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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Ms. Koumba Boly Barry, following her official visit to Qatar, 8 - 16 December 2019

16 December 2019

Arabic | French

Doha, 16 December 2019

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, I had the honour to conduct an official visit to Qatar from 8 to 16 December 2019. The objective of my visit was to gather first-hand information on the effectiveness of the right to free, quality and inclusive education for all.

I would like to warmly thank the Government of Qatar for its invitation, which reflects the great importance it attaches to education, its visionary and open attitude on this issue, and its eagerness to share the results of its actions.

I would particularly like to stress the good conditions of the conduct of the visit, in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation, and the availability of all actors.

During my visit, I met with senior government officials, in particular the Minister of Education and Higher Education and the Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs. I have spoken with officials from the various ministries and relevant institutions, including foundations such as the Qatar Foundation and Education Above All, as well as representatives of the Municipal Central Council. I also had the honour to meet with the members of the National Human Rights Committee. I also met with bilateral and multilateral institutions, including some UN specialized agencies present in the country.

I had the opportunity to visit, in Doha and El Wakra, primary, preparatory, secondary schools for girls and boys, both in the public and private sectors, whether the latter are for-profit or non-profit. I also visited the first Ihsaan Charity School, and went to Qatar University and the North Atlantic College. This allowed me to discuss with many students, teachers, school principals and other administrative staff, as well as academics. All have demonstrated a strong commitment to the right to education and a central and important concern for the well-being and development of children.

I have collected a significant amount of data and testimonies that will help me to assess the implementation of the right to education in Qatar. Today, I will present only a few of my preliminary observations, which will be detailed later in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2019. I invite all stakeholders wishing to send me additional information to do so in writing before 28 February 2020, to the following address: [email protected].

Significant advances

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is in the long term that Qatar has decided to take action, devoting significant resources to the realization of the right to education. Many measures have been adopted that are to be acknowledged and commended, whether legislative, regulatory, programmatic or financial in nature.

I note in particular the adoption of Law No. 25 of 2001 on Compulsory Education, under which education is compulsory and free for all children in primary and secondary school or up to the age of 18 years; the care taken in matters relating to the quality and safety of school infrastructure or those relating to school health; information and communication technologies made available in schools; the many programmes developed for the continuous training of teachers; the assistance provided to schools facing performance difficulties; the financial support provided for the establishment of community schools and the systematic monitoring of teaching conditions in private schools.

In its National Vision 2030, Qatar highlights very important educational values and goals, including the promotion of social cohesion and analytical, critical, creative and innovative thinking. I strongly encourage the government to implement this Vision, and to intensify its efforts to ensure an education for children that promotes inclusion and respect for all, including migrants.

I find particularly remarkable the strong emphasis placed on the right to education as a human right at the highest levels of the State but also at the school level. This approach is also reflected in the significant deployment of resources devoted to international cooperation, with Qatar and its foundations working to achieve access to education in many other countries, particularly for the most vulnerable populations. The crucial work of these foundations, such as the Foundation Education Above All and the Qatar Foundation, is making a real difference in the further realization of the right to quality education for all.

Let me also congratulate the Qatari authorities for the spectacular progress made in accepting international human rights standards. The gradual ratification of many international human rights instruments, particularly the ratification in 2018 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the partial and progressive lifting of problematic reservations; the recent invitation to many United Nations Special Rapporteurs to visit the country; the dialogue established with Treaty bodies; and the growing presence of United Nations specialized agencies in the country, are major steps.

I invite the Government to continue its efforts in this regard. I was pleased to learn, for example, that the Government is currently considering the possibility of ratifying the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education of 1960 and I hope that this will be done in the near future. I also encourage the Government to continue to lift reservations, an issue that I have discussed with several government officials.

I welcome the ongoing preparation of a national human rights plan and encourage the Government to take into account all the observations and recommendations made by human rights mechanisms in the development and implementation of this plan.

Education stakeholders in Qatar have engaged in continuous reflection on the functioning, challenges and successes of the school system. I welcome the concern of these actors to find solutions adapted to the local context, while interacting with experts from all backgrounds. Even if the major reform of the early 2000s establishing independent public schools had to be stopped, it brought many positive points according to many actors. The takeover of these schools a few years ago with more government control has made it possible to better ensure the coherence of the system and meet parents' expectations. However, I encourage the authorities to continue their work to ensure greater autonomy for school principals and teachers, a process that requires extensive professional training to support them in such a transition. A positive first step would be, for example, to offer a wider range of textbooks for teachers (instead of the single textbook per subject) and to encourage teachers to make greater use of a variety of sources.

The Government should also be commended for its willingness to welcome and find solutions for Qatari students who, during the diplomatic crisis in the region, had to interrupt their studies in some of the neighbouring countries and return home. However, I invite the Government to continue their efforts, in particular by ensuring the validation of the diplomas of students who have continued their education through distance learning.

A particular context

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The context in Qatar, which hosts an exceptionally large migrant population (some estimates go up to 90 percent of the total population), has a strong impact on decisions taken at the political level, including in the education sector.

In response to this context, the country has encouraged the development of a very wide variety of so-called "community" or private international schools in order to adapt to the specific and diverse needs of various categories of learners. This leads in particular to a great diversity of pedagogical approaches and curricula.

However, the approach adopted makes a very clear distinction between Qataris and non-Qataris across the board. In addition to this first distinction, there are others, on the one hand between the various nationalities of migrants according to their origin, language, but also their economic status, and on the other hand between men and women. The result is a very diverse school population, although not very integrated or inclusive, with community forming silos that communicate little with others and are hierarchically positioned, implicitly or explicitly.

These categories are so strong that they must be questioned from a human rights perspective, particularly from the point of view of the principles of non-discrimination and equality, but also from the need to promote respect for cultural diversity, in particular through interaction between people as well as knowledge of the Other. In this regard, I refer to the conclusions of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants following his visit in 2013, and of the Special Rapporteur on racism who visited Qatar just before me in November-December 2019. I invite the Government to pay particular attention to the conclusions and recommendations of these mechanisms.

I also encourage the Government to review its education policies and programmes in the light of articles 13 and 14 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, following the so-called "4As" approach (Availability, Accessibility, Adequacy/Acceptability, and Adaptability) developed both by the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education and by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including in its General Recommendation 13 on the right to education.

The issue of access to free education, a major concern

Ladies and Gentlemen

My major concern with regard to the implementation of the right to education in Qatar stems from this social stratifications between people, and relates to the accessibility of education, first of all from an economic point of view.

In education, these distinctions between people have structured the education system, which consists of:

  • Public schools that provide free education for Qatari children, but also non-Qataris when their parents are employed in the public service. Non-Qatari children of parents employed in the private sector also have access, within the limits of available places and provided they pay modest tuition fees. Non-Qatari children in public schools constitute about 45 percent of all students and are de facto Arabic-speaking, with the curriculum mainly in Arabic. Schools are either for girls or for boys.
  • So-called private “community schools”, established under the sponsorship of embassies, particularly those with strong migrant communities in Qatar. The operation of these non-profit schools, established with significant support from the Government, is funded by school fees alone, often relatively low compared to other private or international schools. These schools can have varying degrees of co-education, and welcome other nationalities, including to a lesser extent Qataris. The curriculum is that of the country of origin, the general approach being to consider that children, like their parents, are not destined to remain in the country for a long period of time, and must be able to reintegrate the school system in their country upon their return.

The fees charged in these schools can reach high levels in relation to the possibilities of some families. It also appears that many of these schools lack the space and capacity to accommodate all those who would like to enrol, as the cheapest schools are preferred by parents and maintain lists that can sometimes reach several hundred children. Many actors have informed me of the difficulties caused by the tightening of certain fire safety regulations in schools, forcing them to reduce the number of children accepted. While some schools have been allowed to organize additional classes in the afternoon (usually the school in Qatar takes place in the morning), others have reportedly not been allowed to do so.

  • International private, for-profit or not-for-profit schools, which can have very high tuition fees. The curriculum is more international. These schools accommodate students of all nationalities, including Qataris, in varying proportions. Some of them mainly welcome children from one community.

According to the November 2018 Statistical Bulletin of Education, public schools have 122,000 pupils while private schools have 196,000.
This means that the 2001 Law establishing compulsory and free education for all applies only to Qataris and certain categories of non-Qataris. Education is therefore charged for by many children residing in Qatar, in contravention of articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
I recommend that the Government take all necessary measures to implement in particular Article 14, according to which States undertake to adopt, within two years of ratification, a detailed plan of the measures necessary to achieve progressively, within a reasonable number of years determined by this plan, the full application of the principle of compulsory and free primary education for all.  I would add that the authorities must cover not only school fees, but also so-called "hidden" costs such as books or uniforms, and that the principle of free access should be gradually extended to the secondary and higher levels.

I am pleased to note that the Government seems to be moving in the right direction, as a study on free access is currently under way. Significant efforts have also been made to provide free education to disadvantaged children through the establishment of Ihsaan charity schools (see below). A scholarship system also exists to promote access to university.
I also invite the government to take into consideration the Abidjan Principles on the right to Education, which provide a good guide to private sector regulation, including cost control.

In addition, I encourage the Government to continue its strong reflection on the modalities of payment by private companies of the tuition fees of their employees.

Public and inclusive education

Ladies and Gentlemen

The right to education must be understood as a right to education not only free of charge, but also public and inclusive. It is important to give people the choice of having access to either public or private schools, depending on their background and possibilities. To do this, it is important that the State invest even more in the public education system and provide access to it for all, free of charge. In this regard, I recall that, according to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, States must "ensure that public educational institutions are open to non-citizens and children of undocumented immigrants residing in the territory" (General Recommendation XXX on discrimination against non-citizens, § 30).

I understand Qatar's considerations, and its particular context. While a large proportion of foreigners only stay temporarily in Qatar, and wish for their children an education that allows them to continue their studies in their country of origin or abroad, the fact remains that others, including non-Arabic speakers, settle for generations. The challenge facing Qatar in these circumstances is also that of the adequacy and adaptability of education according to the context but also to the aspirations of learners. I consider that it is important to ensure a better access to public (and free) education for all children residing in Qatar, allowing both a greater social mix and between Qataris and non-Qataris, in particular non-Arabic speakers.

During my many visits to schools, the issue of the inclusion of children with disabilities was addressed. I was able to see the many infrastructures set up to welcome them, and to see or interact with some of these children, present in the schools. I also welcome many actors advocating for the inclusion of these children in the regular school system. I recommend that the authorities and all actors in the education sector intensify their efforts in this direction.

The issue of out-of-school children

The lack of free education in Qatar results in a number of children not attending school, whose families cannot afford even modest school fees.  I have received information from children whose parents, or even grandparents, or even great grandparents, who have therefore resided in Qatar for generations, had not been in school.

According to figures provided by the authorities, some 4,000 children are concerned, nearly half of whom have already been cared for, thanks in particular to the creation of two free Ihsaan charity schools operating with the support of the Foundation Education Above All and the support provided to families by the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs. Some children have also been cared for by private or community schools. These measures are very important and should be welcomed. They have a direct and immediate impact on these children's opportunities and future life paths.  During my visit to the first Ihsaan school, I was pleased to note both the commitment of the staff on site and the quality of the infrastructure.

The very restrictive system of residence and family reunification in Qatar is also at the root of the phenomenon of out-of-school children. Some children in an irregular situation have difficulty regularizing their situation, and schools can only open their doors to children holding a Qatari identity card or residence permit. I recommend that the Government lift such a restriction.

I strongly urge the Government to continue along this path, to collect accurate data on this issue, including taking into account children who are not in a regular situation. It is also very important to raise awareness among the families of these children about the importance of education and to offer them literacy programmes. It is also necessary to adopt a longer-term vision, based on the right to free education.

The need to develop vocational training literacy programmes

Ladies and Gentlemen

Another source of concern to me relates to low-wage migrant workers, whether domestic workers or workers from all over the world to work on construction sites. According to some reports, a significant proportion of these people are illiterate or have only attended primary school.

From both a strategic and a human rights perspective, I encourage the Government to provide a functional literacy programme for these people in conjunction with vocational training. Indeed, these people too must be able to enjoy their right to education. Developing their vocational training can enable Qatar to train people for professions needed for the country's continued economic development once the major construction works are completed, and to retain a part of the population already familiar with cultural practices in Qatar.

Some good practices have been deployed in this regard, for example, by the Supreme Council for Delivery and Legacy, which is responsible for setting up the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. This Council has reportedly set up vocational training programmes for personal development and the acquisition of new skills, thereby encouraging professional mobility.

I recommend that the Government consider requiring private companies to offer such literacy and vocational training programmes during working hours.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I encourage Qatar to continue along the path set. Throughout my visit, I noticed that extraordinary efforts are being made on all fronts, with many projects under way to address the challenges identified and ensure the realization of the right to education. 

The elaboration of the Plan of Action, which must be done in accordance with article 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, gives the Government the opportunity, on the basis of all the actions already undertaken, to adopt a more institutionalized, unified and coordinated approach, focused on the right to education.