04 SES 07 C, Overcoming Old And New Social Inequalities In School
According to Bourdieu (1984), social action takes place in a field, which represents the dominating system of power relations. Social positions in the field are not randomly allocated; in contrast their availability depends on constraints and rules imposed by the most powerful. Thus, in a society that is based on the dominance of the powerful, less privileged groups, such as disabled people and people that live in poverty are marginalized and pushed down at the lowest level of social hierarchy (Oliver, 1990). As a result, schooling has become part of the market mechanism and the means to enhance productivity and capital accumulation, in favour of the power holders, through the exclusion of students considered as less able to become competitive (Apple, 2000).
The displacement of disadvantaged students is more than evident in the era of the pandemic of fear, when inequalities, social exclusion, blind obedience and the dominance of the powerful were imperceptibly legitimized based on the alibi of the panacea of social distancing (United Nations, 2020). Thus, after school closure because of COVID-19, the students that were kept close were the ones with unrestricted access to remote learning, better knowledge of technology and less in need of teacher support, i.e. students predestined to take a high position in social hierarchy and become protagonists in the neoliberal market. In contrast, disadvantaged students were pushed down to the lowest level of social hierarchy, as not ‘fitting’ the powerful ideal that is eligible for having access to quality learning.
Based on the above, the aim of this study was to critically explore the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the less advantaged students in the immediate and longer terms, focusing on issues of equal access to quality education. Hence, this study tried to answer the following research questions: a) Who was kept close and who was kept afar during the school closure? b) How induced fear became the path towards the legitimization of exclusion? c) What were students distanced for?
To address the above questions, a qualitative methodology was employed with the aim to gain in-depth accounts from key informants and develop grounded theory. The research was guided by the feminist approach, which emphasizes the dualistic nature of the world. I focused on two dualistic counterparts, i.e. powerful/disadvantaged and eligible/not eligible to learn, trying to inform scientific explanations that might help us understand and transgress the above intersecting bifurcations. Thus, this research explored the ways in which disadvantaged students, i.e. disabled students and students from low socioeconomic status, experienced school closure and their placement in the online learning process.
The above research has a European/international dimension since the pandemic affected less advantaged students all over the world. Hence, understanding the impact of COVID-19 on equal opportunities in education may inform the implementation of programs aiming to address likely gaps and safeguard the rights of disabled and less advantaged students.
To address the research questions, a qualitative methodology was employed with the aim to gain in-depth accounts from key informants and develop grounded theory. The research was guided by the feminist approach, which emphasizes the dualistic nature of the world (Rose, 1993). The context of this research is Cyprus in the time of Covid-19. Cyprus is an island situated at the northeast end of the Mediterranean basin, with almost a million of inhabitants, and a member of the European Union. During the pandemic, Cyprus imposed restrictions on free movement and closed the schools, affecting hundreds of children that had to switch to online lessons, regardless their access to online education or their ability to attend such lessons. The participants in this study were selected with a combination of purposive and snowball sampling method and interviewed at a place of their choice. A grounded theory method was employed; thus, the interviews were driven by the participants perceptions. Each interview lasted between one to two hours and was based on the informed consent of the participants. Discussions with the participants focused on what they thought about the way the education system responded to the pandemic; how they understood the process and the factors that defined equal opportunities in learning; what place they had and what identity they attributed to themselves in the above learning process; how they experienced the effort to keep some students close and others afar; and what were the implications of school closure on managing to stay ‘close’ to more advantaged students. The sample comprised 7 disabled students and 18 parents of disabled students from Cyprus. Even though it cannot be postulated that a representative sample was selected that reflects the enormous range of marginalized and disadvantaged students’ experiences and parents’ perspectives, I tried to recruit a diverse group of participants with different backgrounds and socio-economic status. For confidentiality purposes, the participants are presented with pseudonyms. The interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Data were analyzed with top-down thematic analysis. Within this framework, analysis was driven by the specific research questions and the analysts’ focus. The process was guided by Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six-phase framework for doing thematic analysis.
As found in this research, children who had unrestricted access to remote learning, digital skills, adequate financial resources at home and educated parents, i.e. middle and higher-class students, were kept close to teachers and progressed, because of being considered as eligible to quality learning. On the other hand, children with disabilities, limited access to hardware and online communication, less educated parents and poor families, i.e. low-class disabled students, were kept afar, because of being considered as not eligible to learn, as not fitting the ideal of the new ‘homo digitus’. The above finding may be explained by the prevalence of the medical model of disability, according to which disability is a personal ‘problem’ of disabled people, which is the result of the physical impairment; for this reason, disabled people are supposed to focus on ‘correcting’ the disability by asking for medical help, aiming to reach the prevalent normality (Oliver, 1990). Within this framework, education systems that view disability as illness focus on providing medical help to disabled children instead of proceeding to the essential arrangements that may facilitate access to equal opportunities in learning (Damianidou & Phtiaka, 2018). Hence, what was important in the time of the pandemic was to ‘safeguard’ the disabled children’s health by keeping them afar from their teachers and peers, despite the consequent harm on learning. According to Kendall et al. (2020) the practice of isolation is imperative during pandemics, because disabled people are considered as “typically more exposed to the risk of infection” (p. 1774), which seems though a plausible excuse to rationalize exclusion. On the other hand, non-disabled students from the dominating social class, who were therefore considered as the most eligible to learn, were kept close and provided opportunities for learning, in ways that excluded disabled and less advantaged students.
Apple, M. (2000). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age. New York, NY: Routledge. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London, UK: Routledge. Braun, V. & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77-101. Damianidou, E., & Phtiaka, H. (2018). Implementing inclusion in disabling settings: the role of teachers’ attitudes and practices. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 22(10), 1078-1092. DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2017.1415381. Kendall, E., Ehrlich, C., Chapman, K., Shirota, C., Allen, G., Gall, A., Kek-Pamenter, J.A., Cocks, K., & Palipana, D. (2020). Immediate and Long-Term Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic for People with Disabilities. American Journal of Public Health, 110 (12), 1774–1779. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2020.305890. Oliver, M. (1990). The Politics of Disablement. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Rose, G. (1993). Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Cambridge: Polity Press. United Nations. (2020). Policy brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond. https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/08/sg_policy_brief_covid-19_and_education_august_2020.pdf
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