Equality is associated with sameness, identity or likeness (i.e. complete, close or, at least, relevant similarity). On the one hand, equality can be interpreted as sameness or, at least, general likeness. But, on the other hand, it can also be interpreted more restrictively as equivalence (that is, the condition of being the same or alike in value: similarity limited at least to value). In this vein, ‘We are all equal’ can thus be taken to mean, ‘We are all the same’ as well as, ‘We may be the same or we may be different but none of us is superior to anyone else’ (Ruitenberg & Vokey, 2010). But note that, in these both views, equality is about relationships between people (Fourie, Schuppert & Wallimann-Helmer, 2015): this is ‘relational equality’ (Schemmel, 2011). However, the term ‘equality’ has been applied not only to individuals and groups including them (such as minorities or disabled people) and their relationships but also to the education provided to them. Brighouse and Swift (2008) equate the ‘principle’ of educational equality to the idea that everyone should have an equally good education, although they add that “it is not at all clear what it means to say this” (p. 445). In this case, equal distribution of education is at issue: this is ‘distributive equality’ (Schemmel, 2011). Of course, both conceptions of equality are likely to be connected. Why should everyone have an equally good education? The (sometimes taken-for-granted) answer to this question is this: because everyone is equal and education is considered to be key for him/her (also key for promoting equality itself).

If attention is focused on educational provision, some common conceptualisations might be highlighted (e.g. European Group for Research on Equity in Educational Systems, 2005; Morrison, 2008; Espinoza, 2007):

a). Equality of opportunity: all students, regardless of disadvantages associated with their backgrounds, are given similar chances proportional to their capacities at start for accessing education and advancing in it.

b). Equality of treatment: all students receive a common (high-quality) education (e.g. a common curriculum in a common institution with common resources).

c). Equality of outputs and outcomes: all students are guaranteed to succeed.

Interestingly, these forms of equality cannot get rid of inequality. Equality of opportunity is usually associated with inequality of treatment and outcomes as different capacities are taken for granted from the outset and these require commensurate treatment which is likely to lead to different outcomes. Equality of treatment virtually entails inequality of outcomes because some students are likely to need different conditions or more support than others in order to succeed, even although they are also likely benefit somewhat from a common high-quality education. By the same token, equal success requires special provision (e.g. different curricula, different resources, different supports, different assessments,…). Equity is a complex notion associated with equality (see Falcon y Tella, 2008) but it is often used to mean positive or affirmative action leading to these fairer, similar good results in spite of incurring inequalities: for instance, quality treatment is specific and appropriate to one’s conditions (e.g. needs) and, thus, different (not equal) to other quality treatments (e.g. Jenlink, 2009). In a few words, equity would be associated with fair differential distribution of equivalent education.

Questions on Equality for reflection

“…a single concrete example: a third-grade reading class in a small town, taught by a teacher whom I will call Ms. Higgins. Like all of us, Ms. Higgins believes in equal opportunity. Her problem -and ours- is what her belief in equal opportunity implies about the distribution of the main educational resources at her disposal, namely her time and attention. (…). I believe, but will not try to prove, that all the principled claims about how Ms. Higgins ought to allocate her time among her pupils recur in essentially the same form when we argue about how school principals, boards of education, or legislatures ought to allocate scarce resources. (…).

Before Ms. Higgins enters the classroom, she is likely to imagine that her commitment to equal opportunity implies that she should give every pupil equal time and attention. Once she starts teaching, however, she is likely to discover a number of principled reasons for deviating from this simple formula. Ms. Higgins's ruminations will, I think, eventually suggest at least five possibilities, to which I propose to attach the following labels:

1. Democratic equality. Democratic equality requires Ms. Higgins to give everyone equal time and attention, regardless of how well they read, how hard they try, how deprived they have been in the past, what they want, or how much they or others will benefit.

2. Moralistic justice. Moralistic justice requires Ms. Higgins to reward virtue and punish vice. In the classroom, virtue involves effort, and moralistic justice means rewarding those who make the most effort to learn whatever Ms. Higgins is trying to teach.

3. Weak humane justice. Since some students have gotten less than their proportionate share of advantages in the past, humane justice requires Ms. Higgins to compensate those students by giving them more than their proportionate share of her attention while they are in her classroom. But the "weak" variant of humane justice only requires Ms. Higgins to compensate those who have been shortchanged at home or in their earlier schooling, not those who have been shortchanged genetically.

4. Strong humane justice. This variant of humane justice requires Ms. Higgins to compensate those who have been shortchanged in any way in the past, including genetically. In practice, this means giving the most attention to the worst readers, regardless of the reasons for their illiteracy. 5. Utilitarianism. Most utilitarians assume that the best way to get individuals to do what we want is to make every activity, including education, a race for unequal rewards. Equal opportunity means that such races must be open to all, run on a level field, and judged solely on the basis of performance. Thus, insofar as Ms. Higgins's attention is a prize, it should go to the best readers.”

From: Jencks, C. (1988). Whom must we treat equally for educational opportunity to be equal? Ethics, 98(3), 518-533.

  1. Could you illustrate these approaches with your (past, present and/or future) work as a school leader?
  2. What pros and cons do you identify in each of these approaches?
  3. What differences, if any, do you find between ‘Ms. Higgins case’ (or similar ones) and school leadership cases?
  4. Could you identify one or more additional approaches to educational equality? Try and apply your newly approach/es to ‘Ms. Higgins case’ and/or your case/s relevant to school leadership.



Equality matters to education and schools. But what are the reasons behind the importance attributed to it? This question poses a slippery challenge if the issue is subjected to an in-depth examination, which is beyond the scope of this analysis. But, first of all, equality is important to education and schools because equality is important to us and the society in which live. In his No-nonsense guide to equality, (2012), Dorling has written: “Greater equality matters because under it more people are treated as being fully human” (p. 39).

There are however plenty of arguments for equality… and, also, against it (for instance, it promotes or, at least, does not avoid the so-called ‘leveling-down’, or worsening the better-off). Some of them are quite sophisticated. When equality has been considered to be valuable, its value has usually been considered to be either intrinsic or instrumental: respectively, equality is a central value to be valued in itself or, alternatively, is a means to another (more) valuable goods, goals or outcomes (Moss, 2014). Baker, Lynch, Cantillon and Walsh (2004) refer to a ‘basic equality’ which assumes that, at some very basic level, human beings have equal worth and importance, and are therefore equally worthy of certain opportunities, treatment and/or even outcomes, which also encompass educational ones. For instance, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child all children are entitled to the right to education and signing states need to make primary education compulsory and available free to them (article 28). Or The World Declaration on Education for All states in its article 3 (see also Smith, 2012, p. 11):

  1. Basic education should be provided to all children, youth and adults. To this end, basic education services of quality should be expanded and consistent measures must be taken to reduce disparities.

  2. For basic education to be equitable, all children, youth and adults must be given the opportunity to achieve and maintain an acceptable level of learning.


But educational equality is also considered to be instrumental. In a recent OECD report, it is asserted: “The evidence is conclusive: equity in education pays off” (p. 14). ‘Investing’ in educational equity brings benefits and these outweigh the costs for both individuals and societies, particularly when it goes hand-in-hand with quality. (Interestingly, equity is defined in it as ensuring that all students reach at least a basic minimum level of skills whilst taking into account personal or socio-economic circumstances, such as gender, ethnic origin or family background, and overcoming its negative influence.) Specifically, it is expected to benefit individuals but also a society as a whole, and benefits include social ones (e.g. better lifestyles and social cohesion) but also economic ones (e.g. individual productivity and employability and economic competitiveness).

Moreover, equality can also be valued relationally; that is, in relation to other values (Moss, 2015). In particular, equality and equity are linked with justice. Throughout history the concept of equality has intermingled with the concept of justice in different ways (Ruitenberg & Vokey, 2010). Equality has even been conceived of as virtually synonymous to justice for a long time: according to Aristotle, to be just is to be equal, and to be unjust is to be unequal (see, for instance, Westen, 1982). This conception still pervades the discourse on equality, equity and (social) justice in education: these terms are often used virtually as a whole or even interchangeably. A variant of this view is that equality is justice but the former does not exhaust the latter. Justice is beyond equality, which is nevertheless one of its constitutive dimensions and this justifies its value (e.g. Moss, 2015). But note that equality and equity are sometimes in conflict with justice and, in particular, educational justice (e.g. Brighouse & Swift, 2014). Nevertheless, equality is likely to be justified on grounds of justice. Equality is not likely to be supported if they are not just. Equity is sometimes used to refer just and fair equality (e.g. Espinoza, 2007; Gorard & Smith, 2010).

Role of Leadership

Manifold disparities are widespread and persistent. Schools cannot be isolated from them, but, quite to contrary, are significantly affected by them. As a consequence, there are educational opportunity gaps among an increasingly diverse student population, education quality differences and, consequently, disparate outcomes. Moreover, schools themselves may be contributing to maintain or even exacerbate these disparities. Lumby (2013) asserts that there are examples of indifference and active maintenance of existing inequalities (p. 31).This situation is a major challenge for educational systems but also for schools and, therefore, school leaders, who have an important part to play in tackling that challenge nevertheless, particularly by establishing conditions that support just equality and, thus, learning for all students (Leithwood & Riehl, 2005).

Specifically, leadership appears to have a special importance in schools facing difficult circumstances (e.g. those serving highly disadvantaged communities) (also Chapman & Harris, 2004). Although the challenges faced are likely to be greater, the characteristics of these schools, including enhanced leadership, are not radically different from other successful schools (Sammons & Bakkum, 2012). But school leaders in general (including those in schools in adverse conditions) need to be especially aware, sensitive and responsive to context (their closer micro-context but also broader contexts) (e.g. Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris & Hopkins, 2006; Clarke & O’Donoghue, 2016). As stated by MacBeath et al. (2007), it is clear that leadership matters but how it is expressed is a function of leaders but also of the context, especially in the case of those schools. At the same time, school leaders need, however, to take a critical stance to context in order to develop the critical perspective required to identify and examine practices supporting inequality and injustice and to strengthen the school’s willingness and ability to resist these (e.g. Leithwood & Riehl, 2005). Such a critical stance may be encouraged when analysing policies aiming at ‘managing’ inequities as well (Ward et al., 2015).

Lumby (2013) identifies three major approaches to leading for equality that leaders may adopt:

  • Redistribution: ensuring that available resources are reshaped to enable those who have less physical or social capital, or have greater need, receive sufficient additional help to enable them to make choices and be enabled to take part in society in ways that they value.

  • Recognition: recognising difference, insisting on respect for different values and cultures, ensuring that those likely to encounter negative responses or discrimination are particularly supported.

  • Participation: ensuring that members of the school community and, especially, students are equipped to take their place as citizens, to have a voice, to challenge societal assumptions and practice, the better to shape the future. This can be extended to other members

Participation is likely to include participation in leadership as well. And this is likely to mean that leadership is deployed by equals. There is evidence that, whilst challenging circumstances sometimes demand strong leadership in order to be effective (for instance at early critical times), sustained school improvement demands shared and collaborative leadership which includes teachers and, probably, also students or members of the community (Chapman, 2004; Harris, 2004). As foregrounded by MacBeath et al. (2007), “a ‘charismatic’ or ‘heroic’ headteacher may, in certain circumstances, be needed but the risk is that the template for leadership can be drawn too narrowly, and may in the longer term prove counter-productive” (p. 138). Therefore, taking a broader view of leadership is essential when leading for just equality.

Suggestions and examples

  • Baker, J., Lynch, K., Cantillon, S. & Walsh, J. (2004). Equality: from theory to action. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (IN PARTICULAR, CHAPTERS 2 AND 8).
  • Haydon, G. (Ed.) (2010). Educational equality. London: Continuum.
  • Abu El‑Haj, T. R. (2006). Elusive justice: wrestling with difference and educational equity in everyday practice. New York: Routledge.
  • Heymann, J and Cassola, A. (Eds.) (2012). Lessons in educational equality: successful approaches to intractable problems around the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Castagno, A. E. (2008). Improving academic achievement, but at what cost? The demands of diversity and equity at Birch Middle School. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 11(1), 1-9.
  • EPNoSL Webinar 2013: Leading for equality in a changing Europe:
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-ORiYs9zsc
  • How do schools promote equity among students?
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiEKs01ZIho



  • Baker, J., Lynch, K., Cantillon, S. & Walsh, J. (2004). Equality: from theory to action. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Brighouse, H. & Swift, A. (2008). Putting educational equality in its place. Education Finance and Policy, 3(4), 444-446.
  • Brighouse, H. & Swift, A. (2014). The place of educational equality in educational justice. In K. Meyer (Ed.), Education, justice and the human good (pp. 14-33). London: Routledge.
  • Chapman, C. (2004). Leadership for improvement in urban and challenging contexts. London Review of Education, 2(2), 95-108.
  • Chapman, C. & Harris, A. (2004). Improving schools in difficult and challenging contexts: strategies for improvement. Educational Research, 46(3), 219-228.
  • Clarke, S. & O’Donoghue, T. (2016). School leadership in diverse contexts: picking up the thread through the labyrinth. In S. Clarke & T. O'Donoghue (Eds.), School leadership in diverse contexts (pp. 191-204). London: Routledge.
  • Dorling, D. (2012). The no-nonsense guide to equality. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications.
  • Espinoza, O. (2007). Solving the equity–equality conceptual dilemma: a new model for analysis of the educational process. Educational Research, 49(4), 343-363.
  • European Group for Research on Equity in Educational Systems (2005). Equity in European educational systems. Part 1: Devising indicators of equity in educational systems: why and how? European Educational Research Journal, 4(2) 1-27.
  • Falcon y Tella, M. J. (2008). Equity and law. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Fourie, C., Schuppert, F. & Wallimann-Helmer, I. (2015). The Nature and distinctiveness of social equality: an Introduction. In C. Fourie, F. Schuppert, & I. Wallimann-Helmer (Eds.), Social equality: on what it means to be equals (pp. 1-17). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gorard, S. & Smith, E. (with Greger, D. & Meuret, D.) (2010) Equity in education: an international comparison of pupil perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Harris, A. (2004). Successful leadership in schools facing challenging circumstances: no panaceas or promises. In J. H. Chrispeels (Ed.), Learning to lead together: the promise and challenge of sharing leadership (pp. 282-304). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Jenlink, P. M. (2009). The meaning of equity in creating and leading equitable schools: revitalizing a democratic principle. In P. M. Jenlink (Ed.), Equity issues for today’s educational leaders: meeting the challenge of creating equitable schools for all (pp. 13-32). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
  • Leithwood , K. , Day , C. , Sammons , P. , Harris , A. & Hopkins , D. (2006). Seven strong claims about successful school leadership. Nottingham: NCSL/DfES
  • Leithwood, K., Harris, A. & Strauss, T. (2010). Leading school turnaround: how successful leaders transform low-performing schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Leithwood, K. y Riehl, C. (2005). What do we already know about educational
  • leadership? In W. A. Firestone y C. Riehl (Eds.), A new agenda for research in educational leadership (pp. 12-27). New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Lumby, J. (2013). Leading for equality in a changing europe. In A. Kollias (Ed.), Critical factors in the discourse on school leadership from the perspective of equity and learning (pp. 30-34). European Policy Network on School Leadership (EPNoSL). Available at: http://www.schoolleadership.eu/portal/deliverable/critical-factors-discourse-school-leadership-perspective-equity-and-learning
  • MacBeath, J., Gray, J, Cullen, J., Frost, D., Steward, S. & Swaffield, S. (2007). Schools on the edge: responding to challenging circumstances. London: Paul Chapman.
  • Morrison, M. (2008). Leadership and learning: matters of social justice. Charlotte, NC: IAP.
  • Moss, J. (2014). Reassessing egalitarianism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Moss, J. (2015). How to value equality. Philosophy Compass, 10(3), 187–196.
  • OECD (2012). Equity and quality in education: supporting disadvantaged students and schools. Paris: OECD Publishing.
  • Ruitenberg, C. & Vokey, D. (2010). Equality and justice. In R. Bailey, D. Carr, R. Barrow, & C. McCarthy (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of philosophy of education (pp. 401-414). London: Sage.
  • Sammons, P. & Bakkum, L. (2012) Effective schools, equity and teacher effectiveness: a review of the literature. Profesorado: Revista de Currículum y
  • Formación del Profesorado, 15(3), 9–26. Available at: www.ugr.es/~recfpro/rev153ART2en.pdf
  • Schemmel, C. (2011). Distributive and relational equality. Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 11(2), 123-148.
  • Smith, E. (2012). Key issues in education and social justice. London: Sage.
  • Ward, S. C., Bagley, C., Lumby, J., Woods, P., Hamilton, T. & Roberts, A. (2015). School leadership for equity: lessons from the literature. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(4), 333-346.
  • Westen, P. (1983). The empty idea of equality. Harvard Law Review, 95(3), 537-596.