Can Education reform cope with competing visions of fairness?

There has been some discussion recently about social mobility and parental school choice. This arose, in part, from a UK report on how to improve ‘fair access to the professions’.

The problem with almost all such reports and many such debates is that they assume we all agree on what counts as ‘fair’, that we know what ‘equal’ means. Furthermore, the very term ‘social mobility’ assumes we agree already about the nature of the social sphere, within which we move or stay put. Pointedly, we don’t agree. In reality, these words are the battleground of an ongoing cultural argument, which is illuminated, as I will show, by means of grid-group cultural theory.

Far from being settled, fairness and equality are ‘essentially contested concepts’. Their content and meaning may settle down for a period, but it is only a matter of time before they become unstable again and we argue fiercely about their meaning once more.

Much of the debate about education, especially in the UK, remains in captivity to a well-worn but dated class analysis whose key metrics are income levels and socio-economic group membership. This has been very worthwhile but is in need of augmentation from some other perspectives (race and gender certainly spring to mind). Here I’m concentrating on a complimentary analysis which can quite comfortably encompass and illuminate the more traditional approaches.

The conventional battle lines are drawn between those who really want equality (the left), and those who are only paying lip service to it (the right). But this obscures far more than it reveals. For grid-group cultural theory there are actually four conflicting types of equality, associated with four types of fairness. These correspond to the four cultural biases that the theory identifies. The theory, first expounded by anthropologist Mary Douglas (1982), has been summarised as follows:

‘The variability of an individual’s involvement in social life can be adequately captured by two dimensions of sociality: grid and group. Group refers to the extent to which an individual is incorporated into bounded units. The greater the incorporation, the more individual choice is subject to group determination. Grid denotes the degree to which an individual’s life is circumscribed by externally imposed prescriptions. The more binding and extensive the scope of the prescriptions, the less of life that is open to individual negotiation.’ (Thompson et al 1990: 5)

So, what kind of school system could possibly cope with all this deeply ingrained disagreement about opportunity and outcome? In brief, we need to consider not one system (‘comprehensive’ – expressly designed to provide for everyone), nor merely two (‘public’ vs ‘private’/’independent’), but four – and here they are:

Egalitarian schools

The ideal here is that whereas the pernicious influence of home and family has differentiated the students from one another from the outset, by the time they leave school they’ll all be the same (equality of outcome). Even if some distinctions are ineradicable, at least educationally, there’ll be no difference. There are two perfect ways of achieving this. The first is to ensure that in any measure of attainment, all do very badly. This is much easier to engineer than its opposite in which all do very well, and so, by default it is a much more achievable outcome. The second is to ensure, as far as possible, that students don’t take exams, or if they do, don’t pass them. Lest it sound overly cynical, note that this is indeed the majority outcome for students in the UK education system:

‘currently about 360,000 of the 660,000 16-year-old students a year do not achieve the minimum standards to stay on to study for A-Levels.’ (The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, 2009:31)

In terms of Egalitarian curriculum design, the main point is that everyone studies the same subjects. Strong arguments are mounted that ‘everyone should study maths to GCSE level’, for instance, and there is pressure for the compulsory curriculum to enlarge over time, thus marginalising elective subjects while at the same time seeming to cater for a wider range of learning for all.

The Egalitarian discourse asserts that it alone is motivated by a concern for fairness, and that all other approaches to social organisation are scarcely concerned with fairness. But this is a misrepresentation. What is actually at stake are conflicting understandings of fairness. There are three further cultural biases, all concerned with fairness but possessing very different views of how it is to be enacted.

Hierarchical schools

The ideal in this system is to ensure that whereas within the ranks all are equal (as in the egalitarian vision), there is nevertheless a clear distinction to be made between the ranks. For Hierarchists, social mobility of the kind assumed a virtue by Alan Milburn and parts of the Labour Government is actually a nightmare of anomie come true. What’s good about social mobility? It just makes those at the top nervous and everyone else restless. The ideal school system educates children for a pre-defined social location that will remain more or less fixed through life. While the grammar school system of entry by means of exam is nowadays seen as socially regressive, in its day it was quite progressive since it dared to make out that the key educational distinction should be made not by class but by academic ability.

The most ubiquitous hierarchical sorting in education is almost universally accepted by parents and educationalists alike: age cohorts. When justification is required, reference can be made to the development theories of Piaget and others, but it is quite possible to conceive of a system which did away with this ranking and adopted some other approach. Indeed in scarcely any sphere of social life is age so overdetermined as it is in education. Elsewhere, the opponents of Hierarchy call this organisational paradigm ageism. Moreover, the school along with the family is a key institution for establishing the supposed truism that adults should control children. The very few schools that question this even slightly are regarded as wildly eccentric and become the subjects of TV documentaries. Besides these distinctions of age, further distinctions can be made between those whose parents can afford or ‘choose’ to pay, and those who can’t: state schools vs private schools, or between those who can pass the 11 plus exam and those who can’t: grammar vs secondary/technical. But actually, the hierarchical scene is much more nuanced than that. There are, for instance, ‘top’ private schools such as Eton, and ‘minor’ private schools – and parents and many employers certainly know which is which. Then again, within each school there may be more or less hierarchy. Many or most comprehensive schools, for example are externally egalitarian, accepting local students whatever their circumstances, but then they sort them, more or less rigorously, into ability ‘sets’ or some other contrived ranking system. Further, irrespective of the actual choice available, many parents have an acute sense of hierarchical distinctions between schools. This derives not so much from a class analysis as from a cultural theory analysis: those looking for hierarchy will find it, and if it isn’t actually there, they will simply invent a set of distinctions that justify their choice of the ‘best’ school for their child. This tendency at least partly accounts for the way in which religious schools (or Welsh language schools) start out well-intentioned as being about religion (or language), but end up exacerbating Hierarchical social distinctions.

The Hierarchical curriculum focuses on those subjects that, while often ‘pointless’ in themselves, are clear markers of social position. So in private schools the classics and rowing are promoted while media studies and soccer are denigrated. In state schools it’s often the exact opposite (though an Egalitarian system actually chooses these subjects for their universality rather than for their social cachet). The point of such subjects is not what students learn but how it places them socially. In the ‘independent’ sector it is held to be very important that the State doesn’t control the curriculum – because part of what parents are paying for is the study subject as social marker.

Individualist schools

In this system, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. All that matters is how well you perform. And let’s be clear: students are not to be measured against their own internal improvement. What matters – all that matters – is how well they do against each other. Competition is the key driver of attainment. The basic principle is that the differences students have when they arrive at school, however great, are not great enough. We want winners and we want to make sure everyone knows who they are. On the face of it this is a recipe for disaster, since one might assume it also entails losers. But for Individualism that’s merely defeatist talk. After all, the niches are endless and everyone in the world can be best at something. A key task of education therefore is to help students find their unique and inalienable domain of success.

Individualist curriculum design aims therefore to provide as wide a variety of study opportunities as possible. In the ideal Individualist school each student’s study plan would be entirely unique. It would present no serious logistical problem, for example, if every student wanted to learn a different language or pursue a different sport. In practice, this takes some organising not to mention money, so the choice tends to narrow towards activities that are proxies for Individualism: offbeat or cutting edge subjects (‘programming for web2.0’ perhaps), or activities that are traditionally Individualist (team sports are out, squash and sailing are in). Further, the crucial pedagogical tool is the test or exam, in which every student is graded against every other. In contrast to the Hierarchical model, there are as many different social locations as there are individuals, and so aggregations such as social classes are meaningless.

Fatalist schools

The Fatalist approach to life views school as one of the many institutions you just have to put up with and get through as best you can. There’s no point in changing it because like the weather it can’t be changed. The rules of education are two-fold: keep your head down and get out as soon as possible. Writers on grid-group cultural theory have tended to assume that fatalism is something only the ‘victims’ subscribe to and that there isn’t really such a thing as Fatalist policymaking. I strongly disagree on this matter and view Fatalism as an important, though overlooked, policy approach. As Alain de Botton recently said, ‘It’s merely the randomness of the winning and losing process that I want to stress’. Fatalist policy goes a step further than this and deliberately embeds randomness in institutional processes. A Fatalist education system will do all it can to accentuate within the school grounds the random and capricious nature of the wider world outside the school. A successful school will provide an experience that is even more random and capricious than the world at large. To many students and former students this description may sound disturbingly familiar. In such a system rewards and punishments will be overt and arbitrary. Many outcomes will be engineered to result from ‘luck’ (Hood 1998 calls this ‘contrived randomness’) and a lottery mentality will prevail. The ongoing debate about the fairness of a school entrance lottery for popular schools (Turvey 2008) is a very good example of Fatalist activism in policy making.

A Fatalist curriculum is relatively unconcerned about its content, but views as ‘fairest’ a random allocation of subjects and teachers. Where this cannot be delivered explicitly, the same effect can be produced by means of arbitrary timetable clashes. A typical Fatalist justification is: ‘You can’t study biology because it clashes with geography’. Note the suspect causality of exclusion from the biology class and also note that this definitely won’t wash in an Individualist school.


What does this four-fold typology of education offer that others fail to provide?

Most importantly, the grid-group analysis presented here both encompasses and extends the typical dualist explanations of the class-based analysis, descriptively and normatively. What this alternative typology of education offers is a more nuanced set of descriptors for actually existing regimes and also a more nuanced suite of options for educational policy to pursue, should it so choose.

At first sight it seems clear that public education aspires to Egalitarianism and that private education aspires to Hierarchy. But only at first sight. On further reflection, it seems that excluded from this neat mapping is the Fatalist impulse, which is certainly alive and well in much of State education, but is no respector of the private/public divide. Also excluded is the Individualist vision of education, which thrives in the ‘independent’ sector and which clashes to some extent with the hierarchical organisation of the traditional public (read: private) schools. So private schools may be united in their anti-egalitarianism, but not necessarily united in much else. It would therefore be a mistake to lump all private schools together, as much as it is to lump all state schools together.

Clearly the four educational systems described here are ideal types and part of the purpose of describing them is to highlight that most, if not all, actually existing education regimes are constructed from a more or less unstable coalition of two or even three of the four types, while always maintaining at least one ‘enemy’ type, against which the purpose of education may be negatively defined. Instead of doing this unconsciously and therefore failing to understand our own motivations, grid group cultural theory allows us to be a bit more reflective about it, promoting this apparently ‘clumsy’ coalition maintenance as a virtue rather than a vice. Furthermore I would maintain that these four amount to the most parsimonious typology that can adequately describe the whole field. Those who argue that four is an arbitrary and excessive number must themselves answer the question of why a merely binary scheme (eg public/private) somehow isn’t arbitrary.

In debates over equality in education we would do well to recognise that there isn’t one single form of equality over which to converge or diverge. And therefore it makes little sense to depict the discussion as being between those who support equality and those who don’t . Given the four different forms of education outlined here it should be clear that success in educational reform also comes in four different varieties. What one cultural bias sees as progress will be seen by other cultural biases as regress. Importantly, these contrasts cut across the expected political configurations of left and right, and the standard organisational distinctions between public and private sectors.

Finally, the constrained pluralism implicit in Grid-Group cultural theory provides an argument for a continued commitment on the part of policy makers to a plurality of educational systems in a constantly renegotiated regime of co-existence, rather than just one system, on the one hand, or an entirely unmanageable ‘infinite variety’, on the other.


Douglas, M (1982) ‘Introduction to Group-Grid Analysis’ in Douglas, Mary (ed) Essays in the Sociology of Perception, (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul)

Hood, C (1998) The Art of the State: Culture, Rhetoric and Public Management (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (2009)Unleashing Aspiration. Summary and recommendations of the full report. Accessed at

Thomson, M, Ellis, R and Wildavsky, A, (1990) Cultural Theory (Boulder, Westview Press)

Turvey, K (2008) ‘The Loaded Die is CastThe Guardian )

One thought on “Can Education reform cope with competing visions of fairness?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s