Social inequities

Last update 31 Jul 18

Early life experiences of inequity have important and long-lasting effects on children’s development and educational outcomes. These include poverty, parental levels of education, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion and culture, language, physical and cognitive ability, conflicts, crises, disasters and displacement, regional inequities, and funding inequities.

When marginalized children face multiple inequities, they are mutually reinforcing and have a cumulative negative impact on their ability to learn (Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, and Tseng, 2015).

Issues and Discussion

Social and economic inequities play a formative role in children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development (Grantham-McGregor et al., 2007; Hertzman et al., 2010; Shonkoff and Garner, 2012). Inequities are cumulative, resulting in advantage accumulating and disadvantage often being compounded by further disadvantage. The gap between children of advantage and disadvantage thus widens over time (Hertzman et al., 2010;Shonkoff and Garner, 2012; Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, and Tseng, 2015). Policy-makers and planners need to investigate what other cross-cutting social and economic issues may need to be addressed, both within and outside of schools, to mitigate the impact of inequities on learning outcomes.


Children from poor families are less likely to meet the basic pre-requisites for learning. This can negatively impact their physical, cognitive and socio-emotional well-being in general and make them ill-prepared to attend school. Children who are poor and live in low-resourced communities experience greater vulnerabilities and exclusion from society, have heightened exposure to violence and toxic stress, are more likely to be malnourished and have absent parents, are typically attending schools that receive less funding, and are at-risk for other factors that lead to poor outcomes (Grantham-McGregor et al., 2007; Hertzman et al., 2010; Shonkoff and Garner, 2012). Their school attendance may be affected by the need to work to contribute to family finances (Blunch and Verner, 1999), and by difficulties with paying school fees and other costs of schooling such as uniforms, materials, and transport (Williams, Abbott, and Mupenzi, 2015).

Parental education and literacy:

Inequities in parents’ level of education can have far-reaching effects on children’s ability to benefit from formal schooling. Parents who have not attended school, or who do not know how to read, may avoid engaging in literacy activities with their children, shy away from interacting with teachers and other service providers, or struggle to help children revise lessons at home. They may feel that the only way they can support their children’s learning is by sending their children to school and purchasing the required school supplies (Eccles, 2005; Tusiime, Friedlander, and Malik, 2014). Children of less-educated parents may not have access to books and other literacy materials at home (Neuman and Celano, 2001).

Gender and sexual orientation:

Children may suffer and struggle to learn if they are marginalized, misunderstood, or discriminated against because of their gender or sexual orientation (UNESCO and UNGEI, 2016; UNESCO, 2015). In many countries, girls have less access to schools than boys and are more likely to drop out early on – some girls may never set foot inside a classroom (UNESCO and UNGEI, 2016; Rihani, 2006). Reasons for girls’ limited access to schooling may include expectations surrounding participation in household chores, distance to schools and unsafe conditions on the way, fear of physical or sexual violence in school, and lack of clean water or hygienic toilets and supplies for menstruation at school. Other factors may include local norms surrounding girls’ expected adult roles, including child marriage practices, and limited opportunities for girls’ employment after school (Rihani, 2006; UNESCO, 2012). In other countries, boys may drop out of school or underperform because of pressures to earn money or because they feel that what they are learning is irrelevant (UNESCO and UNGEI, 2016). In school, teaching practices or instructional materials may contain gender stereotyping (Rihani, 2006), and students may face school-related gender-based violence that severely impedes their learning. Bullying and mistreatment is often compounded for LGBTI or gender non-conforming children and youth (UNESCO 2015).

Race, ethnicity, caste, religion, and culture:

Children who face direct and indirect discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, caste, religion, or culture suffer from negative psychological and physical effects from an early age (Fisher, Wallace and Fenton, 2002; Shonkoff and Garner, 2012; Weissglass, 2001). They are affected by stereotyping and marginalization in schools and may underperform or struggle to learn due to the associated stress (Steele, 1999; Anderson, 2016). Schools and teachers in some countries may discipline students unfairly based on their racial or ethnic background, may fail to prevent bullying and harassment by other students, and may even refuse entry or fail students based on their religion. (USA, 2014, 2016; Dupper, Forrest-Bank and Lowry-Carusillo, 2015; Sanei, 2010; Harsono, 2016).


Children who are expected to learn in a language that is different from their mother tongue, or those who do not have access to reading materials written in a language that is familiar to them, struggle to grasp concepts and master learning. They are at a greater risk of grade repetition and drop out (Pinnock, 2009).

Physical and cognitive ability:

Children have a range of physical and cognitive abilities and challenges, and those with disabilities may be at heightened risk of educational marginalization, discrimination, abuse, and violence (UNESCO, 2016b). Children and youth whose unique learning needs are not appropriately met by families and schools may never achieve their full potential (Bedell et al., 2013).

Conflicts, crises, disasters, and displacement:

The experience of conflicts, crises, and disasters can leave children physically and emotionally traumatized (Betancourt et al., 2013). Child migrants and refugees or displaced children may not have the formal residence papers allowing them to attend school, or may face hostility and violence bullying, prejudice, and threats in school (Lee et al., 2017; Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, and Tseng, 2015; UNESCO, 2016a) . Furthermore, due to damage and/or insecurity, children may not have access to school buildings, learning materials, or qualified teachers in areas of conflict or disaster (UNESCO 2011). 

Regional inequities in funding and services:

Many countries have regionally unequal conditions of economic development, funding, and social services, as well as significant rural-urban divides. Schools in low resourced areas often receive lower funding than schools in high resourced areas (Ostrander, 2015). This affects the quality of facilities, the quality of education and teaching available to students (Hindle, 2007), and ultimately contributes towards the  cycle of poverty. Children living in rural areas, in particular, may have less access to early childhood centres, high quality schools, and well-trained teachers than those living in urban areas, resulting in lower literacy rates, poor academic performance, and higher drop-out rates among rural children compared to urban children (UNESCO, 2016a).

Inclusiveness and Equity

Inequities can be addressed, and learning outcomes improved, when governments ensure that the most disadvantaged children and their families have access to quality health and education services in the formative years of development (Grantham-McGregor et al., 2007; Hertzman et al., 2010; Shonkoff and Garner, 2012). Due to the interconnected and cumulative nature of most social inequities, multi-sectoral programs functioning both outside and inside schools are the best way to ensure that all children meet their learning potential (Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, and Tseng, 2015). Some examples are provided below:

Out of school programmes to address inequities:

The most disadvantaged children and youth must be provided with special assistance to meet the basic prerequisites of learning, ideally beginning long before they enter school. Programmes to mitigate social and economic inequities include reproductive, maternal, new-born and child health interventions, high quality parenting education and early childhood education programmes, and cash transfers. Some ‘big push’ interventions have also resulted in sustainable transitions to self-employment and greater standards of living for significantly disadvantaged populations. Other types of social inequities may be addressed through community-wide programmes to fight racism and discrimination, strategies for welcoming refugees and migrants into communities, and child friendly spaces for children who have experienced trauma.

In-school programmes to address inequities:

Education policy makers and schools can mitigate the effect of social and economic inequities on child well-being and learning by providing fair funding and special assistance to the lowest performing schools and students, and by implementing school-community partnerships in social and health service provision. Schools may address and prevent discrimination through measures such as addressing teacher prejudice and improving pedagogy, training teachers in global citizenship education, and creating school environments that teach respect for all. Education planners may also ensure targeted support for girls’ education, ensure that textbooks are inclusive of all children, and provide support for special education technologies and approaches for learners with disabilities. In addition, school systems can prepare for potential disasters or conflict through education sector planning and in school curricula, prove equitable access to schooling in crisis and conflict affected areas, and plan education systems for resilience

Policy Examples

References and sources

Anderson, M.D. 2016 ‘How the Stress of Racism Affects Learning’. The Atlantic, 11 October.  Accessed 3 February 2018: 

Bedell, G.; Coster, W.; Law, M.; Liljenquist, K.; Kao, Y.C.; Teplicky, R.; Anaby, D.; Khetani, M.A. 2013. ‘Community participation, supports, and barriers of school-age children with and without disabilities’. In: Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 94(2), 315-323.

Betancourt, T.S.; Meyers-Ohki, M.S.E.; Charrow, M.A.P.; Tol, W.A. 2013. ‘Interventions for children affected by war: An ecological perspective on psychosocial support and mental health care’. In: Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 21(2), 70-91.

Blunch, N.H.; Verner, D. 1999. Revisiting the link between poverty and child Labor: The Ghanaian experience. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2488. 

Dupper, D.R.; Forrest-Bank, S.; Lowry-Carusillo, A. 2015. ‘Experiences of Religious Minorities in Public School Settings: Findings from Focus Groups Involving Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist Youths’. In: Children & Schools, 37(1), 37-45.

Eccles, J.S. 2005. ‘Influences of parents' education on their children's educational attainments: The role of parent and child perceptions’. In: London Review of Education, 3(3), 191-204.

Fisher, C.B.; Wallace, S.A.; Fenton, R.E. 2000. ‘Discrimination distress during adolescence’. In: Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29(6), 679-695. 

Grantham-McGregor, S.; Cheung, Y.B.; Cueto, S.; Glewwe, P.; Richter, L.; Strupp, B. 2007. ‘Developmental potential in the first 5 years for children in developing countries’. In: The Lancet, 369(9555), 60-70.

Harsano, A. 2016. ‘Indonesia religious discrimination harms education rights’. Jakarta Globe, 26 August. Accessed 3 February 2018: 

Hertzman, C.; Siddiqi, A.; Hertzman, E.; Irwin, L.G.; Vaghri, Z.; Houweling, T.A.; Bell, R.; Tinajero, A.; Marmot, M. 2010. ‘Bucking the inequality gradient through early child development’. In: British Medical Journal, 340, 468.

Hindle, D. 2007. ‘The funding and financing of schools in South Africa’.

Lee, C.S.; Lee, D.; Seo, J.Y.; Ahn, I.Y.;  Bhang, S.Y. 2017. ‘Relationship between School Violence and Depressive Symptoms among Multicultural Families' Offspring in South Korea’. In: Psychiatry Investigation, 14(2), 216-218.

Neuman, S.B.; Celano, D. (2001). ‘Access to print in low- income and middle-income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods’. In: Reading Research Quarterly, 36(1), 8-26.

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Pinnock, H. 2009. Steps towards learning: a guide to overcoming language barriers in children's education. London: Save the Children UK.

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Sanei, F. 2010. ‘Barring the Bahais’. Human Rights Watch, 13 April.

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Steele, C.M. 1999. ‘Thin ice: stereotype threat and black college students’. The Atlantic, August.

Suárez-Orozco, C.; Yoshikawa, H.; Tseng, V. 2015. ‘Intersecting inequalities: research to reduce inequality for immigrant-origin children and youth’.

Tusiime, M.; Friedlander, E.; Malik, S. 2014. ‘Literacy Boost Rwanda. Literacy ethnography baseline report’.

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––––. 2016. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education Takes Actions to Address Religious Discrimination. 

Weissglass, J. 2001. ‘Racism and the Achievement Gap’. In: Education Week, 20(43), 49-50.

Williams, T.P.; Abbott, P.; Mupenzi, A. 2015. ‘“Education at our school is not free”: The hidden costs of fee-free schooling in Rwanda’. In: Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 45(6), 931-952.

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