Is education the answer to inequality?
DEBATES on South African inequality often resort to misleading silver bullets. Education is chief among them.
But as Murray Leibbrandt says, the intergenerational inequality that traps impoverished people and divides South Africa is the result of interwoven factors. He points out that the country’s inequality “results from the pernicious intersections between inequalities in access to education, health, income, employment, education and living conditions which work together to enable a few while trapping many.”
Leibbrandt’s call for policy prioritisation and policy choices within a coherent policy framework should be welcomed.
Education is regularly regarded as a panacea for addressing poverty and inequality, despite being bound up in the same reproductive processes caused by poverty and inequality.
There are three clear blind spots in this approach. First is a belief held widely by parents and policymakers around the world that education is essential for rupturing inequality.
But as Leibbrandt points out, of all the factors that make up South Africa’s lack of intergenerational mobility, the only one that changes from one generation to the next is years of schooling. In other words, most children post-apartheid are only better off than their parents in one respect: the number of years of schooling they complete.
Second, most educational researchers acknowledge and demonstrate that all aspects of low socio-economic status are linked to unequal educational outcomes. Yet many policymakers and economists continue to promote the belief that isolating a few variables within schools can make a big difference in counteracting low-quality schooling.
They continue to recommend in-school changes to fundamentally reduce inequality. These changes, which are regularly referred to as “binding constraints”, include teacher content knowledge, pedagogical skill, wasted learning time and institutional functionality.
This sort of policy approach pushes the socio-economic conditions that structure pupils’ lives and those of their families and communities into the background. But it is these conditions that reproduce social and economic relations in ways that limit our chances of ever improving equality of learning.
Singling out the role of quality education in changing economic outcomes naïvely places a structural problem on the shoulders of individual agents – parents, teachers and school principals.
Third, beyond an assumption that there are widespread skills shortages and that a supply of educated workers will create a demand for them, these approaches have no theory of job creation, income generation or how the labour market is structured and reproduced.
While we are strongly committed to improving the equality of educational outcomes, there are two problems with positioning education as the solution to inequality. First, as Leibbrandt points out, the factors are interwoven. Education cannot simply be “fixed” in a vacuum. Second, even if it were improved, this will not have a significant effect on labour market inequality in the absence of substantial structural reform in the economy and labour markets.
Poverty and inequality are the binding constraints on the ability of education system to improve and offer greater equality of educational opportunity and on the ways in which education can reduce income inequality.