Ross Clark

Banned Wagon | 15 February 2003

A weekly survey of world restrictions on freedom and free trade

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James Tooley recently wrote in these pages of the success of private schools in Africa and India, which in the past few years have exploded in number, offering an education for as little as £3 a term - which even the poor of Somalia can afford. In contrast, he recounted how pupils of government schools in Ghana are left waiting on the doorstep while their teachers play truant, and how pupils of government schools in Hyderabad are forbidden to learn English and are forced instead to do the domestic chores of the teachers.

Having made a convincing case for private education, Mr Tooley ended his piece with the question, 'What on earth is government doing in education at all?' The answer is perfectly straightforward: governments persist in running schools because they are obliged to under the United Nations Charter on Human Rights. Article 26 states, 'Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages....' The implication is that, no matter how good an education private schools are able to offer your nation's children at however reasonable a price, the state must be able to offer every child a school place at taxpayers' expense. Fail to do so and you can expect a UN resolution against you and, eventually, perhaps, a visit from Mr Bush's bombers.

Why is the UN charter so prescriptive when it comes to education? It doesn't, after all, promise citizens of the world a free bus pass, free food or even free healthcare. It just so happens that back in 1948, when the charter was written, it was fashionable for Western governments to work on a model of free state education. As a result, the right to free lessons was enshrined in international law for eternity. There are no provisions for the charter to be revised, and so it is not. No matter how lazy Ghana's state schoolteachers become, the doctrines of the 1940s must prevail.