The exceptional few went from NO-body to be SOME-body.  They fire imagination on education while many remain hapless in the inequality web.  Such understanding exposes the gaps existing between the beliefs on education equality and the realities of education inequality.

Some are better at something.  All are genetically different.  All are nurtured differently.  All stratify society by mixing with those whom they like and avoiding others.   Biases in these stratifications create social inequality over time.

Equality relates to opportunity and outcome.  Opportunity equality is about removing differentiated preference to give everyone equal right or opportunity to access goods and services. Outcome equality is about removing the disparities in asset distribution. Outcome and opportunity can be correlated.  The family assets (outcome) are good indicators for child development and well-being across cultures[1].

Equality and levelling are different concepts.  Equal means the same measure.  Social equality is about giving everyone impartial treatment and opportunity.  Level means the same plane. Social levelling is about giving everyone the same arbitrarily set measure.


Is social levelling desirability?

Inequality polarised and destabilised society. The “four horsemen” of war, disease, state collapse and revolution had levelled societies but inequality resurfaced[2].

The communists overthrew the bourgeoisie for exploiting the proletariat and created a classless order.  The communes or the state took over properties and means of production.  The social levelling reduced productivity to mediocrity.  While the free world enjoyed the post-war economic growth, Russia and China struggled.  They opened their economies after the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall.  Though state owned enterprises drove Chinese modernisation, private capitalism replaced the working class.  In less than 30 years, the World Bank ranked China and Russia as the largest and 6th largest global economy in adjusted GDP[3].

Socio-economic levelling has undesirable outcomes.  It can be an exercise in futility.

Education is to bring the best out of students.  The better job it does, the greater will be the outcome inequality!  Can it be a social leveller?

There is a huge wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of global population.  The top 1% accounted for almost half of global wealth and the top 10% accounted for 85%[4].   The skewed distribution of wealth distribution conforms to a “Power Law” distribution[5], not a “Normal” Distribution.

A point increase in GPA could raise the annual earnings in adulthood by 12%[6].  The impact of education is not proportional but asymmetrical as in the Power Law distribution.  Singapore offers programmes, like the IB Programme and Gifted Education Programme, to improve the academic grades of selected students.  They create greater disparities between top and normal students.

American public school system is criticised for perpetuating social inequality by allocating funding, good teachers and facilities unequally between “rich” and “poor” school districts. The students in respective districts do not receive equal educational, employment and income outcomes[7]. Policy makers were urged to adopt better approaches to remove the causes rooted in history, society and culture.

The Parisian private schools admit less than 10% of students from low-income groups. Wealthier families moved into their vicinities and squeezed others out.

The entry into primary schools in Singapore has a similar story.  Priority is given to children with family members having old school ties or residing within 1 km radius.  Many families move to be near preferred schools. The priority affects the academic achievement, and social and economic mobility of the disadvantaged.  The social segregation has led to spatial segregation.

In 2017, the Institute of Policy Studies reported “social class” as the greatest social division in Singapore[8]. Students from prime schools seldom mix with those from other schools. Students from private housing seldom mix with those from public housing.  Social structures re-engineering was suggested to encourage social mixing so that networks of friendship and mutuality can be built to strengthen ties across different social groups.


Industry 4.0

1970s started the digital revolution.  1990s started the internet revolution.  2010s started the Industry 4.0 revolution. Industry 4.0 integrates physical, digital, and biological technologies into cyber-physical systems.  It will upend industries, require new skills, disrupt life and create new normal.  Industrial 4.0 can increase social inequality[9].

In 2009 EU envisioned a smart, sustainable and inclusive growth Europe.  They designed a growth model based on scenarios using foresights on six megatrends, namely aging; digital technology, automation and AI; increased global competition; migration; climate change; and shifting geopolitics.

Growing social inequality and divergence were expected threats.  Global competition, AI and digitisation will shape the future of work, low-carbon lifestyles and technology ethics. Industry 4.0 and circular economy will scale up green, technological, automation and AI innovations and demand new skills.  Skills gaps and mismatches will amplify skill premium.  The financial sector will create high paying jobs.  Wages of low-skill workers will be pressured by those, least able to adapt, losing their jobs.  Rising unemployment, low wages, ageing population and migrants will raise the income disparities between high and low-income households. Creative policies and skill development will be needed to maintain an agile and robust economy, and to mitigate rising inequality.

The Davos discussions echoed the same concern over worsening economic inequality. Even societies claiming distribution on merit allocate resources on social hierarchy too closely to be “meritocratic.”[10]   Exceptional intelligence, talent or merits means nothing to the disadvantaged. The Yellow Vest Movement offered glimpses of reactions irked by social inequality.

A research team studied the state of income inequality globally over periods from 1946 to 1980 and from 1980 to 2014[11].  The levels of income inequality evolve and vary over time.  They are shaped by convergence forces of rapid growth and divergence forces of rising inequality. Social inequality will increase when low-income group fall behind the high-income group in income and wealth[12].

The pre-1980 period was an US economy in abundance, driven by unbounded invention and untiring industry.  The lower income group enjoyed 2% annual wage rise and narrowed the gap with the higher income group.  Their living standards improved.

The post-1980 period was an US in contrast.  Economy growth slowed down. Industrial restructuring and an enlarged lower-income work force caused by the entry of late-baby boomers and women workers put pressure on the wages.  The average income of the bottom 50% stagnated while the average income grew by 61%. The income at the top income bracket skyrocketed to create huge gaps from others – the top 10% rose 121%; the top 1% rose 205%; and the top 0.001% rose 636%.

Over in Europe, EU integration into a single community created growth between 1993 and 2008.  Household incomes grew and converged.  The hardship of the global financial crisis did not fall equally, causing inequality to rise in several countries after 2008.

The way forward

Digital technology and “IoT” did not deliver a flatter world.  They deliver a disrupted world with speed of change that favours those adept in adopting new technologies.  PWC published the list of top 100 global companies in terms of market capitalisation in 2017[13].  They ranked Technology Sector first with 12 companies totalling $3,582B.  Financial Sector was second with 21 companies totalling $3,532B.  Consumer Goods Sector was third with 17 companies totalling $2,660B.

Income inequality levels differ significantly across countries, even though they share similar levels of development.  This suggests that pro-growth national policies, taxation, subsidies and welfare schemes can mitigate income inequality[14].

Singapore economy is maturing with inequality divergence marked by slowing growth and rising income disparity.

We are at a crossroads: one path to utopia with a more inclusive society, better use of time to work, live and play; the other to dystopia with high unemployment, inequality, and inflated social welfare[15].  Avoiding dystopia means reimagining work, life and leisure in a fast changing landscape and rethinking education as lifelong.

Traditional education will not prepare students for tasks still unknown.  Education must modernise to meet new norms.  It must move beyond teaching core knowledge and skills to empowering students with soft cognitive skills, and creative and critical thinking to help them to manage new challenges and communities to collaborate on new shared problems.  Improving access to better education and jobs for everyone must be part of a holistic approach to mitigate inequality pains felt by the disadvantaged

Inequality is systemic and structural.  Equality is not zero inequality.  They are best treated as complementary.  Striking the balance involves respect and empathy.  It is not possible to please everyone but it is possible to treat them fairly.


[2] The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World Book 74)  by Walter Scheide




[6] Your high school GPA could affect your income –

[7] Williams, Belinda, ed. Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices. 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003.


[9] [9] APEC REGIONAL TRENDS ANALYSIS – The Digital Productivity Paradox.…Digital-Productivity…/ARTA_Nov-2018.pdf









  • Stephen Saunders

    Members, You may view Henry Kwok’s article by clicking on the subtitle “CAN EDUCATION REALLY BE A SOCIAL LEVELLER 2”. It is underneath the main title with the same wording, and is a link to his .docx document, which your word processing software should open for you. Henry, you have great use of tone in this article, congratulations!

  • Franca Colozzo

    Unfortunately, school has always been a social leveler. Also in Italy there has always been a public and a private school, as in other countries, particularly in USA.
    I see the real gap at the university level, where the future ruling classes are prepared. But in Italy, since a true meritocratic system does not exist and goes ahead for political recommendations or friends of friends, we are witnessing an unequal dichotomous system that certainly does not reward the best.
    Many young brains are fleeing from Italy precisely for this reason. I invite you to read my article on meritocracy:

    Here in Italy, in the face of a public school that has undergone several substantial reforms and that holds up the class comparison very well, we have witnessed a mass cultural depletion often induced by new means of communication and the use of social media.
    Here is an excerpt of what I wrote in my recent article on Peace:
    “… One realizes that much depends not only on one’s historical and cultural roots, but above all on the educational system in force and on the objectives one wants to achieve in terms of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. I would call these parameters: democracy.
    The latter, however, is not enough on its own to defeat the ignorance that seems to be increasingly lining up in the variegated social system due to the too rapid dissemination of information, often not correctly conveyed.
    Social media can be a double-edged tool: on the one hand they convey information at the speed of light; on the other hand, they often send information of low cultural significance to meet the needs of the dominant, financial, political, etc. power groups. Suffice it to say that before 1990 all information on a global level traveled slowly, ie before the advent and birth of the World Wide Web (1991).
    Indeed. It was then that, at CERN in Geneva, the researcher Tim Berners-Lee defined the HTTP protocol (HyperText Transfer Protocol), a system that allows a hypertextual, non-sequential reading of documents, jumping from one point to another using the use of references (link or, more properly, hyperlink). A great revolution that certainly allows us connections with the world, where previously it was only a strategic security tool limited to international powers…”
    There would be a longer discussion on the comparison of the different educational systems (I could compare the Italian system to the European one and also to the Turkish one given my experience in Istanbul), but it is a speech that will be taken up again by me later.
    My final statement is the following: there has been and there will always be discrimination between rich and poor classes on a global level, until the levers of power that govern the world change. The rich want to give their children the most in terms of education and send them to the most prestigious private schools and universities. The poor, unable to afford it, give their children what they can.
    As long as financial interests govern the world, we would be forced to see social injustices progress. Wild capitalism leads to these excesses. “In medio stat virtus”, Latin motto that means: “In the middle lies virtue”, or in the justice of a world that offers an equal educational system for rich and poor. Then the best man can win!


      Dear Franca
      Thanks your comment. My article is intended to provoke reflection on the belief that education can be a social leveller. The reality is in the results.

      Your comments have highlighted the ideals of education and what it can potentially help to achieve. Question to reflect on – what is standing in the way to making what you wrote from being universal?

      Unfortunately your concluding sentence summed it up. Ultimately the best man will win. Well the REALITY is that the best men can win by very BIG margin… so should we not examine the reasons behind such huge winning margin between those who had achieved exceeding well, and those who had achieved and those who had yet to achieve, and more importantly question our fundamental assumptions?

      Such big margin will create social stratification which will lead to greater difference in social standing. Social stratification is systemic. Can education alone remove that?
      Alternatively we can take a harmonised approach and accept the social stratification as something to be managed. You have cited the use of social media but ultimately it needs a more fundamental change. We need a change in culture to accept social differences in order to give everyone equal opportunity. It is not about equal outcomes which social levelling aims to achieve.

      The way forward perhaps is to look at the big picture. What can we learn from the failure and success of education and package education with other initiatives in such a way to make society more harmonious and less bias!! We have to re-invent education.

  • Vineet Mani

    Wonderful insights, Henry. Education has become a mere commodity. It is all about who may afford it and what premium one may pay. The higher the premium, the better is education. There are government schools in India which have very low fee, but the quality of education is lower. Till education does not assume its original form and move out of the category of commodity, we cannot even think of equality in terms of opportunity and outcome.


      Thanks, Mani. i am glad i am not the only one reflecting on what we need to do on this issue. we need to raise this consciousness. what scares me is that i have seen even those at high governmental levels who think that education can be a social leveller. they are espousing the potential of education but missing the reality

  • Franca Colozzo

    HENRY KWOK Thank you. Reinventing education means reinventing today’s society. But to transform it, it is necessary to hypothesize an ideal society in which all the values ​​you listed are expressed. My experience as a teacher, even abroad (Turkey – 7 years in Istanbul) has led me to look at multiculturalism with great attention to social, economic, cultural, gender and religious differences.
    Having humbly approached Turkish society was the driving force to open the doors of the hearts of my students’ families and to make me approach their Muslim world, still a Mediterranean people close to the Italian one.
    I believe that we must provide all the tools to grow democratically in a free society, but then it is up to each of us to strive to achieve goals. The good teacher is the one who loves all his students unconditionally, respecting their differences and promoting personal attitudes. This is basically my meritocratic idea.
    In Italy unfortunately this does not happen and the rich, politicized or recommended social groups are privileged.


      This is great that you as an educationist are commenting on my article. It thus gives me a feel of the sensitivities from a practitioner.
      Reinventing education alone will not reinvent today’s society but will help contribute to creating a better society. I do doubt that an imperfect world will be able to create an ideal society. The social, economic, cultural, gender and religious differences in any society have competing demands which may not be acceptable to all. Thus we must be practical and accept that it could be futile to try hypothesising one. We just have to learn how to manage these differences
      I am staying in an Asian region where we are surrounded by Muslims. The mainstream Muslims are peaceful. Those radicalised are mostly the underprivileged.
      We have a saying the East – one can bring a horse to the water but one cannot force it to drink. It is not just providing all the tools to grow democratically in a free society. Each of us can start to be the change that we want with the hope that this can create a consciousness and momentum to effect that change. This will remain a sheer hope if the atmosphere remains not conducive for that change.
      The teacher that had the most impact on my life respected a group of us who were low achievers in year 6 as little gentlemen. He brought out the best from us. It was not his meritocratic idea but the way he motivated us to strive to be the best we can be. He was not simply teaching us the text books but also values and ethics to cope with the challenges we would be facing later in life. He was visionary!
      Time has changed thus we need to keep with the different challenges that the younger generations will have to face. We cannot assume that our current education will be sufficient for them.
      We are digressing. What we discussing here is distracting us that education as it is now does not necessarily create a more level society. In fact this may not be the right outcome. life is not making things right but doing the right thing

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