I joined the University of Birmingham earlier this year, having spent two decades working on higher education policy for the English funding council and regulator. During this period, two broad imperatives underpinned my experience of government policy and professional practice in relation to educational inequalities.
The first, empowered by the 2010 Equality Act, was the prevention of discrimination due to personal characteristics. The second, present within the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, was the promotion of equality of opportunity, for example in relation to accessing and progressing through the education system.
Having provided assurance about equal treatment and opportunities, governments of all parties have assumed that individual agency and merit will determine educational qualifications and subsequent outcomes in lives and careers. This approach was particularly emphasised by the current Prime Minister when she served as the Minister for Women and Equalities. It has, though, failed to reduce inequalities, not least because it assumes that all learners and contexts for learning are the same.
This is clear from the sustained attainment gap in schools and its influence on equality of access to higher education, which in turn shape progression to the most influential and well-paid careers, and the concentration of highly skilled people and well paid jobs. Also from the patterns of exclusion which researchers here in Birmingham have associated with the intersection of factors such as race, autism and religious belief.
When people see inequalities and exclusions becoming entrenched in these ways, they begin to lose faith in the promise of equal treatment and opportunities."Chris Millward - Professor of Practice in Education Policy, University of Birmingham
When people see inequalities and exclusions becoming entrenched in these ways, they begin to lose faith in the promise of equal treatment and opportunities. We saw this during the last decade through polarisation based on educational background and the revolt against liberal notions of meritocracy, as well as through influential protest movements. This was then compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which surfaced often hidden inequalities across education, health and jobs.
For this reason, educational research in Birmingham is increasingly interested in equity, rather than equality. Equity asks what actions or changes would be necessary to enable all students and communities to access and participate, be recognised and valued, and succeed in education across the life-course. It recognises the complexity of individual learners and their contexts, which means that ‘what works’ for some students or communities may not work for all.
Through this lens, the imperative for education policy and practice is not to treat every learner or group in the same way, but – through quality education – to enable diverse learners and communities to flourish and take a range of positive routes through the education system. That means different provision in different places for learners and communities with different needs, but in a way that ensures equitable outcomes of benefit to all.
It positions education as a set of potentially diverse but articulating lifelong experiences within a fluid system, rather than a linear and time-bound journey towards a single point within a fixed system.
Educational equity requires a sophisticated understanding of the interaction between individuals and communities, professionals and institutions, and the systems in which they work. To make a difference, it also requires these insights to be deployed through policies and practices that reflect the context for learning, and that value different educational pathways and outcomes.
This is the focus of a new educational equity initiative at the University of Birmingham, which will bring academic researchers together with leaders and policy-makers from all parts of the education system. We want these partnerships not just to enable new understanding of the conditions for educational equity across the life-course, but also to test new ways of working that advance equity, and to produce new educational tools that can be used for policy and practice.
If you are an education professional, a manager or leader of an education institution, or you are involved and want to influence education and skills policy and practice locally, nationally or internationally, I hope this resonates with you. If it does, we would like to hear from you, so please get in touch.
The University of Birmingham is hosting a number of party conference events to discuss policy-relations questions of the moment and discover how our research is shaping policy decisions.
Professor Millward will speak at 'Improving social mobility: how should education institutions and employers work together?' at The Exchange - the University's city centre engagement hub - on 4 October 2022.