Towards equality in education

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The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police on May 25 has ignited a global movement against race inequality and injustice. Stark disparities in quality of life, access to opportunities, and protection and security signpost centuries of systemic racism.

The global issues highlighted have challenged us all to reflect profoundly on the extent to which inequalities exist in all of our systems: historic and systemic discrimination and disadvantage that so many have and continue to face on the basis of any combination of characteristics.

Conventional understandings of remedying inequality have relied on what is known as formal equality, which seeks to ensure that the playing field is level so you and I have the same access rights to the same things.

But, there’s an inherent flaw in that. If we both have the same access rights to something, but I have a certain circumstance or condition that renders me less or not able to actually access the thing, then I am still not able to enjoy the right.

Thus our understanding of equality has to accommodate the special and particular needs of all to ensure that they live as fulfilled a life as possible. This type of equality is understood as substantive equality.

A clinical and in-depth understanding of inequality and the subsequent need for adopting approaches informed by substantive equality are particularly relevant in the context of education in TT (and quite likely, many countries across the world).

According to sociologist RW Connell, educational institutions have a pyramid shape that reflects an unbalanced distribution of the resource represented by formal education. As you get closer to the top of the system, there are fewer and fewer people there to receive the benefits.

There is enormous empirical evidence of inequalities in chances of benefiting from the upper levels of education, depending on social background. Retention rates in secondary schooling, access to higher education, and other educational outcomes all differ between social classes, regions, and ethnic groups. Vulnerable and marginalised children suffer from high levels of exclusion, while poverty increases children’s likelihood of dropping out of school. Children with physical and intellectual disabilities suffer from inequalities in access to education and retention.

Right here in TT, there is inequality in the standard of education delivered across 477 public primary schools and 134 public secondary schools as identified in the Draft Education Policy Paper 2017-2022. For example, children who require special needs education may not be appropriately and adequately placed in schools that can provide such support.

Moreover, the use of discriminatory practices in enrolment and inequity in the system of student placement lead to stratification throughout schools and districts, creating a prima facie undulant landscape in which not all students’ needs are sufficiently met.

But inclusive education is not limited to issues of people with disabilities and differences. It encapsulates addressing exclusionary practices based on race, ethnicity, social class, religion, gender, and orientation from the perspective of the history of discrimination and privilege that dates back to our colonial past, perpetuated by implicit and explicit biases.

How schools treat their pupils inevitably forms part of the “hidden curriculum,” the impact of which is as powerful an educational force as the official curriculum. To illustrate, the American Psychological Association ascertains that the propagation of negative stereotypes, such as "girls can’t do maths," widens achievement gaps, foiling the academic aspirations of students who are subjected to suspicions of inferiority. This undoubtedly affects the equal provision of education.

The universalisation of primary and secondary education is informed by an appreciation of the need to ensure substantive equality through conscious and deliberate distribution of resources in terms of facilities, administration, staffing, remediation and supervision, while equitably treating all students by supporting and scaffolding their needs to optimise their educational progress. This seeks to address and remedy unequal learning needs and unequal student backgrounds through differentiated teaching and allocating resources to redress disadvantage due to personal and social circumstances that commonly stem from systemic issues.

For example, facilities should have the physical amenities that cater to special needs students, and psychosocial support services must be functional and well-equipped to provide educational guidance, specialised intervention and counselling to at-risk students. Students who are faced with restricted physical access to schooling due to income inequality require additional support in terms of transportation, uniforms and meals to counter absenteeism.

According to an international comparative research study by the University of Bristol, learning inequalities exist between students of high and low socioeconomic status (SES), compounded by disadvantages (gender, disability, ethnicity, location). There is reliable evidence on the extent of learning deficits among cohorts of SES-disadvantaged children in early childhood, prompting changes to UK policy to promote equality of opportunity starting at the preschool level.

In TT, during school closures due to covid19, the lack of equal opportunity within the education system became even more apparent. Students without access to technology are in danger of being left behind their connected peers. At a joint select committee meeting discussing the Ministry of Education’s approach to the continuity of education delivery amid the covid19 pandemic, Lisa Ghany of the Down Syndrome Family Network reiterated that children with physical and intellectual disabilities are at a further disadvantage without face-to-face teaching, while Dr Radica Mahase of Support Autism TT lamented that feedback from parents indicated that many autistic children in public schools had ceased doing work owing to challenges navigating online platforms.

Further to that, those students dependent on the school-feeding programme would have inevitably lost consistent and reliable food support. Apart from a loss of learning and missed meals during the pandemic crisis, global director for education at the World Bank, Jaime Saavedra has also warned about a potential increase in the dropout rate, exacerbated by the economic impacts of covid19 on low-income families.

In our TT context, the extent of inequality that pervades our education system requires that we apply an understanding of substantive inequality towards meeting students’ specific and different needs to ensure holistic development.

To do this, our goal should be to engage critical analyses of the current state of our education system in relation to prevailing inequalities, attitudes, and cultures, and provide sensible and practical solutions as we work towards the provision of education that meets the needs of all.

In light of these issues, over the next few weeks we will explore broader ideas that can be further developed and contextualised towards ensuring equality of opportunity and substantive equality in education. Ensuring that an education system is accountable, effective, equitable and inclusive of poor and marginalised children, children with disabilities, migrant children, those affected by crises and who make up increasingly vulnerable groups in our society mandates the treatment of issues of inequality so as to bring about systemic change.

Darcelle Doodnath is an educator specialising in modern foreign language pedagogy. She holds a postgraduate diploma in education from the University of the West Indies, a diploma in methodologies of teaching Spanish as a second language from Universidad de Chile and an undergraduate degree in Hispanic language and linguistics from Brown University.


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