Education is often naively thought to be the holy grail of meritocracy. Observers from the outside view the system as a metaphorical social ladder, where all students start at the same point, and their final outcome is a function of only how far they are willing to climb. However, digging below the surface would leave these idealists sorely disillusioned. Underneath the facade of equal competition lies a reality where students are seen not as seeds to grow, but as investments to pump money into so that the rich can secure their status in the upper class. In today’s world, education is a perpetuator of, not a solution to social inequality.
In most societies around the world, financial capital from wealthy students’ parents gives them a massive leg-up in the educational rat race. This is because even though politicians who preach the value of education in tackling social inequality point to the equality of opportunity provided to students in school, what truly matters is the enrichment that students receive outside the classroom. In Singapore, for example, there is a bustling tuition industry, as parents scramble to find their children an elusive academic edge. In fact, the Straits Times reported that the average Singaporean parent spends $500 every month on tuition or enrichment classes outside of school. These tuition agencies promise excellent academic results, with some even guaranteeing an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade for their students – and they deliver. Such after school programs are also commonplace in other pressure cooker education systems such as South Korea. While $500 a month might seem like a worthy investment for more affluent parents, it forms a large proportion of poorer families’ household income, entailing a huge opportunity cost that less well-to-do parents simply cannot afford. From this, it is clear that education perpetuates income inequality, rather than enabling social mobility. Unless the education system is restructured in such a way that financial capital does not give students as much of an advantage, education is not and can never be a solution to social inequality.
Other than financial capital, students from higher social classes also advantaged by the cultural capital that many of their peers do not have access to. In a survey by the Institute of Policy Studies, researchers found that while more affluent parents treat education as a top priority for their children, it ranks much lower on the list for parents from lower social classes. This is because for these families, the need to attain a good education conflicts with their more basic needs such as caring for younger children and maintaining their financial stability. In tangible terms, this low priority for education manifests in less enriching or stimulating environments devoid of books and educational games that richer students have access to. Poorer parents’ lower emphasis on education also often translates to their children putting less effort into their school work, making it more difficult for them to do well in school. This insidious source of inequality is nearly omnipresent, deepening the hold of social inequality on poorer families. This situation has become so dire that even America, the country that takes the greatest pride in its meritocracy, has 45% of its Harvard students coming from families earning USD$200,000 a year or more. The fact that students in higher social classes have such a clear advantage in attaining top scores in standardised examinations, proves any claims of education being a solution to social inequality to be nothing more than empty rhetoric.
Even when looking beyond the role of individual parents, education can still be said to be a poor solution to social inequality, as there are systemic biases that perpetuate inequality, rather than addressing it. It is true that governments have tried to develop their education systems into true solutions to social inequality. For instance, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) that American students take at the end of high school takes into account ethnographic factors of students while calculating scores, giving additional points to students that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Firm believers of education latch onto these examples to propose education as the panacea to social inequality. However, such measures inevitably fall short as they merely target the symptoms of systemic biases; not the root cause. To be a true solution of social inequality, education systems should not base students’ future opportunities on their past performance, as this prevents substantial improvements from being made. For example, students who are able to enter an elite school after their Primary School Leaving Examinations in Singapore have access to opportunities to stretch their mind, while those studying in neighbourhood schools do not. Similarly, in Finland, students posted to vocational schools have many lower-income jobs cut off from them, regardless of how well they perform in class. This is a problem for the education system as early performance is largely hinged on parental support. It is only when students become older that their academic results become more reflective of their own hard work. This means that education currently judges students largely based on parental factors, leaving students little chance to prove themselves as they get older. Considering this, it is clear that the education system exacerbates social inequality rather than solving it.
Overall, it might not be wrong to think of education as a ladder. However, we must be aware that the ladder that each student receives can wildly differ. While come students receive sturdy metal ladders that they can easily scale, others receive shoddy ones with shaky legs and broken rungs. Consequently, it is crucial that the government does not simply throw every child ladder, expecting them to eventually ascend to the same place. The ladder’s quality is just far too contingent on parents financial and cultural capital, and too inflicted by systematic biases for this to be effective. For the education system to even endeavour to address social inequality, it has to be majorly reformed to stand alone. School should provide additional assistance to lower-income families, before their children enter primary school to negate richer students’ headstart; more resources should be dedicated to pull-out programmes to reduce the need for tuition; and standardised examinations should be rethought to require more on-the-spot thinking and less drilling. Only then can education truly be a solution to social inequality.