What is equity in education and how do we achieve it?

“If we don’t fix inequities in our schools soon, we’ll pay a high price for that later.”

This is what I heard from a primary school principal during my recent visit to her regional school. “But schools alone can’t do that. It takes the whole village,” she said.

She is right. Family background is far more important in explaining what students learn at school than people think. This has remained a solid empirical-research finding for the past half century.

Too often, however, the important role that out-of-school factors such as family, community and a student’s peer group play in student achievement is undermined in efforts to improve education.

It will continue to be a hard road to making education systems better unless we understand what the root causes of current underperformance of our school systems are.

Let’s start by asking: what are we talking about when we talk about equity?

What is equity in education?

Equity in education means that children from different social groups achieve a similar level and range of learning outcomes, and that every child succeeds above minimum standards of education.

It’s when the wealth, income, power or possessions of a student’s family do not impact their educational outcomes.

The first Gonski Review Panel in 2011 stated that:

[T]The underlying talents and abilities of students that enable them to succeed in schooling are not distributed differently among children of different socioeconomic status, ethnic or language backgrounds, or according to where they live or go to school.

Equitable education also requires all students to attain a level of education that enables them to realize their talents and to be active, informed citizens.

A more equitable education system not only benefits the most disadvantaged children and their families; it makes entire societies better.

As equity in education improves, research clearly demonstrates significant corresponding social and economic benefits to individuals, communities and the economy.

This is why, around the world, enhancing equity in education is a primary national policy goal to improve education.

Unfortunately, the meaning of equity in education has remained poorly defined in education policies and reforms until recently.

It is no wonder that no progress has been made in addressing prevalent inequities in Australian school education systems if we understand equity in different ways.

A student raises his hand in a year 1/2 class with the teacher at the front of the classroom.
The meaning of equity in education has remained poorly defined in education policies and reforms until recently.()

Not “a fair go” for everyone

It is true that school education can be a great equalizer in an unfair world. But many education systems today are not designed to do this very well.

Compared to other wealthy countries, Australia offers excellent education to many — but not for everyone.

According to internationally comparable data, our school education is one of the most socially segregated and unequal, leaving too many children behind.

This means that while there are excellent students in schools across the country, we have a high concentration of socio-educational disadvantage found in many public schools.

Even more worryingly, as these high concentrations of disadvantage continue to increase, more schools will struggle, and student learning outcomes in these schools will continue to decline.

This is a concrete example of lack of equity in our school systems.

It doesn’t have to be this way. All Australian governments have committed to having a world-class education system that “encourages and supports every student to be the very best they can be, no matter where they live or what kind of learning challenges they may face”.

Keeping this promise included in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration requires that all students become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners and active, informed citizens.

As we move on to find better ways towards greater equity in education, we need to do things differently enough to change the current course.

Here are three such things to consider.

Two high school students in school uniform walking on a footpath
While there are excellent students in schools across the country, we have a high concentration of socio-educational disadvantage found in many public schools.()

Making equity in education happen

Global evidence suggests that equity must be an integral part of serious efforts to create better performing education systems. It’s not optional.

We need to leave behind debates about whether we need more excellence or equity in our schools.

Lessons from other countries suggest that we simply can’t have one without the other.

This is perhaps the most significant principle to keep in mind when considering the following three ideas.

Firstequity indicates how inclusive and fair an education system is in enabling all students to be the very best they can be, no matter who they are.

It is wrong to think that teachers alone can fix inequities in schools.

There is a common consensus among international researchers that factors outside the school gate account for about 60 per cent of the variability in student achievement in school.

That is approximately three times more than all in-school factors combined, after accounting for unexplained variations.

It doesn’t mean that schools are not important, or that teachers are failing to level the playing field for all students.

Instead, it means that if we really want more equitable education systems, we can’t put unrealistic expectations on teachers and schools to fix inequities that are beyond their reach.

The most equitable education systems have adopted a whole-child approach by building closer collaborations between education, health and other public policy sectors to support students.

Secondlearning outcomes that are currently used to measure equity should include a broader range of educational outcomes than literacy and numeracy.

We may be able to make education more equitable regarding students’ reading and mathematics achievement in school, but by doing so other educational outcomes may become even more unequitable.

For example, the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration agrees on the importance for all students to realize creativity, knowledge about the community and learn how to learn skills.

It is therefore important to make sure that the achievement of these educational outcomes does not depend on who students are or which school they attend.

A row of young children sitting on a mat in a classroom.  One girl has her hand on her chin in thought.
One in five Australian children start school developmentally vulnerable in terms of physical health and wellbeing, communication skills and social competence.()

Thirdnegative impacts of social and economic inequities start to build up during the first five years of children’s lives.

One in five Australian children start school developmentally vulnerable in terms of physical health and wellbeing, communication skills and social competence. This proportion is higher for children in disadvantaged communities.

Schools are important community centers, which can effectively and collaboratively meet children’s educational and health needs through partnerships between other community services.

If the core purpose of school would be expanded from academic intelligence to holistic learning, wellbeing and health, making equity really happen would be easier.

Yes, we can fix it!

Now that the lack of equity in Australian education is recognized as the key challenge to be fixed, it is easier to go and do it.

It is important to keep in mind that inequality embedded in current schooling is not caused by teachers. It is a structural failure and part of the way our education system is designed.

It is caused by the people, and we the people can also fix it.

Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator and an author. He has received several awards for his lifelong service in education, including the Education Award (Finland), Lego Prize (Denmark) and the Hedley Beare Award (Australia). His books include Let the Children Play: For the Learning, Well-Being, and Life Success of Every Child (2020); and In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish Way to World-Class Schools (2021). Pasi is Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Melbourne.

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