Differences in the Conception of Equality in Education


The principles of equality have been part of the most diverse political ideologies, currents of philosophical thought, and moral and religious beliefs especially in societies under the influence of western culture. Mostly the debate on equality is not about its importance or values as an irregular ideal, but about the meaning that people cast on the concept. Preferences regarding the different conceptions of equality have been closely intertwined with history; with the problems that each historical moment has posed to those who have been intent on either transforming or defending the status quo.

Conceptions about equality in education

Formal equality: this is a conception whereby; individuals perceive equality in liberal thinking, especially in its classical version. The origin of this concept goes back to efforts of dismantling the legally and politically sanctioned privileges of certain social groups. This notion is tied to the liberal notion of rights, which proclaims equal access of all children to education. Historically, the concept of equal rights has presupposed the notions of neutrality, impartiality, and universality in the content.

In many schools, the acceptance of the principle of formal equality has constituted a significant step forward on the road to the fulfillment of the ideal of equality. According to this principle, every child should have equal access to education regardless of race, age, color, sex, and religion, etc. this concept of formal equality in education was advocated after realizing that race, class, and gender were problematic issues concerning education access. The problem with formal equality is that economically disadvantaged children rarely have access to education due to their high dropouts in higher grades as reported by Kenneth (2003). Formal equality to education may lead to imbalances in the enjoyment of equal rights due to inequalities that exist in our societies such as poverty. Secondly, when extending equal treatment to a particular person or group may have discriminatory effects, on accounts of the situation of that person or group.

Real or material equality: this is a recent version of equality, which is proposed by inspired socialists and recently by certain strands of feminism. It focuses on the outcome of education. It deals with problems related to poverty; that is, with the situation of those children who lack the resources needed to enjoy the rights, goods, and services deemed necessary or appropriate to operate adequately in a certain community. For example, the constitution of Puerto Rico mandates the state to establish a system of public education, access to which will be free at the primary and secondary levels. This conception of equality is normally opposed by liberals due to its potential conflict with certain conceptions of liberty. (Michele, 2006)

Equality of opportunities: Since formal equality is a preferred formula for liberalism and real equality is the rallying cry of socialists, anarchists, and feminism. It is useful for certain purposes and supporters of progressive social policies. It is an argument in favor of equal rights, since inequality of rights leads to unequal opportunities, for instance, the students who are initially economically disadvantaged receive the least enriching educations and end up with fewer, less valuable, and historically deflating diplomas. This opposition may be misleading since it is difficult to distinguish between results and opportunities as virtualized by the concept of equality of opportunities.

Taking the case of equal access to education alarms the question of whether it is the condition that provides for a better opportunity or the policy aimed at the redistribution of services and resources. This concept behind equality for opportunity is under the Jeffersonian paradox whose proposal would not have eliminated social inequalities but would have allowed the best in every social class to reach the top. In the historical turn, the concept has been coop-ted by conservative thinkers of the post-welfare state as a way to oppose the several calls for affirmative action geared to address the persistent inequalities of today’s world. Equal access to education may not eliminate the detrimental effects of inequality, for example, a kid from a poor background is granted study to private school, but is daily rebuked by his/her classmates because of his/her social background, which results in high dropouts cases. (Michele, 2006)

Difference approach: it is a concept of equality whose proposition rests on the idea that there are differences among people and the best thing is to accept those differences for what they are. These differences arise due to biological e.g. race or social constructs e.g. roles given to different genders by society. It aims at; eliminating any disadvantage that real differences may entail such as a legal provision that requires people with disabilities to be accommodated to have access to education, place a positive value in differences. Within this concept, claims for the cultural self-determination made by indigenous and other ethnic groups are included i.e. the right to own their culture and language, or rights asserted by girls concerning the differential facts of pregnancy or motherhood. (Kenneth, 2003)


In conclusion, the problem of inequality in education is solved in a multi-dimensional or through a popular approach. It is necessary to eliminate legal barriers or other obstacles provide resources, protection, or services for equality to be enjoyed in schools and not to remain a promise made by a formal system of rules.


Kenneth, R. (2003), Equality of education Opportunity and the Criterion of Equal Educational Worth, Journal of studies in philosophy and education, vol 11 (329-337).

Michelle, F. (2005), Framing dropouts, New yolk, Suny press publishers.

Michele, S. (2006), Social welfare, the Neo-conservative Turn and Educational Opportunity: journal of philosophy of education, vol 38 (275-286).