Although the terms “equity” and “social justice” are often used together in phrases such as “equity and social justice”, and although these concepts are clearly related, I will confine my discussion to the concept of “equity”.
There are clear signs of a widespread belief that equity can indeed be achieved in education in South Africa if policy can be implemented better and become practice, and if everyone can intensify their efforts in this regard. This belief suggests that equity remains elusive in education in South Africa, despite the fact that innumerable policies have been developed that were assumed to be suitable for addressing some of the more urgent challenges, and enabling education to progress towards the goal of equity. Seemingly uncontested notions exist, among others the notion that equity can be operationally defined, and the idea that laws and policies can be used as levers to turn around a worrisome situation, such as an apparent lack of equity in education. Policymakers, in particular, seem to believe that goals, whose attainment can be measured quantitatively, can be set in regard to equity in education.
Some of the assumptions in regard to education and equity are questionable, and possibly even mistaken, and I will examine them in this article. I will argue that merely re-examining the causal relationship between policy and practice in regard to equity in education is not likely to bring equity within reach in education, or through education. Meaningful strides towards equity cannot be made before clarity has been achieved on the meaning and implications of equity. I will argue that a paradigm shift regarding equity needs to precede a rethinking of policy and practice.
I propose to develop my argument, which I expect to be eminently contestable, by
- Seeking to trace the origin and meaning of the concept of “equity”,
- Examining the apparent general confusion over terminology such as “equality”, “equity”, “redress”, “quality”, “affirmative action”, “(re)distributive justice”, and “social justice” in the educational policy, law and practice literature,
- Asking questions that could provoke answers that could illuminate the concept; these questions would relate to, among other things, points of departure when thinking about equity, for example
• “Is it an aim, a point of departure, or an outcome?”
• “Is it measurable, and is there a way in which to measure its achievement?”, and
• “Can people, through education, be brought to a place where they will recognise whether they are enjoying equity, or not?”, and
- Proposing that the ultimate meaning of equity is to remove what impairs people’s inherent human dignity and is therefore untenable, repugnant, and unconscionable in any social sphere (such as education). Although equity is hard to measure (if it can be measured at all), I will argue that it can be sensed when people believe that a previously abhorrent, unconscionable or untenable situation that affected the essence of their human dignity and existence or being negatively has been removed and that it is now possible for them to live their lives in dignity. A change in thinking, or a paradigm shift, needs to take place, where we come to the realisation that we cannot keep on pursuing numerical targets, which, in the final analysis, do not do much to prove that we have moved towards equity. In addition to following obviously needed educational strategies to eliminate inequities, we need to develop a coherent understanding of what would constitute equity in people’s minds, and to consider ways and means to make people aware of such a place, and move them towards it.
Equity plays itself out in, and must essentially be achieved in, the sphere of interaction and contact between people, and, as such, it is closely bound up with, among other things, people’s human dignity and social justice. If equity is to be employed to achieve equality, it should be remembered that absolute equality seems impossible, and is, in any case, statistically improbable, given the highly complex multiple sub-contexts from which people come. One should also remember that people do not have a right to equality per se, but rather that they are equal before the law, and that they have the right to equal protection and benefit of the law (Section 9(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa of 1996). I cannot provide definitive answers to questions such as “What is equity?”, “How does one achieve equity?”, and “How does one know that equity has been achieved?” I will, however, suggest ways that we can think differently about equity, in which we can get closer to a proper understanding of the concept.
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