23 SES 07 B, Equality
Parallel Paper Session
Overarching themes being addressed this year at ECER include the extent to which educational research might help to ensure government educational policies promote not just ‘freedom’ but also egalitarian goals such as ‘education for all’. One key contribution educational research can make in furthering government understanding of these goals is to examine possible tensions between them, and furthermore, the extent to which popular support exists for a promotion of educational equality even where this comes at the expense of (negative) individual freedom. For more than 20 years across Western societies, the topic of secondary school choice has loomed large in government and academic discussions. Debates have raged over the extent to which parents as consumers should have the freedom to buy educational advantage for their children, to send them to private schools, to coach them into schools for the academically able, to use the housing market to access preferred schools and to avoid local schools in search of a ‘better’ education elsewhere. Ideas of parental rights and freedoms are entrenched within government discourses and the public mind. However, their assertion can also be viewed as conflicting with values such as community, equality and social justice. Qualitative research has suggested there are different choice experiences for parents from different social backgrounds (Ball, 2003). While those with greater cultural capital are more successful in accessing popular schools with the best resources, limited places in these schools means others are left behind in unpopular schools with the worst resources, potentially compromising educational equality. Within political theory, Rawlsian principles have been applied to school choice questions. If parents knew nothing of their own or their children’s circumstances, what sort of educational system would they advocate? Would they vote to maintain the existence of private and selective schools or would they opt for a more egalitarian education system? Swift (2003) has developed Nagel’s (1991) idea of partiality, asking what counts as legitimate partiality for parents regarding the choices they make. Legitimate partiality within an unequal society may include some intergenerational transfers of cultural advantage, for example the reading of bedtime stories. However, sending children to private or selective schools where attendance at these schools has a major impact on life chances is problematic. For Brighouse (2000), parental choice rights exist in a system where major inequalities between schools do not. However, within unequal societies today he argues they conflict unacceptably with conceptions of liberal egalitarian social justice. Still, libertarian and conservative theorists emphasise family integrity and an extensive right to raise one’s children as one chooses. They claim the state has no moral place in asserting limits to parental choice (e.g. Tooley, 1996). With respect to parental freedoms ‘versus’ educational equality, a good deal has been written about what we ought to think. However, what do people actually think? How well do public values align with differing conceptions of school choice morality? How much preference do people think it is legitimate for parents to give to their own children before considering impacts on others?
Ball, S.J. (2003) Class Strategies and the Education Market: The Middle Classes and Social Advantage. London: RoutledgeFalmer. Brighouse, H. (2000) School Choice and Social Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nagel, T. (1991) Equality and Partiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Swift, A. (2003) How Not to be a Hypocrite. London: Routledge. Tooley, J. (1996) Education Without the State. London: Institute of Economic Affairs.
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