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Cause for concern gives also the factor that any policy perspective will always have to operate along the lines of defining social groups. It may come

ISEC 2005

Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress
International Special Education Conference
Inclusion: Celebrating Diversity?

1st - 4th August 2005. Glasgow, Scotland
about the conference
Equality of Opportunity as a Rationale for Inclusive Education

Dr. Christian Liesen
Institute for Special Education – University of Zurich, Switzerland
Hirschengraben 48, CH-8001 Zurich

This paper seeks to discuss whether the principle of equality of opportunity could serve as a rationale for inclusive education. The first section aims at positioning the topic within the inclusive education discourse, narrowing down the scope. The second section presents a brief analysis of the notion of ‘equality of opportunity’ as well as some of its implications, while the third section addresses the question of how we are to know whether opportunities are equal. The last section seeks to draw some conclusions with respect to inclusive education. – It should be pointed out that the paper is solely meant for discussion.

1. The case for inclusive education: reasons and rationales

Many arguments have been brought forward to strengthen the case for inclusive education. Yet it is not always easy to follow the lines of reasoning, and little reflection is needed to notice certain contradictions and ambiguities and a good deal of eclecticism in the literature. The crux is, as Alan Dyson observed, that

(i)nclusion is different from many other fields of inquiry in that it is premised on an answer rather than a question. That ‘answer’, of course, is that inclusive education is superior in one or other way to non-inclusive education. The strength in this position is that it enables a relatively young field to define and advance itself in the face of considerable hostility. (…) The danger, however, is that it becomes all too easy for thinking on inclusion to descend from analysis to polemic, and for certain values and beliefs to become ossified, ultimately to the detriment of those marginalized groups on whose interests the inclusion movement claims to act. ( Dyson, 1999, p. 43f. )

Dyson has suggested to distinguish between two different but intersecting dimensions of the inclusive education movement: One is primarily concerned with providing a rationale for inclusion, whereas the other concentrates on the realisation of inclusion. Each dimension can again be subdivided into different discourses as follows. A rationale for inclusive education is either sought with reference to rights and social justice or by rigorously questioning the efficacy of special education (while claiming the superiority of inclusive education). The realisation of inclusion is frequently discussed either with respect to the political struggle for the implementation of inclusive education, or it is concerned with what inclusive education looks like inpractice (cf. Dyson, 1999, pp. 38-43 ). It is safe to say that these two dimensions / four discourses deliver a felicitous depiction of the inclusion debate’s crucial building blocks.

This paper is concerned with adumbrating the question whether equality of opportunity could serve as a rationale for inclusive education. It belongs, hence, in the context of the rights and social justice discourse. Concededly, the most important (and most interesting) question would actually be how the different building blocks interrelate, or ought to interact, in order to achieve progress in the field. Dyson does offer some very sensible and perspicacious suggestions on this (cf. ibid., pp. 44-48). The line of reasoning chosen here, by contrast, will allow only for a few rather cautious remarks in the final part of the paper. Proposed is the idea of merging, in a way, ethical considerations and empirical research in order to substantiate the case for inclusive education. As a consequence, some fundamental policy issues will emerge, alongside certain difficulties inherent to the rhetoric of inclusion.

2. Equality of opportunity

Let us shed, as a first step, some light on the principle of equality of opportunity. Peter Westen (1990) has presented an illuminating formal analysis. He states that opportunity

designates both a single concept and a multiplicity of conceptions. Each opportunity is like every other in that all opportunities reflect a certain formal relationship among agents, obstacles, and goals; but each opportunity also differs from other opportunities in that each is a relationship among particular agents, particular obstacles, and particular goals. ( Westen, 1990 , p. 171, italics added)

This may seem simple enough. Nevertheless, an important point with respect to the rhetoric of opportunity is already implied here: When opportunities are stated as a reason for, say, political action, speakers often do not specify the particular agents, obstacles, and/or goals they have in mind. Such a speech may still meet with approval although the underlying conceptions of speaker and listener may turn out to be radically different on closer examination. Rhetorical difficulties like these should be kept in mind.

Equal opportunities do not lead to equal outcomes. On the contrary, equal opportunities lead to inequality. There is sense in which a strong commitment to equality of opportunity is incompatible with equality of outcomes, and a society that aims at equalising opportunity is very different from a society that aims at equalising outcomes. The reason is that

(a)n ‘opportunity’ to attain a goal is a chance to attain a goal, not necessarily a guarantee of attaining it. Insofar as people have opportunities that are less than guarantees of what they wish, some of them will inevitably attain goals that others fail to attain. To create equal opportunity, therefore, is virtually always to allow people ‘to become unequal by competing against [their] fellows.’ (Westen, 1990, p. 176f.)

That equality of opportunity leads to inequality has some deeper implications. It can be argued that opportunities express and deliver a certain kind of liberty or freedom which is essential for society and which can not be achieved otherwise. Equality of opportunity is indispensable. T.D. Campbell enunciates the point as follows:

An opportunity may be said to occur when an agent is in a situation in which he may choose whether or not to perform some effortful act which is considered to be desirable in itself or as means to the attainment of some goal which is considered to be desirable. An opportunity is thus a type of liberty or freedom for it involves the absence of prohibitions or obstacles limiting what agents may or can do or acquire. […] (A)n opportunity is something which the agent may or may not take advantage of depending on whether or not he chooses to do so. One of the points about describing a situation as an opportunity is that this indicates that the outcome of the situation depends in part on the choices made by the person who has the opportunity. Opportunities can always be missed or passed up, neglected or rejected. Of course I may be forced to have an opportunity (as when I was compelled to go to school) but it is not an opportunity which I am forced to have if the attainment of the desired goal does not depend to some extent on my choices, that is, for instance, if whether or not I become educated as distinct from go to school, does not depend to some extent on my own volitions. If education as such could be compelled then we would not speak of educational opportunity, at least not in those cases where it is compelled. ( Campbell, 1975, p. 51/54, italics added )

It is true, of course, that not all opportunities are of particular concern to us. People do not care for all kinds of opportunities; they care first and foremost for educational and occupational opportunities. A ‘fair’ or ‘equal’ distribution of opportunities is relevant and vital especially in these domains. What comes into play here, then, is that equality of opportunity must be seen as a matter of distributive justice. A just society will usually seek to equalise opportunities in the sense of distributing them fair an equal. It is worth noticing, however, that opportunities can not be created or distributed at will. Westen notes that

creating one opportunity may mean denying another. Thus, whenever a society creates an opportunity by removing an obstacle that affects people differentially, it denies people the opportunity to benefit from the differential. And, whenever a society creates an opportunity by removing human obstacles, it denies people the opportunity to exploit those obstacles. This does not mean that societies should refrain from creating opportunities. It means, rather, that … the significant question for opportunity is not ‘Whether opportunity?’ but ‘Which opportunities?’ (Westen, 1990, p. 171)

Consequently and in most cases, with equality of opportunity as a rationale for inclusive education, apparently interests will have to be balanced. The interests of those who are excluded from participating effectively in society – of which the education system forms an essential part – will have to be weighed against the interests of those who are successful within such a framework and ‘benefit from the given differential’. A society will therefore have to deliberate about equalising opportunities, which is, ultimately, a democratic process (belonging to the realisation dimension).

It should be emphasized, however, that when a mismatch between a person’s situation and what may be called the dominant cooperative framework of society occurs, the results may be devastating. Being excluded from participating in the most basic interactions and cooperation of society strongly calls for compensation and adjustment. On this basic level, the interest in inclusion will by and large outweigh the interests of those who may be deprived of being as successful as they could be otherwise. If people are denied basic opportunities in this sense, they will normally be in the position of making strong claims in the cause of justice. But the question of particular interest is then, of course, ‘How do we know they are denied these opportunities?’, or more general, ‘How do we know whether opportunities are equal or not?’, e.g. in an education system.

3. How do we know when opportunities are equal?

We have seen so far that we should focus our attention on educational and occupational opportunities; that opportunities secure individual liberty and freedom and lead, consequently, to inequalities; and that equality of opportunity is a matter of distributive justice and may result in strong claims of justice in at least some cases. But on what grounds is it legitimate to judge whether opportunities are equal or not? How do we assess and evaluate equality of opportunity, especially with respect to inclusive education?

There is a substantive answer to this question. Any inquiry into whether opportunities in a given society are equal or not – or within parts of a society, such as the education system – will have to start from ascertainable inequalities under the prevailing circumstances. These inequalities will have to be sufficiently and adequately described in a way that most people would agree is accurate. (We will look at an example in a moment.)

The crucial point to be addressed will be whether or not the portrayed inequalities indicate that the principle of equality of opportunity has been violated. Onora O’Neill (1977) has argued that two different positions suggest themselves. One may be called the ‘formal’ (or ‘liberal’) position. It stresses that inequalities are due to the fact that people may choose to or refrain from taking advantage of the opportunities at hand. The members of society may be extremely unequal in educational and occupational attainment, but if so, it must be the result of the varying capacities, volitions, and desires of those to whom the respective selection procedures are applied. Once the distributive and selective procedures are fair, there is nothing left to complain about. As O’Neill points out,

(s)uch an ‘equal-opportunity society’ would … not be characterized by equal incomes or equal property holdings or equal standards of living or of education. (…) Equal opportunity in the formal sense does not ensure equal success or equal health or equal status, but only the fair application of the rules governing the pursuit of such goods. This is the equality of opportunity of … a society in which there are winners and losers, and in which winning appears often as merited by the winners and losing as deserved by the losers – for did they not all have equal opportunity to win? ( O'Neill, 1977 , p. 180)

The other position may be called the ‘substantive’ (or ‘egalitarian’) position. It stresses that inequalities must not indicate a disproportionate success of certain social groups in a society. Instead, all major social groups – but not all individuals – must fare equally well.

An equal-opportunity society on the substantive view is one in which the success rates of all major social groups are the same. (…) A strong commitment to substantive equality of opportunity demands that any under-representation of some group in some line of employment / income group / educational group be due solely to the unmanipulated choice of members of that group. (…) Substantively equal opportunity is achieved when the success rates of certain major social groups – such as the two sexes, various ethnic groups and perhaps various age groups – are equalized. It is not breached when there are large differences between the most- and least-successful members of these groups, provided that there are equally large differences between the most- and least-successful members of other major social groups. It is not true in a society which aims at substantively equal opportunities that all individuals have the same chance of any given type of success. For individuals are all members of many differently defined groups, and substantive equality of opportunity seeks only to equalize their chances qua members of certain major social groups; it seeks to eliminate inter-group differences, but not to alter intra-group ones. ( O'Neill, 1977 , p. 181-83)

This position is ready to acknowledge that people’s perspectives in life are not exclusively ascribable to a person’s capacities, volitions, and desires. As a matter of fact, there are disadvantages which are undeserved and beyond individual control, such as being disabled or of old age. The ‘substantive’ position is concerned with identifying adequate characteristics of major social groups to enable sound comparisons and call for compensation where needed.

To illustrate, a good example are some results from the PISA study (cf. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally standardised assessment that was jointly developed by the participating countries (30 OECD member states plus 13 associated countries in the first assessment in 2000; at least 58 countries will participate in the next assessment in 2006). PISA claims to assess “how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society.” The idea is to give information about the capacities and the potential of education systems. Does an education system prepare students well?

It is only recently that OECD has published some findings concerning equity and quality in the light of the PISA 2000 results. The report states that

(i)n sum, PISA 2000 results show that students in integrated education systems perform, on average, better than those in selective education systems, and that their educational performance is less dependent on their background. Many factors may be at play here. A higher average performance suggests that the more heterogeneous student groups or classes in integrated education systems could have a beneficial effect for the lower-performing students. Also, the flexibility offered by an integrated system may allow students to improve their performance while keeping their academic options open. ( OECD, 2005 , p. 89)

In the main findings section, the report reads:

A striking result was the advantage that comprehensive education systems appear to have in terms of student performance (quality). PISA 2000 results suggest that the performance of students enrolled in comprehensive education systems is less dependent on their socio-economic background. ( ibid., p. 94)

From the perspective of equality of opportunity, it is not so much the aspect of performance (‘quality’) that is of interest here but rather the aspect of uncoupling socio-economic background and performance (‘equity’). There are some countries – Germany is a sad example – in which the social background of a student has a very strong impact (‘predictive power’) on student performance. This means, to put the matter bluntly, that it is not a student’s capacity to perform that determines what he or she will achieve, but first and foremost his or her socio-economic background. The result is that students with a low social background are manifestly underrepresented on the higher levels of the education system.

The ‘liberal’ position has no option but to ascribe this situation to individual factors, say, motivation or ability. This is highly implausible, at least in the case of countries that have had to experience a rude awakening by PISA, such as Germany or Switzerland. ‘Substantive’ equality of opportunity, on the other hand, is precisely concerned with cases like these: Members of a major social group – i.e., students with a lower socio-economic background – are disadvantaged due to factors that are undeserved and beyond individual control, while other groups display disproportionate success. This does call for an equalisation of opportunities.

4. Equality of opportunity and inclusive education: some considerations

In the final part of this paper, I would like to draw some conclusions concerning equality of opportunity and inclusive education.

First, I think that equality of opportunity can serve as a rationale for inclusive education if and only if inclusion is understood in the sense of equity. This would mean to adopt the substantive view of equal opportunity, and will require to provide empirical evidence to show that a major social group of society is indeed undeservedly disadvantaged. It would also mean to suggest that some form of inclusive education is the right course of action to take.

Second, to provide a rationale for inclusive education is obviously very different from the realisation of inclusive education. It should be kept in mind that other interests will have to be allowed for as well and that there might be considerable opposition, even if the claims could compellingly be shown to be legitimate ones. This should not belie the fact, however, that being in the position to provide a rationale for inclusive education is very different from simply claiming that it is right. It is precisely because different and mutually incompatible interests are involved that arguments have to be provided (and there are some highly interesting contributions in this kind of spirit, for example Booth & Ainscow, 1998; Pijl, Meijer & Hegarty, 1997; Vitello & Mithaug, 1998 ).

Third, if this idea bears any validity at all, it has to be pointed out that the rhetoric of inclusion tends to disguise some fundamental points here, especially in relation to policy. For example, the rhetoric of ‘celebrating diversity’ tends to downplay the fact that different legitimate interests are involved and have to be balanced. Cause for concern gives also the factor that any policy perspective will always have to operate along the lines of defining social groups. It may come as a surprise that this is not only due to administrative reasons (cf. Dever, 1990 ) but is also demanded from an ethically informed perspective. There are no claims of distributive justice – and hence no rationale for inclusive education – without the construction of social groups. The talk of heterogeneity isn’t much help in these matters, the more so as it quite often blurs who is thought to be the target group of inclusion within the inclusive education discourse.

Fourth, it will be as unavoidable as it is fruitful to strive to merge ethical considerations and empirical research in some respect. The idea behind this is that an empirical basis is indispensable in order to substantiate claims, while at the same time ethical considerations are indispensable to provide a sensible interpretative framework for empirical findings and to draw sound conclusions. One main feature of these arguments, reasons and rationales is that they must be eligible to convince others on grounds they can not reasonably reject – to convincingly argue the case.

Fifth, there seems to be a broad consensus that inclusive education has to be conceptualised as a general education topic, not as another issue of special education. Equality of opportunity might help us to engross the implications of what this actually means. It might help us to see the big picture.

Sixth, it has to be pointed out that there is not one choice in these matters, but many. There is no unequivocal course of action to take. Dyson’s proposal to talk not of inclusion, but of inclusions, and to seek not a single form but a wide range of inclusive practice and organisation (1999, p. 46), deserves a good deal more of attention. Moreover, I think the field of special education should be very serious about Seamus Hegarty’s remark that inclusive education has to be about changing and modifying system in a way that preserves all its strengths (cf. Hegarty, 1998 , p. 156).


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WESTEN P. (1990) Speaking of Equality. An Analysis of the Rhetorical Force of Equality in Moral and Legal Discourse. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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