2.1 Equality of opportunity
Those who take the quality of opportunity approach focus on removing barriers. Thus, to give some examples from education of a weak version of this approach, a grant might be made for families in poverty so that they could afford the uniform for their child to go to a grammar school; or special coaching might be given to ensure that sixth formers from a socially economically disadvantaged area could achieve top grades in 18+ examinations and be in a position to apply for a top university. The problem with this is that it assumes that ‘the problem’ is one merely of functional access and it ignores less visible barriers. Critical theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu argue that individuals are shaped by the structural features of the social context into which they are born and within which they grow up.
In Bourdieu’s terms, we all have different profiles of ‘capital’ and we need particular capital in order to thrive in particular contexts or cultures. Thus, if ‘going to grammar school’ is something alien to the context in which someone has lived, the mere fact of being given the money to buy uniform will be insufficient to encourage the young person to take up the grammar school place. Similarly, if ‘going to Oxbridge’ is not an assumed route in the context in which someone has grown up, s/he will not think about doing it even if s/he has the necessary qualifications. The social structures need changing if behaviours are to change. Aspirations need a process if they are to be realised. A strong version of this approach would look towards ‘positive discrimination’ or compensatory action. Examples from education are the Sure Start programme for early years education in the UK – or Head Start in the US. You will note that these are targeted – rather than universal (e.g. ten hours free child care for all families) initiatives so they can be regarded as operating with a deficit view of some individuals (i.e. ‘you need help’) rather than making radical changes to society and the way things are.