The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Mel Greenwood

Equity is not equality — we must stop mixing the two

Does your school know the difference between equity and equality? Mel Greenwood discusses the benefits and importance of the two in the classroom.

If there are two virtues I see muddled often, they are equality and equity. To pinch a phrase made popular by WomenEd, equality ensures that we all have 'a seat at the table.' Equity ensures that it is the right seat (comfortable enough, big enough, sturdy enough.)

An assembly I have led several times explaining what equity is to five to 11-year-olds saw me using a picture of three children peeking over a fence at a baseball game. Each child was standing on a different-sized box to enable them to see.

Why they needed to stand on boxes aside probably tells another story about inequality. Each child had what they needed to watch the game successfully.

When visiting a turtle sanctuary in Sri Lanka, I was reminded of the difference between equality and equity again when witnessing the fantastic work the centre was doing.

All the turtles were treated equally — the centre’s volunteers wanted the best for everyone so that each turtle could live its best life — but some could not go back into the sea after they recovered because of injuries or disabilities.

Each turtle had an equal right to a great life, but some needed different resources to enable this flourishing life.

Why is it important that we do not mix the two?

We live in a beautifully diverse global community, regardless of geographical location.

We work in a diverse community regardless of where we work or our age group. Sometimes we will not even know how diverse our community is unless we spend time sharing stories and getting to know each other.

We know that children and adults withhold information for many reasons. We all need slightly different, sometimes vastly different, conditions to grow and thrive. 

When I started teaching, one of the schools I worked in encouraged staff to complete pupil profiles full of information bespoke to that child — more than just academic data but data about their likes, dislikes, character, hobbies, and such. 

Although they were a pain to complete and took an inordinate amount of time to finish, it was a wonderful way to build a picture demonstrating the diversity of the class community. Beyond this, I considered different resources and strategies I might need to employ to support that child and their diverse needs. 

All children were treated equally in my classroom but was I being as equitable as I could be in my practices?

The challenge

Sometimes it is hard to value equity in a classroom. 

Offering adaptations to the curriculum and resources to support individuals as they access the curriculum is commonplace. It tends to be accepted by children and young people, but it starts providing different resources and strategies to support behaviour.

This can be viewed as very unfair. Offering adaptations to ensure that a child with mobility issues in your class can access the environment is easy to accept but offering spaces for a child with a hidden disability to decompress or relax and conflict with other children, young people, or adults may ensue. 

Offering drop-down days that explore parts of history we do not study as part of the standard school curriculum may seem easy, but look at overhauling a curriculum, so it is less Eurocentric and more culturally relevant, and then you may find some roadblocks. 

But our children need us to consider how we can be equitable in our behaviour management practices, our support of neurodiversity, and our curriculum.

What is easy to consider, and where is a good place to start?

Dialogue. Open conversation. Start with the more minor things — we all should have access to yummy lunches and things that we like to eat to keep us fit and healthy, but in our school, we ask that you not bring in nut-based products.

Why may this be? This can lead to other conversations about inequality and inequity concerning food, healthcare, and the environment. 

Open a conversation after break time where, in Year 6, the boys and girls decided to play football separately. Talk about why this may be. Ask the question: is this always equitable?

Build on this conversation and talk about women and men in sports. Let the children and young people that you work with lead the discussions. 

As part of a school curriculum offer, map out spotlight weeks where you may learn, ask questions, and engage in rich conversation about different disabilities and how this relates to equity.

Talk about how, like plants, humans need slightly different conditions to thrive. Lead on to talking about neurodiversity and opening discussions about how we may require different resources or strategies to help us learn and succeed academically and in terms of behaviour.

If you are working in an environment that encourages self-paced learning or extension opportunities using apps like Century or Duolingo, or if you embrace the Modern Classrooms approach, ensure that you have conversations with your learners about why different learners are doing other things at different times.

Use yourself and other adults in the room or phase to talk about when you are learning, you may need different things at different times to access the learning and, help you progress and flourish as a learner.

Sometimes it is hard to value equity in a classroom.

It’s OK to be an introvert

Remember that we need different conditions to help us grow, thrive, and flourish. I recently talked to a colleague who was reflecting on their early practices as a student teacher.

We had a great conversation about questioning and concluded that it is OK if we don’t hear from everyone during class discussion or when we ask questions to be answered — not everyone reflects or grows as a learner in this way. 

This led us to talk about how it is OK to be an introvert in education, and it is OK that not all our learners are extroverts. I am now embracing my true self much more readily! 

Open conversations about your year group, phase, and school curriculum. Is it diverse? Does it ensure that there is equal representation of your learners? Can they see themselves represented in the curriculum? 

If the answer is no, are you, as a school, considering the value of equity? Are all children and young people in your care receiving a curriculum offer that enables them to grow, thrive and flourish?

This last example is a meaty one, and I understand there needs to be a big shift of thinking in senior leadership to achieve this, but could you enable dialogue to be opened? 

We live in a beautifully diverse global community, regardless of geographical location. May we embrace this fact, and may it support us in making decisions grounded in equality and equitable practices — let’s not mix the two.

Excellence in Pupil Development Award

The Excellence in Pupil Development Award offers a structured framework to evaluate and enrich your pastoral curriculum It supports you in developing pupil’s personal attributes and attitudes, such as self-confidence, resilience and self-discipline.

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