Chapter 15: The right to education
He tāpapa mātauranga

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
(Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Article 26)[1]

1. Introduction — Timatatanga

What is the right to education?

Photo shows woman using sign language to communicate in a lecture room.

Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights. Education is essential for the development of human potential, the enjoyment of the full range of human rights and respect for the rights of others.

It is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalised adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities. Throughout the world, education is seen as one of the best financial investments that a State can make. The importance of education is not just practical. A well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence (UN Economic & Social Council, 1999).

The right to education straddles civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. Core elements of the right to education, as specified in international treaties, include:

Katarina Toma s evski , United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the right to education, proposes a set of four broad standards (the 4-A scheme) as the basis for assessing the achievement of the right to education. The standards include:

These standards have been adapted for use in the New Zealand context in the form of a Right to Education Framework, He Whare Tāpapa Mātauranga ( Figure 1 ).

Figure 1: The right to education framework: He Whare T āpapa M ātauranga

This diagram shows the UN framework on the right to education. Link to a detailed description of the diagram on the UN framework of the right to education.

The right to education involves three key factors: the Government as the regulator, provider and funder of schooling; the student as the bearer of the right to education and the duty to comply with compulsory education requirements; and the child's parents, who are the 'first educators' ( Toma s evski & UNESCO, 2004).

2.  International context — Ki ngā kaupapa o te ao


The right to education is set out in a number of international treaties, the most significant of which are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR, Articles 13 & 14) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). Other, more specific, treaties include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD, Articles 5(e) & 7), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, Article 10), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (Article 6), and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education.

UNCROC provides for the right of a child to have access to and receive education and training to their fullest potential in preparation for employment and responsible involvement in society. It provides for free, compulsory primary education, accessible secondary and higher education, information about education, and measures to ensure regular attendance at schools. The Convention provides that education should be directed at:

a)  the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

b) the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;

c) the development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;

d) the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin; and

e) the development of respect for the natural environment.

UNCROC also specifically recognises the rights of the disabled child to education and training in a manner that is conducive to the achievement of fullest possible social integration and individual development (Article 23).

The international instruments provide for special measures [2] to ensure that particular groups are not disadvantaged. This includes measures such as tertiary institutions offering preferential entry to groups that would otherwise be under-represented ( Education Act 1998, s. 224), specialist teachers providing additional support for children with special needs, subsidised transport for rural children to get to school, or the provision of, and access to, good quality Braille and other communication assistance as basic tools for literacy for children or adults who are blind or Deaf.

3. New Zealand context — Ki ngā kaupapa o Aotearoa

New Zealand law, structures and processes


The New Zealand Government has ratified, with no reservation relating to the right to education, all the above international treaties, and is taking progressive steps towards achieving them. [3] In addition, the Government has also ratified ILO Convention 111 on Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation, ILO Convention 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labour, and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education. It has also endorsed the Dakar Framework for Action, Education for All.

The right to education is not specifically stated in New Zealand law, but it is reflected in the Education Act 1964, the Education Act 1989, the Education Standards Act 2001 (an amendment to the Education Act 1989), and the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act 1975. The Education Standards Act responds directly to the Human Rights Act 1993 by ensuring compliance with human rights standards particularly in areas of gender, marital status and disability. Education policy and administrative practice further supplement the realisation of this right. The Human Rights Act 1993 states specifically that it is unlawful to discriminate in the area of access to educational institutions.

The education system in New Zealand is made up of compulsory and non-compulsory sectors. In both sectors education can be funded by the State, funded privately or funded through a combination of both.

Compulsory education sector

Education is compulsory for all children aged between six and 16 years, although in practice most children begin school on their fifth birthday.

Non-compulsory education sector

Early childhood education (ECE) services include childcare centres, home-based services, kindergartens, kohanga reo, Pacific language nests, Deaf nests, playcentres, playgroups, distance early childhood education, and support and development programmes for parents.

Tertiary education providers offer qualifications that are assessed by quality approval bodies, such as the New Zealand Qualifications Authority or the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee. These providers are eligible to apply for government funding. There are currently 36 public tertiary education institutions (TEIs), including eight universities, 21 institutes of technology and polytechnics, four colleges of education, and three wananga (Maori indigenous tertiary education institutions). In 2002, students at TEIs represented 83 percent of the total number of formally enrolled tertiary students. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority also has also registered 46 industry training organisations and approximately 915 private training establishments, including private English language schools.

Adult and community education includes non-qualification-based programmes that are offered through schools, tertiary institutions and NGOs. Life-long learning opportunities that may be credited towards a qualification are also offered by the public and private sector, and include predominately on-the-job vocational training.

Demographic information


Children and young people

Almost one-quarter of New Zealanders were under the age of 15 at the time of the 2001 census.[4] Children between zero and four years of age (310,437) made up 7.66 percent of the total population, and children between five and 14 (631,953) were 15.5 percent. Those between 15 and 19 years (280,113) made up 6.9 percent of the total population.

Of those under the age of 15, 75 percent were European, 24 percent Māori, 11 percent Pacific peoples, and 7 percent Asian. [5] Male children made up 51.8 percent of those under 15 years old.

More than four out of five New Zealand children lived in urban areas, with 66.8 percent living in large urban centres of 30,000 people or more and 16.7 percent living in rural communities of fewer than 1,000. Pacific children were the most urbanised, at 98.1 percent. Māori children were more likely to live in small urban centres with a population between 1,000 and 9,999.

Sixteen percent of children lived in households with an annual income of less than $20,000 (NZ Census, 2001).

Of children who participated in early childhood education at 1 July 2002 , 68 percent were European, 18.7 percent were Maori, and 6.5 percent were Pacific peoples (MoE, 2003a). Table 1 shows the proportion of each group enrolled in early childhood education, compared to population figures.

Table 1: Children enrolled in Early Childhood Education (0-4 years) compared to population

This graph shows statistics on enrolment in early childhood education. Link to detailed description of graph showing statistics on enrolment in early childhood education.

Source: MoE Statistics, 2001a; NZ Census 2001[6]


Of the three quarters of New Zealanders aged 15 years and over, 2.5 million (65.4 percent of the total population) were 15-64 years old. Of this group, 13.2 percent were in tertiary study at some time during 2001 (NZ Census 2001). [7] A total of 0.46 million New Zealanders (11.6 percent) were over 65 years.

Within population groups, Maori had a higher overall participation rate in tertiary education than non-Maori (18.9 percent of Maori compared to 12.4 percent of non-Maori). Pacific students made up nearly four percent of the total student population. Maori, however, participated at over twice the rate of non-Maori in study for a qualification of less than degree level.

Females participated at a higher rate than males across all age groups and provider types for both Maori and non-Maori students (including Pacific and Asian).

About one in five students in 2001 studied extramurally. Part-time enrolments were increasing, particularly among females and Maori.