Understanding equity in education: New article

Press Release by MCERA on 14 July 2021

The World Bank,  the OECD and the United Nations recently recognised educational inequity as a growing global challenge. But what does educational equity look like and how is it achieved?

“All children have a right to high quality education. This basic principle is stated in international agreements and national education laws. UN’s Sustainable Development Goals expect that the member states “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. In many countries, including in Australia, this goal has become harder to reach.

“Refocusing education policies and leadership on equity, as has happened in Australia and in many other OECD countries, will have little real impact on education systems performance unless policymakers have much better common understanding of what equity in education means and why it is an important part of leading successful education systems,” Professor Sahlberg said.

Sahlberg and Cobbold propose that equity in education comprise both an individual and a social group aspect. 

All children should receive at least a minimum standard of education that enables them to make their own way in adult society while children from different social groups should achieve similar education outcomes. “Our aim is to give an operational definition of equity in education. This is necessary to better guide the development of education policymaking, especially as it relates to equity and its implementation by school leaders and achieving consistent approaches to improving equity in education.”

Cobbold said “This dual equity goal guarantees a threshold level of education or adequate education for everyone and a fair or equitable distribution of the benefits of education for all social groups. Social equity in education means a similar average and range of results for major social groups in society – gender, class, race, ethnicity and domicile.”

“Current efforts to define equity in education by three academic subjects (reading, mathematics and science) falls short in having a whole-child perspective as a reference in determining adequate education in broader terms,” said Professor Sahlberg.

International research evidence suggests it is possible to reduce the negative correlation between social disadvantage and student achievement and school leaders have an important role to play in this.

According to Sahlberg, “Schools cannot fix inequities in education alone. No society can be called a democracy while some social groups are discriminated against in the provision of education or, indeed, in the provision of other public services such as health and social protection.”

“The curriculum must serve all students to provide an adequate education for all. To be equitable, the curriculum must address cultural differences in increasingly multicultural and socially complex societies. The cultures of the least advantaged must be recognised and incorporated into the actual curriculum and pedagogical practices,” said Cobbold.

According to the OECD, “School failure penalises a child for life. The student who leaves school without completing upper secondary education or without the relevant skills has fewer life prospects. This can be seen in lower initial and lifetime earnings, more difficulties in adapting to rapidly changing knowledge-based economies, and higher risks of unemployment.”

As the authors said, “Society incurs lost opportunities for its own advancement and human development by failing to recognise and develop children’s talents through an adequate education. A foundational premise of equitable education is that all children have talents that can and should be realised and advanced through schooling.”

These concepts are reflected in the 5 principles proposed by Sahlberg and Cobbold to improve equity in education:

1.      Education policies must proceed in conjunction with economic, social and health policies designed to reduce inequality.

2.      Education policies must be directed at providing the financial, human, and physical resources to achieve an adequate education for all and investing in greater social equity in education outcomes.

3.      The design of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must recognise and reflect the cultures of disadvantaged students and minority groups as well as provide access to the broad range of knowledge and skills for all students.

4.      Parent participation in schooling and the learning of their children is fundamental to improving attendance at schools and outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

5.      Enhancing students’ active role in planning, implementing and evaluating teaching and learning in school leads to positive engagement in school education and can contribute to all students’ wellbeing in school.

“Education is expensive, but failure to keep the promise of equitable quality education for all becomes even more costly to individuals and to society”, the authors note.

Article information: Pasi Sahlberg & Trevor Cobbold (2021). Leadership for equity and adequacy in education, School Leadership & Management, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2021.1926963

This article has been made available for free accessby MCERA’s publishing partner, Taylor and Francis. 


MCERA, an independent, not-for-profit organisation, provides a conduit through which education research and researchers are made more accessible to the media to help improve public understanding of key education-related issues. We provide journalists with expert, independent and accessible insights from education researchers and practitioners. Any views expressed by the experts we consult are not necessarily those of MCERA or its staff.

One Reply to “Understanding equity in education: New article”

  1. Having been a beneficiary of Ontario education system, am wondering if the implementation of school boards might help with funding equity. School boards are funded by a land tax. Each property owner has to nominate the school board they which to fund. There are two boards: public and separate (Catholic). The funding generated from this pays for school infrastructure. The Province pays a per student amount plus a supplement for students with special needs. This funding is then distributed to primary and high schools on a rating formula. I worked out for Ottawa, the funding for primary students was around $14k and high school students $18k.
    For importantly, no parent fees are required. The school boards must follow the Provincial curriculum but operate independently. Board members are elected by the tax paying public.

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