: "So step by insidious step the Human Rights Act encroaches on every area of our life, driven by greedy lawyers and politically correct judges grabbing ever more power for themselves. In four short years this Act has undermined British common law - which has governed our lives for 800 years”[4].

Our views about human rights are left vulnerable to manipulation because the vast majority of us know little or nothing about them, including those who malign them.
In this volatile climate it is time for schools and the many other organisations and individuals who would benefit from a more Human Rights friendly culture to take the initiative through a campaign for a factual and evidence-based understanding of Human Rights and how we should live to ensure they are realised. We need Human Rights Education – as a right. 

Despite the hostility from certain quarters, a campaign for HRE will not be without its support in Parliament. As the late lamented Leonard Cohen put it so beautifully: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.'  For example, Justice Minister Lord McNally said on behalf of the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition Government on the 24th March 2011, commenting on the UK’s support for the UN declaration on Human Rights Education and Training:
“Everyone agrees on the importance of upholding human rights. The coalition’s programme for government outlines our commitment to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these rights so that the UK offers an inspiring example of a society that upholds human rights and democracy. In that context I am delighted that the UK is supporting the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training. …..The events that are happening across the world demonstrate now more than ever the power which a strong understanding and commitment to inalienable human rights can bring to bear.’[5]   Pity nothing has come of it….yet.


In the immediate aftermath of the March 2017 Westminster attack the same Theresa May who expressed hostility to the Human Rights Act in 2011 was moved to say[6]:  …..the values our Parliament represents – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law – command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere….".   So maybe she, like many others, has a more mixed understanding of human rights than she likes to let on.  Another glimmer of light came this year with the publication of a report by Bright Blue[7], which describes itself as “an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism”. In it the authors argue: The protection of human rights has been a defining and fundamental part of British society for centuries”.  And yet, drawing on a 2014 Youguv survey they write:  Britain is the home of human rights. However, among a significant proportion of the population, ‘human rights’ currently have a bad reputation, especially among Conservative voters."


The little research that has been done into the attitudes of Conservative voters towards human rights shows that 37% of Conservative voters believe ‘Human rights don’t really exist – no particular rights should be given to all people at all times’. Only 58% of the whole sample said that “human rights really exist”  Conservative decision makers and opinion formers have also expressed frustration with human rights legislation, especially the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (EctHR)”.  In the light of the evidence of confusion / ignorance about human rights presented in the report there is not one recommendation to address this through Human Rights Education. Moreover, it is clearly not enough simply to learn about human rights.


The Department for Education has to be persuaded that it has a duty to put the UK’s paper support for human rights into practice by requiring all schools to model Human Rights Education and by making provision for the necessary professional development, including for ministers, civil servants, school leaders, teachers and Ofsted.
This would not be a curriculum-focused requirement although there are implications for curriculum planning. It would demand that the schools show how their vision, moral purpose and ethos reflect Human Rights principles. Schools could, in England for example, be required to show (in age and ability appropriate ways) that the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC) is incorporated into the school’s ethos and curriculum to promote an understanding of human rights, their universality and how those rights are respected, defended and promoted in both daily life at school and at home and in different, wider contexts.  Amongst the many benefits of this approach, explained further below, is that there would be no need for a separate introduction into the curriculum of the seemingly arbitrary and rather isolationist Fundamental British Values.


Human Rights – What are they and what are they for?
Human rights address the 4 essential requirements that all human beings share to live their life in dignity:

  • Survival
  • Protection from harm
  • Development
  • Participation as a citizen in local and global communities

These universal needs gain elevated status when they are expressed in terms of human rights.  A right implies a duty. Human Rights have to be realised by those responsible (the duty bearers).  At one level, these are the state and employers in all organisations. At another level there is a need for a reciprocal respect for human rights if they are to be realised for all. In that sense all adults have some degree of responsibility for realising rights. Upholding human rights in law should be the last resort. So human rights based living needs to be learned – at all levels.  We need to know what it is we are respecting!


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[8], was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Its 30 articles set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.It “proclaims a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations” and it has been translated into over 500 languages.
193 states including the UK are members of the UN.


The UDHR includes rights to live in safety, without discrimination and to speak and organise freely (whilst observing the bounds set by all human rights).
Article 30 states (plain language version): No society and no human being in any part of the world should act in such a way as to destroy the rights that you have just been reading about.  But when do we read about them? When do we learn about them? How can we hold organisations and each other to account if we do not know what human rights are not as a list, but as a set of interlocking principles that can act as a guide to living?


In 1989 the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)[9]. Since then over 190 other countries have ratified it. The UK Parliament ratified this in 1991.  It spells out the rights of the UDHR in ways that are relevant to the needs of children. It makes clear that adults and their organisations are responsible for realising and protecting the rights of the child. These rights include the right to learn about human rights and how to use them as a guide to living a “responsible life in a free society”.  Article 42 states:
States Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike.
Article 29 sets out a vision for education to which every school should be able to subscribe. It states:
1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:
(a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;
(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;
(c) The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;
(d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;
(e) The development of respect for the natural environment.
By requiring every school to make provision for Human Rights Education, these rights would be realised for every child in an age and ability appropriate way.


What is Human Rights Education?
The adoption of Human Rights declarations, conventions and treaties by the United Nations represents important of progress towards an inclusive, just and sustainable world but it is clearly not enough. Indeed there are plenty of signs recently of attempts to undermine this progress.  People need to know and understand how human rights work in their daily lives, to make the quality of life better for all.


No one has explained the need for Human Rights Education more eloquently than Eleanor Rooseveldt who did so much to bring the UDHR into existence.  In a speech to the UN Assembly in 1958, she said:  “Where after all do human rights begin? In small places close to home…..Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.  Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.But to uphold their rights, citizens need first to know them. Progress in the larger world must start with human rights education in just those small places, close to home.”


Since then, there has been much progress in understanding what human rights education should look like, based on collaboration between a widening pool of practitioners around the world. HRE will remain, quite rightly, an evolving work in progress as we build on the achievements of successive projects.
In 2011 the United Nations adopted a declaration on Human Rights Education and Training which sums up current understanding:   
Human Rights Education encompasses[10]:
(a) Education about human rights, which includes providing knowledge and understanding of human rights norms and principles, the values that underpin them and the mechanisms for their protection;
(b) Education through human rights, which includes learning and teaching in a way that respects the rights of both educators and learners;
(c) Education for human rights, which includes empowering persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others.


The three elements are complementary and any single one in isolation would be insufficient for compliance.  Thus, learning only about human rights is inadequate, for ‘facts and fundamentals, even the best selected ones, are not enough to build a culture of human rights’.[11]  Equally, however, the building of such a culture by education through and for human rights cannot occur in the absence of fundamental human rights knowledge. The combination of all three, therefore, represents the holistic approach to HRE that is often expressly advocated within the relevant legislation and literature.


HRE needs to model what it advocates. Thus, provision needs to be made for adults working in and with schools to understand their human rights holistically and work together to ensure their environment is rights respecting. Parents should be included in continuing rights awareness provision. It is important for example that parents see that the rights of the child, which younger children will start with, are not at odds with, but are a subset of their own human rights.

Why should we support this campaign for HRE for all?
We can already see the potential for a fully-fledged human rights education provision in the range of human rights based approaches being developed within many countries today.  Examples include the Robert Kennedy Human Rights schools project Speak Truth to Power, Amnesty International’s Human Rights Friendly Schools, The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education Beacon Schools and UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting School Award.  A list of resources reporting on and analysing some of these schemes is provided at the end of this article.


Whilst acknowledging the challenges in evaluating Human / Child Rights based approaches there is evidence in many countries of a consistent positive impact.
UNICEF UK’s child rights based scheme, which has been running for over ten years, illustrates the desired direction of travel.  The model aligns with the explanation of HRE above in that learning takes place about, through and for child rights. All children and adults in each school community learn, for example, that every childhas the right to:
·     be safe and protected from harm
·     privacy
·     have their views heard and taken seriously
·     reliable information
·     an appropriate education
·     nutritious food
·     relax and play


An understanding of these and other child rights is explored in an age and ability appropriate way, through methods such as role play, class discussions and referencing across the curriculum. Staff collaborate to share ways of modeling rights respecting approaches in the classroom and to build up a holistic understanding of child rights based approaches.  A child rights lens is applied to school policies and improvement plans.
Adults (not just teaching staff) and young people collaborate to put this all into practice in the classroom, around the school, from and to home, at home and when using social media. There is increasing provision for genuine participation leading to young people, parents, teachers and governors becoming convincing advocates for rights respecting to be a way of living. 

The reported impact of this child rights based approach shows that young people:
- value social justice and inclusion. (Children are more confident to speak out if they feel there is something wrong)
- enjoy and feel safe at school (there is a reduction in bullying and discriminatory behaviour among the children).
- feel included and valued
- are more engaged in their local and global communities as ‘active citizens
and that their:
- moral understanding is enhanced
- wellbeing and emotional resilience is improved
- engagement in the school and their own learning is improved
- attainment is improved, and the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is narrowed


The evaluations by UNICEF UK illustrate this pattern[12]. Some other evaluations can be found listed at the end of this article.  A significant overarching finding about young people’s attitude to learning about child rights is their appreciation of the universality of rights in particular. They can see how this universality goes from the classroom, out the school gate, into their community and into the wider world. It overcomes the relativism that often undermines both home / school relationships and the ability to see oneself as a global citizen.


Having ratified the convention, 26 years ago, Parliament should have been overseeing its implementation and monitoring the progress of the DfE in its “delivery” of these two rights. The strategy, modeling a human rights based approach, should have included working in partnership with LAs, schools and Ofsted, using criteria based on Articles 29 and 42 as the basis for evaluation and action planning. Imagine the positive and cohesive impact on teaching and learning the implementation of these two articles could have had if they had been used to shape school development over the past 26 years. It is a sobering thought that with this approach more children would have been empowered to speak up and more adults would have been ready to listen earlier, with a greater likelihood of more effective intervention in the cases of child abuse that have been only too graphically reported in the last decade or so.


Over the last 30 years or so, national and local initiatives have included anti-bullying, wellbeing (including relationships, emotional intelligence), healthy eating, critical thinking, pupil voice /school councils, resilience, character building, restorative justice, global and democratic citizenship. All could have been given coherence and added value if unified through an HR based approach that highlighted the universal principles underlying them.  A fully implemented scheme for human rights education involving all schools would model the principles it aimed to promote, including ensuring the rights of all those working in education are understood and mutually respected.  Policy, planning and resourcing would be a collaborative process with all participants being required to experience for themselves holistic learning about, through and for human rights. This would include ministers, civil servants, school leaders, Ofsted inspectors and the teaching profession through ITE and CPD. There would be provision for feedback from teachers and young people to inform the evaluation, revision and planning process.


Over the period of a generation of school students this would amount to a relatively low cost and very high impact investment. The reasons can be summed up as follows:


  • The challenges of the 21stcentury require a positive vision of an inclusive, just, reflective and sustainable society in which a much greater proportion of citizens understand and are empowered to participate in their local and global communities. These are requirements that HRE in schools would address.
  • HRE helps to raise the aspirations, empowerment and attainment of learners.HRE provides the universal principles that allow young people to develop the transferable values within which to implement their transferable skills.
  • HRE helps people to think critically and to see themselves as active citizens, with a right to shape the world in which they live in a democratic, inclusive way.
  • HRE contributes to improved wellbeing. Research shows that the state of learners’ wellbeing impacts on their educational outcomes including their empowerment.


  • The requirement to promote human rights would provide a more relevant and effective framework for achieving mutual respect and non-discrimination than the more limited requirement to promote “Fundamental British Values”
  • Human rights provide a framework of principles that enable people to find shared values leading to non-violent conflict resolution.
  • Rational and evidence-based.
  • Current understanding of Human Rights is at a very low level and this is at odds with the extent to which Human Rights issues are to the fore on the local, national and international stage. Establishing respect for human rights helps achieve rational discussion.
  • The promotion of the responsible enjoyment of social media would be enhanced by establishing human rights principles as a framework.

An entitlement.

  • The UDHR, the UNCRC, the UNDHRET all make clear that HRE should be made available as a right to all people, including young people.
  • There is an obligation on the Department for Education to implement what Parliament has ratified / approved by translating rights into policy and practice in all education settings.

a.  Successive Westminster governments have failed to fulfill  (or even embark on) their commitments relating to the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and their enthusiastic initial endorsement of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education.
b.  Willful misreporting about, and cynicism towards, Human Rights has been facilitated by a high degree of ignorance of and about Human Rights amongst citizens
c.   The case for requiring all schools to incorporate Human Rights Education into its ethos and to model human rights based approaches in all it does is very persuasive
d.  It is unlikely the present administration would embrace HRE or fulfill its commitment regarding the UNCRC and the UNDHRE&T without huge pressure
e.  There are sufficient organisations and individuals who, through a coordinated campaign, could achieve such pressure
Suggestions for the next steps in the campaign for HRE for all
Even at this very early stage it is heartening to find support coming from the ACT in particular in addition to a number of leading academics.
Over the next period we see no reason why professional organisations, NGOs and other bodies in the education sector should not begin to throw their weight and some resources behind the campaign.

We also hope that the Children’s Commissioner for England, “who must, in particular, have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in considering for the purposes of the primary function what constitute the rights and interests of children (generally or so far as relating to a particular matter)’[13]will help bring about the changes we seek.  If there are any schools who would like to participate in this campaign please contact us.  We shall be doing our best to raise the profile of our campaign and engage as many potential supporters as we can over the next phase. Are you in?
References looking at implementation and impact of Human Rights / Child Rights based approaches in education:
1.    UN review of HRE progress 2009.  OHCHR | Ripples of change through human rights education
2.   Rights Respecting Schools – the emerging evidence about impact and implications for teacher education. J Hart 2010. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/193282.pdf 
3.   Rights Respect Responsibility in Hampshire schools. Covell and Howe 2011. http://www3.hants.gov.uk/rrr-in-hampshire-rrr-and-resilience-report.pdf
4.   Evaluation of UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting School Award. Sebba and Robinson. 2010. https://www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/12/RRSA_Evaluation_Report.pdf
5.    FinalEvaluation of the Africa Human Rights Project (AHRE) Amnesty. 2012.https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr01/014/2013/en/  See also: http://www.amnesty4education.org/hre/homesee?section=see#tab1
6.    Teaching and learning about Children’s Rights: A study of implementation in 26 countries. Jerome et al. 2015. https://www.unicef.org/crc/files/CHILD_RIGHTS_EDUCATION_STUDY_11May.pdf
7.   Further information on child-friendly schools, rights respecting schools and Human Rights Friendly Schools. Appendix 7. https://www.unicef.org/crc/files/UNICEF_CRE_Toolkit_Appendices_FINAL_web_version170414.pdf
8.   Beacon schools evaluation (UCL Centre for Holocaust Education). https://www.holocausteducation.org.uk/research/impact-evaluation/
Biographical note:
Edward Waller is Co-founder of RealisingRights in 2012.
Contributed to piloting and expansion of Rights Respect Responsibility project with Hampshire schools (evaluated by Covell and Howe at Children’s Rights Centre, Cape Breton University College, 2009). Joined UNICEF UK in 2006 to lead Education Team as it developed and scaled up the Rights Respecting School Award (evaluated by Sebba and Robinson, 2010). Previously a Head of Humanities at a secondary school and Chief Examiner for AQA Humanities GCSE and co-authored and edited GCSE Humanites resource book
To find out more / become a campaign supporter contact:
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[1]See references on implementation and impact of Human Rights based approaches in education at the end of this article.
[2]For full explanation see https://rightsinfo.org/infographics/the-14-worst-human-rights-myths/
[3]Ibid for further examples.
[4]From the Daily Mail. March 2005. See
[5]See: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/un-declaration-on-human-rights-education-and-training
[6]See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-ministers-statement-following-attack-in-westminster
[7]See: Britain Breaking Barriers: Strengthening Human Rights and tackling Discrimination. Published by Bright Blue. www.brightblue.org.uk)

[8]See full and plain language versions of UDHR here: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/ABCannexesen.pdf 
[9]See full and plain language versions of UNCRC here:
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) - Unicef UK
[10]Source:  UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, Article 2.2 2012. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/467/04/PDF/N1146704.pdf?OpenElement
[11]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘ABC: Teaching Human Rights: Practical Activities for Primary and Secondary Schools’ (2003) p. 20. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/ABCChapter1en.pdf
[12]UNICEF UK RRSA. https://www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/about-the-award/evidence/)
[13]Children and Families Act 2014. 2A (1) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/6/section/107