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Talk-ED: Being fluent about equity is not the same as actually wanting it


Equity” and “access” are difficult concepts in educational discussions and I think that it is “access” that causes most of the problems.

There is a feeling that access is there then equity can be assumed. Everyone gets the chance to go to school (let’s put ECE to one side for a moment). If the chance is there then the system is equitable.  But that is a very limited view of access.  The point of an education is in the first instance and in the immediate future for most people something else.  Being in education is necessary but is not in itself sufficient to make claims about equity.

It is what education gives you access to that is the marker of an equitable education system. It could be that for many it can provide a set of successive opportunities to continue in education and training at the next level and to be successful at each level. For others it might more quickly provide that opportunity to enter the workforce. That is of course not the end of education and training because a well-positioned education system has opportunities for re-entry and new opportunities.  And good employers want to be part of this process.

But an education system that gives you access to little or nothing because it has failed to provide you with skills and knowledge to a level where the journey can continue is not an education system that can be said to have acceptable levels of equity.

So in measuring the equity of the different levels, access becomes an important tool. Early childhood education, primary education and secondary education all have the task of preparing the student for higher levels of learning and training or to put it another way, providing students with the tools, knowledge and skills to have access to further education and learning. From about Year 10 the kinds of access that will emerge place more complexity on the role of the educator. It could be that access to a range of further education and training sits alongside the skills and knowledge required for employment – being both college ready and career ready as the Americans would put it.

In short, an education system that has high levels of equity is one that will have continue to provide high levels of access to people as they journey through it.

So that requires citizens who aspire to have a highly educated community that values equitable access in its widest sense. This is in itself means that education has responsibilities to attend to the ethical and civic dimensions of development. If education in a systemic way and over time is successful, the community as a whole would aspire to have the highest levels of access and equity for all its people. “Equity” is a direct outcome of educational quality and therefore, as former US Secretary of Education Richard Riley asserts, a quality education for all is the “new civil right”.

So it is not enough to simply work towards an education system that can lift achievement. Such a goal can only have meaning in the wider social context where equitable outcomes across the whole community are sine qua non. The reason for listing performance and achievement is so that we can have that equitable society.

That then raises the question – do we want an equitable society in New Zealand? If the results we are getting (pretty good for many) continue to produce the levels of access and equity that it does (very low for some), and we know this and continue not to act to improve our performance for all students, you would have to say that we do not.

That seems a little harsh. But two things do encourage us to discourage us to continue as we do – the segregation between schools and community’s in terms of access and equity outcomes and our focus only on what happens within the school gates.

The focus on a wider challenge might encourage us to do better and to do it differently. G K Chesterton put it like this: “The main fact about education is that there is no such thing. Education is a word like “transmission” or “inheritance”; it is not an object but a method.”  Education is not a self-serving end in itself.

It seems appropriate on Bastille Day to remind you that many in the past have fought for access and equity. Is it time for us to storm the barricades of educational failure and disengagement once and for all?

Marchons professeurs, formez vos batailonsMon Dieu! Quelle rime abominable!

Published inEducation

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