The world’s societies are facing ever-increasing social inequalities – this applies to various regions of the world, especially developing countries, much of Europe and countries that face the greatest inequality in society’s earnings (when, for example, 1% have wealth comparable to that of the rest of society). Inequalities affect all areas of life, the most important of which is probably education – the disparities that manifest themselves at the stage of early development are more difficult to overcome in later stages of life. It is therefore worth discussing why inequality in education is such a major social problem.
Definition and sources of social inequalities
To begin with, it is worth defining social inequality – it is the differences that occur between different classes and social groups. They can relate to the material situation, i.e. involve the financial situation of a particular individual or the whole family, and therefore translate into other aspects of life. It is this type of inequality that is most often talked about, as it is the most visible and sharpest. Inequalities appear in sectors such as education or health care – it is more difficult for less affluent people to obtain services at a better level, and they are often reserved for richer, better-off people or those living in more economically developed regions.
Many researchers and publicists argue that the various types of inequalities that can be observed in society are already created from the moment of a person’s birth – they make the genesis of social differences dependent on the standard of living of the family in which the child is born. There is no doubt that this argument is (at least partially) accurate – it is from the first moments of life and the process of upbringing and socialization of new members of society that the kind of people they will become depends. So here naturally appears a large field for the development of social differences, which only increase over time.
Differences in opportunities, as it is necessary to talk about them when discussing the formation of inequalities in the process of upbringing itself, significantly affect people’s further life and their functioning in society. However, it has happened more than once that, despite a harder start in life, it was possible to earn a social advancement by one’s own efforts – stories about such advancements abound, and one could put forward a theory that virtually every one of the world’s richest people either made such an advancement themselves, or was the beneficiary of a social/class leap made by parents or further ancestors.
As for Poland, studies conducted in 26 countries have shown that in our country the chances of “inheriting” higher education from parents are among the highest. This may be due to the social structure that has been shaped over the years under the influence of social advancement, which was observable on a large scale after the political transformation, among other things.
However, inequalities do not arise just by being born into a less affluent family – they are also caused by the impact of the environment in which a person lives and functions, the occurrence of social crises, broader demographic processes, the individual’s own actions and choices, etc. Thus, it is also possible to be born into a wealthy family, be raised well, and still experience inequality – a clash with different types of disparities can affect all individuals who, under the influence of an unexpected situation, find themselves in a reality shaped by problems of inequality.
Researcher Basil Bernstein also points to the linguistic aspect of inequality, which is undoubtedly also related to education. According to him, people belonging to the so-called “lower class” speak a poorer and simpler language, in contrast to the upper class, whose language is at a high level. According to the researcher, this affects the different perceptions of the world by these social classes and contributes to exacerbating inequality.
Education system as a field for deepening inequality
From the very beginning of attending schools at various stages – whether it is elementary school or high school – students by their behavior, the way they function on a collegiate level and even their language can betray whether they have been affected by any inequalities. This affects relationships with peers and possibly difficulties that arise over time with the assimilation of material. At the stage of schooling, therefore, the inequalities that affect students may worsen, as students with problems resulting from inequalities may fall “behind” in relation to other peers without learning difficulties. It is important, therefore, for schools to take care of bridging the gaps between their alumni, through material support provided in various forms, providing remedial and extra-curricular activities to catch up, and making available high-level psychological assistance, which can prove crucial in supporting students affected by inequality.
This raises the problem of underfunding of the education system and, above all, with the most important manifestation of this problem, namely low wages in education. It affects not only Poland, although it is very visible in our country. Both teachers and administrative staff, as well as all those who function in schools, earn too little. Very often (this is especially true of schools in smaller towns and villages, especially in less affluent areas) this manifests itself in a shortage of full-time staff, there is a problem with the availability of teachers and trained psychologists and school counselors. This alone can be a reason for the emergence of inequality.
Interestingly, a very important aspect to consider when analyzing inequalities occurring at school is the time children spend in kindergartens – this is pointed out by author Ewa Gabryelak, who mainly analyzes the differences between students coming from cities and those from rural areas. The researcher uses the example of data from the province of Lodz to illustrate that children coming from rural areas spend less time in kindergartens, which is related to the inequalities they face – the population living in rural areas may place a different value on education than those living in larger cities, or they may simply be less affluent, which affects the opportunities children have. The researcher also points out that increasing the availability of kindergartens for children living in rural areas significantly redresses the inequality. Children who spend more time in kindergarten develop in a more balanced way, learn many skills under the guidance of educators and socialize by making their first contacts with peers. Kindergarten is the place of first institutionalized learning, preparing children to enter further stages of education.
Impact of inequality in education on society
Education undeniably has the greatest impact on how a person develops and what skills and knowledge he or she acquires. So if there are inequalities in it, this will also affect how that person functions in society. What a person’s education process looks like has a fundamental impact on the acquisition of social skills and functioning in the larger community. In the case of inequality affecting an individual, or a group of individuals, the impact on society may be insignificant, while when inequality occurs on a larger scale, the impact on society will also increase.
People who are more educated tend to achieve higher social positions, work in professions related to the use of intellectual abilities, and consequently also earn higher incomes. If the course of a person’s education is affected by the inequalities affecting it, learning becomes more difficult and less accessible. This is reflected in the occupational structure and shape of the labor market, as can be seen in market studies published by many entities. Thus, going from the lowest educational levels, inequality affects the shape of society as a huge structure, in which the labor market is a very important element, shaping the economy of countries. In the case of greater disparities, their impact on the economic structure is negative, since too great a disparity between people with different positions and different incomes causes mutual social misunderstanding and the possibility of social conflicts and even the breakdown of society or its disintegration.
Inequalities that manifest themselves at the educational stage do not disappear with time – they are reflected, and often extended, in “adult life.” They influence how high the rates of poverty, homelessness, unemployment or illiteracy are. They also cause a broken and distorted picture of society, since the social structure also depends on how much equal opportunities and what experience and capital individuals have. The biggest role in reducing inequality is that of the state, which, through its individuals and bodies, can try to combat the disparities that occur in society – including by subsidizing less affluent areas, ensuring the quality of education and making the right decisions on equality and demographic policies. A huge role is also played by the schools themselves, where it is the educators who ensure that the level of teaching and the friendliness of the educational process is adequate.
- Dlugosz Piotr – Educational inequality as a social problem in post-transformation societies – Zeszyty pracy socjalnej 2017, 22, z. 2: 143-156
- Gabryelak Ewa – Areas of inequality in education and attempts to level them with the use of EU funds on the example of Lodz province – 2014.