If you had the choice before birth of the type of society to be born into but didn’t know your status in advance, what type of society would you choose? No doubt most of us would choose a more egalitarian society if only to minimise the risk that we might face insurmountable odds against living a good life. The American philosopher John Rawls in his Theory of Justice invites us to adopt this “original position” and imagine ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance” about the personal, social and historical circumstances we might find ourselves in. He argues that the most rational choice of society for any of us in the original position includes the basic rights and liberties needed to secure our interests as free and equal citizens, equality of educational and employment opportunities and a guaranteed minimum income to pursue our interests and maintain our self-respect.
To many of us already born, the moral and political case for a more equal society is very strong, even without considering Rawls’ thought experiment. A large and enduring majority of people (73 per cent in 2004) agree that the gap between rich and poor is too large (Public Attitudes to Economic Inequality – Joseph Rowntree Foundation, July 2007). If we need convincing evidence that more equal societies are better for everyone, this can be found in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level (Penguin 2010). Nevertheless, New Labour in power was particularly squeamish about the “e-word” preferring to substitute “fairness” or “equity”; perfectly good concepts in themselves but the change of language seemed to signal a dilution of the party’s commitment to actually challenging inequalities even of the grossest kind.
So what would a genuinely egalitarian approach look like, particularly in relation to education?
First, it means rediscovering and proudly championing the virtues and achievements of universal public services. The comprehensive school or college is a place where citizens experience equality. People are treated with equal respect, meet and work with others on equal terms and have their individual needs met regardless of their ability to pay. Like other public services at their best, state-funded education providers model the social relationships of a more equal society. As Basil Bernstein rather depressingly reminded us: “education cannot compensate for society”, nevertheless the fact that people’s experience of equality in one sphere is not mirrored in every other aspect of their day to day experience should be a source of anger and action rather than a reason for giving up on the egalitarian ideal. People clearly do not all engage with education from the same starting point and many face enormous barriers. However, the right kind of public education can challenge injustice and give people a lived experience of more equal social relations and practices.
Second, it requires a reversal of the marketisation and commodification of social goods such as educational opportunities. Egalitarian values are undermined when public services are treated more and more as commodities with a commercial value and in some cases subject to outright market forces and privatisation. For instance, young people are encouraged to value educational qualifications in terms of the alleged additional earning power they attract and to equate higher level skills to labour market advantage. They are also encouraged to rank educational opportunities and aspire to “top” or “elite” providers which are generally the most exclusive. The individual student is increasingly regarded as a consumer making individual choices based on calculations of personal advantage and in effect competing against fellow students for the limited opportunities which education and labour markets have to offer.
Third, we need an egalitarian vision of the content of education. In the same way as the Nuffield 14-19 Review set out to define the educated 19 year old we need to ask as a society what we expect from an educated member of this society. Our egalitarianism should not restrict choices or promote uniformity of ambition or talent but should aim to offer the best to everyone. We might even take a tip from the private sector. If a broad and enriched liberal education is good enough for those privileged young people whose parents pay for their education – surely it’s good enough for everyone. A popular version of that curriculum could be a good starting point for what we should offer all young people. Shorn of the trappings of snobbery and exclusivity it could be described as elite culture without the elitism. Our version of egalitarian education should not be based on “dumbing down”, but on “wising up”.
Fourth, it means avoiding the distortions of the egalitarian impulse such as the limited promise of greater social mobility within a meritocracy. This essentially offers some the opportunity to get on within a stratified and unequal society while failing to challenge existing profound inequalities. While “getting on” is a valid aspiration such approaches can actually function as palliatives; justifying inequalities by providing the high achievers with the sense that they deserve their place at the top of what remains a grotesquely unequal society.
The dominant consensus among politicians from the major parties seems to be that more market choice and diversity of educational provision can support egalitarian policy aims. However, the evidence is that markets tend to promote inequality. Unless purchasing power is heavily weighted towards the poorest, the better off will always have a head start in any market system. Do these politicians have the bottle to regulate the market they create to prevent it from widening the educational opportunity gap between rich and poor or will they continue to tolerate a divided system with unequal outcomes?
We need to judge political parties by their deeds and faced with competing visions of the better society in the run up to the next election we could perhaps apply an “equality litmus test” to all policy proposals. This would mean asking: how does this proposal promote equality of opportunity, of access, of resourcing or of outcome? Any party claiming to be serious about this issue should apply this discipline to every aspect of their legislative and spending programme.
I believe that genuine egalitarianism can be a real vote-winner for any party which finds attractive and practical ways to define and promote a better and more equal society. In education this means arguing for the highest possible standards in the best possible publicly funded comprehensive schools, colleges and universities for all. In other words our response to those who are “unashamedly elitist” should be to be unashamedly egalitarian.
An earlier version of this article appeared in “Education Politics” in 2010.