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Education equity policy: ‘equity for all’ as a distraction from race, minoritization, and marginalization

By Paul Cairney and Sean Kippin

This post summarizes a key section of our review of education equity policymaking [see the full article for references to the studies summarized here].

One of the main themes is that many governments present a misleading image of their education policies. There are many variations on this theme, in which policymakers:

  1. Describe the energetic pursuit of equity, and use the right language, as a way to hide limited progress.
  2. Pursue ‘equity for all’ initiatives that ignore or downplay the specific importance of marginalization and minoritization, such as in relation to race and racism, immigration, ethnic minorities, and indigenous populations.
  3. Pursue narrow definitions of equity in terms of access to schools, at the expense of definitions that pay attention to ‘out of school’ factors and social justice.

Minoritization is a strong theme in US studies in particular. US experiences help us categorise multiple modes of marginalisation in relation to race and migration, driven by witting and unwitting action and explicit and implicit bias:

  • The social construction of students and parents. Examples include: framing white students as ‘gifted’ and more deserving of merit-based education (or victims of equity initiatives); framing non-white students as less intelligent, more in need of special needs or remedial classes, and having cultural or other learning ‘deficits’ that undermine them and disrupt white students; and, describing migrant parents as unable to participate until they learn English.
  • Maintaining or failing to challenge inequitable policies. Examples include higher funding for schools and colleges with higher white populations, and tracking (segregating students according to perceived ability), which benefit white students disproportionately.
  • Ignoring social determinants or ‘out of school’ factors.
  • Creating the illusion of equity with measures that exacerbate inequalities. For example, promoting school choice policies while knowing that the rules restrict access to sought-after schools.
  • Promoting initiatives to ignore race, including so-called ‘color blind’ or ‘equity for all’ initiatives.
  • Prioritizing initiatives at the expense of racial or socio-economic equity, such as measures to boost overall national performance at the expense of targeted measures.
  • Game playing and policy subversion, including school and college selection rules to restrict access and improve metrics.

The wider international – primarily Global North – experience suggests that minoritization and marginalization in relation to race, ethnicity, and migration is a routine impediment to equity strategies, albeit with some uncertainty about which policies would have the most impact.

Other country studies describe the poor treatment of citizens in relation to immigration status or ethnicity, often while presenting the image of a more equitable system. Until recently, Finland’s global reputation for education equity built on universalism and comprehensive schools has contrasted with its historic ‘othering’ of immigrant populations. Japan’s reputation for containing a homogeneous population, allowing its governments to present an image of classless egalitarianism and harmonious society, contrasts with its discrimination against foreign students. Multiple studies of Canadian provinces provide the strongest accounts of the symbolic and cynical use of multiculturalism for political gains and economic ends:

As in the US, many countries use ‘special needs’ categories to segregate immigrant and ethnic minority populations. Mainstreaming versus special needs debates have a clear racial and ethnic dimension when (1) some groups are more likely to be categorised as having learning disabilities or behavioural disorders, and (2) language and cultural barriers are listed as disabilities in many countries. Further, ‘commonwealth’ country studies identify the marginalisation of indigenous populations in ways comparable to the US marginalisation of students of colour.

Overall, these studies generate the sense that the frequently used language of education equity policy can signal a range of possibilities, from (1) high energy and sincere commitment to social justice, to (2) the cynical use of rhetoric and symbolism to protect historic inequalities.

Examples:

  • Turner, E.O., and Spain, A.K., (2020) ‘The Multiple Meanings of (In)Equity: Remaking School District Tracking Policy in an Era of Budget Cuts and Accountability’, Urban Education, 55, 5, 783-812 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0042085916674060
  • Thorius, K.A. and Maxcy, B.D. (2015) ‘Critical Practice Analysis of Special Education Policy: An RTI Example’, Remedial and Special Education, 36, 2, 116-124 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0741932514550812
  • Felix, E.R. and Trinidad, A. (2020) ‘The decentralization of race: tracing the dilution of racial equity in educational policy’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 33, 4, 465-490 https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2019.1681538
  • Alexiadou, N. (2019) ‘Framing education policies and transitions of Roma students in Europe’, Comparative Education, 55, 3,  https://doi.org/10.1080/03050068.2019.1619334

See also: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/policy-concepts-in-500-words-social-construction-and-policy-design/

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The Scottish Government’s holistic education policy: a story of profound success or failure?

The Scottish Government experience of education can give us all a profound lesson, but I’m not yet sure what that lesson will be. The positive lesson might be that you can have a holistic approach to education provision, which has a strategy for childcare, early years, and schools that support further and higher education policy effectively. In particular, its key aim is to address inequality in attainment from a very early age, to solve one driver of unequal access to higher education. More people have a chance of a place at University and higher education remains free.

The negative lesson might be that if you don’t solve the problem at an early stage, your other policies look regressive and reinforce inequalities. Instead of seeing a government committed in a meaningful way to reducing educational inequalities throughout a life course, we see government hubris in one area supporting a vote-chasing and damaging policy in another. Free University education remains a benefit for the higher attainers, and inequalities are reinforced by the lack of financial support for low income students.

In a party political context, we can decide very quickly what lesson to take: for the SNP and its supporters, we are on course for a game changing education policy at all levels. Free tuition fees will become the symbol of its overall success. For their critics, policy is failing at almost every stage and the SNP is saved only by our fixation on the constitution as the beacon for our attention and source of policy obstacles. Every pound spent on free tuition fees for the middle classes is a pound not spent on tackling the worrying levels of attainment inequalities in schools (a point that the Scottish Government often seems to support, with reference to the ‘Heckman curve’ on the greater benefits of spending on high quality education at an early age).

As usual, the truth is likely to be in the middle but, because superficial partisan positions are often so extreme, the middle is a very large space. Without more honesty about what we can generally expect from government policies, and what we can reasonably expect from specific current and future initiatives, this debate will remain a source of poor entertainment, not enlightenment.

What can a government do to reduce educational inequality? What will it do?

The main focus of our ‘game-changer versus hubris’ debate comes from a striking speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the SNP Government’s aim to abolish inequalities in education attainment. Note how starkly Sturgeon expressed this aim in August 2015:

‘My aim – to put it bluntly – is to close the attainment gap completely. It will not be done overnight – I accept that. But it must be done. After all, its existence is more than just an economic and social challenge for us all. It is a moral challenge. Indeed, I would argue that it goes to the very heart of who we are and how we see ourselves as a nation’.

Sturgeon’s uncompromising language suggests that Scottish governments can and will produce a profound level of influence on socio-economic outcomes.

UK government ministers have abandoned such language partly because they frame the problem increasingly as an individual, not structural, problem. They have no stated ambition to go to the ‘root cause’ of the problem to reduce the socio-economic inequalities driving many attainment inequalities through a far more redistributive tax and benefits system.

It is therefore striking that the SNP-led Scottish Government also has no plans (and a limited ability) to take a ‘root cause’, majorly redistributive fiscal, approach. Instead, we see the use of public services to mitigate the effects of socioeconomic inequalities. This strategy relies heavily on ‘prevention’ policies to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives – through parenting programmes and childcare provision – to improve their chances.

Further, I have not seen another speech like it. Instead, the SNP manifesto in 2016 restated its commitment to free tuition and presented far more modest language on making: ‘significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade’.

What can we realistically say about their likely effects?

In that more realistic context, you get the sense that these attainment-reducing initiatives will have limited effect. They include £100m fund to encourage new initiatives and learn from success stories such as the London Challenge, the partial return of testing pupils at key stages in schools, as part of a National Improvement Framework for Scottish education, to ‘ensure that we are making progress in closing the gap in attainment between those in our most and least deprived areas’, and possible reforms to local and regional governance to encourage learning between schools. These school-based measures come on top of substantial plans to increase or maintain childcare entitlement for 3-4 year olds, and for 2 year olds whose guardians meet income-based criteria.

In terms of the effect of attainment strategies on future University entry, we can say that the Scottish Government expects substantial results from schools in 10 years and from its expanded childcare provision (to vulnerable 2 year olds) in 15 years. As described, this does not seem like a holistic or joined up policy anymore, because it involves a gap, between the effect of one policy on another, so large that it seems unreasonable to link the two together.

An early years and attainment strategy this long-term provides almost no cover to its HE policy. Instead, we have free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the long term presence of an attainment gap, reinforces inequalities in education in several ways: a reduced likelihood of University attendance in school leavers from a deprived background; a tendency for HE policy to benefit the middle classes disproportionately, since the debt burden is higher on poorer HE students, and University funding seems to come at the expense of the college places more likely to be filled by students from lower income backgrounds; and a failure to take the Heckman curve seriously enough to prompt a major shift in funding from Universities and schools to early years.

Overall, I expect that we will look back on that one speech – on the ‘moral challenge’ to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ – as an outlier. It is an aim that sounds impressive as a rhetorical device, but it is not backed up by a coherent set of public policies designed to fulfil that end, and – even with the best will in the world – it is not a policy designed to remove the regressive effects of free HE tuition.

 

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The background of new MSPs

There is an interesting set of stories, by David Leask and colleagues in the Herald, about the background of MSPs. I take an interest as part of a team of scholars comparing backgrounds in Westminster and devolved assemblies.

Normally, one measure uses education as a proxy for class: we look at the proportion of members who went from private schools on to Oxford or Cambridge. We then normally find that, for example, Conservative MPs are more likely than most to have come via this route.

In the Scottish Parliament, compared to Westminster, you tend to find fewer members with this background, partly because there are fewer Conservatives, but also because there are subtle differences: fewer people in Scotland go to private schools (this is difficult to gauge, but is maybe 4-6% in Scotland compared to 7% in England, and it’s higher in places like Edinburgh and Aberdeen) and places like Glasgow University are bigger recruiting grounds than Oxbridge.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the mix of state school backgrounds. Many people recently noted the stark differences in attainment between schools in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if (as we might expect) MSPs are far more likely to come from the least deprived areas? The Herald has done the heavy lifting by providing the list of secondary schools attended by MSPs, but it will take a bit of work to get a clear picture (the SSLN is newish, and many of MSPs’ previous schools no longer exist).

Why does it matter?

With colleagues such as Lynn Bennie, I hope to go into this question in more detail. We want to speak individually to MSPs to get their individual stories, to help us build up a picture of the barriers they faced before becoming candidates with a shot of winning a seat. One key barrier relates to gender, as a traditional source of selection bias and a factor in the supply of candidates, and another is broadly described as class. It would be interesting to see how education and poverty-related factors contributed to barriers to candidacy, and if many MSPs faced them (and using proxy measures can only take us so far).

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