International Council of Education Advisers: third report 2021-2023

This is the third formal report of the ICEA relating to their third two-year term (2021-2023) of work.

Strategic Area 7: Equity and excellence

We should remember that Scottish education is premised on the twin values of equity and excellence. Excellence refers to ensuring children and young people acquire a broad range of knowledge, skills and competencies at the highest possible levels. Scotland’s vision for education defines equity in education as “ensuring every child and young person has the same opportunity to succeed, no matter their background or shared protected characteristics, with a particular focus on closing the poverty related attainment gap.”

Over recent decades equity in education has become a key national goal around the world for school education. The OECD frequently advises governments to give equity similar high priority in education policies as they give to excellence. Equally, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) highlights the importance of education engaging with and serving the expectations and needs of all young people. The rationale for this advice is that a world-class education system is difficult to achieve without more targeted investments in equity of education. It is important that the Scottish Government will continue to emphasise the interrelationship of equity and excellence in its future education policies en route to a higher performing education system.

Equity in education is a multifaced concept that has no one simple definition that would work well for policy purposes. The fact that it has not been clearly defined in education policy documents and improvement plans, either in Scotland or anywhere else, has resulted in wide range of interpretations, often inadequate targets, weak monitoring, and also lack of accountability for prevalent inequities in the education system. For example, the National Improvement Framework (NIF) and improvement plan 2023 offers a very loose description for equity in conjunction with inclusion and wellbeing. A road to more equitable and sustainable education for all our children, requires a commonly agreed clear definition for what ‘equity in education’ means.

Equity in education is an elusive concept. It is interpreted in public policies and education plans in a variety of ways. Fairness, inclusion, social justice, non-discrimination, closing achievement gaps, and equal opportunity are examples of terms used variously in the context of educational equity. Despite being laudable principles, they do not provide an operational guide for what equity means in practice, how it should be assessed, and how progress in improving equity should be reported. Closing poverty-related attainment (or achievement) gap is just a part of better equity, significant inequities exist in other social groups other than those determined by students’ socio-economic status.

Equity and excellence are two sides of the same coin. Excellence can also be an elusive concept and all too easily reduced to performance metrics. Improvements in literacy and numeracy have been a strong focus in Scotland but the policy and professional agendas need to support all young people to engage with complexity across the curriculum. In pursuing the need for greater equity it remains vital that all young people are challenged and stretched in ways that encourage them to achieve highest possible standards.

Efforts to build more equitable education should start by clarifying what equity in education means. One way of defining equity is to include two distinct objectives that focus on education outcomes: Individual goal and social goal. It has regard to both the minimum levels of achievement expected for all students and the education achievements of students from different social groups. Within that dual goal framework, equity in education can be defined as follows:

  • Individual goal: All children achieve a minimum standard of education that enables them to fully participate in adult society in a way of their choosing. This means that all students should achieve at least a minimum level of education (completed secondary education) that gives them the capacity to function as independent adults and to participate effectively in society. It also means that all children have the right to high quality education that equips them with the knowledge, understanding, and skills to create their own meaning in the world, to choose their own path in society as adults and to take an active part in shaping the development of society.
  • Social goal: Children from different social groups achieve a similar level and range of outcomes. It means equality of outcomes by gender, class, race, ethnicity, and domicile. These groups of students should achieve similar average outcomes and a similar range of outcomes above the minimum standard.

Specific recommendations

1. The Scottish Government should define, in collaboration with key stakeholders, equity and excellence in education in coherent ways so that it would better serve improving policies and practices, sharpen the monitoring frameworks, and establish clear lines of accountability.

2. Collection of data needs to be upgraded to adequately assess the effectiveness of policy initiatives and progress in improving both equity and excellence in education.

3. Enhance reporting on progress in equity of education by including better measures of educational needs in and resourcing of different equity groups.



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