New principles on the right to public education released

Children aged between 6-7 pose for pictures in their classroom at Gifted Hands Educational Centre in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by: REUTERS / Noor Khamis

LONDON — Governments must provide free, inclusive education through the public school system but also have a duty to regulate private schools, according to new principles put together by human rights experts and education advocates.

“The principles require states to impose public service obligations on private actors involved in education.”

— Ann Skelton, chair, Abidjan Principles drafting committee of human rights experts

The 10 Abidjan Principles, which were adopted in February in the Ivorian capital and officially launched Thursday, will serve as “the new reference point for governments, educators, and education providers when debating the respective roles and duties of states and private actors in education,” supporters said in a press release.

The right to education is enshrined in human rights law, and Sustainable Development Goal 4.1 calls on governments to ensure universal free primary and secondary education by 2030. But some advocates say they are concerned about the growing role of private actors in global education and what they see as the privatization and commercialization of education.

The principles were drawn up by a drafting committee of human rights experts in response to those concerns. They state that governments should dedicate their resources to public education and that while private actors can offer alternatives, they must be regulated by governments.

“The Abidjan Principles remind us that education is not for sale,” Ann Skelton, chair of the committee and UNESCO chair of education law in Africa, said. “In essence, the principles require states to impose public service obligations on private actors involved in education. States must design and enforce minimum standards with which the private actors must comply, and ensure monitoring and accountability.”

However, some have questioned the principles, saying they go far beyond what is required of the state under international law.

“We are concerned that while elements of the principles are helpful, they seem to create a huge number of additional obligations and compliance requirements on states,” said Aashti Zaidi Hai, director at the Global Schools Forum, a network of nonstate schools operating in low- and middle-income countries.

The publication of the principles is the latest development in a long-running battle over the role of private versus state actors in delivering global education.

On one side of the debate, a lobby of teachers’ unions and human rights campaigners say the state should be the sole provider of schooling and have campaigned against the mushrooming of nonstate education actors. On the other side, low-cost private school chains and some prominent donors argue that public education systems in low-income countries are largely failing and that fresh approaches, including from the private sector, are desperately needed.

The state-only lobby has gained traction in recent months. Late last year, human rights advocates celebrated after the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission and European Union member states to avoid spending their aid budgets to fund “private, commercial educational establishments,” and instead channel money into supporting public provision.

“Ultimately, the Abidjan Principles aim to remind states of their obligations — they must lift up the poorest and most marginalized children and ensure their access to quality education … No looking for someone else to fill the gap, no folding of hands or shrugging of shoulders about the state of the public education system, no cozying up to multibillionaires who offer kickbacks in return for contracts or spaces to run profit-making schools,” Skelton said.

Jayna Kothari, a counsel in India’s Supreme Court, said the next step would be putting the principles into action.

“Some of the critical work is only just beginning as we take the Abidjan Principles from paper to practice. We will work for their implementation, whether through technical support or litigation,” she said in a press release.

Update, March 21: This story was updated to clarify that the principles do not suggest the state should be the only provider of education

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.