A blind girl reads Braille text in her class at the Shanghai School for the Blind in Shanghai.

©2007 Reuters/Nir Elias

The World Education Forum, one of the most important and decisive global meetings on education, is taking place in South Korea this week, 15 years after the first global framework of action on six “Education for All” goals was agreed to in Dakar. This week, we have so far heard UN agencies, funding bodies and governments talk a lot about global progress on education.

Some countries will claim that they have reached ‘universal’ enrollment in primary education, or the equivalent of claiming that all children of primary school age are enrolled and attending primary school in their country. Other countries will say they are very close to reaching this goal or at least one of the other six goals, which cover education from early childhood to adult literacy.

But, is it accurate for countries to claim ‘universality’ in primary education?

If universal means “the whole,” I question how governments can claim the job is done when the reality shows a different picture.

While more than 1000 delegates meet in Korea, I am presently meeting children who are out of school in South Africa. Like so many other countries, South Africa has made sustained progress to enrol the overwhelming majority of its children in primary school, reversing the impact of apartheid’s racist approach to education. In its 2015 “Education for All” progress review, the government of South Africa announced it has reached universal enrollment in primary school. At the same time, Human Rights Watch recently interviewed many parents and their children with disabilities who are out of school and nowhere near getting into a school building in 2015.

It’s not just here. In many countries, enrolling the majority has often been at the expense of the minority, the last couple of percentages of children who are out of school or what the international community has been calling those who are ‘left behind.’

Yet all governments signed up to international frameworks that focused on getting all children, not just the majority, into school.

While we recognize many government’s efforts to guarantee an education to many more children, children have been left behind by governments that have lacked the political will to adopt specific, binding legal or policy frameworks to guarantee the right to education for the majority--and the minority--of children. For example, by thinking of children with disabilities as a small percentage of children, or indeed not really thinking of them at all, for example, by not counting them in national enrollment data, governments have denied a substantial, yet at times invisible, part of their school population the right to inclusive, quality education.

Among other gaps, Human Rights Watch has outlined how legal safeguards to stamp out discrimination in education, to guarantee equal opportunity in policy and practice, to ensure all girls stay in school and are not forced to get married or have children, or to guarantee the right to secondary education, are largely missing in many constitutions or national frameworks.

In addition to not rushing to claim universality until they have succeeded in getting all children into school, on an equal basis, governments meeting in South Korea should announce they will address two fundamental national obligations: firstly, to adopt all legal safeguards to guarantee in law the right to education for all children and secondly, to ensure it is legally enforceable at a national level so that all ministry officials, schools, teachers and principals, are bound by it.

Elin Martinez, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, has been a member of the Right to Education Project’s Steering Committee since 2012.