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Australia's children must all be given a good educational opportunity

By Chris Sidoti - posted Sunday, 15 April 2001

A child’s human right to education is recognised in many international treaties, the most important of which are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989. Australia is a party to these treaties and has pledged to respect, protect and fulfil the rights contained in them.

The treaties make quite detailed provisions about the nature of the right to education. The international committees established under the treaties to assess performance have summarised these provisions into five basic commitments by states that have ratified the treaties, including Australia.

  • Education must be available for all without discrimination.

  • It must be accessible, either within safe physical distance or by correspondence or some other form of distance education.

  • It must be affordable; in fact primary education must be free and once a country has succeeded in providing a free secondary education, fees can only be reimposed for very compelling reasons.

  • Education must be acceptable, culturally and in other ways, to both students and their parents.

  • And it must be adaptable so that it meets the different circumstances and changing needs of each individual student.


In 1999-2000 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission undertook a National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education. As Human Rights Commissioner at the time I was appointed by the Commission to conduct the Inquiry on its behalf with the assistance of six co-commissioners. The Inquiry evaluated the evidence it received against these five criteria.

The fundamental nature of education

Education is fundamental to the development of human potential and to full participation in a democratic society. Access to good quality education affects the rights to health, employment and participation in political and cultural life and the exercise of freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion and belief. That’s why it is recognised as a human right. It is a right to which every person is entitled without discrimination.

This core significance of education was the second reason the Commission chose rural and remote education as the subject of its Inquiry. Many country towns and regions in Australia are in crisis, confronted by globalisation and the social and economic changes it has brought and will still bring. In these circumstances school education in rural and remote Australia is central to rural well-being generally. It provides a way to understand what is happening in all sectors of rural and remote community life and is a focus for recommendations which, if implemented, may help country people to meet the many challenges they face with creative solutions for local conditions addressing local needs. We saw good education as essential if small towns and remote communities are to have a future.

The Inquiry looked into the availability and accessibility of primary and secondary schooling, its quality and the extent to which it included, in an acceptable way, Indigenous children, children with disabilities and children from minority language, religious and cultural backgrounds.

What we found


Our central finding was that many young Australians are unable to enjoy the right to education adequately or equally. Many are unable to enjoy it at all. We found strong evidence that rural and remote children are generally disadvantaged in comparison with their urban counterparts, with the rights of Indigenous children and children with disabilities most at risk of all. We concluded that many thousands of children have no effective access to secondary education whatsoever and that tens of thousands more receive inadequate secondary opportunities. We found that hundreds of children face difficulty even in accessing a basic level of primary education and that literacy and numeracy are real and perhaps growing problems in these parts of Australia.

  • Rural and remote students are less likely to stay on at school after the compulsory years or to finish secondary school. The retention rates for Indigenous students are particularly low.

  • Tertiary participation is also lower for rural and remote students. The imbalance is even worse for isolated students.

  • There is evidence that rural and remote students have lower school participation generally, less consistent attendance and poorer performances.

  • Parents and teachers said that often school transport was not available, that it did not guarantee a place for children in non-government schools or TAFE, that it rarely had temperature control and so was very hot in summer and very cold in winter and that it was often unsafe.
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This is an edited extract from the W A Jones lecture given to Adelaide University on 14 March 2001.

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About the Author

Chris Sidoti is National Spokesperson for the Human Rights Council of Australia and Visiting Professor at the University of Western Sydney and Griffith University.

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