The Hidden Barriers for Children Living in Poverty: European education must become more inclusive and rights-based

How can education improve child well-being, and what policies can help ensure the universal right to access schooling? Banner image: Shutterstock/Kichigin

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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This article was co-authored by Dr Ally Dunhill, Head of Advocacy, Eurochild

This is the third academic year affected by COVID-related restrictions. And while we won’t know the full impact on children and their education for many years to come, what we do know worries us.

As a result, Eurochild are continuing to draw attention to children’s experiences of the pandemic by marking this year’s World Children Day with an event, Addressing the impact of COVID-19 and strengthening well-being for children through education, taking place on Friday, 18 November, 1430–1600 CET. We are convening political leaders, policymakers, school leaders and civil society to highlight how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted children’s rights to education and their right to be informed about their rights as set out by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

During our webinar, we will share innovative education practices that examine how to overcome the devastating impact of COVID-19 on children’s rights to education and fair access to learning. Registration is still open!

Register now for Eurochild's event "Addressing the impact of COVID-19 and strengthening well-being for children through education", taking place on Friday, 18 November, 1430–1600 CET

Are schools in Europe fit for purpose?

Education is often described as a gateway to children’s futures. But for one in four children across the EU are living in poverty or social exclusion, this gateway is neither accessible nor inclusive and does not meet their needs.

Many children living in poverty or social exclusion do not receive a healthy meal every day and cannot afford to attend school trips, buy the books or school equipment they need, participate in after-school activities or access online learning. Education is often assumed to be free for children, but these extra costs are everyday barriers for children in poverty.

As reported in our Growing Up in Lockdown Report, the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the inequalities across European education systems. Social exclusion and inequities such as a lack of digital equipment, unstable internet in rural areas and insufficient support from school staff have become more pronounced in the last year and a half, particularly for children in need.

Some children might have dropped out or been excluded from school, while some others cannot access education due to lack of affordable digital equipment or their school buildings not having disability access. Children are also excluded due to other circumstances, such as their experiences of migration, which puts them at added risk of a disadvantage due to separation, trauma and loss.

According to outcomes from our ICAM (Including Children Affected by Migration) programme, children can only learn in a safe and welcoming environment. ICAM aims to increase inclusion and improve children’s learning environments in school or at home by raising awareness about their rights, as well as training school leaders, families and parents to improve children’s learning capacities. Simply put, governments must ensure that schools are inclusive and accessible for every child.

A recent survey, Our Europe, Our Rights, Our Future, included the voices of more than 10,000 children aged between 11-17 and reported that one in five children were growing up unhappy and anxious for the future. In the report, children also describe schools as having potentially detrimental effects on their psychological and physical well-being. Schools were identified as the social environment where children face the most differential treatment, as expressed by a 15-year-old-girl from Albania:

“I can say that I am treated differently; for example, it is a gender stereotype, only because I am a girl. Me and also other girls feel oppressed or different from boys, who are adored unconditionally”.

Furthermore, children shared that the education system is not meeting many of their real-life needs and expectations.

Read more on the Forum Network: Equity in Education after COVID-19: Tackling the challenges ahead by Anthony Gooch, Director, OECD Forum, OECD

European education must become more inclusive and rights-based

So, as child rights advocates, organisations and children across the world commemorate World Children’s Day—and the 32nd anniversary of the adoption of the UNCRC by the UN General Assembly—Eurochild is marking this milestone with a call for European education systems to become more inclusive and rights-based.

The UNCRC recognises that every child has a right to an education that develops their “personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential”. These rights are also set out in other leading international and European agendas; for example, the United Nations 2030 Agenda, and specifically Sustainable Development Goal 4, aims to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education”. Quality education is also a core recommendation of the new European Child Guarantee, and a focus of the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child.

Every child has the right to education, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, language, abilities or immigration status. School is a space where children develop academically, and provides opportunities to develop socially and emotionally. Children often value and benefit from the social aspects of the school above and beyond the academic curricula.

Over many decades, society has gone through significant changes; however, our education systems have remained essentially the same, with little to no changes to educational curricula and a lack of emotional and psychological support for all children.

Conclusion

Education reform is long overdue. Schools in the 21st century must provide quality education to a much larger and more diverse population of children, in many new formats, including online. Yet, many features of education have remained the same for decades.

It is positive to see the EU prioritising “school success and catalysing investment in early childhood education and school through the Child Guarantee and the European Education Area. Our webinar on 18 November will spotlight innovative solutions that can help children in the most vulnerable situations, and put a brake on the education inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We at Eurochild will continue to advocate for all children—especially the most vulnerable and marginalised—to realise their right to access quality education that allows them to reach their full potential.

Read the Eurochild report Growing up in lockdown: Europe’s children in the age of COVID-19

Read the Eurochild report Growing up in lockdown: Europe’s children in the age of COVID-19

Find out more about the recent OECD Forum series event Equity in Education: Unlocking Opportunities Throughout Life

Find out more about the recent OECD Forum series event Equity in Education: Unlocking Opportunities Throughout Life

Related Topics 

Tackling COVID-19 Child Well-being Income Inequality Digital Inclusion

Ciaran O'Donnell

Policy and Projects Officer, Eurochild

Ciaran O’Donnell is a Policy and Project Officer at Eurochild, Europe’s premier umbrella network for children’s rights. At Eurochild he is responsible for coordinating research & policy projects that underpin Eurochild’s EU advocacy, primarily in the areas of children in alternative care and inequality in education.

Through his work, Ciaran supports Eurochild to shift the chess-pieces of European policymaking to improve the lives of society's most vulnerable children. He does through mobilising expertise across Europe, building Eurochild’s evidence base on key issues for children including poverty, alternative care and education, and represents the organisation at international expert fora, including with EU, CoE, UN and international civil society.