Is your school feeding inequality?

Education is meant to be society’s great leveller. Offering public education supposedly gives everyone a fair chance to succeed in life in any capacity they might choose, but in reality … it doesn’t. In fact, I would go as far to say that it barely tries to. Now, If you’re an educator, that might upset you as I’m sure you are thinking “I try really hard to help all my students!” I know many teachers who are inclusive, flexible and cater for individual needs, but that doesn’t stop the systems they work within, undoing much of the progress they make.

As part of the Global Search for Education series, I want to look at this issue from the perspective of common school systems in use around the world and evaluate how they impact on children from different socio-economic demographics, and how they need to change. Most of the systems in education work quietly in favour of the more fortunate and thus can exacerbate the problem. The biggest of these and my most frequent target in my teaching practice and writing is standardisation. 

Standardisation increases the wealth gap

Nearly every country’s education system is centred on the core idea that it is only fair if schools push all students through the exact same learning programme. To build your system on this idea creates the first of many disadvantages for the less privileged. In most cases, teachers decide the topic, approach, and schedule for learning, irrespective of each student’s starting point. Even in an average public school, the range in quality of home life can be great. At 9 o’clock in the morning, the biggest influence on activity and output from students is breakfast and self-esteem. Both these driving factors for learning are directly influenced by human and material resourcing at home, but a standardised school lesson makes no allowances for this. This leads to the ongoing correlation between socio-economic background and educational success around the world.

Exams? Why bother?

Exams, tests and grades are abstract concepts. They are not real-life activity and test only one’s academic interests. The deciding factor on how much one prepares and attempts to gain the top grade is whether one is willing to believe the idea that by ‘playing the game’, society is bound to recognise the effort. To be assured that this abstract testing activity has importance, your life needs to have convinced you so. You need to have had experiences that indicate that following society’s systems leads to success and are worth working with. The problem here is that poor children wake every morning to face clear evidence that society’s systems clearly do not support everyone and thus success from engaging with them is much less definite, particularly the abstract systems they deal with at school. This makes it harder for a poor children to trust ‘the system’ and engage with standardised school work for the sake of abstract, some argue meaningless, grades.

Close the gap through negotiated learning

Fortunately, there’s a silver-lining. The 21st century is quite rapidly challenging the standardised systems that society and schools were built on. Being isolated from ‘real-life’ has led schools to be behind the trend but exponential change in technology and work-life is resulting in schools in some countries questioning the relevance of their standardised approaches. What is needed, as I’ve posted about before, is a negotiated approach to learning that recognises the individual in the learning process. By using systems designed around the individual, students can build on their own experiences and knowledge rather than feeling the failure of not fitting a mould. This way education will start to succeed in it’s duty to level the playing field for children suffering poverty as well as other challenges.


Author: Richard Wells
Teaches grade 6 to 12
Deputy Principal in a New Zealand High School
Top 40 in edublog awards 2013
Top 12 Blogger – The Global Search for Education
Known for Educational Infographics (see Posters)
and an International keynote speaker.
Twitter :  @EduWells

This post is written as part of  The Global Search for Education: Our Top 12 Global Teacher Blogs: A series of questions that Cathy Rubin is asking several education bloggers. I’ll be sharing the link to her post that collects all of the responses. I’m excited to be part of this group of edu-bloggers.