Equity in education
Equity and school culture
Clare Ives makes a persuasive case for using the concept of equity to lay the foundations of a school’s culture and to guide a range of school interventions.
The concept of equity is not a new one, but it is coming of age as a principle of education. By providing support according to an individual’s needs rather than providing identical support for all, we can work towards genuine equality of opportunity.
This has long been the rationale which sits behind the provision of Learning Support in schools. The adjustments made in schools for those with additional learning needs has been transformative in so many students’ lives. This rationale is often just as necessary to aid those with other protected characteristics. For example, if all students are treated equally when it comes to race, significant barriers to learning for certain students and groups remain in place. However, when student experience is factored in then the performance of those groups, and indeed the whole cohort, is enhanced. To effect genuine change, therefore, equity rather than equality, should be the guiding force behind every decision in education.
This approach has also been used over the last thirty years to make positive adjustments for female students and to achieve greater balance between the sexes. As a result, the education of girls and women has made progress at every level. Today, women make up the majority of undergraduates at University in the UK and are now more represented in fields which historically had been seen as male dominated, such as the STEM subjects. Furthermore, research has shown that advancing equity in this sphere is having positive outcomes for all students.
So, if it works for SEN and to level the playing field in terms of education of the sexes, then why not apply the principle of equity to everything we do in school?
To achieve an overarching school culture which is kind, inclusive and purposeful, adjustments are needed for certain individuals or groups of students. Traditionally, such adjustments have been delivered top-down, through teacher and tutor intervention. However, this relies on teachers having a thorough understanding of issues which are faced by their pupils. A surer way to understand school relationships and culture is to involve students directly. This reveals nuances of school life which teachers can miss, whilst appealing to adolescents’ desire for agency. It makes sense to extend modern pedagogical methods, which allow for discussion and a two-way flow of expertise, into decisions taken about the wider school community. If students participate in groups which help inform the direction of the school, then school leaders better understand the power dynamics within school and can make positive adjustments.
Interventions in school – rewards and sanctions
Equity can also drive interventions in school. Many schools award merit points to students to reward them for progress and to encourage continued effort. It is, of course, easiest to use a system based on equality to award these. For example, when marking a piece of work all those who attain over a certain grade receive a distinction. However, this rewards attainment and not effort. Under this system, some students may never be awarded such a prize and feel disincentivised. However, if merits are awarded more equitably, then a student who may have lower attainment can be rewarded if they have shown sustained focus or effort, or another positive character trait.
Similarly, equity can be applied to school sanctions. Traditionally, schools have taken a simple approach: if a student commits x misdemeanour, they are given y sanction. It is easy to justify, is viewed as consistent, and requires less time to investigate. However, for an individual or group, the outcome can be unfair because their context has not been considered. Furthermore, when treated universally rather than according to their needs, there is a loss of agency which can lead students to dismiss the authority of the school. As research shows, if school interventions do not align with adolescents’ enhanced desire to feel respected, then they tend to fail. By contrast, when students feel that they are being treated with respect, they demonstrate far greater self-regulation, the ability to think about the future, and capacity to change.
For independent and private schools, the principle of equity can also be applied when awarding financial assistance. This is an emerging trend within the sector, with some schools moving away from attainment-based scholarships towards a system of free and assisted places which are based on an evaluation of parental ability to pay fees. This is beneficial to the child concerned. But the benefits enhance the entire community as widening access provides greater diversity.
Taking equity as a central part of school ethos can have a transformative impact. At Sevenoaks School this key principle has become the bedrock of our school strategy. It underpins our resolve to widen access to the school, as well as ensuring that our school community is as fair and inclusive as it can be. Our journey started with an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion policy, to replace the previous Equality Statement. Equity also now underpins the Behaviour Policy. We have started a series of working groups which engage students and staff on key areas of school life, providing insight and suggested adjustments for those issues. We believe that students educated according to the principle of equity are more likely to carry that understanding forward into their future lives, thus enhancing the journey towards true equality.
Claire Ives is Senior Deputy Head at Sevenoaks School in the UK
More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning: