What do you mean by social equality


Wulf Hopf

Prof. retired Dr. Wulf Hopf, born in Wildeshausen in 1944, was a professor at the Institute for Educational Science at the Georg-August University in Göttingen. Main focus of work and research: Social inequality and education; political socialization of children and young people, especially right-wing extremism. Most recently published: "From the equality of educational opportunities to educational justice for everyone - a farewell to the ideal of equality?", In: Meike S. Baader, Tatjana Freytag (Ed.): Education and Inequality in Germany. Wiesbaden 2017 (Springer VS), pp. 23-37.

Benjamin Edelstein

Dipl.-Pol. Benjamin Edelstein, born in 1983, is a doctoral scholarship holder from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and a research associate at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). His research focuses on school policy research and institutional analysis. He recently published: Edelstein, B. (2016): Stability and Change in School Structure from a Neo-institutionalist Perspective. Reflections on school policy under conditions of path dependency. In: B. Hermstein, N. Berkemeyer, V. Manitius (eds.): Institutional change in education. Facets, findings and criticism. Weinheim / Basel: Beltz Juventa, pp. 47-70.

Across the political spectrum there is agreement: all children and young people should have the same educational opportunities. But what exactly is meant by equal opportunities?

Young people demonstrate on June 21, 2017 in Jena with an umbrella with the inscription "Education for everyone!" for a better education system. (& copy dpa)

All children and young people should have the same opportunity to educate themselves and to achieve something professionally - this demand is in the programs of all parties, it is reminded us almost every day through newspaper articles, radio reports, talk shows and the like. Everyone should get the same chance - who would contradict that today? In spring 2017, it was important to 78% of Germans "that everyone, regardless of their social background, race or gender, has the same opportunities in terms of education and work." (Kantar Emnid 2017, p. 10). Even in comparison with other political priorities, equality of opportunity in education and work follows with 69% approval right after the even more highly valued material-economic objectives (e.g. securing pensions, reducing unemployment, price stability) (see Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach 2013, p. 13 f.). But what exactly is meant by equal opportunities? And to what extent is it realized in Germany?

What does equal opportunities mean - a few basics

Generally speaking, the principle of equal opportunities means that all citizens should have the same opportunity to make as much as possible of their lives. In all those areas and situations of social life in which coveted resources, positions or living conditions are scarce and therefore people compete for them, nobody should have an advantage or because of their social origin, their gender, their skin color, their religious affiliation or because of other personal characteristics To be in the wrong.

This demand is based on a very specific understanding of social justice: inequality between people is seen as just if the better off finds his advantage in one fair Competition - in a competition at the beginning of which all other participants also had a real chance of being among the winners (this is why one speaks of "equal starting opportunities"). A better position achieved in this way would not be arbitrary (such as earlier the privileges of a nobleman who was "lucky" to have been born in the right place), but rather "earned" through effort and performance and therefore legitimate. This principle is also valid Called the “meritocratic principle” and refers to the Latin word “meritum”, which translates as “merit” or “achievement.” In this respect, equality of opportunity is closely linked to another principle of justice: equity based on achievement.

These are all considerations in the realm of the Should (normative considerations). Whether the coveted resources, positions and living conditions indeed being achieved in fair performance competition among equals is another question that can only be clarified empirically.

Equal opportunities in education and work

The fact that everyone should have the same opportunities in education and work regardless of their social origin, race or gender, connects three very central cornerstones in the course of life:
  1. The origin from a family: At birth, certain conditions are simply given, on which children and adolescents have little or no influence. In addition to gender, origin from a certain social class and "descent" or ethnic affiliation, this also includes the religion and the region in which one grew up. These living conditions, which are "socially ascribed" at birth, are more or less unevenly distributed in society. According to the norm of equality for all people, it is considered unfair that the growing up of children and adolescents is determined by these differences: their education, their opportunities for contact with one another, their leisure activities, their health, well-being and nutrition, to name just a few.

  2. The education: The education system plays a key role in modern societies because it is the first and therefore probably the most important control point for the future social status of a person. Which professional positions, which income prospects, which degree of social security - in short, which standard of living - one can achieve in the course of life depends to a large extent on the level of education. Modern societies have a broadly diversified ("differentiated") education system with various educational programs that open up very different opportunities for their graduates for further education and life. Therefore, there is also a wide range of inequality in education: The educational qualifications range - with learning times of different lengths - from the simple vocational qualification (secondary school qualification) to the doctorate ("Dr.").

  3. The professional activity: Once the initial training at school, vocational training or university has been completed, they start working, and the world of work is also characterized by great inequalities. Because the professions differ extremely in terms of income, job security, independence of work, prestige and stress. The professions in the well-paid, prestigious professional segments can be understood as scarce, coveted "goods". The simple jobs, on the other hand, often mean a life with financial restrictions and considerable stress (such as heavy physical work, monotonous work processes, night work and shift work). They are avoided if possible.
The "meritocratic principle" described above links these three cornerstones of the curriculum vitae in such a way that there is as little connection as possible between the unequal social conditions of origin and educational success (e.g. school grades, qualifications) and the closest possible relationship between educational success and the profession should. Then equality of opportunity in the sense of "fairness of performance" would be achieved.

What about equal opportunities in Germany?

Distribution of 15-year-old schoolchildren among the educational programs according to socio-economic status in 2012 ( Graphic for download) (& copy bpb)
The following example may illustrate how far the reality of contemporary education is from this ideal. The transition after elementary school to "secondary" school forms in Germany still represents a decisive switch for unequal educational qualifications and later entry into the profession. In the sense of "performance equality", it should take place independently of characteristics of social origin solely on the basis of performance. The extent to which this is actually the case can be assessed on the basis of the findings of the so-called IGLU examination from 2016. It recorded the performance of pupils at the end of elementary school with the help of two tests - one that provides information about general "cognitive abilities" and another that determines reading competence - and then checked the extent to which the transition recommendation for secondary school was made depended on the measured performance of the fourth graders. It was found that with the same cognitive skills and reading skills, children from the top layer ("upper class") had an almost four times higher chance than children of skilled workers to get a recommendation for high school (Hussmann et al. 2017, p. 244). [1] These numbers refer to the schoolrecommendation the teachers at the end of the four-year elementary school, not the actual one completed Transition to schools in lower secondary level I. However, data from the IQB country comparison from 2009 show a similarly strong influence of social origin on the actual transition: According to this, children of parents from the "upper service class" visited four and a half in the ninth grade with the same performance times as often a high school as children of skilled workers (Köller et al. 2009; p. 22). [2]

Equal opportunities in the sense of "fair performance" are obviously not given in the transition from primary school to secondary school; The strong bias in favor of children from the upper and middle classes makes it clear that a child's school career is also determined to a considerable extent by social factors that have less to do with performance.

School-leaving qualifications of German and foreign pupils ( Graphic for download) (& copy bpb)
In the discussion about equal opportunities it is extremely important to refer to the originto keep an eye on conditional inequalities. Because if you look at society as a whole, the prospects for a high level of education have become better and better over time. An example: In 1965, around 5% of 18-year-olds graduated from high school; fifty years later, in 2015, it was around 50% of the age group. Through the expansion of secondary schools and universities, their better regional accessibility, greater permeability between the school types, the establishment of alternative routes to higher education entrance qualification and other things, the chance of acquiring an Abitur has increased tenfold in this period. Between 1965 and 2015, the achievement of the Abitur has changed from a very rare event to an event that occurs with a 50:50 chance. In terms of society as a whole, one in two people today completes school with a high school diploma.

About the change in educational opportunities in the individual social groups - for example from children from the working class - this report of success says nothing, however, because the "societal value" conceals very different chances of success depending on the social class. The probability that an academic child will end their school career with the Abitur in 2015 is undoubtedly well over 50 percent, while that of a child of unskilled workers is considerably lower. In order to be able to obtain more meaningful information about the distribution of educational opportunities in society, one therefore needs information on the educational success of the various social groups to which the individual belongs. The picture here is clearly mixed: some of the children and young people recognized decades ago as disadvantaged are still there today: the children of members of the lower social classes (albeit to a lesser extent than 50 years ago) and children and young people from the countryside.

Graduations of male and female school leavers in 2014 ( Graphic for download) (& copy bpb)
In addition, there are large educational differences between the federal states in the federal German school system. For boys and girls, on the other hand, the educational inequalities have reversed: unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, boys are now at an educational disadvantage compared to girls. Since then, new disadvantages have emerged, especially of children and young people with a migration background (cf. Geißler 2008).