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.
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.
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.
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%. The skewed distribution of wealth distribution conforms to a “Power Law” distribution, not a “Normal” Distribution.
A point increase in GPA could raise the annual earnings in adulthood by 12%. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.” 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
 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
 Your high school GPA could affect your income – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140519092835.htm
 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.
  APEC REGIONAL TRENDS ANALYSIS – The Digital Productivity Paradox. https://www.apec.org/-/media/APEC/…Digital-Productivity…/ARTA_Nov-2018.pdf