What is Equity in Education and Why Does it Matter?
Levelling the playing field in your classroom should be the aim of every educator in 2021 and beyond.
If you’re an educator, you’ve almost certainly seen the above image. It succinctly defines and demonstrates the concept of equity: providing every individual with what they need so they experience the same opportunities as their peers.
In the wake of the global pandemic, equity in education has increasingly been at the forefront of discussions by educators, the government, special interest groups, and technology firms. In a 2020, report focusing on equity in STEM education laid out five key findings:
- There is a need for a more joined-up approach by Government to tackle the causes of inequity in STEM education
- Inequity cannot just be seen through the lens of gender, economic disadvantage or ethnicity
- Strengthening teaching will lead to positive outcomes for young people
- Wider access to good careers education has the potential to raise aspirations around STEM and reduce inequity
- Schools’ role in GCSE option selection is leading to inequity, especially in the most disadvantaged areas.
Students who are racialised, come from poorer socioeconomic households, have English as a second language, and/or have learning disabilities have historically been at a disadvantage at school. Although special education needs (SEN) and other support systems are in place in most schools and academy trusts, it’s an ongoing challenge to reach students who need more development support than the standard practices and curriculum have to offer.
Since most schools across the UK were forced to switch to remote or hybrid-learning models at some point during the lockdowns of 2020, many fear that the digital divide has been further exacerbated, creating an even deeper chasm between those who have access to an education that meets their needs and those who do not.
Now more than ever, equity is important. In this article, we’ll look at what it is, why it matters, and some strategies to promote it in the classroom.
What is Equity?
Equity is often referred to as “levelling the playing field”. As the image above shows, equity is achieved when each individual receives what they need to be on equal footing with others in the same environment. In the classroom, that might mean extra time, different supports, and unique resources for some students to achieve their learning goals.
The Glossary of Education Reform equates equity with fairness and points to many ways it can lead to inequality. “Inequities occur when biased or unfair policies, programmes, practices, or situations contribute to a lack of equality in educational performance, results, and outcomes.
For example, certain students, or groups of students, may attend school, complete A-levels, or enrol in postsecondary education at lower rates. They may perform comparatively poorly on exams due to a wide variety of factors, including inherent biases or flaws in exam designs.”
Providing equity in education requires honesty about inequality and a commitment to individuals with unique needs and those who are disadvantaged by systemic inequalities.
The impact of Covid-19 on secondary students illustrates why equity is important in education.
In their 2020 report, The impact of Covid-19 on student equity and inclusion: Supporting vulnerable students during school closures and reopenings, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that “more than 188 countries, encompassing around 91% of enrolled learners worldwide, closed their schools to try to contain the spread of the virus.”
The move to remote learning widened the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Despite the best efforts of school administrators, charities, and even commercial businesses, to get technology and internet access into the hands of every student, it’s simply not possible to ensure equity for all.
The OECD cites a study in the UK in which “teachers reported that 62% of “vulnerable students” and 58% of students with SEN were less engaged in remote learning than their classmates.”
These conditions may create a perfect storm of inequity. Some students have everything they need to excel; others do not. When the pandemic passes and all students go back to school, it is unlikely that the academic playing field will be level.
What are the Benefits of Equity in Education?
OECD studies show that when schools provide students with resources tailored to their individual needs, the entire classroom environment improves.
Other studies indicate that equity can strengthen students’ social-emotional development. Promoting and understanding diversity and providing opportunities to develop empathy means students of all backgrounds and abilities are more likely to extend to others compassion and kindness as children and adults.
Equity indirectly benefits everyone in the educational and broader community, too. Consider a student who, without support and resources in school, would be more likely to have chronic absenteeism and be less likely to complete secondary school and/or pursue a post-secondary pathway.
If that student gets what they need to achieve their academic goals, they have a higher chance at being a healthy, contributing member of their community, and society in general.
Classroom Strategies to Promote Equity
Although local authority, academy trust and school wide support systems and resources are ideal for ensuring equity, work can be done by educators at the classroom level as well. Ideas include:
- Providing a variety of ways to explore a topic and demonstrate knowledge: Rather than assigning a standard essay, consider a playlist, an infographic, a website, a speech, or a letter. Students can choose their preferred way to communicate.
- Varying expectations by learner: Some students may need more time to complete a test, accommodations (i.e. a laptop, earphones), or resources provided at a different reading level. The UK government collected resources to support students with special educational needs in the home learning environment.
- Creating an environment in which differences are accepted: Encourage students to discuss distinct needs with you; let them know you’re flexible and willing to help.
- Engaging with parents: When parents or guardians feel welcome and in touch with what’s happening in the classroom, the home-school connection is strong and supportive.
- Embracing diversity and inclusion: Highlight and incorporate issues of diversity and inclusivity. Here is an article from the Careers & Enterprise Company.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we are only as collectively strong as our most disadvantaged individuals. At the local authority, academy trust, school and classroom level, it’s increasingly important to acknowledge and address issues of equity.
In many ways, when one student succeeds, we all succeed.