The terms ‘equality’ and ‘equity’ feature prominently in discussions about accessible education. They are sometimes used as if they are interchangeable, but they actually mean very different things. If schools are aiming to prioritize accessible education, it is absolutely crucial to understand these differences. With this in mind, we have broken down the concepts of equality and equity below.
‘Equality’ can be broadly defined as: “the state of being equal to one another”. Generally, referencing equality within education, centers around ideas like equal access to resources and equal opportunities. This is usually perceived to be a desirable end goal, with all students receiving equal treatment from their teachers. However, as a concept, it has clear limitations too.
One problem with the desire for equal treatment and equal access to resources is that students live in different circumstances, which can actually necessitate a level of inequality in terms of treatment and support. In fact, as part of Scholastic’s Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education, 87% of teachers stated that some of their students face barriers to learning from outside of the educational environment. For example, if one student grows up in a low-income household, with limited access to technology and with special educational needs, while another student grows up in relative prosperity, without any special educational needs, treating the two students equally in terms of resources, support and funding are unlikely to produce a fair outcome.
On the other hand, ‘Equity’ is achieved by acknowledging the existence of unequal social systems and addressing those systems. The primary focus of an equity strategy is not so much to treat people equally but to treat people justly. This may require unequal treatment to overcome obstacles and individual circumstances.
The Race Matters Institute offers one of the best approaches to think about how equity can be achieved: “Strategies that produce equity must be targeted to address the unequal needs, conditions, and positions of people and communities that are created by institutional and structural barriers.”
Race, special educational needs, and poverty are all good examples of structural barriers, but they are not the only ones. Barriers exist in many forms, and teachers need to understand individual circumstances in order to allocate resources and provide support in accordance with what is needed to create a level playing field. To summarize, the concept of ‘equity’ is based on the idea of ‘fairness’.