Six national country studies on minorities, vulnerable groups and their access to education were conducted in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Particular focus was put on political and advocacy discourses about minority social rights and on the potential effect the framing of social rights might have on the capabilities and functioning of minority and vulnerable groups. On the basis of these six country studies, a comparative report was written to investigate the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in educational system, and to assess the way in which these dynamics link to redistributive, recognitive and representative aspects of justice.

Education is an important policy area for eradicating persistent inequalities because it addresses not only children’s future life chances, but also the very source of those inequalities. The ways in which cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, racial and other diversities are addressed in the educational system define its inclusiveness. The extent to which inclusiveness characterizes the rules, practices and content of education appears to define the discursive frame of education where concerns of “equality and difference” are revealed in a given society. The central question that is pursued in these research papers is: To which extent can education be considered as a space of inclusion where the tension between equality and difference can be resolved in a way that contributes to children’s well-being and the development of their capabilities as substantive freedoms to achieve actual functionings, or “various things a person may value being or doing”?

The six country studies demonstrate that different dimensions of injustice related to redistribution, recognition, and representation, which are reflected in various forms of exclusion, define the position of the students from minorities and vulnerable groups in the system of education and thus constitute a barrier to the development of their capabilities. In every context, the problem of capability deprivation associated with the differences of class, ethnicity, religion or race is manifested in the discourses on the “segregated” character of the education system. Unequal access to education also has a spatial dimension in which the quality of schools differ according to the characteristics of the neighbourhoods, divided along the intersecting lines of class and ethnicity. References to residency-based registration rules and admission criteria are mentioned as factors fostering inequality in access to education, but it remains difficult to reach a conclusion concerning the way equal access could be improved by policy intervention. In an historical conjuncture marked by market-oriented trends in policy choices, the impact of socio-economic differences could hardly be alleviated.

The six conducted case studies draw attention to the tendency to overlook the intertwined character of injustices related to redistribution, recognition and representation as an impediment to effective policy intervention for the inclusion of minorities. The need to avoid the identification of individual children with the cultural group while recognizing cultural difference also emerges as a policy relevant point made in the studies. While the relational aspect of the capability approach calls for the acknowledgement of the need for community, feelings of belonging should be considered in relation to the future choices about the types of “being and doing” which an individual might have reason to value. In policy-making, this calls for a careful balancing of the choices parents might make for an education that conforms to their cultural value universe with the development of children’s substantive freedoms.

Socio-economic inequalities and cultural differences, which are not adequately addressed, define the limitations of education in meeting the expectations about capability development. They also create doubts about the contribution of education to social cohesion. The combined effect of injustices related to redistribution and recognition make minorities feel discriminated against, alienated or excluded, and consequently lead to an erosion of trust in society. Where their values are interpreted to be in conflict with the way society’s values are defined, their claims for cultural recognition are seen as a threat to social cohesion. Their access to channels of representation is often limited and they do not have the opportunity to adequately express their grievances and claims and to contest stereotyping and stigmatising tendencies concerning their values or their culture.

Arguments on social cohesion are often framed in ways that make the above-mentioned problems difficult to be discussed in a meaningful dialogue between different stakeholders. Apart from the preconceptions about values and culture (of both the minorities and the society) which often inform the approaches to social cohesion, the perceptions of culture and identity as fixed and unchanging might not serve the development of capabilities as the core objective of education. The parents’ freedom of choosing the type of education which they find in conformity with the values underlying their conception of good life might not be in conformity with the children’s freedom to choose and affect their life chances. There is, therefore, a need to question the given views on values, cultures and conceptions of good life in a transformative approach that addresses the underlying injustices that lead to capability deprivation.

It should be noted that these discourses are situated in a historical context marked by the anxieties about immigration or the fear of religious extremism, which contribute to the interrelated trends toward the rise of populist politics and political polarization. The ways in which justice is framed in different approaches to education often reflect the characteristics of this context where it does not seem easy to go beyond the discussion of affirmative remedies against discrimination and exclusion and consider transformative remedies in meaningful debates in conformity with the norms of just representation.

by Ayşe Buğra and Başak Akkan
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D4.3
Find the full publication on the ETHOS website