John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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Equality, equity and social justice

In the context of this debate the notion of equality before the law is extended to all dimensions of human interaction; nothing can supersede the fundamental criterion of common humanity. Diversity in education is all about recognising difference and respecting the individual irrespective of the nature of the difference and then working explicitly to secure inclusion and equity. Not only does the idea of equality apply to all aspects of life but it is rooted in the principle that:

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. (Rawls 1971 p3)

However it is argued that it is not enough to be equal. There also has to be parity in terms of the measureable outcomes of living in society it is not enough just to be equal:

. . . equity is not the same as equal opportunity. When practiced in the context of education, equity is focused on outcomes and results and is rooted in the recognition that because children have different needs and come from different circumstances, we cannot treat them all the same. (Noguera 2008 p. xxvii)

On this basis leadership for diversity would seem to imply the following criteria being the basis for life in community– irrespective of personal circumstances:

  1. A sense of self-worth: value, dignity and integrity.
  2. Equity and parity of esteem.
  3. A sense of the worth of others; empathy and sensitivity.
  4. A recognition and respect for difference.

In just the same way that it is now accepted as one of the key features of a modern democratic society that everybody is equal before the law and wealth; social position or influence should have no bearing on the legal process so it is argued that all the other elements of social life should work to the same principle. Social justice has to be impartial; just as the statue of Justice is depicted as being blind so social justice has to be rooted in fairness, nothing can compromise the essential parity which serves as the starting point for all social action. In essence it is not acceptable to have, for example, political equality if there is systemic poverty that diminishes and marginalises people and thereby inhibits or compromises social and economic equality. This raises the very challenging notion that in order to secure social justice it may be necessary to discriminate in favour of certain groups. This is Rawls’ concept of the difference principle – the idea that inequalities are acceptable only to the extent that they benefit the worst off. Equality and equity have to be balanced.

  1. Equality: every human being has an absolute and equal right to common dignity and parity of esteem and entitlement to access the benefits of society on equal terms
  2. Equity: every human being has a right to benefit from the outcomes of society on the basis of fairness and according to need
  3. Social justice: justice requires deliberate and specific intervention to secure equality and equity


Figure 1 Equality, equity and social justice

The implications of the model set out in Fig.1 are very simple. Social justice only exists in the extent to which the principle of equality is reflected in the actual concrete experience of all people found in any given social situation and that experience has to be measured in the extent of equity in outcomes. The more the two elements are integrated the greater the level of social justice i.e. in the diagram the more the two circles over lap the greater is the potential for social justice. This leads on to a further proposition – social justice requires the recognition and acceptance of diversity as a manifestation of equity and inclusion as a practical exemplification of equality.

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