Improving equity and focusing on the most disadvantaged in education

OECD report gives pointers as to how to improve equity and quality in education systems.

Its not rocket science


Improving equity in student outcomes remains a critical challenge for every country in the OECD. Across OECD countries, almost one in every five students does not reach a basic minimum level of skills. In addition, students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are twice as likely to be low performers.  In the UK improving equity, access and social mobility, with an overarching focus on the most disadvantaged pupils,    are key drivers of  the education reforms. Even those countries with the lowest levels of inequity must still be concerned with gaps in outcomes that are not related to students’ motivation and capacity, while in other countries the inequities are so large as to pose a fundamental challenge to on-going security and prosperity.

A new OECD report, Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, provides a cogent analysis and many ideas for addressing these issues.  The report provides a blueprint for any country that wishes to make genuine progress in promoting equity while also improving quality.  These ideas are well grounded in the best available research evidence (though in some cases that evidence is not as strong as one would want, simply due to insufficient research on many important educational issues). Equity in education means that personal or social circumstances such as gender, ethnic origin or family background, are not obstacles to achieving educational potential (fairness) and that that all individuals reach at least a basic minimum level of skills (inclusion). In these education systems, the vast majority of students have the opportunity to attain high level skills, regardless of their own personal and socio-economic circumstances.

Its not rocket science. We know how to improve schools and there is much research out there from which to draw.  Leadership of course is key but this is more than having a good Head -important though that is- its about distributive coordinated leadership at all levels of the system . And the quality of teaching matters a lot.  Here is one passage from the report focusing on the need for high quality teachers and continuing professional development: ‘ Despite the large effect of teachers on student performance, disadvantaged schools are  not always staffed with the highest quality teachers. (Confirmed by research undertaken by the last UK Government) Policies must raise teacher quality for  disadvantaged schools and students by: providing targeted teacher education to ensure that  teachers receive the skills and knowledge they need for working in schools with  disadvantaged students; providing mentoring  programmes for novice teachers; developing  supportive working conditions to improve teacher effectiveness and increase teacher  retention; and develop adequate financial and career incentives to attract and retain high  quality teachers in disadvantaged schools.’

The larger issue is whether countries will have the will and skill to make these changes.  As outlined in  the 2008 book, ‘How to Change 5000 Schools’, by Professor Ben  Levin of  the  University of Toronto , knowing what to do is important but not enough.  In many cases we already know what to do, but we do not do it.  As a simple example, consider physical exercise and good eating habits.  Everyone knows these are essential to health, yet many people simply do not do them.  How much more difficult to make changes in a large and complex institution like a school system!

There are two aspects to effective implementation of the right changes according to Professor Levin.   The first is whether the will exists to make the changes.  In many cases the beneficiaries of the status quo will be vocal in opposing anything that they think might diminish the relative advantage of their children.  Less streaming is one good example of this situation, he says, often opposed by parents and teachers who benefit from a streamed system despite the strong evidence that this practice is, overall, a bad one.  There can be very difficult politics around making some of the changes that would actually benefit students.  These conflicts cannot be ignored; they must be faced directly.

Second, and just as important, according to Professor Levin  is whether systems have the capacity to bring real change about.  As the report notes, real improvement requires real changes in classroom practice.  These do not occur through issuing policy statements, developing new curricula, or even through changes in accountability and testing.  Changing people’s daily behaviour takes sustained and relentless attention to the way daily work is done.  This attention must extend over time and take into account everything the organization does.  Very few countries have this capacity.  Very few ministries of education have much capacity to lead and support school improvement.  Very few school leaders know how to do this work.

What Levin is saying is that there needs to be a fundamental change in culture and mind set. So, it follows that the structural changes that we are undertaking in this country ie more autonomous schools may be necessary but  are insufficient on their own   to deliver real change throughout the system. They are just part of the equation that can lead to systemic change. And high levels of inequality are related to worse overall outcomes, not just those lower on the distribution.  Big inequities in any education system really are a big deal according to Levin.(in Levins Ontario the three key  education goals are  better outcomes, reduced inequity,  and greater public  confidence)

Note. Interestingly New Zealand is regarded as a very successful education system having introduced  radical reforms but its system has problems with equity.,3746,en_2649_39263231_49477290_1_1_1_1,00.html



  1. “How much more difficult to make changes in a large and complex institution like a school system!”

    Good article, Patrick, and it’s crucial we take such a realistic view of the complexity and difficulty of change – especially long-term sustainable change that’s genuinely for the benefit of all pupils, and not just quick-fix changes to achieve short-term targets and a better standing in league tables, for example. The recent statements from our Chief Inspector regarding ‘inept’ headteachers and ‘no excuses for failure’ do not bode well. He appears to be a man in a hurry to make an ‘impact’.

    ” . . . parents and teachers who benefit from a streamed system despite the strong evidence that this practice is, overall, a bad one. There can be very difficult politics around making some of the changes that would actually benefit students.”

    Again, an excellent point – there are so many vested interests that resist or block the changes that ought to happen for the benefit of all.

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