Why schools and education systems need to focus on equity and inclusion

Education that doesn’t meet the needs of all learners imposes a high cost on society. Learners who do not fulfil their potential and leave school without suitable skills and knowledge are more likely to earn less than their peers. As adults they are less able to participate in, and benefit from, civic and other democratic aspects of modern life. For example, they may lack the confidence and skills to take on public positions or access support agencies. They are also more likely to suffer with poor health and wellbeing. They can find it more difficult to adapt to changing economic environments and crises and are at higher risk of unemployment. This in turn limits economic development and leads to additional burdens on public finances. These risks are even greater for vulnerable children and those who are at risk of disadvantage (OECD Equity and Quality in Education, 2012).

The project partners have had lengthy discussions as to whether to include a definition or a list of potential barriers that young people might face. However, it was felt that this would be too restrictive as definitions and barriers can differ from community to community, and the barriers themselves are not homogenous. Therefore, for the purposes of this project, reference to “disadvantage” or those “vulnerable to disadvantage” means that learners’ personal or social circumstances, (for example socio-economic status, special educational need, home environment, adverse childhood experiences) or the impact of discrimination (e.g. as a result of their gender, background or sexual identity, etc.), can be obstacles to achieving their full potential. As a result, these learners are more likely to perform less well than their peers at school. We know from experience that disparities in performance and wellbeing compared to their less disadvantaged peers develop early and widen throughout their lives (OECD Equity in Education, 2018). The examples provided above are for illustration purposes only as the framework is designed to be applied in a wide range of contexts.

High performing education systems recognise the benefits of addressing disparities in education outcomes experienced by those vulnerable to disadvantage; they recognise that equity and quality can go hand in hand (OECD, 2012). Equity in this sense does not mean that every child achieves the same, but more that their achievements are unrelated to their background, their identity or their economic or social circumstances (OECD, 2018). To achieve greater equity, education systems need to provide a rich range of learning opportunities and experiences to those vulnerable to disadvantage to compensate for missed developmental steps compared to their advantaged peers (OECD, 2018). While many countries have developed systems and approaches to reduce the disparity in outcomes experienced by vulnerable learners, no country can be said to have solved this problem entirely.

We also recognise that inspection and evaluation play a key role in stimulating local and national policy and in giving a ‘nudge’ to practice. The actions taken by policy makers and all stakeholders in education, including inspectorates, to address barriers and obstacles can have a significant and positive impact on enabling each child to maximise their learning potential. The impact of this on improving the quality of education means that, as adults, these learners have better health and employment prospects, which in turn leads to greater contributions to economies and democratic processes and more resilience in the face of economic crises (OECD, 2012).

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need to continue to embed the principle of equity within every education system. School closures tend to widen the gap between vulnerable pupils and their peers (EEF, 2020) and around 90% of learners across the world have been affected by school closures during the pandemic. Remote learning as a result of these closures has meant that access to a digital environment has become crucial for children’s development and their education. Although access to digital and online learning resources can help to mitigate against the loss in education caused by school closures, one can reasonably expect that unexpected school closures have hit disadvantaged learners the hardest, particularly those from the poorest households, and will take considerable time to address.

While limited digital access is a significant risk to the learning and wellbeing of learners vulnerable to disadvantage, parental involvement, the resources available and quality of their home learning environment are also crucial. Disadvantage for children from the poorest families is wider than digital poverty alone and schools and communities have supported these families by providing the basics of paper, pens and all the practical resources required to support learning at home. In some countries, families were also provided food parcels in recognition of the importance of nutrition to child development and education. For some families, daily access to outdoor space was also an issue, for example families living in flats with no immediate outside space. Parents/carers of disadvantaged learners may not have the confidence to support their children with their learning as well as those from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Vulnerable children, who thrive better with structure and routines, may find engaging in distant learning activities challenging. As well as the important safeguarding systems that schools provide, learners vulnerable to disadvantage also miss out on access to extra-curricular activities, the expertise and support of their teachers, and support for mental health and social-emotional skills. This in turn will potentially widen the gap in outcomes between vulnerable learners and their peers unless they and their families are given additional support (OECD, 2020).