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Equality of opportunity in an unequal world

By Steven Schwartz - posted Monday, 5 June 2023

As Socrates discovered when he challenged the teachers' union of his time, education is political, and dissenters pay a heavy price. Education disputes are less lethal today. Rebels are no longer executed; it's only their careers that die.

Each day brings another skirmish in a seemingly endless education war. Some battles concern technical issues, such as how children can best learn to read. Other fights are about the content of the school curriculum. What should students learn about history, religion and culture? Teachers' unions mount campaigns against national assessments, while employers want more vocational training to prepare graduates for work. Conservatives worry that identity politics is destroying social cohesion, while progressive educators seek a curriculum that respects "difference." The most intractable quarrels are about money-who gets it, how much, and who decides how it is spent.

Whatever their backgrounds, when it comes to education, even sworn enemies believe that all children deserve an equal opportunity to receive a high-quality education. Who could disagree? There is just one problem. People have radically different ideas about what they mean by equal. Resolving their disputes is difficult because they are value clashes in which each side considers the other not only wrong but also immoral.


In the mind of many critics of education equality, private schooling represents the ultimate evil. In an article titled "If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person," Allison Benedikt calls parents who send their children to private schools "morally bankrupt." Alan Bennett, the author of the widely admired play, The History Boys, claims private education is "unfair" and "not Christian either." He says that "souls … are equal in the sight of God and thus deserving of … a level playing field." Omitting the part about God, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation takes a similar view. In a website purportedly designed to help parents decide whether to choose public or private schooling for their children, the ABC urged parents to eschew private education and "bring back some balance."

Ad hominem name-calling (bad, morally corrupt, not Christian) and vague allusions to "balance" obscure substantive issues. Instead of focussing on the character failings of the disputants, it is more illuminating to examine the logic and values underlying their rhetoric. Using the existence of private schools as a starting point, this article aims to clarify what the phrase "equal opportunity for education" means and how it may be achieved.

Some important facts

Debates about schooling are about values, and we are each entitled to our own. But only one set of facts exists. So, let's get those straight from the outset. Around one-third of Australian students are enrolled in non-government (independent and Catholic) schools. Critics of non-government schools commonly refer to them as "private," a label intended to make them sound exclusive and perhaps to imply that they are profit-making organisations. Because the term is widely used, this paper also refers to non-government schools as "private." However, it is essential to note that almost all of these schools are non-profit charitable institutions, and only a tiny number deserve to be called elite.

Critics often assume otherwise. They portray private schools as privileged and exclusive, their students the scions of wealthy families. This description applies to a small number of private schools and their students, but not the majority. The non-government sector includes schools catering to families of average income, remote indigenous schools, and schools for children with disabilities. Although "private," some of these schools do not charge tuition fees. Counting income from all sources (tuition fees, gifts, government subsidies), the resources available to the average independent or Catholic school are remarkably similar to those available to the average state school.

With these facts in mind, let's turn to the concept of equality. As applied to education, equality may mean one of four things:

(1). All schools should have the same financial, structural, and human resources, or


(2). All students have an identical chance of admission, or

(3). All schools produce equivalent learning outcomes, or

(4). All students have an equal opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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