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The role of education in the pursuit of equity and equality

Horace Mann says that education is the “great equalizer". However not all children in Ireland receive an equitable education required to achieve this equality. Aspects such as economic background, gender and culture greatly impact on a student’s experience of the school system. By understanding the barriers that exist in society, schools and teachers can build platforms to help students to overcome them. In this essay I will discuss this pursuit of equity and equality in the context of students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Impact of social background on education

© Koren Shadmi. Source:

In Ireland, poor educational performance can be linked to social background. Children from underprivileged backgrounds are born with an inborn disadvantage and, without this being addressed by the school, this educational inequality can perpetuate the cycle of disadvantage. A 2009 report examined the literacy rates of children at the end of primary school. They found that students with parents of professional working backgrounds had a considerably higher mean literacy score than students who came from households where neither parent was employed.

It is evident that these students need tailored educational support to address their individual needs and facilitate them in reaching the same level as their counterparts. The Education Act 1998 defines educational disadvantage as “the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools”. A classroom practicing equity can work to overcome this. By engaging with disadvantaged students, and providing the support they need to reach their full educational potential, it can ensure that no child is left behind.


Unequal access

UNICEF says that education is the way to end generational poverty and disease. However, it is often those that need it the most that struggle to engage with it. COVID-19 has highlighted the disparity in resources that schools and students have access to. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to lack the access to technology required to engage with online learning. These students often also rely heavily on the school environment for support services such as the School Meals Programme, homework clubs and after-school supports. As such, the closure of schools has a much greater impact on them than it does on students who are less reliant on school supports.

Access to resources is not shared equally amongst all students . Source:

Early school leavers

School supports can be vital in the prevention of early school leavers. Academic success is predicated on the accumulation of cultural capital, which comes from a person’s experience of the dominant culture. However, students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds can experience a difference between the cultures of school and home. Bordieu’s theory of social reproduction looks at the transmission of social inequality from one generation to the next. In this respect, early school leaving can be attributed to the educational achievements of parents. Children from middle-class families are expected to go on to higher education, and risk social demotion if they do not, while working-class students may negatively evaluate their chances of college success. To assist in combating this, UNICEF’s 2018 report card on Ireland recommend reducing the segregation of children from different family backgrounds in school.

By leaving school early, students are more likely remain socioeconomically disadvantaged, as early school leavers have much less access to employment opportunities than their counterparts: according to data from the CSO in 2019, students who drop out of school are three times as likely to be unemployed than the general population aged 18-24.

The DEIS is an integrated school strategy, established to create better opportunities for students at risk of disadvantage. The School Completion Programme is a key part of the DEIS plan 2017. It targets those at risk of early school leaving with tailor-made supports to suit their academic needs. A review of the programme found that, since the introduction of the DEIS and SCP, primary school non-attendance levels have declined and retention rates increased.

Documentary exploring the impact of the DEIS school model on students, teachers, families and communities.

Parental involvement

Education works best when students backgrounds are incorporated, and there is evidence that parental involvement can mitigate the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage. By partnering with parents, teachers can assist them in establishing home environments that support their children as students. Epstein’s framework emphasises the importance of being equitable in the provision of information to parents. Information should always be provided to all parents, not just those who can attend in person. Through engaging with parents, schools can gain a better understanding of a student’s context. This is important in order to help students navigate through the curriculum, as some will enter it at different points and move through it at varying speeds.


Creating an equitable classroom

Education is a primary vehicle through which children learn the values, skills and knowledge needed to function in society. Primary education is a formative time in a child’s development. As such, I believe it is important that schools and teachers play an active role in educating students to understand how they should be treated, and how they should treat others. Society in Ireland has an increasingly diverse population and it is important to instil students with open-minded attitudes. Students who are educated about equity and equality from a young age will take their learnings beyond the classroom, out into wider society.

The cycle of disadvantage is not inevitable. As teachers, we can choose to stop it by educating our students to become inclusive members of society and supporting their different educational needs. We can model an equality and equity culture within the classroom and school as a whole. Educational structures and systems can be too large be to be able to cater to every individual need. That is why I believe teachers need to be able to take what is in the framework and adjust it to ensure that it is equitable for all students. In striving for equity and equality in schools, teachers can contribute to creating a society where achievement is not a result of social or economic background.

Source: YouTube | Title: 'What is equity and why do our children deserve it?'


Reference list

Bates, C.G. (2010). The early republic and antebellum America : an encyclopedia of social, political, cultural, and economic history. Taylor & Francis Group.

Bourdieu, P., Jean Claude Passeron, Nice, R. and Thomas Burton Bottomore (2014). Reproduction in education, society, and culture. Los Angeles: Sage.

CSO, 2019. Educational Attainment Thematic Report. Available:

Department of Education and Skills (2017) DEIS Plan 2017: Delivering Equality of opportunity in schools. Available at:

Department of Education and Skills. School Completion Programme: Guidelines towards Best Practice. Available at [Accessed 11 Jun. 2020].

Education Act, 1998. Available at: [Accessed 11 Jun. 2020].

Epstein, J.L. and Karen Clark Salinas (2009). Partnering with Families and Communities A well-organized program of family and community partnerships yields many benefits for schools and their students. [online] pp.12–18. Available at:

Erikson, R., and J.O. Jonsson. 1996. Can education be equalized? The Swedish case in comparative perspective. Boulder: Westview Press.

Gilleece, L. (2015). Parental involvement and pupil reading achievement in Ireland: ‎Findings from PIRLS 2011. International Journal of Educational Research, 73, pp.23–36.

Smyth, E. and Esri, S. (2009). Investing in Education: Combating Educational Disadvantage. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Jun. 2020].

Smyth, E., Banks, J., Whelan, A., Darmody, M. and Mccoy, S. (2015). Review of the School Completion Programme RESEARCH SERIES NUMBER 44. [online] Available at:

‌Unicef (2000). Poverty reduction begins with children. New York: Unicef.

Unicef Ireland. (2018). Ireland among best at reducing educational inequality in EU/OECD but fears children most in need being left behind - UNICEF Report Card. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Jun. 2020].


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