Economically unequal society, educationally unequal society

by | Apr 27, 2018 | Global inequalities | 0 comments

by Beatrice White

An unequal society implies an imbalanced society, one that can be imbalanced in a number of ways.

It is common knowledge that an unequal society refers to one that suffers from economic inequality. Horrifying statistics are regularly published regarding wealth distribution in our world today. You may be amazed to discover that Oxfam recently calculated that ‘the richest 8 people on the planet owned as much as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity’. This actually equates to the richest 1% of our population owning more wealth than the rest of our whole world combined! This disparity in wealth does not look to be getting any better as the gap between the world’s richest and poorest continues to be on the rise. Oxfam actually discovered that ‘7 out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is worse than thirty years ago’.

We can look even deeper into the problem of economic inequality and assess its relationship with social inequalities. Multiple questions surround this topic… How does economic inequality impact on social conditions and opportunities, and how much of an impact does it have? … More specifically, does it directly affect educational achievement, reproducing class inequalities? We can look at this on both national and international scales.

I believe that education is the key to social mobility and I think it is an important component in the fight towards equality. It is a potential tool for empowering people, increasing earnings, reducing crime and improving health outcomes. Within the UK, evidence suggests that differences in economic capital can have a direct effect on a student’s educational performance due to a number of reasons. Reay (2004) noted that there is an increasing pressure for parents to become ‘educational consumers’. Middle-class parents can exercise their economic capital to provide their children with an advantage. They can afford to move into the catchment areas of ‘desirable’ schools as well as pay for tutors to help their children pass the relevant entrance exams for selective schools. Self-exclusion is also possible, with some family’s being wealthy enough to buy privilege through education and send their children to fee-paying, private schools. If we go by the idea that a good education positively correlates to social mobility, these examples illustrate the cycle of inequality reproduction our society so easily falls into. Reardon (2011) goes on to argue that as the income gap is widening between the rich and the poor, the achievement gap is doing so also. To be more specific, the educational achievement gap among children born in 2001 is actually 30-40% wider than between children born 25 years earlier.

We can look further into the effect income inequality has on educational achievement on an international scale. Wilkinson and Pickett (2010) conducted lots of research into the field of income inequality and its effects on social issues. Using data from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), which assess’ 15-year olds in schools in different countries using standardized tests on reading, mathematics, and science, they concluded that countries which were more unequal actually had worse educational attainment. In fact, some of the best performers in the 2015 PISA assessment were Estonia and Hong Kong, which also possessed the highest levels of equity. Again, Wilkinson and Pickett found similar results when comparing the 50 states of the USA. What does this suggest? That in fact, more developed societies which are thought to be more committed to providing everyone with an education, are actually those which are most economically unequal and therefore those achieving lower educational scores. Why is this? Save the Children provide some interesting insights as to why this might be. They argued underprivileged children were provided with a lack of confidence when they are taught beside children from higher economic backgrounds who possess a sense of ‘entitlement’, resulting in pupils comparing their relative status with their peers. This can often limit ambition and lessen feelings of self-worth. In addition, the quality of social relationships in unequal, hierarchical societies tends to be lower, which can have an effect on intimate relationships, family life and early social development, which critical impacts on development in later life. These examples briefly explain why unequal societies with unequal classrooms result in achieving a lower average of grades due to confidence and development issues.

We are aware that we face a global problem regarding income inequality and its effects on educational performance, so the question we must ask is what are we going to do about it?


Reardon, S. F. (2011). Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.
Reay, D. (2004). Education and cultural capital: the implications of changing trends in education policies. London: Routledge.
Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: why greater equality makes stronger societies. New York: Bloomsbury Press.


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