It’s not fair

Anyone who has worked in schools will be familiar with the claim “It’s not fair!”.  After all, schools are full of children, and any parent will also be familiar with that same three-word combination.  It is not only the students who make claims of “it’s not fair” in schools, however – it is also heard coming from teachers when they feel aggrieved by a decision made by the board, the Principal or the senior management.

I have met very few school leaders or members of school boards who go out of their way intentionally to make unfair decisions.  Indeed, more than in many other types of institutions, most school leaders tend by nature to be harmony-building people-pleasers.  Perhaps that explains why they often feel bruised when accused of unfairness.  Board members may not be as singularly focussed on pleasing people (especially during times of financial distress), but most genuinely want a school with happy, positive teachers and students.

When considering fairness, it is important that school leaders and boards understand what is really meant by equality and equity.  Equality relates to inputs.  Equality is achieved when all individuals and groups are provided with equivalent access to resources or opportunities.  On the other hand, equity relates to outcomes, and specifically to the notion of all individuals and groups are achieving equivalent outcomes.

However, not all equality is equal.  There are two types of equality – formal equality and substantive equality.  Formal equality occurs when everyone is treated the same way irrespective of their individual circumstances.  Substantive equality occurs when an individual person’s circumstances are taken into consideration to address their disadvantage or discrimination when providing resources or opportunities.  Substantive equality aims to work towards greater (though not necessarily absolute or perfect) equality of outcomes – in other words, equity. 

Formal and substantive equality

When claims of “it’s not fair!” are heard in schools, it often reflects a misunderstanding of the difference between formal and substantive equality.  Formal equality sounds fair, but as one of my lecturers commented when I was studying education at university back in the 1970s: “there is nothing so unequal as treating unequals as equals”.

The difference between formal and substantive equality is important in schools in multiple ways such as providing resources that meet students’ varying individual needs, treating staff justly and being honest and transparent when communicating information.

Another common situation that arises in schools where the two forms of equality are often confused is the area of student discipline.  Teachers and parents who are unaware of all the facts behind an incident may question decisions that appear to be treating students differently, perhaps demanding formal equality so that consequences are imposed regardless of significant individual psychological, motivational, or other relevant circumstances such as prior warnings, and so on.  Situations like that are very difficult for school principals because of the competing need for student privacy on one hand, and the ideal of transparency on the other.

By definition, “fairness” is a relative term.  We evaluate fairness in terms of how two people (or groups) are treated in relation to each other.  If a school board decided to give the Mathematics staff a 10% pay rise at the same time as granting the Visual Arts staff a 5% pay rise, the Visual Arts staff will immediately assert “that’s not fair”.  Of course, that assumes the salaries for both groups were the same at the beginning of the exercise.  If the Mathematics staff were being paid less than the Visual Arts staff, then an apparently “fair” pay rise of 10% for both groups would result in the Mathematics staff claiming “that’s not fair”.  The two reactions represent the difference between formal equality and substantive equality.

In schools, the situation is usually more nuanced, and thus complex.  For example, Heads of Department might receive an annual allowance of (say) $20,000 plus release time of five lessons per week to perform their extra duties, whereas Heads of Student Welfare might receive an annual allowance of (say) $12,000 plus release time of eight lessons per week to perform their extra duties.  In such situations, disagreements over “fairness” will commonly arise when remuneration is adjusted because it is never easy to equate financial compensation with time and other allowances.

Some international schools face additional allegations of unfairness when they pay local staff less remuneration than staff hired from overseas.  In some ways this reflects the higher costs incurred by foreign staff when moving to another country for work (finding accommodation, buying basic necessities, travelling to visit family in other countries).  The differential may also reflect the extra costs required to recruit teachers from elsewhere when the required skills are scarce in the country where the school is located.  Where pay differences like this occur, the decision is based on substantive equality.  On the other hand, an argument from formal equality would demand that all staff who perform the same roles are remunerated equally, irrespective of their country of origin.

When school leaders and boards examine these matters philosophically, they should understand that the intimate connection between equality and fairness often reflects the role that luck plays through “no fault or choice of their own".  Among equally deserving people, making some people worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own is a negative action, because it is genuinely unfair.  On the other hand, among unequally deserving people, making someone who is more needy better off than someone less needy, even if the former was worse off through no fault or choice of their own, is a positive action because it is not unfair.  Such actions are sometimes colloquially referred to as “positive discrimination”.

In an ideal world, none of this should be controversial – and yet, it often is.  Some people (including board members I have worked with) claim that fairness and relativities don’t matter, arguing that the ONLY thing which matters is the absolute level of remuneration and conditions enjoyed by staff.  I have actually heard such board members explain their position like this: “Which would you prefer – a world where you earn $100,000 a year and all your friends earn $50,000, or a world where you can earn $200,000 a year and your friends earn $500,000?”.  They claim that everyone is better off in the second scenario, even though research suggests most people tend to opt for the first.  Clearly, this is an over-simplification, because it assumes many constants such as the equivalent costs-of-living, but such arguments can make for challenging discussions at school board meetings.

Consider one hypothetical example of equality in practice to understand the issues at hand.  Caroline is a young teacher in her third year of teaching in a fairly typical school in any More Economically Developed Country (such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, etc).  Caroline is a healthy single mother who has two young children, works in a restaurant on weekends to earn extra income, and drives a twelve year-old small car.  She worries how she can make enough money to pay the rent for her modest two-bedroom house and she has no idea how she will be able to send her children to college on her annual income of $80,000. 

Caroline is clearly less affluent than many of the people she sees every day.  Like many other teachers in the school, she is less wealthy than many of her students’ parents who live in million dollar homes, own two or three new prestigious cars, take expensive overseas holidays and have annual household incomes well over $500,000.  Nonetheless, the parents of Caroline’s students respect her and really appreciate her hard work, dedication and care that she shows to every one of the children in her care.

When the school’s board undertakes its annual review of teachers’ salaries, they worry that teachers’ salaries seem to be slipping compared to the general population, making it increasingly difficult for the school to be competitive in attracting good teaching staff.  They are also concerned to minimise fee increases for parents so that the school does not become too expensive for the school’s community.  Most board members are genuinely concerned to help teachers like Caroline, not only in absolute terms, but also in terms of how her remuneration compares with the wider community in their well-off society.  Nonetheless, some board members who are “high-fliers” in the corporate sector observe that teachers like Caroline do at least have a roof over their heads, indoor plumbing with hot water, a mobile phone, a television and a car. 

Some board members who work internationally remark that Caroline and her colleagues aren’t living in a war-torn country, or one that is ruled by a dictator, and she has no fear of catching smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria, or diphtheria.  She and her children drink safe water, they eat three meals every day and they have a reasonably long life-expectancy.  One board member who works in a nearby university remarks that for most of human history, and indeed for the world as a whole today, someone as well off as Caroline would be among the most privileged of all people.  Another board member comments that “to put this into blunt perspective, as difficult as it is to be relatively poor in a rich society, it is much worse to have to sit and watch your children die of starvation or disease”.

This is where an understanding of the difference between formal equality and substantive equality becomes important in clarifying the discussion.  Formal equality may appear fair at an initial, superficial level, but it often results in unequal outcomes.  Substantive equality may initially look unfair, but it is more likely (though never guaranteed) to result in more equal outcomes.  Although there are powerful reasons to care greatly about absolute levels, relative levels also matter.

Would you agree that it seems unfair, and hence bad, for someone like Caroline to be much worse off than others through no fault, or choice, of her own?

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Thanks to the Saskatoon Health Region 2014 for the base graphic that was adapted for use in this article.

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