It is widely accepted that educational opportunities for children ought to be equal, for two reasons:
- Education significantly influences life chances
- Children’s life chances should not be fixed by the arbitrary circumstances of their birth
But the precise meaning of equality of educational opportunity is the subject of much disagreement. The arguments are different to those around equality of opportunity in general or in relation to other social goods, for three reasons:
- Its value. Education benefits both individuals and society as a whole. For individuals, a good basic education provides access to higher education and good career opportunities, greater personal and professional mobility, better decision-making skills and more autonomy at work, more wealth and better health. It also provides more intrinsic benefits to individuals, as developing one’s skills and talents can be enjoyable and is a key part of a flourishing life. For society, good education leads to productive and knowledgeable workers who can generate economic and social value, and to informed citizens who engage with society and democracy.
- Its scarcity. Although state education is provided for free from the ages of five to 16, funding for education always competes with other priorities and so there will always be some limits to the availability of the highest quality educational opportunities. This often leads to fierce competition for places at the best performing institutions that, despite efforts to ensure equal opportunities, tend to reinforce existing inequalities because of the advantages enjoyed by applicants with richer parents who can afford a better early education, to live in the catchment area of better schools, access to private tuition and other forms of support, and so on. This means that poor and ethnic minority pupils are disproportionately educated in lower performing schools compared to their white and more advantaged peers.
- Its regulation and provision by the state. Education is one of a small number of social goods that are largely funded, provided and regulated by government. Given the myriad benefits that flow from education, it is arguably the state’s most powerful mechanism for influencing the lives of its members. While the state may no longer allow overt discrimination or unequal provision based on race, gender or other factors, the fact that disadvantaged children do demonstrably receive worse quality education and less support to develop their talents than their more privileged peers harms both their life chances and their self-respect.
Education is a key driver of genuine equality of opportunity (and not merely of social mobility). Where you are born, and how much your parents earn, still largely determines whether you will have access to a high-quality education in England and whether you will be prepared to succeed in life and work. In many areas poorer pupils continue to make far less progress than their wealthier peers. Education policy should narrow inequalities in life chances, rather than exacerbating them.
There is a substantial gap in educational achievement between people from different socio- economic groups. This gap is evident even before the start of school and widens throughout their years of education. Although there is evidence that investment in early years is especially important, this needs to be reinforced with human capital investments through the lifecycle, as learning is cumulative. Children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to do well at school and progress to higher education. The relatively low educational performance of children from poorer backgrounds – which results in lower earnings – has been identified as an important reason for the fall in social mobility. However, there is a widely held view that doing well at school is independent of children’s social, cultural and economic family backgrounds, and that poverty is no excuse for failure.
As UNICEF argue in their 2018 report card: “In the world’s richest countries, some children do worse at school than others because of circumstances beyond their control, such as where they were born, the language they speak, or their parents’ occupations. These children enter the education system at a disadvantage and can drop further behind if educational policies and practices reinforce rather than reduce the gap between them and their peers. These types of inequality are unjust. Not all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential, to pursue their interests and to develop their talents and skills.”
Unequal outcomes in one generation lead to unequal opportunities in the next. Wealthier parents can afford a better education for their children. Even those children from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive a high-quality education find it harder to achieve the same results as their wealthier peers, for reasons linked to the environment in which they grow up. And the still-smaller subset of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who manage to get the best exam results still find that these do not translate into the same job prospects as their wealthier peers, because they have less access to career opportunities, lower levels of cultural capital, an insufficient financial cushion to enable them to take risks or accept poorly paid internships, and so on.
The role of education
Education should not just be about preparing people to enter the workforce, and nor should it be seen solely as an engine of social mobility that enables gifted people from disadvantaged backgrounds to escape poverty. Education has a wider function, as outlined in the next paragraph. In fulfilling this wider remit, it should not only help to improve equality of opportunity and increase social mobility, but should also help everyone to maximise their potential and to enjoy a good quality of life in which they can make an active contribution to society and to the economy. High levels of income and wealth inequality, as we see in Britain today, make it harder for the state to deliver a good quality education for all, and these two factors combine to put undue pressure on parents to ensure that their children receive the best possible education, while simultaneously making it harder for people from disadvantaged background to enjoy the same opportunities as their peers.
As the 18 century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne and the late British educationalist Sir Ken Robinson have both argued, the job of the education system is to help each child to be the best and brightest version of themselves. It is to teach them intellectual, social-emotional and life skills and to set free their imagination, rather than simply to impart knowledge. It should champion context and experience over rote learning, and should promote independence, making time for hands-on learning, reflection, creative expression, the iterative process, and play. It must also produce well-rounded people who can not only thrive in the workplace but also be responsible and active citizens. We now understand that ability is not just about intelligence or learning, but is also about perseverance, stamina and, most crucially, resilience. In a future world where many more repetitive jobs are likely to be taken on by artificial intelligence, school-leavers need to be equipped with skills that robots cannot easily replicate, like creativity and empathy.
A fairer society would invest more resources in education and other public services that help people to discover and maximise their talents. Everyone is born with natural talent in one or more areas, and often these are untapped and wasted. A better-resourced and more balanced education system could do much more to find and nurture the talents of children and adults alike, whatever they are. Our current system focuses too much on talents that have a direct bearing on academic attainment and earning potential, and too little on this broader spectrum of latent talent and capability.
The limits of education
There are limits to the extent to which education can solve a wider set of social problems where there are high levels of economic inequality. While education remains the key driver of the gap in earnings between people from disadvantaged and affluent families in parts of England where the pay gap is smaller and inequality is lower, this is not true for those areas with higher inequality. In these places inequality is driven by factors outside education, and it is far harder to escape deprivation.