But one must not respect an individual more than the truth. Plato, The Republic, 595c
If a fair society is meritocratic, enabling every person to progress on the basis of their achievements, then equity in school education is essential. Imagine that regardless of your merit, no matter how hard you tried, you could never improve your socio-economic status. Worse, imagine that the same applied to your children. Despite their efforts to fare better in life, they are deprived of the necessary means to climb the socio-economic ladder. This may be bearable and even welcome to the better off, but to the less fortunate it is simply suffocating.
We call regimes where social mobility is prohibited or impossible undemocratic, because people or groups situated in the lower socio-economic strata are systematically (and sometimes purposefully) excluded from the higher echelons of power. Such regimes need not always rely on the threat of force to impose social immobility. Restricted or highly segregated education has the same effect. Illiterate or poorly educated kids do not go to university and therefore lack any qualifications to become, for example, bankers or ministers.
Some of the best-known theoretical designs for establishing the best state argue in favour of educational segregation. Plato’s (5th-4th century BC) ideal state, the Kallipolis (or the Republic, as it is more commonly known) is founded on a highly segregated society where only the select few, the philosopher kings, are seen fit for leadership and therefore for higher education. Similarly, the 9th-10th century Islamic philosopher Al-Farabi, influenced by Plato’s Republic, perceived of the happiest society as strictly hierarchical where although its members are not condemned to ignorance, only the leader is expected to ‘love learning and multiplying his knowledge’. In both philosophical treatises, segregated education is justified in terms of ‘natural’ differences in the cognitive abilities (or souls, as Plato and Al-Farabi argued). Some people are supposed to be naturally fit to lead, but the majority are not. Consequently, only the select few are to receive good quality foundational and higher education.
Thankfully, modern European societies have distanced themselves from such views. Even though universal school education became the norm as late as the 19th and 20th centuries, today all education systems in Europe provide school education to all children. Moreover, most schools are publicly funded which means that comparatively poorer families do not have to worry about school fees (even if they do have to worry about other school-related expenses).
Despite all children having access to publicly funded schools, equitable school education cannot be taken for granted. It is well established that children from families of lower socio-economic status tend to underperform compared to their higher status peers. Various reasons have been suggested stretching from explanations at the micro level (e.g. lack of appropriate role models) to the macro (e.g. over-concentration of disadvantaged students in some schools).
The 2020 Eurydice report Equity in School Education looks at education system-level factors that could potentially affect equity (defined as small achievement gap between top and bottom performers and as achievement being independent of socio-economic status). These factors reflect how stratified or standardised an education system is, the available support instruments and the public funding level.
Drawing on original data from 42 European education systems and on the Eurostat, PIRLS, PISA and TIMSS databases, the Eurydice study reaches some striking conclusions. In one sentence, stratification is not good for equity and neither standardisation nor support measures can counterbalance the adverse effect of a highly stratified education system.
The study finds different variables influencing equity in primary schools and in secondary, although common elements exist. More specifically, what appears to matter more at the primary level is the amount of public funding per student and the size of the (government-dependent) private schools sector. More public funding and a smaller private schools sector associates with a lower degree of academic segregation (i.e. student performance variance between schools is smaller than variance within schools) which in turn associates with lower gap between top and bottom performers.
Academic segregation remains an important predictor of achievement gap also at the secondary level, but now segregation is a correlate of the age when tracking begins and the size of the vocational education sector. Tracking (i.e. allocating students to different educational pathways), has been criticised before for its equity implications. The later tracking starts and the smaller the vocational education sector, the more limited the academic segregation, leading to a smaller achievement gap. Interestingly enough, grade repetition has a direct and negative effect on equity adding to the argument that grade repetition is counterproductive.
Grade repetition is an impediment for equity in secondary schools also from a different angle. In education systems where grade repetition is more pronounced, students’ socio-economic background is a stronger correlate of student performance. The other two equity impediments are an early tracking age and a high degree of differentiation between school types regarding the choice of school (e.g. if parents are free to choose or if catchment area rules apply) and the admission criteria (e.g. if prior performance matters).
If we were to summarise what should be done to promote equity in school in a few simple messages, they would be:
- Increase public funding for primary level education
- Apply uniform school choice and admission rules
- Delay tracking as long as possible
- Spread low-performing students across schools
- Reduce grade repetition rates
Equity in education may not be sufficient to address all the social fairness problems, but it is necessary for at least one. If we do not provide our children real chances to perform equally well in school, then the prospects for social mobility are restricted. As a result, to put it bluntly, the rich will continue growing richer and the poor poorer.
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