The meaning of equality
The concept of equity or fairness in education is open to debate. Is it fair if the system provides equal access to education and then be content that any
subsequent differences in attainment have been fairly achieved? Is it more or less fair if some people are given additional help to achieve? What about the role of
education in the societal struggle for a fairer world? These positions are summed up in the equal access, egalitarian and critical theorist positions respectively.
Egalitarian approaches look at the unequal distribution of educational outcomes (e.g. exam passes, degrees, school exclusions) and advocate that special
measures need to be introduced to help certain populations to achieve similar desirable outcomes to other social groups. This approach recognises that people enter
the education system from very unequal starting points. For example, levels of parental education and financial resources can maximise or hinder educational
opportunities and thus measures need to be taken in education and beyond to make sure this initial inequality is not magnified during the education process.
In the UK the Sure Start government initiative may be seen as an egalitarian policy, helping parents and young children to make up for their lower
socio-economic circumstances. However, a Marxist perspective would interpret this initiative simply as a means of providing a more compliant labour for
Critical theorists place a great deal of significance in the role of education as an emancipatory tool. Thus equality here is not simply concerned with the immediate
school context. Rather, education among the population should create the critical awareness for people to recognise the forces of their oppression. Perceived this way
education leads to wider social change and is a significant force for equality. Paulo Freire (1972) provides the seminal work here.
Access approaches emphasise the opening up of the education system to all, thereby providing equality of opportunity. This was a radical approach in a time
when access to education was reserved for the higher social classes, for males and for whites. This kind of approach is evident in the equal opportunities legislation in
the 1970s in the UK in terms of gender and ethnicity, and it should not be forgotten that inequalities in access to education along ethnic, religious and gendered
dimensions are still evident in many countries around the globe.
Access approaches in the UK more recently have focussed on parental choice and competition. Such policies are in line with the market-led approach to
education in this country, which believes that parental choice will lead to improvement in the system as schools will be forced to improve in order to compete for
educationally mobile consumers and students will also try to improve in order to access the better schools.