Equality of Opportunity and State Education

Martin O'Neill and Liam Shields on Labour and state education

It’s time for the left to think bigger about the role of the state in education. Whatever happens in the General Election, one outstanding feature of Labour’s policy platform is that, in developing the aspiration of a National Education Service (NES) on the model of the National Health Service (NHS), they’re beginning to think at a scale necessary for renewing social democracy for 21st century conditions.

The Labour Party may not win, but the institutional aspirations of its 2017 Manifesto, imagining what would be involved in creating a state that supports its citizens in realising their potential over the course of their lives, is a great achievement. This move in reimagining the aspirations of a radical form of social democracy is one that the Left, in both the UK and in other countries, will need to revisit and drive further forward in the years ahead.

Only a more comprehensive approach to lifelong education can provide citizens with the opportunities to which they are entitled as a matter of social justice. If we want to create societies in which citizens’ talents are not wasted, in which every individual has a chance to realise their potential, then we need to think about the role of training and education throughout the life-course, from nursery through to adult education.

A 21st century vision for an ‘enabling state’ should be one that supports its citizens at every step, providing ongoing opportunities for them to develop their abilities. A just society should be one where the productive potential of working-age adults is continuously supported, and where nobody is ever written-off or abandoned.

The idea of equality of opportunity

People disagree across the political spectrum on the value of substantive equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity is a broadly popular idea, at least at the level of rhetoric. There is a good deal of debate about how best to understand “equality of opportunity”, but one simple, widely held and widely practiced notion is that of the Napoleonic idea of “careers open to talents”.

“Careers open to talents” is the view that the best qualified or best able should be appointed to any particular position, be it a competitive university place or a valuable job opportunity. On this view, whether a society realizes equality of opportunity is a matter of never appointing someone on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, or for any reason other than superior prior attainment, ability, or experience.

One defect of this view is that it neglects an important inequality: inequality in our opportunities to develop our skills and talents and to have the chance to become the best-qualified applicant for a particular position to which we want to apply. To illustrate this defect consider how vast socioeconomic inequality, passed on through generations, means that while some individuals can purchase expensive training and education, and access to valuable social networks, others cannot. If you are talented and hard-working from a poorer background your chances of appearing to be the best qualified for a university place or job opportunity are much lower than if you are from a wealthier background.

Careers open to talents will continue to be the basis of which most hiring and admissions decisions are made, but unless and until we take seriously the vast inequalities in opportunities to develop skills and talents this system will continue to reproduce injustice and inequality. So, an ideal of equality of opportunity worth its name must say something about opportunities to become the best qualified – or, in other words, opportunities for education and training.

Rawls’s Idea of Fair Equality of Opportunity

In developing his account of the demands of social justice, John Rawls identified this defect and developed a remedy. He held that everyone should have a fair chance to become the most qualified in the pursuit of advantageous jobs and positions. For Rawls, individuals have a fair chance when those with the same native talent and ambition have the same chance of success in pursuit of advantageous jobs and positions. The shift from Napoleon’s idea of “careers open to talents” to the Rawlsian idea of “fair equality of opportunity” is an important and momentous one, but further work is required if we are to take this expanded idea of fair chances and to see what it means for the contemporary left.

Regarding this expanded idea of fair equality of opportunity, and considering its relevance for the public policy of training and education in contemporary societies, we would like to make three points.

Firstly, when shifting from theory to policy, it needs to be borne in mind that the process of identifying individuals’ native talent levels may be highly difficult, expensive and may involve stigmatizing or invasive interactions with them.

Secondly, we need to have a keen awareness of the ways in which socialisation and social class shape our ambitions even in the early stages of life and especially with regard to our attitude towards future education. Without an educational baseline from which people have fair opportunities to form their later ambitions, inequalities in, for example, who applies to university in the first place, may be wrongly judged to be consistent with equality of opportunity in its Rawlsian form.

Thirdly, there are problems for the transition from theory to policy generated by the fact that Rawls framed his principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity in terms of the relationship between social background and a single occupational ‘destination’ for each citizen. This model assumes that this is just a ‘one-off’ process, and that individuals stay in one place within the occupational structure. In today’s fast-moving economy, where the structure of work is likely to change rapidly, especially with the rapid development of labour-replacing automation, this model isn’t good enough. We need instead to think about ongoing opportunities to upskill and retrain if we are to make sense of an idea of fair equality of opportunity that is fit to be used under current conditions.

For these reasons we argue that, if we take equality of opportunity seriously, it requires that everyone receives an adequate range of opportunities to develop their skills and ambitious throughout their lives. This would allow native talent to manifest itself with little difficulty and expense; it would allow knowledge of our talents that could help shape our ambition for employment, training and hobbies, especially at an early age; and it would make opportunities for education and training available throughout our lives.

From fair equality of opportunity to public policy: three implications

To ensure that all citizens receive an adequate range of opportunities to develop their skills and ambitious throughout their lives, we would encourage the left to propose the following requirements on policy when it comes to education and training:

(1) Early years education is especially important as it occurs when ambitious and tastes are forming, when our attitude to learning and education is established. This can greatly affect our ambitions as well as our knowledge of our talents and willingness to develop them. There is an important truth in the old Jesuit dictum: “give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” (or woman). Early education is of central importance in creating the opportunities that social justice demands. The focus on the early years education should not only be about giving children a solid foundation for later study, but also in disclosing and development their own knowledge and awareness of their developing abilities. Effective and fairly available nursery education is therefore a cornerstone for a just society.

(2) There is also a need for a broad curriculum throughout the stages of school-age education. Although we can anticipate that different individuals will have different talents and interests, we should provide everyone with a variety of types of academic and non-academic subjects, so that they can find out for themselves where their talents and enthusiasms lie. Different learning styles and speeds should be acknowledged. Streaming and segregation should be avoided since they reinforce problematic stereotypes about aptitude that are unhealthy and that prevent people taking their talent as far as they can. A broad curriculum would allow individuals to form their beliefs about their talents in a well-informed way, rather than being shepherded too quickly down particular well-worn tracks.

(3) Educational opportunities should not become restricted or unduly expensive after the age of 18. The state should be much more involved with adult education, and not only with regard to university education for the most academically able. In a world where people are living longer, and when the structure of the labour market is constantly changing, we need to support people throughout their lives, rather than simply being concerned with their move from school to a single ‘destination’ in the labour market. Citizens need to be able to specialise in certain skills at particular points in their lives, but also to reassess and re-specialise when and if necessary. By making this sort of robust education available throughout the life course we more evenly spread opportunities for fulfilment through work and leisure and we address the disadvantages of those who lack the time, money or confidence to develop their skills, whether they are unemployed or in work.

The Labour Party’s Vision of a National Education Service

UK education and training policy has for generations been deficient in many ways. For example, both early-years and university education are more expensive in the UK than they are in societies such as Denmark, Germany or Sweden, and so a more just system in the UK could begin by emulating what is best in the German and Nordic examples. Nevertheless, despite the fact that current UK policy lags so far behind many comparable advanced industrial countries, the current education and training policies developed by the British Labour Party represent a new frontier in how a social democratic party can think about lifetime education. At the time of writing (6 June 2017) we are in the final days of the 2017 General Election campaign, and it seems unlikely that Labour will have the opportunity to form Britain’s next government. Nevertheless, the current manifesto idea of a National Education Service, on the model of Britain’s comprehensive and much-loved National Health Service, is a beacon of an idea which will need to be revisited and further developed as the left, in Britain and elsewhere, thinks through what would be involved in a genuinely radical and ambitious social democratic plan for new institutions for lifelong learning and development.

Here is the vision for the National Education Service, as adumbrated in the 2017 Labour Manifesto. It is a plan that should be widely influential for future thinking about education on the left in the years to come:

“At a time when working lives and the skills our economy needs are changing rapidly, governments have the responsibility to make lifelong learning a reality by giving everyone the opportunity to access education throughout their lives. To meet this responsibility, Labour will create a unified National Education Service (NES) for England to move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use. The NES will be built on the principle that ‘Every Child – and Adult – Matters’ and will incorporate all forms of education, from early years through to adult education. When the 1945 Labour government established the NHS, it created one of the central institutions of fairness of the 20th century. The NES will do the same for the 21st, giving people confidence and hope by making education a right, not a privilege.” (p. 34)

As with a national childcare service, a national lifelong education service should not be seen as a drain on public resources, but as a way for the state to make long-run investments in the most valuable resource that a country possesses: its people. It would short-circuit one of the most pernicious effects of inequality, as identified by the OECD, the catch-22 situation that stops the less affluent from making the investments in their own long-run skills and education that could improve their economic situation. But it would also communicate something profound and important to the people who would benefit from such opportunities: that this is a society of equals, where nobody is thrown onto the scrapheap because of the vagaries of unpredictable economic change, but where citizens are given the help that they need, when they need it, to face the future with optimism and self-respect.

Education Policy for Lifelong Opportunities

If we take seriously this expanded idea of equality of opportunity, what should be the implications for public policy? Centrally, the left needs a radical, lifelong education policy, extending the traditional focus on school-age and higher education to think more carefully about both pre-school and adult education.

We should:

(a) support calls for a free, universal nursery entitlements, as the best way to overcome background inequalities in life chances between children from different social backgrounds. Here, Labour’s pledge to invest in the improvement of early-years nursery provision, and to extend free childcare entitlements to 2 year-olds, is a strong policy response (even setting aside the welcome effects of good, accessible childcare provision in promoting greater gender equality). SureStart centres were one of the greatest achievements of the previous Labour government, creating institutions that did a great deal to level-up the opportunities of disadvantaged families. Their defunding by the Tories have led many to close; reversing this appalling process of defunding and closure will be a central task of any government committed to achieving real equality of opportunity.

(b) endorse well-funded, pluralistic secondary schooling, that looks to develop children’s capabilities whatever they may be, and does not restrict children’s choice of pathways for development. In particular, special efforts should be made to eradicate inequalities of race and class as they find expression in differential chances within the secondary schooling system, making sure in particular that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to progress from school to higher education. In this connection, Labour’s manifesto pledge to restore the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16-18 year olds from low- and middle-income backgrounds is especially welcome;

(c) urge further development of the core ideas on education from the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, developing plans for a National Education Service that serves citizens throughout their lives. The NES could be a central new institutional pillar of a more just society, standing in parallel alongside the NHS in supporting citizens from cradle-to-grave.

Equality of opportunity is an idea that those on the left see as a mere minimum, but which many on the centre and even on the right at least claim to endorse. But if the implications of this idea are followed through with seriousness, it should carry us towards the endorsement of a set of radical education policies that would transform the life chances of citizens, all the way from their early nursery years, and all the way through school, university, technical training and, where necessary, re-training, throughout the course of their lives.

Share This

Martin O’Neill (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a senior lecturer in the Politics department at the University of York. Liam Shields (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a lecturer in political theory working at the University of Manchester.