equality of opportunity

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Related to equal opportunity: Equal opportunity employer, equal opportunity policy

equality of opportunity

the idea that all persons, regardless of class, age, race or gender, should have equal rights to compete for and attain sought-after positions in society. In the 20th century, the concept has played an important part in the search to achieve a more just, more equal and fair, distribution of society's wealth and benefits. It has been especially central in debates surrounding education.

In the 1944 Education Act in England and Wales, ‘equality of opportunity’ meant the right to equal access to a system of secondary education which enabled children to develop their natural abilities and talents, irrespective of class position. The 11+ examination was designed as an ‘objective’, and therefore fair, device to assess these abilities in order that children would be placed in the education best suited to their needs and aptitudes. Research conducted, in the late 1950s and after, in the UK and the US, suggested that such an outcome was not being obtained. This led to a re-evaluation of the definition of equality of opportunity Instead of an emphasis on ‘equality of access’ attention turned to the goal of achieving greater ‘equality of outcome’. The new task was to alter the pattern of educational provision to compensate for the existence of social disad vantages. During the late 1960s and early 1970s various educational policy reforms such as the wider introduction of COMPREHENSIVE EDUCATION (replacing selective schools in many areas), COMPENSATORY EDUCATION schemes, and ‘positive discrimination’ were introduced.

Both the sociological literature and wider public debate have focused on two major issues concerning equality of opportunity, in either its narrower or its wider sense:

  1. the extent to which it is socially desirable, feasible, realistic; and
  2. the extent to which particular educational innovations aimed at achieving increased equality of educational opportunity have been successful or unsuccessful. On the first count, some critics have argued that attempts to engineer equality of outcome conflict with individual freedom. Critics have also argued that educational chances have failed because differences in social background are too pronounced to be removed by educational reforms alone.
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