Education Inequality: why we might be looking in the wrong place

di Young Think Tanker - 30 Aprile 2021

 from London, United Kingdom,



The role of education as a foundational part of – especially – Western societies has been widely recognized by academics (Ramirez et al., 1987). The possibilities that educational systems provide could be, in theory, immense. In this article, I’m firstly going to introduce the argument of what we define as education inequality. Secondly, we will look into the different theories concerning education inequality (especially, what do we want to equalize). To conclude, I’ll argue how education cannot represent the place where to look for answers, but instead, it needs to be considered as a useful tool. 

The importance of education 

Education is not just crucial for the nation-state, as argued in the past by Kant, because of its role in creating a moral framework for the individual (Bayrak, 2015). Also, as Freire argues, it’s necessary to think of it as an instrument to resist the powers of industrial civilization. As he argues in his literature, there needs to be a shift from understanding students as ‘banking educated’, blank accounts to be filled with whatever the teachers wanted to, to proactive students (Gadotti et al., 2009). He understands the reciprocity of the student-teacher relationship, which can be easily confronted with the co-construction of policy theory by Vaillancourt (Vaillancourt, 2009).

If we decided to use Sen’s capabilities approach, people must have proper education for them to properly enhance development and, therefore, progress (Sen, 1999). It enhances the students, moving them from being oppressed to being participants in the process of liberation (Freire,1972). Therefore, it seems obvious that education is necessary for the development of the person’s capabilities, active citizenship as well as the creation of a national identity. But there’s more to that. The approach could be to then just give everyone the ‘right amount’ of education to enhance the externalities that education provides. Unfortunately, we have to confront the problem of education inequality.

Different types of capital, different types of outcomes

The way in which we are introducing the concept of education inequality is using Bourdieu’s (1986) framework of capital. He argues that to properly understand inequalities in education, we need to address the causes. He identifies different types of capital, economic, social, and cultural. Ascribing the accumulation theory from economic theories, he understands the embodiment of capital as the primary enhancer for societal differences. The conversion of the social and the cultural capital – which might be described as the social network the person creates, formal and informal, and as the norms and the habitus of a certain culture – creates what we could call economic value. The phenomenon of continuous conversion and accumulation of capital creates, from his point of view, inequalities. Building on that, the conversion of cultural capital has been examined by Lareau (2015), trying to understand how the social origin influences students’ results.

But how do we analyze education inequality, or better, outcomes? Standardized tests seem to be one of the best ways to evaluate their progress, such as PISA tests. On one hand, these tests enable a comparative perspective on the world of education. On the other hand, the standardization of different educational models might cause the loss of important societal trajectories and factors and lead to a misrepresentation of the educational system. The lack of context could then create misplaced interventions, and then the inequalities might only exacerbate.

Education Equality

The main subsequent question is how we would try to achieve equality. Just focusing on the outcomes might depict some of the problems. The picture that standardized test results provide us is a picture in which girls have reached boys if not even they outperform them. This, unfortunately, is not reflected then on the job market. Thus, the tension relies on the misconception of equality as parity, which is a static concept. That’s why understanding education inequality as inequality of opportunity subsequently introducing concepts such as rights within education and rights through education is the right direction to address those inequalities (Subrahmanian, 2005). 

Jencks (1998) introduces us to the tension of how we should allocate the resources at our disposal to achieve equality of opportunity. In his view, our traditions influence the way in which we conceive equality and have practical consequences on the way in which our society reacts to it. Society is and will continue to be at the center of the debate while talking about education. 

Why we are looking in the wrong place

There’s a certain naiveté while we discuss educational policy. Most of the time we consider it a sort of panacea. But unfortunately, this is not the case. The relevance of outside factors exceeds the expectation of education policymaking because schools only account for a fraction of the variability of attainment between students (Exley, 2016). The socioeconomic conditions influence greatly the educational opportunities and thus the outcomes of students. Not taking into account that means trying not to consider the problem properly. However, the expectations we created on the educational system are not unjustified because they can still provide access to a better future. As seen in several contexts, the educational system plays a fundamental for social, economic, and cultural growth.

It may help social inclusion and foster upward social mobility, as it does for the middle class (Lareau, 2015). But it would be childish to expect education to solve all the societal problems (Ball, 2010). The effects of the environment in which people study are still extremely significant (Yang et al., 2014). By environment, we mean both the peers and the familiar background. They have the greatest influence, on both students and teachers as well (Banerjee et al., 2012)


To conclude, it can be said that education policy can foster, as said previously, personal and therefore societal growth. It can enhance possibilities that could be, from the personal perspective of the author, limitless. By saying that, we also need to sadly acknowledge how important the chance of being born in a certain context is. Bourdieu’s definition of social, cultural, and economic capital can help us improve policies that can equalize the opportunities of students, without considering where you’re born and the environment in which you live in. I acknowledge that this position is extremely relevant in countries in which access to education is already granted, but this doesn’t mean the debate itself is not relevant. Considering education as the unique factor risks not to shed a light on the key components of education inequality, or better argued in this paper, societal inequalities. 


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Autore dell’articolo*: Pietro Rabusin, expert in Social Policy of the think tank Trinità dei Monti. BSc in International Economics and Financial Markets at Università degli Studi di Trieste. Student of  MSc International Social and Public Policy at London School of Economics and Political Science


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