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Equality of opportunity is a concept that has been used frequently in the sociology of education, and in particular in discussions of social class diﬀerences in education, although the key ideas are applicable in many other ﬁelds. In the sociology of education the focus has been on whether there are equal opportunities for children with the same measured ability, or from diﬀerent social class backgrounds in gaining access to higher or more privileged institutions such as grammar schools or universities. The concept could be applied equally well, however, to the unequal opportunities faced by boys and girls, or by members of diﬀerent ethnic minorities, and it could be applied to questions of access to other institutions, such as the professions or the legislature. There are two main versions of the concept: a narrower sense of equal treatment in the competition for access for people with the same relevant abilities, and a broader sense of equal rates of access for people with diﬀerent ascribed characteristics.
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The narrower version of the concept has strong normative connotations. Equality of opportunity has frequently been taken to be a normative ideal in education and in liberal-democratic societies generally. A motion submitted to the British Trade Union Congress in 1896, for example, urged that ‘our education system should be completely remodeled on such a basis as to secure the democratic principle of equality of opportunity’ (quoted in Silver 1973, p. 11). Equality of opportunity has often been contrasted with other possible conceptions of social justice, such as equality of outcome, which would typically be associated with a socialist rather than a liberal democratic social order.
As a normative ideal, equality of opportunity can be seen as a special case of the notion of fairness—that people with the same relevant traits or competencies should be treated in the same way. In the particular context of education, equality of opportunity frequently has been taken to mean that people with equal academic aptitude or ability should be given equal access to advantaged sectors of education. This was the dominant interpretation in the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century, exempliﬁed by the work of Gray and Moshinsky (1938) in Britain. Similarly in America, Lloyd Warner and his colleagues wrote ‘we might speak of equality of educational opportunity if all children and young people exceeding a given level of intellectual ability were enabled to attend schools and colleges up to some speciﬁed level. This is the only practicable kind of equality of educational opportunity’ (Warner et al. 1946).
Historically, the term was used frequently in the context of access to grammar-school education in Britain: the fact that aﬄuent parents were able to secure fee-paying places at the prestigious grammar schools, places that were denied to equally able children of less aﬄuent parents, was taken to be manifestly inequality of opportunity. More generally, one can think of any discriminatory procedure for regulating access to advantaged institutions as constituting inequality of opportunity.
In this respect, inequality of opportunity also becomes an explanatory concept as well as a normative ideal. Thus, fee-paying becomes one possible explanation for the observed class diﬀerences in access to grammar schools. The inability to aﬀord fees is a possible mechanism that might explain why children of equal ability had unequal rates of access. (In practice, however, the abolition of fee-paying after World War II did not lead to a reduction in class inequalities, suggesting that fee-paying may not have had the explanatory role assumed by pre-war scholars; see Halsey et al. 1980.)
This explanatory sense of equality of opportunity implies a voluntaristic model of action where individuals are confronted with opportunities that they may choose whether or not to exercise. Inequality of educational opportunity implies that there are barriers, such as fee-paying or discriminatory selection procedures, which prevent some appropriately qualiﬁed individuals who wish to gain access from actually doing so. This interpretation lends itself to a rational choice account of educational decision-making, as in the work of Boudon (1974), and Erikson and Jonsson (1996).
However, in the post-war sociological literature, inequality of opportunity was used frequently as a synonym for, rather than an explanation of, class diﬀerences in access to privileged institutions. Thus, for example, the term ‘inequality of opportunity’ has been applied to any class diﬀerence in educational attainment regardless of the explanatory mechanism that might have generated that inequality. This approach has thus moved away from the earlier conception of equal opportunities for those with equal abilities, which would be consistent with some observed class diﬀerences in access, to a broader deﬁnition that ignores the unequal class distribution of measured ability.
The broadening of the concept in this way probably reﬂected a growing sociological distrust of the concept of IQ or measured ability. The broader interpretation could be justiﬁed on the grounds that the class distributions of ability and of preferences for education are themselves socially conditioned. This can therefore be thought of as a sociologically deterministic model.
More generally, the broader conception was congruent with the distinction between ascribed and achieved characteristics that became a focus of a great deal of post-war sociological research and theory. Discussions of inequality of opportunity could thus be integrated with mainstream sociological enquiry. Social class origin is an ascribed characteristic, and inequality of educational opportunity could be redeﬁned as the persistence of ascribed characteristics in inﬂuencing educational outcomes. While much broader than the earlier conceptions, this interpretation was still distinct from that of equality of outcome in that it was consistent with inequalities between individuals.
Whether this broader conception serves much useful purpose, however, is unclear. Once the focus on unequal treatment is removed, both the normative and the explanatory roles of the concept can be questioned. Moreover, since there is already an established distinction between ascribed and achieved characteristics, it is doubtful whether much is to be gained by broadening the concept so that it merely duplicates the notion of ascription. It may be better to preserve the original emphasis on equal treatment and to retain the concept as an explanatory rather than a purely descriptive one.
- Boudon R 1974 Education, Opportunity and Social Inequality: Changing Prospects in Western Societies. Wiley, New York
- Erikson R, Jonsson J O 1996 Can Education be Equalized? The Swedish Case in Comparative Perspective. Westview, Boulder, CO
- Gray J L, Moshinsky P 1938 Ability and opportunity in English education. In: Hogben L (ed.) Political Arithmetic: A Symposium of Population Studies. Allen & Unwin, London
- Halsey A H, Heath A F, Ridge J M 1980 Origins and Destinations: Family, Class, and Education in Modern Britain. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
- Silver H (ed.) 1973 Equal Opportunity in Education: A Reader in Social Class and Educational Opportunity. Methuen, London
- Warner W L, Havighurst R J, Loeb M B 1946 Who Shall be Educated? The Challenge of Unequal Opportunities. Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, London