|School-based Understanding of Human Rights in Four Countries - A Commonwealth Study - Education Research Paper No. 22 (DFID, 1997, 62 p.)|
The project aimed to see:
a* how national commitments to human rights instruments are reflected in the school curriculum
b* whether young people are acquiring basic concepts in seven selected dimensions of human rights - law and the administration of justice; equality of opportunity; history; civic and social rights and responsibilities; consumer rights; violence; and identity. (Older students were also asked about their experience of human rights education in school.)
c* what difference approximately two years of study makes to the understanding of young people
d* whether there are any significant variations between countries, by gender, or between different types of school within the same country (for different school types were selected to provide contrasts in each)
e* what are the key priorities identified in the four country samples for strengthening this area of the curriculum
f* what scope there may be for Commonwealth cooperation in future
This was a three year study into the teaching and learning of human rights at the secondary school (and in India, also at upper primary school) level. It involved 473 male and 442 female students, a total of 915, mostly aged around 14 and 16 in 23 schools in Botswana, India, Northern Ireland (Britain) and Zimbabwe. The study included an hour-long questionnaire completed by students, an in-depth interview with students, teachers and administrators, an audit of the curriculum, and a review of the materials and teacher education available.
Because of the smallness of the overall sample the results should be regarded as suggestive and indicative rather than definitive, even for the four countries which participated in the project. They may, however, be regarded as thought-provoking in many countries, especially in the context of Commonwealth efforts to consolidate the human rights and responsibilities of young citizens, in the wake of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, 1991. The project is a Commonwealth contribution to the UN Decade of Human Rights Education.
The findings were:
a* National commitments to human rights as reflected in the school curriculum
Only in one of the systems surveyed (in India) was there a reasonably exact reflection of the national commitment to international human rights instruments, although students in two others were taught the national constitution. For example in Northern Ireland 93.5% of the secondary school sample said they had not been explicitly told what are the Rights of the Child, as set out in the UN Convention to which the United Kingdom is a party. Only just over half the Zimbabwe sample knew of the same UN Convention. In India, by contrast, 67.9% said they had been told about it. Although the situation varied between countries, in general it did not seem as though curriculum authorities had recently defined how and where the understanding of human rights and responsibilities should be fostered, and these findings are therefore being fed into reviews which are now in hand. In one country the key carrier subject was recognised as having low status, and no examination had ever been set for it. Special problems for the overall level of understanding arose where a cross-curricular commitment to human rights was not strong, or where relevant subjects were not compulsory.
b* Acquiring basic concepts
In the area of law and the administration of justice, where students were asked to imagine what might happen if a thief was caught, there was widespread understanding of due process. However in Northern Ireland the majority did not understand that justice must be seen to be done in public, half of Indian students assumed there would be unlawful action by police, and there were significant minorities in Botswana and Zimbabwe which assumed there would be an element of bribery and that extra-judicial measures would be taken against culprits. It was noteworthy that many students were able to distinguish between what ought to happen and the sometimes unlawful acts of law enforcement agencies.
On equality of opportunity, where students commented on a hypothetical interview for a job, they were also able to distinguish between what they thought ought to happen and what they thought would happen. The majority thought the best interviewee and best qualified should get the job. But in Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe the majority thought the person most like the appointing group would get the job. In India, where equality of opportunity in public employment is a Fundamental Right, the answers showed a solid understanding of this principle.
In history, where the questions related to an understanding of colonialism, there was some ignorance of its nature and its impact on human rights. In Zimbabwe, for example, 37.5% of the 14 year olds disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement that colonialism is now thought to be wrong "because the people in the colonised country have to obey orders from the government of another country." It would appear that a weakness in the teaching of modern national and world history, which is not always compulsory, may explain the ignorance of colonialism and the significance of political independence. However, most students in three of the four countries appreciated that political independence alone does not guarantee human rights, and only in Botswana did a majority share that belief.
For civic and social rights and responsibilities there was a high degree of similarity across the four countries. The samples thought it important and very important to vote in elections, to know what the government was doing, and to support the government and others when they try to provide homes for the homeless, better health care, more and better schools, jobs and food for the poor. These things were generally rated more highly than the need to pay taxes, the freedom to join societies, political parties, trade unions, and to follow your own religion, and to act or do something yourself to support the homeless, healthcare, education, jobs and food even if the government cannot. The idea that economic and social rights are less well understood or less strongly supported than civil and political rights is not justified in this Commonwealth sample.
With consumer rights there was a fairly high degree of awareness in India, Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe, but a much less rights-conscious response by the Botswana sample, even to a question about environmental pollution. It would appear that the explanation may lie not only in the fact that consumer rights are not covered in the Botswana curriculum, but because Botswana society is relatively peaceful and homogeneous.
On violence, students in the sample schools were generally worried, and strongly disapproving of bullying and domestic violence. Their proposals for reducing violence - a mixture of security and police measures on the one hand, with dialogue and non-violent negotiation on the other - mirror those obtaining in adult societies.
For identity, there were marked differences in the significance attached to different rights; although samples in three out of four countries put the right to life first, the Indian samples and the older Zimbabwe sample put "your parents' right to bring you up as they wish" second, which was third in Botswana and fourth in Northern Ireland and among the younger Zimbabwe group. Students saw themselves in terms of broader rather than narrower identifications, and there was a strong family identification in India compared with the more individualistic society of Northern Ireland.
c* The difference made by two years of schooling, between around 14 and 16, at the secondary level
Although comparisons were only consistently reported for India and Zimbabwe it would appear that, in general, the older students showed more sophisticated attitudes. But these may not have been the product of educational progression in school, as compared with personal maturation, or the influence of media, peer groups and others. For example, in India 91.4% of 16 year olds but only 76.9% of 14 year olds strongly agreed and agreed that it is always wrong or unfair if officials take bribes. In Zimbabwe a significantly greater number of older rather than younger students thought that radio and TV should give all sides of an event and not only report what Ministers and officials have to say about it. In Northern Ireland, however, where 74% of the younger sample agreed and strongly agreed that "violence is never necessary, because it is always possible to settle an argument peacefully", only 49% of the older ones did so.
A major reason for caution in attributing the change of attitudes to the effect of schooling was that many more students in Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe said that they had heard most about human rights from radio and TV over the two previous years, and that this was more helpful than what they had heard in school. Although the Indian and Botswana samples rated school as the most significant, radio and TV were close runners-up for helpfulness in these countries also.
d* Significant variations
Inevitably, given the heterogeneous nature of the sample, there were significant variations between countries and within countries. One purpose of the inquiry was to see how far there could be a commonality of learning, given the variety of curricula as well as resources available to schools. In general the responses from the Indian sample showed the greatest appreciation of the issues involved; these did not vary greatly across the diverse pilot schools and showed a growth in understanding over the two years; virtually all issues were covered somewhere in the Indian curriculum, and there is a strong rights component in the Indian constitution itself (which emphasises Fundamental Rights, Directive Principles and Fundamental Duties). By contrast, the weakest response came from the Botswana sample, for which there appear to be two main reasons: the outgoing syllabus (now being replaced) which these students had followed gave little attention to human rights; further, language difficulties in English may have handicapped the more rural students in particular.
Gender differences, and in Northern Ireland religious and communal differences, were significant in some survey answers. For example, in Northern Ireland, the expectation that an alleged thief would have a lawyer in court was significantly higher (94.7%) in a "Catholic", all-girls, urban secondary school as compared with a "Protestant", all-boys urban secondary school (71.8%). Both in Northern Ireland and India, males were more likely than females to agree that "police are right to use any necessary force to stop a crowd rioting, or to prevent property from being destroyed." Interviews with administrators and teachers suggest that in Botswana and Zimbabwe the rural schools may be disadvantaged for resources and other reasons in human rights education, as in other curricular areas.
e* Key priorities for improvement
Emerging from the project as a whole - student survey, student, teacher and administrator interviews, curriculum and materials audit - are a series of priorities which seem to apply to all four countries and are likely to apply elsewhere in the Commonwealth:
- a need to locate precisely where the human rights commitments are situated in the curriculum, and to strengthen further their curricular effectiveness
- a need to assess student progress, if not by examination then by other types of inspection, assessment or impact study
- a need to strengthen teacher education, both pre-service and in-service, so that all teachers have some knowledge of the content of human rights education and are aware of the implications for their own work
- a need to strengthen resources, not only with materials, but by imaginative use of teacher networking, teacher asociations and NGOs, and national human rights institutions where they exist
- a need to take advantage of the special opportunity in 1998 of the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights to review progress
f* Commonwealth cooperation in future
The Commonwealth, often regarded as an international civil society and taking a salient position for human rights since the Harare Declaration, 1991, is well-placed to give continuing leadership. The study found widespread support for growing Commonwealth cooperation, even though differences of curriculum and resources will persist. It is hoped that Commonwealth Ministers of Education and Commonwealth Heads of Government will continue to endorse the importance of human rights education for member countries. Specific cooperation could lie:
- in a joint call to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration by reviewing the place of human rights commitments in the school curriculum
- in investigating the feasibility of a human rights education agency which could serve the Commonwealth as a whole, especially for materials and curricular support
- in seeking appropriate action by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth of Learning and other Commonwealth bodies and governments, especially in exchanges of programmes, materials and experts
- in encouraging other Commonwealth governments to replicate the present study in their schools
- in developing concepts of human rights and associated responsibilities at all stages of school education, including the primary stage
- in cooperating to promote pre-service and in-service education for teachers.