Ced Simpson

Now is the time for human rights-based education

The trouble with “inclusive education” is that it can become a slogan, a mantra, a label for government policy, that imposes extra burdens on teaching professionals. At the Human Rights in Education Trust, we believe it’s helpful to ground the purpose, practices and commitments to inclusive education in more fundamental norms.

In his famous 2006 TED Talk, Ken Robinson told the story of the child identified by her school as having a possible learning disorder at the age of seven or so. Taking her to see a medical specialist, her mother explained she couldn’t concentrate at school and was very fidgety. The astute doctor diagnosed Gillian Lynne as a dancer; she was sent to a school specialising in dance, and went on to be the choreographer responsible for Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Discovering and helping realise the potential in every child is a core responsibility of educators, and goes to the heart of the profession.

Discovering and helping realise the potential in every child is a core responsibility of educators, and goes to the heart of the profession. Going beyond government policy, the mission of teachers and schools is to realise the human right to education of every child, with its dual aims of enabling development of their personality, talents and abilities to fullest potential, and their  participation in a free society. This is the rationale for inclusive education.

The right to education also involves the right to an education that respects, protects and fulfils human rights in general, from the rights to be treated with fairness and dignity, to be safe, and to have a say, to the rights to work and an adequate standard of living, to benefit from science and the arts, and so on.

New Zealand has obligations in international law to promote human rights through education, but there are distinct advantages to framing education in human rights terms as part of inclusive education.

There are distinct advantages to framing education in human rights terms as part of inclusive education.

First, the right to education gives the normative imperative for inclusive education: every child has a right to education, and the evidence is clear that the vast majority of children with “special needs” have a greater chance of having their potential identified and realised in an education process designed to accommodate all.

Second, developing a strong school culture explicitly based on the human rights of all creates a community in which diversity is valued, and each person is treated with dignity and respect. Schools participating in the Human Rights in Education initiative have reported significant declines in bullying, for example. A practical primary school learning inquiry in Nelson, into the way children with disabilities might experience school, led to school changes that improved outcomes for children with sight and mobility disabilities, and also taught five and six-year-olds that they could influence school policy – a real citizenship lesson.

Third, a human rights culture becomes not just “the way we do things around here”, but a way of acting that relates to cross-culturally negotiated and internationally-agreed standards of global citizenship, and is more likely to be exported into post-school settings. Children learning about human rights and responsibilities, as part of developing classroom treaties, become active citizens interpreting and acting in the wider world based on human rights values.

Inclusive education, if done as part of human rights-based education, not only benefits children who may otherwise languish in schools and society, it can also be part of creating the sort of schools and society we all want.


Ced Simpson is Director of the Human Rights in Education Trust.

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