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Traditionally, arguments about equality have been closely concerned

with questions about justice. Since education must be closely con-

cerned with justice, the relationship between education and equality

is important; however, since ‘equality’ means so very many different

things, it is not easy to establish such a relationship. It is helpful to

start with an account of the key distinctions.

Equality as procedural justice. In this sense, equality is the requirement

that members of the same reference group receive the same con-

sideration in relation to the allocation of scarce goods or desirable

outcomes. Thus, all accused are entitled to a fair trial, all citizens in a

democracy to a vote, students to proper assessment. This does not

entail that they should all receive the same treatment. For example,

procedural justice requires that all candidates for an examination

receive fair assessment, it does not require that a candidate present

himself in an examination hall even when he is bedridden. Procedural

justice does not answer the question as to what the relevant reference




is one of social justice, that is, which groups should be treated equally?

Equality of treatment entails that all in the same reference group are

treated in the same way. For example, all children follow the same

syllabus and are taught together, irrespective of ability or motivation.

Equality of treatment is often associated with comprehensive educa-

tion and mixed-ability teaching, as well as with an absence of seg-

regation on any grounds, including sex, race and disability. The aims

of promoting equality of treatment in education are not always clear,

since it does not seem to be a strict requirement of fairness (see

above), but many proponents would see it as a means of promoting

the esteem of relatively unfavoured groups as well as a potent means

of promoting equality of outcome (see below).

Equality of outcome entails that the end point of a process (like

education) is that all have the same allocation of desirable outcomes

or scarce resources. For example, all receive the same exam grades or

the same bursary. Although it is often thought that equality of treat-

ment leads to equality of outcome, this is likely to hold only when

individuals in the reference group are the same in all relevant respects

such as ability, motivation and interest. Where they are different in

one or more of these respects, as it is likely that they will be, then they

will not all take the same advantage of the treatment provided. This will

inevitably lead to inequalities of outcome. The egalitarian appears to be

in a dilemma. On the one hand she wishes to provide the same treat-

ment, thus provoking different outcomes; on the other, in insisting on

equal outcomes she is compelled to differentiate treatments through

policies such as affirmative action and specialist teaching. The

assumption of human diversity is enough to generate this dilemma.

Equality of opportunity. The usual liberal definition of this is as pro-

cedural justice, but it is common to hear more radical interpreters of

the principle claim that, for it to be meaningful, resources must be

equalised among individuals if there is to be a desirable outcome. So

anyone accused of a criminal offence should receive the same quality

of defence as anyone else accused, so as to equalise his chances of

being found innocent. This claim has led some to maintain that

equality of opportunity is not a coherent objective for an education

system, since it is unrealistic to equalise resources relative to individuals

(J. Wilson 1993). This might be a legitimate complaint against attempts

to make equality of opportunity a form of equality of treatment, but

not against the principle interpreted as a form of procedural justice;

for all that the principle then entails is that no one is debarred from

or discriminated against in seeking a desirable outcome such as



accreditation. Others, more radical still, maintain that inequality of

outcome constitutes a ground for presuming that opportunities have

been unequal. On this interpretation of the principle, equal outcomes

should be engineered through the provision of unequal treatments.

However, it also appears to violate the weaker, permissive, principle

of equal opportunity since, in order to secure the same outcome, it

may often be necessary to deny provision to some favoured groups or

individuals. This means in effect that the weakest and strongest forms

of equality of opportunity are in conflict with each other and that

one has to choose between them even if one is satisfied on practical

grounds that the achievement of either is possible. The conflict is

then between fairness and sameness as ethical ideals.

It might seem obvious that sameness cannot be such a powerful

ethical value as fairness. Indeed this is the type of criticism of egali-

tarianism made by J. P. White (1994). It would be fallacious to con-

clude that inequalities of treatment and outcome are not, therefore,

of any ethical significance. It has been argued at least since the time

that Plato wrote the Laws (1970c) that too much inequality damages

society’s well-being and leads to resentment and social exclusion

through the resulting unequal distribution of power and influence.

Indeed, this insight has received substantial empirical backing through

the work of, among others, Wilkinson (2005), who argues that large

relative inequalities lead to increasedmorbidityand social disorder. Thus

it is quite possible for someone who rejects strong egalitarian arguments

to hold nevertheless that there need to be strict limits on inequalities of

distribution. Such a position would be at odds with the theory of dis-

tributive justice found both in the neo-liberal position of Nozick (1974)

and the more conservative liberalism of Rawls (1971, 1993).

Educators have argued in favour of inequality on the grounds that

it promotes excellence, which is an intrinsic good (e.g. Cooper

1980). It has also been argued that diversity is desirable in order to

accommodate the range of human abilities and interests (Entwistle

1970; C. Winch 1990). Against this it is maintained that inequality (or

excessive inequality) in education leads to social disaffection and power

differences that lead eventually to injustice. Questions of equality

cannot, therefore, be a matter of complete indifference to educators.

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