Human Rights Law – The Speckled Bird of Educational Research?

Human Rights Law – The Speckled Bird of Educational Research?

In human rights law, education is a big deal. A really big deal. It appears in all the major human rights treaties, from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is said to act as a multiplier of rights, meaning that all other human rights can be enhanced when it is enjoyed fully and impacted negatively when it is not. It is also unique because it is the only right that is compulsory, another indication of how important it is considered to be.

Human Rights and Educational Research

In education and educational research, human rights, particularly children’s human rights, do not enjoy quite such an international ‘Rockstar’ status.  While there are a few scholars (none better than EERA’s Network 25)who work explicitly in this area, there is quite a lot of ambivalence and, in some cases, antipathy to human rights (Lundy and Martinez Sainz, 2019). This shows up in the use of language like ‘legalistic’ to dismiss what is often just a sound legal analysis or ‘normative’ to imply that something has no theoretical foundation. And, for the record, what’s wrong with being ‘normative’, especially when those norms are grounded in values derived from centuries of moral philosophy?

An ongoing concern is that there are still those who deny that children can, have, or should have human rights when they would never deny that adults have human rights. I have been told of educational researchers saying that they don’t believe in human rights for children – like they are the tooth fairy. Clearly, they are a legal fact, but a worrying consequence of the resistance to the idea that children have rights has been that the language of children’s human rights can become diluted, substituted and truncated with seemingly ‘safer’  alternatives such as well-being and the SDGs used instead (Lundy, 2019).

A further common response is to talk about how human rights or rights language has been deployed for nefarious purposes or in ways that trivialise their remit and purpose. That is undoubtedly happening (e.g., I am told regularly by teachers that some parents will  claim that their child has a ‘right’ to a chocolate bar in a school with a healthy eating policy). However, a sound legal understanding would show that the problem is not the human rights in themselves but a flawed understanding of them. A common example of that in practice is the claim that the rights of the many ‘outweigh’ the rights of the few, particularly when one child’s behaviour is disruptive in a classroom. (Gillett-Swan and Lundy, 2021).

Of course, this is not to say that the human rights laws are perfect articulations of all that we would expect of education.  Valid criticisms of human rights law (feminist, post-colonial, neo-liberal etc.) abound. Most come from within our own field, so much so that those of us whose work focuses on children’s human rights have been coined as ‘critical proponents’ Reynaert et al., 2009).  Human rights laws are politically negotiated compromises, thus providing fertile soil for critique. The right to education is no exception. States tend not to over-promise, and one result, for example, is that the commitment to free education only applies to primary education, although states should always be striving to improve their provision. Critiquing the standards and therefore the sometimes less than ambitious commitments of governments, drawing in educational research on best practice, is a thriving area of human rights research.

Using human rights law in educational research offers a bounty of other possibilities. For a start, they can provide a conceptual framework for analysis and critique of education policy and practice. Children’s rights policy is distinctly different from childhood policy in substance and in process (Byrne and Lundy, 2018). It demands that the researcher puts their gaze on the child’s interests and entitlements (not just those of the school, teachers, or parents). It is also naturally intersectional – human rights data must be disaggregated, as the focus is always on finding those, particularly those in groups facing discrimination, whose rights might be infringed.

Human rights standards can also be applied to methodology.  We have pioneered an approach to research that is guided by the UN Statement of Common Understanding of human rights-based approaches (Lundy and McEvoy, 2012).  One consequence of this is that we always work with children as co-researchers, getting their advice on what to research and how to research it.  For example, in the recent CovidUnder19 initiative, we took advice from over 270 children across the world about what to ask in a survey of their lives.  The children stressed the need to ask about the consequences for examinations and testing in the questions on the right to education. Only children can know what is most important to know from their perspective (Lundy et al., 2021).

The Great Speckled Bird

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

In 2004, I moved from a law school to an education school within the same institution. This was not the ‘done thing’.  A senior colleague in law warned me that it would not make me a better lawyer. I replied that it would make me a better academic. And I think that we were both right. When I arrived in education, a senior colleague there described me as a bit of a ‘speckled bird’.

In the wave of excitement and optimism, I took it as a compliment, understanding that it meant that I was an interesting addition to the flock. When writing this blog, I decided to investigate the root of that phrase.   It turns out that it comes from a southern US hymn and that being a ‘great speckled bird’ is, in fact, not such a good thing:


“Desiring to lower her standard
They watch every move that she makes
They long to find fault with her teachings.”


In truth, sixteen years later, the description of the speckled bird actually makes more sense.  Yet, while I work across many fields, and have recently taken up an additional chair in the School of Law at University College Cork, I continue to find a home in the educational research community, benefitting from the fact that education is uniquely and genuinely multi-, inter- and trans- disciplinary.

The Lundy Model – Giving Young People a Voice

The first education conference that I attended was ECER 2004 in Crete. And it was a result of discussions at that conference that I formulated the rights-based conceptualisation of student voice (space, voice, audience, and influence) that is now widely known as ‘the Lundy model’ (Lundy, 2007).  

Human rights law, imperfect as it is, won’t be for everyone, but it has a role to play in understanding why and how we provide education, what it should and shouldn’t look like and how students themselves experience it and can and should shape it. Would we want a world in which there were no human rights, no children’s rights?  If not, then we need scholarship that strives to understand its underpinning theory, its content, its limitations and its (lack of) implementation.

Other blog posts on similar topics:

Professor Laura Lundy

Professor Laura Lundy

Professor of Children's Rights, Queen's University Belfast: Professor of Law, University College Cork

Laura Lundy is Co-Director of the Centre for Children’s Rights and a Professor of Education Law and Children’s Rights in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University, Belfast.

She is joint Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Children’s Rights. Her expertise is in law and human rights with a particular focus on children’s right to participate in decision-making and education rights.

Her 2007 paper in the British Educational Research Journal, “’Voice’ is not enough” is one of the most highly cited academic papers in BERJ and on children’s rights ever. The model of children’s participation it proposes (based on four key concepts – Space, Voice, Audience and Influence) is used extensively in scholarship and practice.

The “Lundy model” has been adopted by numerous national governments and public bodies as well as international organisations including the European Commission, World Health Organisation, UNICEF and World Vision.

References and Further Reading

Watch Professor Lundy’s keynote address at ECER 2021 here 


Irish National Framework for Young Peoples Participation in Decisionmaking

The Framework is based on the child-rights model of participation developed by Professor Laura Lundy, Queens University, which provides guidance for decision-makers on the steps to take in giving children and young people a meaningful voice in decision-making.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The role of law and legal knowledge for a transformative human rights education: addressing violations of children’s rights in formal education. Lundy and Martinez Sainz, 2019

A Lexicon for Research on International Children’s Rights in Troubled Times. Lundy, 2019

Children, classrooms and challenging behaviour: do the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few? Gillett-Swan and Lundy, 2021

A Review of Children’s Rights Literature Since the Adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Reynaert et al., 2009

Children’s rights-based childhood policy: a six-P framework. Byrne and Lundy, 2018

UN Statement of Common Understanding of human rights-based approaches (Lundy and McEvoy, 2012

#CovidUnder19 – Life Under Coronavirus: An initiative to meaningfully involve children in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. CovidUnder19

Life Under Coronavirus: Children’s Views on their Experiences of their Human Rights. Lundy et al., 2021

‘Voice’ is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Lundy, 2007)

The Rights of Children in Education

The Rights of Children in Education

Some weeks ago, I was invited to deliver a speech at the ‘Wicked Problems in Children’s Rights in Education’ conference organised by the European Educational Research Association. Whilst preparing my talking points, I was reflecting on the fact that a ‘wicked problem’ is one that is difficult to resolve. There is no simple solution to a wicked problem and it creates tensions, depending on the lens used to analyse the issue. Within this context, I decided to throw some light on one of the more radical rights outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): children and young people’s right to participate and its intersection with the right to education.

The UNCRC has been recognised as revolutionary because, for the first time in history, it entitled children and young people with a specific set of human rights, including the right to participate. The UNCRC’s views deem children and young people to be rights-holders and is supported by the childhood studies field that positions them as competent social actors. However, three decades after the UNCRC entered into force, participation rights continue to be challenging to implement, and the educational system is no exception. 

In order to discuss these issues, it is critical to review three key global policy instruments:

  • the UNCRC
  • the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC’s) General Comment No. 1 on the aims of education
  • the CRC’s General Comment No. 12 on the right to be listened to.

The Aims of Education


General Comment No.1 highlights that education is not only composed of the formal schooling system, but it should also include the development of life experiences and learning processes to strengthen children and young people’s personalities, talents, and abilities. In the same line of thought, the UNCRC’s Article 29 outlines the aims of education as the holistic development of children and young people’s full potential, including the development of respect for human rights, an enhanced sense of identity and socialisation, and interactions with others and the environment. Thus, children and young people’s right to education is not only a matter of access; it is also about content, which must be child-centred, child-friendly, and empowering.

Unfortunately, children and young people’s experiences in many educational systems around the world reveal that these aims are not always achieved. Often the focus is only on improving academic skills and sharpening intellect, ignoring other critical formative components. Here is where education systems’ aims contrapose UNCRC’s ideals, including the promotion of children and young people’s empowerment, as stated in General Comment No.1 and the UNCRC’s Article 12. 

Empowerment can be achieved by developing children and young people’s social skills, supporting learning and other capacities, valuing human dignity, and supporting self-esteem and self-confidence. This raises the question of whether this aim is attained or undermined by the systemic focus on academic success.

The Right to Participate


In turning the discussion to children and young people’s right to participate, defined by General Comment No. 12 as ‘the right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them’, an ‘ongoing process, which includes information-sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect’. This definition embraces the notion of participation as a process with three pivotal components:

    • an impact on decision-making
    • mutual respect between children and young people and adults
    • a collaborative learning process.

The Disconnect between Rights and Reality

Now, where is the tension? What makes the implementation of this right to participate in education problematic? Children, as rights-holders, competent social actors, and empowered decision-makers, should be able to have opportunities to form and express their views freely, and these views should be respected and taken seriously. However, reality shows that children and young people seldomly have meaningful opportunities to participate in decision-making processes at school, and they rarely perceive positive results from their participation.

The major constraints are consistently the same across time and spaces:

      • the authority of adults, in this case, school teachers and educational staff, over children and young people that perpetuates patriarchal structures of power
      • inequalities in education which includes or excludes children and young people based on their social categories
      • tensions between children and young people being considered objects of education and subjects of mutual learning.

 Yet, this ‘wicked problem’ can be easily addressed, if all parties involved take the key principles outlined in the UNCRC, General Comment No. 1, and General Comment No. 12 seriously.

Hence, in order to discuss the future direction needed to ensure the realisation of children and young people’s rights, we must link participation rights and education aims when designing educational systems. Children and young people must be front and centre as subjects of rights, subjects of learning, and competent social actors, able to shape their educational environments. The challenge will always be to create spaces where adults listen to children and young people and take their views seriously. Thus, adults also need to build their abilities to listen to children and young people and adapt their decision-making processes to be more inclusive and equitable.

Photo Credit: World Vision/Jon Warren

Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parras

Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parras

Director for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International

Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra is the Director for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International. He leads strategies and programmes to ensure that children and young people are at the centre of the advocacy and policy debate.

He holds a PhD in Social Policy from the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, a Master of Advanced Studies in Children’s Rights from University of Fribourg-UIKB, Switzerland, and a Master of International Relations. Patricio has worked in more than 20 countries, including long-term roles in Ecuador, Chile, Indonesia, Lebanon, Cyprus and the United Kingdom. He has published a variety of books and reports on the topics of children’s rights, child participation, indigenous children and gender equality.

Dr Cuevas-Parra has a keen interest in looking at cutting-edge child rights advocacy tools and models to enhance children and young people’s engagement in decision-making. His research interests fall into three main categories: children’s participation in public policy, child-led research methodologies, and children’s perspectives on violence and abuse. Patricio is currently conducting research projects on children’s participation with Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Edinburgh.

Challenges and Future Directions for Children’s Rights in Education

Challenges and Future Directions for Children’s Rights in Education

The Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network (Network 25) recently held our annual event, as part of the European Educational Research Association (EERA) #ReconnectingECER programme.

This was an exceptional event in several respects. Due to COVID and the cancellation of our annual ‘face to face’ European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), we transformed our EERA Network  Development funded project into a virtual open event. To broaden exposure to our network, and include a wider range of voices that has not always been possible at previous events, we brought together various communities to encourage intergenerational dialogue that focused specifically on the intersection of education and children’s rights.

Specifically, the session addressed the topic of “Wicked Problems in Children’s Rights in Education”. We also ensured live-tweeting prior to and during the event through a partnership with @ChildRightsChat. Finally, since we aimed to draw new avenues for research on children’s rights and education, a graphic facilitator accompanied the whole webinar, providing our Network with a visual summary of the discussions initiated.

We were joined by 66 participants from 23 different countries within and outside Europe.[1] 11 presenters provided 11 thought-provoking and stimulating Lightning Talks on different ‘wicked problems’ affecting children’s rights and education. Wicked Problems are problems that are complex or difficult to solve[2]. 

The speakers comprised of young people and adults, including academics and members of NGOs, from around the world, all passionate experts about child rights and education. The young people brought a unique, lived and living perspective to the topic of ‘wicked problems in children’s rights in education’. Their level of involvement has set a precedent for voice and participation in such discussions.

The Speakers

The event began with Victor, 16 years old from the UK, a EuroChild Children’s Council member. His presentation on ‘The Flaws in our Education System’ set the scene. Victor highlighted the contradiction present in schools, where there is an individualist culture, which simultaneously lacks in consideration for each individual’s uniqueness. The system focuses heavily on memorisation and standardised testing, which stands in contrast to individualism.

Professor Laura Lundy, from Queen’s University Belfast, followed with ‘Children’s Rights – Inflation, Dilution and Reputation’. Professor Lundy shared her thoughts on how and when the actual language of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is used. She argued that legal accuracy is necessary to ensure credibility in the field of children’s rights and education.

We heard then from Bertsy, 16 years old from Cameroon, a member of the GNRC Youth Committee – Arigatou International in 2019. Bertsy provided us with examples of how the costs of education, notably school fees, impact the most vulnerable in societies. By doing so, she raised the issue of who contributes to enforcing rights in such contexts.

Mr Samson Oladejo, a PhD Candidate at the University of the West of Scotland, then reminded us of the number of children not in education and how technology could support many of these children’s needs. Mr Oladejo provided examples from his research focusing on discourses of risk that obfuscate educational access (in the context of Universal Basic Education) for young people in poor urban areas of Lagos, Nigeria.

Laura, a 12-year-old Australian and founder of Student Alliance 4 Inclusion, then concluded the first section of the Webinar with a presentation titled ‘Adults’ assumptions on segregating children in education -the discriminatory legacy for children’. She made the point that discriminating against children in education does not meet the requirements of article 29 of the UNCRC and drew upon specific examples of disability discrimination and segregation in educational contexts.

After a short break, Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra, the Director for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International, launched the second section of the Webinar. Dr Cuevas-Parra provided examples of how adults need to ‘share the platform’ with children and young people, and how ‘power’ can have a diverse impact on how the platform is shared. He insisted on the fact that empowerment is a process and an outcome. You can read Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra’s blog post here

Following this, we heard from Reece, a 16-year-old South African, Child Rights Advisor with Child Rights Connect, and founder of Earth Kids Organisation (EKO), which focuses on environmental education and youth empowerment projects. Reece’s talk concentrated on early childhood development and rights. He illustrated how governmental standards can sometimes undermine rights and problematised the longer-term implications of such restrictions.

Our next speaker, Assistant Professor Gabriela Martinez Sainz, an Ad Astra Fellow and Assistant Professor in Education at University College Dublin, called for more research on pedagogical knowledge on children’s rights. She also pointed out the lack of ‘structures and spaces’ to teach children about their rights.

Savannah, 11 years old from England is a Child Rights Advisor with Child Rights Connect. She provided us with examples of some of the issues children had during the COVID-19 school closures. Ending with a plea for all children to have ‘real and regular’ contact with teachers during such times, Savannah highlighted the difficulties of going through education ‘alone’.

Our penultimate speaker was Professor Philip D. Jaffé, from the Centre for Children’s Rights Studies (CCRS) and current member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Professor Jaffé provided us with an ecological understanding of Human rights violations. Witnessing the numerous violations of children’s rights within education, he provocatively wondered whether human rights education remains possible if this does not change.

Professor Ann Quennerstedt, from Örebro University in Sweden and Link Convenor of Network 25 was our final speaker. Professor Quennerstedt stated that ‘Teachers are a wicked problem’ and reminded us that ‘positioning teachers as villains’ does not support children’s right in education. She suggested child rights researchers should turn the focus away from teachers to address structural issues and aspects of professionalisation.

The Discussions – A Visual Representation 

There was a wide range of insightful questions from the attendees and the presenters did an excellent job of answering these questions from attendees verbally and in the chat. We were delighted to have Debbie Roberts from EngageVisually joining us this year.

Debbie created a visual summary of the event by way of a graphic recording. This visual has captured the essence of the talks and exchanges that occurred during the session. At different points throughout the seminar, we were able to see the ‘work-in-progress’ which further stimulated our ongoing conversations.


Feedback from Attendees

‘An absolutely excellent session. I found it to be very educative in the widest sense in the re-visiting foundational principles from unique and diverse perspectives and then expanding upon them even more. Few webinars have left me so enriched.’
– Regina Murphy, DCU, Ireland.

‘I really enjoyed the conference. Very well organised and fantastic speakers. The intergenerational dialogue was rich and meaningful.’
– Panellist Dr Patricio Cuevas Parra, World Vision International 

Future Activities

The event has generated much discussion, new ideas, and collaborative possibilities, which we, as a network, will continue to cultivate in our future activities. Among the numerous options evoked, we are pleased to share here a few take-aways:

  • Research directions
    • Ask more WHY questions to understand the reasons undermining rights implementation in education (versus solely describing them)
    • More interdisciplinary work to reinforce the human rights language used in research in Children’s rights and education without losing the focus on core educational questions
  • Research topics
    • How the COVID crisis affects education beyond lockdown, and seeking children’s own views on these matters?
    • The abuse and bullying of children activists
    • What are the aims of education?
  • Research collaborations:
    • Including more intergenerational dialogue

Find out details of these activities through subscribing to our newsletter and following the network via Twitter@Network25EERA.

To subscribe to the network newsletter, simply send a blank message to

Finally, we recommend looking for the following accounts and hashtags on Twitter, to read some of the interesting anecdotes and discussions from the event:


Our event was proudly supported by EERA’s Network Development project funding scheme. We want to thank our supporters EERA and @ChildRightsChat, for having made this event possible. Thanks also to the University of Geneva, and its Centre for Children’s Rights Studies for technical support. We would also like to express our sincere thanks and gratitude to the following organisations who have supported the event with enthusiasm and a short timeframe to initiate young people’s participation in the event, namely: Child Rights Connect; Eurochild; Time-matters UK, and Arigatou International.

[1] Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Rwanda, Sweden, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Turkey and USA.

[2] For additional insight on ‘wicked problems’ see B. Guy Peters (2017) What is so wicked about wicked problems? A conceptual analysis and a research program, Policy and Society, 36:3, 385-396, DOI:10.1080/14494035.2017.1361633


Professor Zoe Moody

Professor Zoe Moody

University of Teacher Education Valais

Zoe Moody is Professor at the University of Teacher Education Valais and Senior Research Associate at the Inter- and Transdisciplinarity Unit, Center for Children’s Rights Studies, University of Geneva. Her research and teaching activities lie at the intersection between educational sciences and the field of children’s rights: notably children’s rights to, in and through education. Zoe Moody is French-speaking editor of the Swiss Journal of Educational Research and Deputy link convenor of the Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network (25) of the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER).

Dr Ally Dunhill

Dr Ally Dunhill

Dr Ally Dunhill is a consultant and researcher in the social policy domain, with a particular focus on children, youth, inclusion and rights. She has worked across the education and social care sectors for over 30 years. She has lectured, researched and presented on a wide range of topics, all with the core theme of promoting, protecting and respecting human rights. Since 2015, all aspects of her work have been aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Ally is also the co-founder of Accessible AD, one of the first Start-Ups in the UAE, which is a third sector organisation focused on accessibility and inclusion.

Jenna Gillett-Swan

Jenna Gillett-Swan

Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Associate Professor Jenna Gillett-Swan researches to understand and address threats to wellbeing in students’ educational experiences through participatory rights-based approaches to educational transformation and school improvement. A/Prof Gillett-Swan’s approach is characterised by privileging the perspectives and experiences of young people and working in partnership with them and other stakeholders to enact change and influence in educational contexts. She is an Associate Professor within the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Australia; co-leader of the ‘Safety and Wellbeing’ research program within the Centre for Inclusive Education; a member of the International Journal of Children’s Rights Advisory Board, and current co-convenor for the European Educational Research Association Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network.