Think education in Ontario doesn’t need to be protected as a human right? Think again.
School may be out for the summer, but education in Ontario is a hot topic around playgrounds and splash pads this month.
The decision by Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Lisa Thompson to revert to the 1998 curriculum for sexual health education, coupled with the cancellation of consultations with Indigenous leaders regarding recommendations for how to incorporate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into curriculum, has landed education on the front pages of newspapers more than once.
However, these recent political developments don’t exist in a vacuum. The challenges facing Ontario’s students do not begin and end with comprehensive sexual health education or inadequate attention to Indigenous perspectives on social studies curriculum. Our province has an education problem that goes deeper than these current concerns: too many Ontario students are facing a violation of their fundamental right to education.
Too often, the right to education — a fundamental human right as laid out in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — is understood as an issue facing individuals and communities in the global South. We think about a lack of schools, teachers or textbooks, or unequal access to schools for girls and young women in the developing world, but not about the effects of the right to education at home. But much like other social and economic rights — like the right to housing — the realization of the right to education in advanced economies has lagged behind political and civil rights.
So what are some of the ways that students are kept from realizing their right to education? Racialized students are too often “streamed” into applied rather than academic courses, making them less able to pursue postsecondary education. Children living on reserves receive less funding per capita than other Canadian students. Children with special needs are not given sufficient accommodations, support and resources to allow them to succeed.
Young people are not learning the math skills they need to survive and thrive in the 21st century. Students in Ontario won’t learn about the legacy of residential schools without an updated curriculum that has been shaped by Indigenous educators and elders. And yes, if the 2015 comprehensive sexual health education is scrapped, children and young people will be less prepared to make informed choices about their own bodies; this is recognized by the World Health Organization and the UN Population Fund.
The quality of education that children and young people receive matters, not just because education is a fundamental human right — it is also a means to achieving other rights. If you have access to education, you are more likely to know your rights, and know how to advocate for yourself and for others. For instance, without an education, it is challenging to realize the right to decent work, the right to vote, and the right to have access to justice. Education empowers people and acts as an enabler for realizing your other rights.
Schools are in an excellent position to lead the strengthening of education as a human right, and to be at the forefront of the battle against inequality. The Toronto District School Board has an equity policy that is admirable: it has become core to the work done by teachers, early childhood educators, administrators and support staff across the board. However, school boards across the province could do more. There are still too many students who do not have a pathway out of poverty that an education can and should provide.
By framing education as a fundamental human right, we place the emphasis on education for all without discrimination; the obligation of states to protect, respect and fulfil this right; and the need for accountability mechanisms when people cannot realize their right.
We may not be used to thinking of education as a human right in need of protection here at home, but, as we have seen this past month with the controversies over sexual health education and the reconciliation curriculum review, it most certainly is.