Key points

  • All children and young people have the right to education, but during the pandemic it’s not been equally accessible across Scotland.
  • Issues like digital exclusion mean school closures are disproportionately affecting some groups of children and young people.
  • Children and young people need to be involved in decisions that affect them, and this should have happened when cancelling exams.

Education is a human right

The human right to education is about children and young people developing their personality, talents and abilities to the fullest extent, and applies unconditionally for them all.

But lockdown means most education providers have been closed since 20 March, including early years providers, schools, further education colleges and universities.

During the pandemic, Scottish Government guidance allows local authorities and independent providers of education to decide how they fulfil children’s right to education. There are concerns this has led to support for remote learning and teaching being provided inconsistently.

Different schools have different levels of ability to provide online learning, which is likely to widen the attainment gap between rich and poor children and young people.

As well as this, although vulnerable children have access to early years provision and hub schools, the Scottish Government’s definition of whether a child is vulnerable or not is inadequate. Local authorities have interpreted it in different ways, and so access to education is unequal depending on where you live in Scotland.

A person beside a whiteboard, which a group of children are all looking at.

UNCRC Article 28

I have the right to an education

A person smiles beside a poster showing someone turning from themselves to a sparkly, confident version of themselves. A list of steps for how this can happen is laid out below.

UNCRC Article 29

I have the right to an education which develops my personality, talents and abilities.

An Impact Assessment for the coronavirus pandemic

We supported the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland to create an Alternative Children’s Rights Impact Assessment, looking at the laws and policies passed in Scotland in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Impact Assessment looked at how these had affected children and young people in nine different areas, and education was one of these. It found that there were several issues around education, especially around digital access and existing inequalities getting wider.


Adults in power often make decisions that affect people― such as laws and policies. When they do this, they don’t always think about the impact these decisions will have on children and young people.

A Children’s Rights Impact Assessment, or CRIA,is a way to include children and young people in a decision. It looks at the ways the decision might affect the rights of children and young people― both positively and negatively.

By doing this, it means people know what the effect of the decision on children and young people is likely to be.

What needs to change as a result of this Impact Assessment?

Our office has made several recommendations around what Scottish Government and others need to change as a result of what this Impact Assessment has found. They’re changes which will help keep human rights promises to children and young people as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and which will safeguard their human rights in any future crisis.

What effect is digital exclusion having on the right to education?

With online learning a critical part of education for children and young people in the last few months, digital exclusion has been a real concern.

Access to online learning can reduce the negative impacts of lockdown on some human rights― like rights to participation and to accessing information.

But a lot of children and young people are having problems accessing the internet, especially when they’re from families on low incomes and families with one parent.

Digital exclusion impacts on particular groups of children and young people

There are a lot of ways in which digital access may become harder for families on low incomes or which have only one parent. They’re more likely to have internet access only through mobile phones, and more likely to have a limited number of internet-ready devices which different family members compete for.

The Impact Assessment found that families with lone mothers were impacted more severely and in a different way than families with lone fathers were.

Scottish Government is providing more money for digital access, so children and young people have access to more devices, higher bandwidth, and mobile plans with more data.

But nobody knows if this is enough to meet everyone’s needs.

Educational inequalities are linked to how much a parent can help

The Impact Assessment found that inequalities are likely to get worse depending on how much support parents can give to their children in different subjects.

Parents are tending to focus on reading, writing and maths, and may struggle to support their children in more practice-based subjects. Additionally, parents and carers working from home can find it hard to support home schooling.

Across the UK, a survey found that 69% of parents of children and 59% of parents of adolescents felt they were able to support their children’s education.

And almost one third of children are worried about learning from home.

Some groups of children and young people are disproportionately affected by school closures

The Impact Assessment found that some groups of children and young people were disproportionately impacted by school closures. These included:

  • those needing access to specialist equipment and support, like users of British Sign language,
  • young carers,
  • children and young people in temporary accommodation,
  • refugees,
  • children and young people in Gypsy/Traveller communities,
  • those in households where parents and carers have lower levels of education,
  • those who have lone parents,
  • those in households with a disabled family member,
  • those who have English as an additional language,
  • those in Young Offenders’ Institutions.

Young people are worried about the impact of exam cancellations

Evidence shows young people are concerned about the cancellation of exams, which happened without them being consulted. Local Authorities and the SQA have refused to allow individual young people to participate in alternative assessment and to take views and best interests into account.

This cancellation may disproportionately impact certain groups, who would have been more likely to do better in their final exams than in the work they will now be assessed on. For example, it might disadvantage young people with English as an additional language, as they may improve very quickly in the months leading up to examination.

Delays in public processes will impact education rights

Changes and delays in assessments, reviews and other processes may have a negative impact on children and young people’s rights, including their right to education.

For example, decisions and appeals on school placement requests may mean a child doesn’t don’t know which school they’re supposed to go to before schools reopen again in August.

Local authorities have statutory duties around education— things the law says they have to do.

Most of these still have to be done for children with additional support needs or disabilities. But a local authority can ignore a statutory duty like this if it conflicts with an instruction from the Scottish Government around what they have to do to plan and prepare for a safe return to school.

Separately to this, statutory duties remain in place for children and young people with additional support needs to be given additional support. But evidence suggests many children and young people in this group haven’t been able to access any additional support around teaching or learning— either in school or remotely.

Finally, unaccompanied children seeking asylum are less likely to have access to statutory education provision.

Work experience has been cancelled

Work experience has been cancelled for children and young people, which may affect their employment opportunities in the future.