4 A human rights approach
Much global discourse on equality in education focuses on a human rights approach, drawing on the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), although a number of scholars have argued that it is the existence of the UDHR, and subsequent documents drawing on it, rather than the moral arguments about rights, which frequently provides the rationale for the importance placed on education (Unterhalter, 2007).
In this human rights approach to education the emphasis is on the state’s role in guaranteeing education rights for all its citizens. These can be seen as rights to education, rights in education and rights through education (Subrahmanian, 2002) and embrace both negative rights, such as protection from violence, and positive rights, such as the use of the learner’s home language in school (Tikly and Barrett, 2011). This approach places the individual learner at the centre of the education process with a focus on meeting the needs of the learner. So a human rights perspective on education supports learner-centred practices and democratic school structures (Tikly and Barrett, 2011). Whilst the notion of ‘learner-centred’ pedagogy remains open to multiple interpretations (Schweisfurth, 2013) there are commonly accepted key features, such as valuing the prior knowledge and experiences of the learner, and seeing learning as ‘active’, involving learners in solving problems and constructing meaning.
The human rights approach has successfully raised issues of equality of access and focused attention on addressing structural inequalities for under-represented groups. But this focus on access rather than educational success can legitimise inequalities of output as people are seen to participate according to their own self-determined effort. The approach treats learning situations – whether school classrooms, nurseries, MOOCs or workplace learning situations – as isolated from the wider society in which they are situated. It is argued that the approach fails to take account of the lived reality of learners beyond the confines of the specific space within which they are learning. There is no basis for analysis of the social, cultural, historical and political influences from the wider context which impact on both learners’ participation and teachers’ practices (Tikly and Barrett, 2011). Thus learner failure and inequality are seen as primarily a result of specific practices within the institution or classroom.