Education occupies a unique position in relation to social inequality. It is not merely one aspect of the unequal distribution of material and cultural goods: education is also a critical factor in an individual’s life chances, so that educational inequality is inextricably associated with the intergenerational persistence of inequality in general. For this reason, equalisation of educational opportunity is seen as a necessary condition for achieving a more equal society. However, the association between educational and material advantage has proved remarkably durable, in spite of decades of educational expansion. This paper argues that, whilst concerns about educational inequality are justified, far-reaching reforms are required – including action to reduce material inequality directly – if education is to be effective in achieving social justice. The paper begins by outlining the evidence for persistent educational inequality, acknowledging the progress that has been made but indicating the limits of this progress and the ways in which broader social inequalities affect educational opportunity. It also briefly discusses the complex relationships between education and social mobility. The paper goes on to argue that educational expansion pursued in isolation from other policies to reduce inequality and social opportunity poses a twofold existential threat to the future of education in social democracies. First, by increasing social congestion it intensifies the decoupling of educational achievement from individual life chances, thereby increasing the direct effects of social background on social mobility. Second, this may exacerbate a state of legitimation crisis, in which disillusionment with the ability of education to underpin social progress becomes more widespread. Such trends are particularly serious in a time when some commentators predict pressures within capitalist production for the marginalisation or elimination of a liberally-educated workforce. The paper concludes by identifying specific areas of educational and social reform that are necessary to reduce these threats.
Event title11th Annual Bergen Educational Conversation: Meeting the Challenges of Existential Risks through Educational Innovation
Event typeConference
Conference number11
LocationBergen, NorwayShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational