The Challenges of Equity

This is a full version of the talk I delivered (in an abbreviated fashion!) at the SELMAS Brains Trust in the Malala Building, James Gillespie’s HS Edinburgh on 9th September.

1962794_10202997026913135_7769430376184863284_nThis talk is based on ideas elaborated in Book 7 of the Postcards from Scotland series, ‘Schooling Scotland: Education, equity and community’, available today and from the website: .

9781858566672-114x170The ideas developed in that book have also been applied in the recent analysis of our secondary education system in Scotland – where we’ve come from and where we should be going, ‘Everyone’s Future: Lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling’.

Available at

There’s only a short time as we have other very good contributions coming along, so I’m just going to hit you with a succession of ideas to get the grey matter going… with no warm up!

So ‘Challenges of Equity’ – a grand title. Many of us came into education with a commitment to make things better, to do what we could to give every child the best chances, so faced with these challenges we immediately want to do something – it’s our natural condition as teachers and school leaders. We see a problem and we want to sort it out. But I’m not just going to dive in and say what we should do. I want to explore what equity means, and its relationships to another important concept with which it is often confused, ‘equality’, because before we can deliver either equity or equality, we need to ask what kind of equality would we recognise as ‘equitable’. Otherwise, we risk diving into action without knowing properly what it is we want to achieve and what it is that we can achieve.

What then does ‘equity’ mean? The dictionary definition is reasonably clear. Equity, it says, is about fairness, justice, impartiality. That leaves open another question though – ‘What is just or fair?’ and since we’re all likely to make different judgements about what is just or fair, ‘who decides?‘ In a democracy it can’t just be that those with power or might or more money decide and everyone else has to accept it. Nor is it right for the state to make all the decisions and individuals to be disempowered. To understand both what is fair, and who should decide, we need to have recourse to values at the foundation of our democracy. There are lots of contenders, but three foundational values of democracy have stood the test of time – liberty, equality and fraternity (I know ‘fraternity’ has a certain patriarchal ring to it to our ears, so in the book I replaced it with ‘community’ – a concept that has its own difficulties, so for this evening I’ll stick to fraternity, or I’ll end up spending my time debating even more definitions). We need to understand these values of democratic living to understand what is ‘fair’ in a democratic society, and from there what is ‘fair’ in democratic schooling and education.

So what do these different values mean and how do they contribute to ‘equity’.

First of all equality, a word derived from the same root as ‘equity’ and which has three main possible meanings in the field of education:

  • equality of opportunity (one of the meanings used in the Scottish Government’s ‘Framework for Improvement’ issued in draft last week) – this is a weak equailty where everyone is in the same race, but may have very different starting points;
  • equality of outcome (also found in the ‘Framework for Improvement’) – this requires social controls to ensure that, whatever their starting point, individuals end up at the same place. It is a very strong kind of equality, in fact taken to extreme, as to some extent in state communist societies, it ends up being ‘sameness’;
  •  lastly there is and equality of value – this is an important equality for education. It recognises that everyone is different but values what everyone contributes equally.

Often, in political or educational rhetoric, the word ‘equality’ is used in a way which leaves us unsure which of these different meanings is intended. The government’s recent ‘Framework for Improvement’ talks at different points about both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, without making clear the change involved – two very different forms of equality! The confusion caused by this creates unnecessary disagreements and limits our understanding of what we need to do to achieve fairness.

Liberty (or freedom) is another important foundational democratic value, associated with choice, individuality, difference, plurality, diversity.  Liberty also has an important role in education – education is empowering. It  provides the tools of knowledge, skills and value which allow individuals to make choices and take control of their lives, an important feature of modern democratic living. The language of liberty is the language of human rights, the protection each individual is entitled to in respect of his or her unique worth as a human being. Unrestrained liberty can reduce equality if powerful individuals with more money or other advantages use these advantages to secure their position of power or relative wealth and thus entrench or add to existing inequalities.

Liberty and equality are abstract principles, but fraternity (that word again), or if you will community, puts personal warmth into democracy.  It’s about personal face-to-face relationships of affection, respect, empathy and emotion – in that way it’s both a purpose of democracy and a value of democracy. It says that you’re no democrat if you talk about freedom and equality but then treat the people you meet face to face badly.

I want to explore the relationship between these three important values a little, as I think they are often misunderstood and that’s why we get into difficulties in the debates and arguments we have in education over equity. These values overlap and influence each other and affect our perception of equity and what it is possible to achieve.

The most important thing to say is that we cannot have them each of these to their fullest measure. Each, if pursued to excess, can imperil the other(s). If we take liberty, for example, there is a point at which individual freedom inevitably increases inequality – societies which value individual freedoms highly (such as the USA) tend to be more unequal. On the other hand, the only way to ensure equality is to enforce it – or rather attempt to enforce it (as for example in state Communist systems such as the Soviet Union) with disastrous consequences for liberty. Equality taken to extreme can end up being an enforced ‘sameness’. The point is not to pursue both of these to excess, but to find the right balance point where they can complement each other in our daily lives. Fraternity can also be played to excess where it creates an inward looking ‘here’s tae us’ – it needs the abstract universal values of liberty and equality to raise its sights beyond the immediate community.

The desirable state of democracy then is one in which these three foundational values sit in balance, and that’s a constant dynamic requirement of democratic living – we constantly find these values in tension and have to find a way to keep that tension productive. That’s where ‘fairness’ comes in. We seek a ‘fair balance’. What is true of democratic life in general, is also true of aspects of democratic living such as our education and schooling systems. Here we find liberty and equality in tension with each other – at the macro level of government policy but also at the micro level of school or classroom. Here are some examples.

At the macro level, should individuals be free to choose which school to attend, free to establish their own school, free to set up religious schools? Should parents be free to have or to reject a ‘named person’ (the appeal court case on this was lost recently but now may go to higher court)?

At the micro level, to what extent can a school fairly restrict liberty of dress or enforce the equality of school uniform; indulge individual ‘personalisation & choice’ or require a standard curriculum which gives equal access to important knowledge? In particular in school education, there is the additional dimension of progression from childhood to adulthood, with consequent expectations, particularly in adolescence, of progression in expectations of individual freedom and agency. Our daily lives in the human communities of our schools, and the issues we face in living and working together, are full of tensions between liberty and equality.

Altogether there are nine issues raised in the book Schooling Scotland for Scotland to consider, each one of which has a potential impact on the capacity of the Scottish system to deliver equity. None are about what teachers should do better in classrooms – we already have enough advice on that. These are issues for our politicians and the wider civic community to consider – what is schooling for and how it is organised. Here are three examples from the book, with very  current relevance (given that the book was published at this time last year!). Each of these is about ‘equity’, but underlying the question of ‘fairness’ is a tension between liberty and equality.

The first example is the age children start school. Why do we still have some wee mites starting school at age 4 and a half? On average, they start off behind their peers, all other things being equal, and right through their school careers, they continue to lag behind. The ultimate irony for those who want to leave school at the end of S4, even though they have had the same amount of schooling as their peers, they have to stay on for an extra term – who made that rule up? what educational purpose does it serve? ‘You started school too young, so you have to stay on for an extra term.’ Well if they started school too young, why did we require them to do it? As many ‘winter leavers’ have said to me over the years, “it’s jist no’ fair!’ A substantial number of young children in Scotland start school too young every year, and never catch up. Their self-image as school students is formed in the competitive environment of classroom and playground, and from the beginning they learn to see themselves as less strong, big, mature, skilled, whereas actually they were just a bit too young when they started. Is that fair? It would not be a major change for no child to start school before the age of 5.

My second example is national testing. First of all, let’s look at the word ‘test’. What is a ‘test’ and what is a ‘test’ for?  In medicine, a test involves diagnosis. It’s about investigating, finding out, so that the right strategies can be identified to improve health. However, due to a long tradition of competitive comparison of individuals in school education, testing immediately carries overtones of comparative judgement. We just need to imagine how ridiculous that would be if applied to medicine. You go to the doctor for a test and he tells you that your heart is only at Level 2 or your kidneys are operating at Grade C with the implication that other people are somehow better than you are and that somehow it is your fault. Some people still want to use education tests for comparative judgement – whether at classroom, school or national level – to encourage those involved to do better, even though in a competition there have to be those who come last as well as those who come first. But standardised tests in education can also be used, as medical test are, to inform, to diagnose, to help learning, to ensure that all children are working to the same standard (equality). The tension between liberty and equality runs through the debates :

·         parent, teacher and child can use results to understand the standard expected and to help learning – this use promotes equality and the individual empowerment that underpins liberty;

·         governments, school and teacher can use results to diagnose problems and improve policy responses by observing patterns in provision (by for example noting gender or socio-economic differences) –  this can also lead to greater equality

·         however of late the primary purpose of testing in schools has been distorted – either to allow individual parents and children to make use of aggregated information at school level – league tables  – to inform their choice of school or to allow those in charge of the quality of schooling to take action against schools that are not doing well enough.


Are these uses compatible? Can they be balanced fairly? I argue in Schooling Scotland that standardised test do have value, just as they do in the medical world, if they are handled correctly. There may be some merit in aggregating test information for public policy purposes, but because Scottish school education has been so drowned in the notion of comparative judgement, we need a complete break into a different model and that the basis of that should be confidentiality of individual information to parent/child/teacher (medical model). A very strong ring fence around individual information, avoidance of ‘comparative judgement words’ in classroom, in school, in government (local and national) and aggregated information only for diagnostic purposes, not to inform spurious comparative judgements – we have already seen too much damage from simplistic judgements of that sort. Some elements of ‘liberty’ (of information, choice etc) must be curbed in the interests of equality.

The third example is the weakly underdesigned Senior Phase of Curriculum for Excellence – that is if you can call Senior Phase ‘designed’ at all. I could go on all night about this but I know I have to keep to time so it’s an abbreviated approach. All these arguments are further developed in the book. My view is that Senior Phase is weak and fragmented. At 15 Broad General Education and Senior Phase meet and it’s a car crash. Senior Phase neither articulates with Broad General Education, nor has any underlying rationale of its own. The relationship between academic and vocational education which the national debate (remember that) and the OECD report both called for has been left entirely unresolved. Unresolved also are:

  •         the Scottish sixth year, which schools continue to make work despite it anomalous character
  •         ‘two-term dashes’ dominated by examinations         the different values applied to different pathways (with one called ‘Higher’ – and the implication deeply built into the Scottish education psyche, that everything else must be ‘lower’)
  •          the fragmented governance of education 16-18, with different Ministers in charge of different parts of the system, different budgets and different agencies. Some pursue their education in school alone, some in a mixture of school and college, some progress from school to college or training or employment or a mixture of all three and there’s no overall framework or system.
  •         many of the different pathways are not all clear or well understood in the wider world, while the pressure for ‘comparative judgements’ by external users continues to ensure that, in the absence of any alternative framing within the education system,  performance in national examinations becomes the measure of whether an individual has succeeded in their education or not.
  •        as before, in the previous system, the ‘washback’ from S4/5/6 into S2 and S3 is considerable.

As young people get nearer to the end of their schooling, they begin to see how they will be valued by society beyond school and those valuations have variously motivating or demotivating effects on their progress and education.  Why did the designers of CforEx never ask the most important curricular question any country can ask? One which, by the way, was asked in England by the Nuffield Review: what counts as an educated 18 year old in this day and age? Had Scotland asked such a question, we could then have devised a senior phase to deliver such an education, in the same way as we designed BGE. Instead we have the competing philosophies of BGE and SP meeting in a car crash at age 15/16. How can such a system deliver any of the three equalities – opportunity, outcome, value?

In ‘Schooling Scotland’ I argue that we need to a better design frame, a better philosophical basis, for the senior phase. One way of doing this would be through a Scottish Graduation Certificate, open to all, and of equal value, a ‘rite of passage’ qualification that says to each graduate – ‘you have worked hard and have achieved in a range of ways, not just academic’.

·                     At age 18, for every child / young person

·                     An achievable aspiration for all

·                     A balance of aspirations /outcomes – physical (sport, activities etc), academic (literacy, numeracy, language etc), community service and citizenship, vocational development….

·                     Grading and judgement within categories (such as academic performance) – but only one graduation certificate – pass or fail by meeting the criteria

·                     Education 15-18, not ‘schooling 15-18′ – achievable in school or a combination of school and other educational sites.


More detail can be found in the book.. but this is not a new idea. The OECD report of 2007 asked for it, since ‘Higher Still’ and even earlier, Scotland has struggled to develop a curricular framework which gives equal value to every young person. This should be our next priority.

I’m going to finish by returning to the third democratic value, fraternity (the ‘forgotten value’ – Bernard Crick).  I know that there are problems with the word and its paternalistic overtones (in Schooling Scotland I substituted ‘community’, in Everyone’s Future we used ‘fraternity’)  but there should be no problems with the concept – personal face-to-face relationships of warmth, empathy, emotion.  It is, of course, a value that imbues our Scottish schools today.  Fraternity / community is just what schools do … It is a value that can only be put into practice in ‘face to face’ communities. It is at the micro level of individual school communities that fraternity / community operates to balance the tensions of  ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ equitably, fairly.

Fraternity / community

  •         Recognises where impositions in the name of equality have affected individuals unfairly
  •         Understands how some individual liberties need to be curtailed in the interests of equality
  •         Puts a name to a number and a face to a name
  •         Helps create a sense of community, even though individuals have different values and interests

Fraternity is the ultimate bottom-up value that brings joy into our lives together and it has a very necessary place in balancing out the day-to-day challenges of school education.  Without it, school pupils are just performance units, numbers on a piece of paper or in a political comparison or slogan.

Ladies and gentlemen,  the challenges of equity…

·      Are not just for schools to sort by some magical formula imposed by a top-down management solution or learned from a ‘best practice’ site, though both of these have a place in a public managed system

  •      They reflect how we live together in community and in democracy
  •      The most important challenge of equity is equality of value – and that’s delivered face to face
  •      The most important challenge of liberty is recognising how and where it reduces equality
  •      These challenges can’t be properly sorted as bits of paper on someone’s desk, as numbers in a spreadsheet, but only face-to-face – something schools can do supremely well. It’s much harder to be unfair to somebody when you’ re going to meet them again tomorrow and the day after.

Our current civic debate on these issues lacks depth. It sometimes seems as if politicians and the media believe that by manipulating policy they can sort all the problems. It’s true that the national framework matters – look at what I said above about Senior Phase – but so do individuals. If we don’t understand the challenges of equity, if we don’t recognise how freedom and equality work with, or against each other, and if we don’t recognise the importance of that face-to-face element of fraternity, community,  but constantly lose ourselves in wadges of national statistics, where people are just performance units without agency or choice, we truly will not properly address the challenges of equity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.