When Australians engage in debate about educational quality or equity, they often seem to accept that a country cannot achieve both at the same time.
Curriculum reforms intended to improve equity often fail to do so because they increase breadth or differentiation in offerings in a way that increases differences in quality. Further, these differences in quality often reflect differences in students’ social backgrounds because the ‘new’ offerings are typically taken up by relatively disadvantaged students who are not served well them. Evidence from New South Wales will be used to illustrate this point.
The need to improve the quality of education is well accepted across OECD and other countries as they seek to strengthen their human capital to underpin their modern, knowledge economies. Improved equity is also important for this purpose, since the demand for high-level skills is widespread and the opportunities for the low skilled are diminishing.
Improved equity in education is also important for social cohesion. There are countries in which the education system seems primarily to reproduce existing social arrangements, conferring privilege where it already exists and denying it where it does not. Even in countries where the diagnosis might be less extreme, the capacity of schooling to build social cohesion is often diminished by the way in which schools separate individuals and groups.