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Is Equality Past its Sell by Date?

April 5th, 2009

Equality and equality of opportunity slip off the tongue without a second thought.

But should they? Are they always the right words to use in education and in politics generally? Or are they sometimes mischief makers in the brain?

Look outside the world of education first.

We read of salaries and pensions in banking and public services. Any talk of equality there is quite ludicrous. Every day, shades of Animal Farm, we see more pigs at the trough. What makes people angry is not that those salaries are not equal to their own but that there is absolutely no fairness in them.

Then there is supposed to be ‘equality before the law’, but is there? Can there ever be when the individual is pitched against a multi-national company or insurance company or, in a tribunal, against the State itself? I am not sure that there is even fair play. But isn’t that the best you can hope for?

Translate the question into the world of health. Should taxpayers be prevented from topping up their NHS health care with medication deemed an unequal use of public funding by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence NICE? There’s a double euphemism for you. Maybe you think that in the name of equality that is right, but is it fair? You see there is a difference.

Translate it into the world of annuities and car insurance premiums. The latest European dictat says that that they should be calculated without reference to the fact that women have a longer life expectancy than men – visit any care home to see this with your own eyes – and that young men have a greater risk of being involved in an accident. This flies in the face of reality in the name of equality, but it certainly isn’t fair to men in the first instance and young women drivers in the second.

In education the bog-standard comprehensive school, outlawing streaming, turning polytechnics into universities and the closure of special schools all resulted from the pursuit of equality, trying to treat everyone in the same way, when they are different and have different needs.

When we talk about equality of opportunity we need to remember that one person’s opportunity can be another person’s roadblock. Apart from the question whether it was right to aim to get fifty per cent of school leavers into a university to get a degree pursuing the idea of equality of opportunity, what about the other fifty per cent?

People may have the same power source but they are wired differently. Accordingly, opportunities are different, and access to them should be based not on equality but on fair play in a very diverse world.

It is not even as though equality has a good provenance. Yes, racial equality. Yes, votes for all. But it provoked too much confrontation between haves and have-nots, too much revolutionary zeal in continental Europe. Too many unmarked graves.

In Britain and America fair play has been a much better, a more wholesome mantra.

Let me quote Henrietta Heald’s recent biography of William Armstrong13 that great 19th Century Northern scientist, engineer, inventor, benefactor, peer of the realm, who opposed the manipulation and regulation of labour in the quest for a more equal society, believing that individual ambition should be given a free rein within the law.

‘Struggle for superiority is the mainspring for progress. It is an instinct deeply rooted in our nature. … To what a dead level of mediocrity would our country sink if struggle for superiority were stamped out amongst us, and how completely would we fall back in the race of nations.”

The message that Michelle Obama, in London with Barack Obama for the G20 Meeting, delivered on her surprise visit to the girls of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School? “Be the best that you can be.”

I am sorry, but those girls are not going to end up equal.

Lip service to equality in the UK has done it no favours. It has meant not so much equality of opportunity as much as equality or opportunity, not so much the pursuit of excellence as knocking excellence and pursuing mediocrity.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of this has been in relation to special educational needs. In the name of an equal right to a mainstream school, children with special needs have been denied a right to go to a special school by closing over a hundred of them.

When politicians peddle the idea of equality, I urge the old legal maxim Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware - and opt for fair play instead; not a more equal society, a fairer one. That is a much, much better way of putting it.