Exploring equality and equity in education
Exploring equality and equity in education

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Exploring equality and equity in education

5 Inequality in different contexts

In the following activity, you will read three contrasting articles, all of which illuminate aspects of inequality in education and explore policy, practice and pedagogical considerations in different contexts – rural India, Australia and New Zealand.

Activity 4

Timing: Approx. 4 hours

Part A

Read Kelly, O. and Bhabha, J. (2014) ‘Beyond the education silo? Tackling adolescent secondary education in rural India [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 731–52.

In this article the authors research the school attendance of adolescent boys and girls in villages in Gujarat, exploring the reasons for observed differences in participation in secondary education. It is not important for you to be familiar with the details of Indian education policy, but as you read this article you should make notes on the factors which are identified as restricting girls from benefiting from widened access to secondary education in this context.

You will notice that the authors draw upon the work of R. W. Connell, particularly on one influential book which stresses the socially constructed rather than biologically innate views of gender – for example, in relation to class and socio-economic structures in society. We will explore the ways in which taken-for-granted categories are socially constructed (for example, teachers’ assumptions about different types of learners) later in the course. After you have read the article, see what you can find out about Connell’s 1987 book (see the reference list) and the stance it takes in relation to investigating equality and gender.

Think about how you can find out more about Connell and her work via the internet, book reviews etc.

Think, too, about what you think are important aspects of power and sexual politics which have been taken up from Connell into the Kelly and Bhabha article.

Part B

Read Bishop, R., Berryman, M., Cavanagh, T. and Teddy, L. (2009) ‘Te Kotahitanga: addressing educational disparities facing Maori students in New Zealand’, Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 25, pp. 734–42.

This case study from New Zealand describes an initiative designed to improve the educational outcomes of Maori students in secondary schooling. Again, it is not necessary to be familiar with the detail of the project. As you read the article you should note down what is identified as constraining participation in learning for Maori students and consider:

  • whether there are other factors involved
  • what lessons might be taken from this project for other settings, including perhaps your own practice
  • what challenges there might be in adopting this approach more widely.

You will notice how the authors of this paper draw on the ideas of Freire in their arguments; Paulo Freire was an influential educator whose ideas on critical pedagogy are explored in detail in Section 2.

Part C

Read Fleer, M. (2003) ‘Early childhood education as an evolving “community of practice” or as lived “social reproduction”: Researching the “taken-for-granted”’, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 64–79.

In this article, children’s access to early years provision is assumed to be unproblematic and the focus here is on the educational practices within such settings in Australia and similar highly resourced environments. The author problematises prevalent pedagogic approaches and the culturally specific origins of these practices. Note down what you perceive to be the notions of equality and/or equity embedded within the practices described by Fleer. What might be the implications of her analysis for your own practice or for a learning environment with which you are familiar?

Part D

You should now revisit the views of equality that you noted in Activity 1. Is there anything you would like to add to these views?

Note down any questions that you would like answered.

Compose a short message (max. 100 words) to summarise one thought from your reading this week and one question that you would like to explore more.


Kelly and Bhabha (2014) argue that issues of equality in education cannot be seen in isolation from wider society and that merely ‘opening’ up education provision to offer formal equality of access may actually increase inequalities in participation between different groups of learners. The authors question whether the current strategy of the Indian government will be able to deliver equal educational opportunities for girls. They argue that, without recognition that boys and girls start from different positions and are constrained in different ways in their participation in education, there is a danger that the initiative may result in further marginalisation for some pupils based on their gender, class and caste. Thus this research points to the need to consider notions of equity as well as recognising equality, as indicated in Figures 1 and 2 of this course. However, addressing inequality through recognising the need for equity is usually a much more complex undertaking than just considering addressing equality.

At this point, take another look at Figures 1 and 2 and reflect on why it is more complex to consider equity rather than just equality in addressing issues such as access to education, disability, injustice and gender.

The issues explored in the article by Kelly and Bhabha are far from unique to rural India. Globally, one in four adolescent girls is not in school: many drop out during the transition from primary to secondary school, some drop out in primary school and a number have never been to school at all. Although education is potentially offering these girls new opportunities, the persistence of poverty and factors such as parental illness and environmental issues – drought and flooding, for example – can force families into balancing the need for survival in the present with any potential future gains that may come from supporting their daughters through school. The realities of daily life can overwhelm their own commitment to their daughters’ education and national provision and legislation.

These factors are exacerbated by being poor, living in a rural area and coming from an ethnic group that is discriminated against or excluded:

In Nigeria, for example, girls from a poor rural household will, on average, get fewer than three years of education, while in urban areas, girls in the same wealth bracket will get more than six years. If the girl is also from an ethnic minority, she will receive less than one year of education.

(Plan, 2014, p. 39)

This intersection of gender, poverty, rurality and ethnicity acting to increase disadvantage and inequality is seen in many contexts. For example, a UNESCO report highlighted the fact that, at the time of the study, in Kosovo only 56 per cent of Roma women aged 15 to 24 were literate compared to 98 per cent of the rest of the population and only 25 per cent of Roma adolescents attended secondary school (UNESCO, 2008).

Interestingly, in this article Kelly and Bhabha do not explore the identities or views of the teachers at the secondary schools in the study; there is some evidence that increasing the number of female teachers in secondary schools serves to reassure parents and support girls’ school attendance (UNESCO, 2006) and the approaches taken by teachers within schools can enhance or constrain learners’ participation.

In the case study from New Zealand (Bishop et al., 2009) the focus is on teachers, their attitudes and behaviours within the classroom. The Te Kotahitanga project is not uncontroversial: teachers and teacher unions in New Zealand have challenged the way in which the project switches the location of the ‘deficit’ from within the Maori child to within the teacher and his/her practice. These critiques argue that this can make it difficult for teachers in the project to dialogue, work collaboratively and acknowledge the complexities surrounding Maori student/teacher/societal relationships.

The inclusion of this article, therefore, in no way indicates endorsement of this particular project; rather, it is intended to raise pertinent questions about the ways in which schools can act to constrain or limit participation in productive learning by some groups of pupils. Although the Te Kotahitanga project has been critiqued for focusing on one minority ethnic group in New Zealand, its initial activities highlight the important role accorded to teachers by parents and students in influencing student educational success. Further critique of the project centres on the way in which responsibility for Maori student success or failure has been placed on the teacher without consideration of the broader structures within which teachers practise, including the demands of formal assessments and the prevailing regimes of accountability in the profession. However, by placing a shift in the relationship between teachers and learners (ontological change) at the centre of the initiative it is aligned with a dominant global discourse of ‘learner-centred’ education (Schweisfurth, 2013). The legitimisation in teachers’ practice of individual students’ ways of knowing and being and recognition that these experiences mediate learning, act to reduce their positional identity as unsuccessful students and their subsequent marginalisation within the learning environment.

Marilyn Freer’s article challenges us to examine the beliefs and perceptions of childhood that we bring to practice in early years settings, arguing that what is understood as ‘good’ or ‘best’ education practice is based on a particular set of cultural practices and thus has the potential to position some children differently and inequitably. Freer invites practitioners and policy-makers to work towards more inclusive early childhood provision, paying attention to other world-views of constructs of childhood and childcare practices. In this course we are wary of identifying ‘good’ or ‘best’ practice; rather, we show how situations can be problematised so that practitioners can scrutinise the practice pertaining to their setting at a particular time.

In the next activity, you will look at an OECD report and consider how education is presented within it.

Activity 5

Timing: Approx. 1 hour 30 minutes

Read the OECD report ‘Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools’ (2012).

You do not need to pay great attention to the tables in the report (although you might like to consider what exactly they tell you), but as you read, make notes on:

  • the way education is conceived
  • the purposes that it is seen to serve
  • the way in which inclusion is presented
  • the sort of data presented to support the arguments
  • the distinctions made between ‘input’ and ‘outcome’
  • how success is ‘framed’
  • the location of ‘deficit’
  • the relationship with economic efficiency and political interest
  • the way in which civil society – and criminality along with it – is presented
  • assumptions about background characteristics
  • considerations of the distribution of resources.

How would you summarise the OECD perspective on ‘education’ as presented in this report? What seems to be prioritised and what is not mentioned?


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