Equal Opportunities
(Diversity and Inclusivity)

He who would do good to others, must do it in minute particulars;
General good is the cry of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer. 

William Blake (1804) Jerusalem pl.55 1.60

In the 11 years since this page was originally written, the rhetoric of this topic has moved from "equal opportunities" to "diversity" and "inclusivity", even if the practice has not changed much. Excuse some scepticism, but I am suspicious of some self-serving opportunists in the field; I met many of them in my years in social work education, who seemed to be more interested in wrong-footing woolly minded liberals and getting politically and morally one-up, than they were in actually improving the lot of minorities. Indeed, if practice were really to improve it would have put them out of their jobs...

See here for a particularly egregious example which I accidentally stumbled across when I was undertaking my doctoral research. 

In the past few years I have looked quite hard for some really useful guidance on equal opportunities practice in the classroom, and I have found very little. The most honorable exception is Stella Dadzie's (1993) Working with Black Adult Learners (Leicester, NIACE) — which demonstrates that actually there is very little which is distinctive in this area, in that it would be recognised as good practice by any other name. (Unfortunately the original excellent Disability Rights Task Force recommendation on post-16 education is no longer available on-line.)

There is plenty of literature which emphasises that equal opportunities are Important, becoming even more Important, and are often a Problem. Such texts are supported by plenty of statistics and charts and quotations from reports and on the whole I would not wish to argue with them. They may go as far as suggesting audits which will demonstrate how insensitive our institutions are to equal opportunities issues: but they stop short of giving concrete advice about expressing the principles of equal opportunities in our teaching (selection and assessment issues are rather better served).

There are those who would claim that as a WASP (white anglo-saxon protestant) TAB (temporarily able-bodied) heterosexual middle-aged middle-class male, I am disqualified on practically every ground from having anything to say about any of this. I represent the category of people the system has always been designed to favour (the argument goes), and so I can have no valid experience of discrimination to bring to the discussion. However, my argument is that for the same reasons I represent those who are unwillingly and perhaps unwittingly doing the discriminating, but want to stop.

So —argue with what I say. That is more important —and ultimately more effective—than agreeing with it.

This discussion is based on a pragmatic belief in the need for "theories of the middle range"— something between the grand ideological posturing and the list of discrete do's and don'ts which are so difficult to remember and apply only to very specific situations. I am looking for principles which are specific enough to yield direct guidance for practice, but which are still generalisable to a range of situations—and which are of course debatable.

Equal for whom?

In a world in which there is an increasing emphasis on rights—and I originally wrote this on the day after the introduction of the Human Rights Act into English (and Welsh) law—it is a live question as to who counts as entitled to efforts to ensure equality of opportunity. The simple answer is that since we are talking about equality of opportunity, it applies to everyone, but that does not help in practice. In practice we have to change institutional structures, policies and procedures to accommodate some people, while the "normal" structures, policies and procedures are regarded as OK for everyone else. What do you have to do or be to be entitled to this special consideration?

In assessment in education, does the fact that my student is working in her second or even third language mean that I need to adjust the assessment criteria to allow for the tremendous feat of her being able to take the course in English at all? Or does she have to exhibit the same command of the language as anyone else? And why should the judgement on this student be different from that on another one who has been formally statemented as suffering from dyslexia? And why should his position be deemed different from that of someone who has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and whose command of written language is poor because she went to a "failing" school in a "sink" neighbourhood? And should all these judgements be reviewed if the subject being assessed is law, or beauty therapy, or business studies, or gamekeeping?

The most useful general principle is that it revolves around whether the person can "help  it" or not. (See the Banton model) But that doesn't solve all the problems. There are still arguments in some quarters, for example, about whether sexual orientation is a life choice, or a predetermined proclivity. And can I not offer a helping hand to someone who has chosen to pursue this course of study despite all the odds? There are probably more limiting cases than there are straightforward ones. Good—it is the argument which we are seeking!

Negative and Positive Freedom

The notion of negative and positive forms of liberty (or freedom) originates with the grossly over-rated windbag Isaiah Berlin (1969). Am I being discriminatory in referring to him thus? Still, the idea is moderately useful; my interpretation is not of course entirely sound.Rights are about freedom to do things. But merely not stopping someone from doing something is the most trivial form of right, sometimes referred to as negative freedom. An exclusive club may lift its former ban on women members: but the theoretical "right" for women to join is pretty meaningless if the joining fee is a small fortune and new members have to be approved by the present membership. I have the right to swim the Atlantic, but it's a physical impossibility, so the right in itself means nothing.

Much equal opportunities thinking is stuck with this approach. College authorities and teachers may believe that as long as they are not actively putting obstacles in the way of potential students, they all have equal opportunities. But for those opportunities really to be equal, there is a need for much more positive measures. If about 43% of the relevant age-group in the UK can now go to university, then opportunities will only be equal for members of minority groups when they have the same 2 in 5 chance as everyone else. Creating that kind of opportunity is about positive freedom, sometimes known as "empowerment".

Positive freedom, and how far empowering assistance should go, is one of the most difficult areas to determine. At what point does positive action ("affirmative action" in the States) become positive discrimination, where the majority is actively disadvantaged in favour of the minority? And is that positive discrimination ever justified (as some radicals would claim it is, as compensation for generations of oppression and exploitation)?

In education, it is often argued that whatever else we may do to empower minority groups, academic standards must not be compromised. After all, no-one's interests are served if the currency of the Bachelor's degree is devalued. Even so, some commentators believe that it is happening anyway (Phillips, 1996), while others maintain that curriculum standards are so enmeshed with the value system of the dominant majority that it is unreasonable to assess minority members against them.

Physical vs social and psychological issues

Addressing the needs of disabled people calls for concrete (sometimes literally) alterations to the environment and resources. "Disability", after all refers to the way in which people who have a physical or sensory impairment are disabled by an environment which takes it for granted that its users will not be so impaired. Discussed in the guidance on "reasonable adjustments" for the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001. In many cases this means that it is relatively clear and uncontestable what needs to be done: the needs of the users of self-propelled wheelchairs for access to a classroom are fairly straightforward. There are quite likely, however, to be debates about cost and how much "inconvenience" it is reasonable to expect someone to put up with.

However, to a certain extent (and only to that extent) what counts as discrimination in social and psychological areas (including the social and psychological aspects of physical disability) is in the eye of the "victim". Some people, for example, would take exception to the previous sentence for the use of the phrase "in the eye of..." as excluding people with visual impairment. Who am I to say that they are wrong? Indeed, can anyone say that? A former UK Home Secretary is blind, but he frequently uses the phrase, "I see." Sometimes the advocates for minority groups are more sensitive to these issues than members of those groups themselves. Sometimes they can be scathing about members of their own group who shrug off minor acts of discrimination, referring to such black people for example as "coconuts" —brown on the outside, white on the inside—and accusing them of "treachery". Of course, members of the majority tend to prefer "coconuts" —they are less trouble— but they may indeed be undermining the cause of their more radical cousins.

In other words, there is no clear place on which to stand and from which issues of discrimination and equal opportunities can be judged. In particular, there is no firm basis for adjudging that one member of a minority group has a sound case and that another has a "chip on his shoulder". Can we ever claim that?

Primum non nocere

The fundamental practice principle of medicine is primum non nocere or “first of all, to do no harm.” This needs to inform practice in education as well, and that goes as much for diversity and inclusion issues as any other. This principle is what distinguishes between legitimate positive action, for example, and unacceptable positive discrimination. At much more routine levels it is possible that excessive concern with the minutiae of anti-discriminatory etiquette is capable of causing far more problems that it solves. I remember many years ago a very PC acquaintance who managed to reduce a comfortable and easy-going social encounter to one of excruciating self-consciousness for all concerned, over the simple question of whether or not he took milk in his coffee.

Nevertheless, just trying not to make the situation any worse can be quite a tall order.


The particularly difficult thing about teaching, as about law enforcement, is that it necessarily involves an element of judgement. Assessment —whether formative or summative— is an integral part of proper teaching, and as soon as you get into this area you get into the problem of fairness and of relevance. Several of the difficult issues cited above are basically issues of whether contextual issues are or are not relevant to a judgement (e.g. the language questions).

It is the nature of relevance as a criterion that it is not consistent: what it dictates is going to vary according to the nature of the programme or the topic. That is why the formulation of hard and fast rules which can be applied in any teaching situation is almost impossible. However, it does make sense to scrutinise the relevance issue very carefully: it can serve as a mask for prejudicial judgements, as many employment cases make clear. If a receptionist is going to sit behind a desk all day, is it relevant if she (or he) is a wheelchair user? Should your perception of what employers require of your graduates be allowed to influence your selection procedures?

Class group processes

Many, if not most, equal opportunity issues concern the use of authority, usually vested in the majority group. In other words, the issue is potential discrimination by the institution or the teacher. However, many of the issues which really put off or hinder minority group students concern the peer-group experience in class, including university classes.

This may be bullying, exclusion or scapegoating on an individual level, but there is also potential for inter-group conflict between ethnic, religious or political groups in the same class. This may not surface as outright hostility, but be confined to clannishness, wilful ignoring of others' contributions, and refusal to work with members of the other group(s). To what extent does/should one collude with such behaviour?

Here again, relevance would seem to be the key, in terms of the aims and values of the course. A textile engineering course may include small group working on projects, but there will probably be no authority for social engineering in its brief. As long as there are no individual students with no-one to work with, the composition of student groups may well not be the institution's business. (But what about one group which is so much better than the others, and will not split to share its expertise?) It may, with care, be possible to capitalise on the situation through competition between the groups. A course for teachers or social workers, on the other hand, really cannot permit such exclusivity: being able to work with students or clients from any background is a relevant value.

Ask the students

It seems a good principle to say that if you do not know whether something is potentially discriminatory or not, then you should ask the students. Unfortunately it is not as simple as that.

First, asking people is in general a good idea: it makes them feel involved, and communicates that, even if you get it wrong sometimes, your "heart is in the right place". Some champions of anti-discriminatory practice argue that it is imposing an additional burden on students, to make them the experts on what constitutes discrimination— and thus it is itself an act of discrimination. That seems to me to be an arcane point: we don't know what might be causing problems for our students, or else we should not have to ask in the first place. Surely it is better to ask than to blunder on regardless?

Nevertheless, there are real problems. The first is that you may not get a useful answer. People with a physical or sensory impairment usually know fairly clearly what helps and hinders them. When the impairment is more subtle, such as dyslexia, the student may know what works for her or him, on the basis of experience, but may well not be a good guide for others with similar problems. When the issue is primarily socially constructed, as in discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, culture or belief system, it is hard to get a useful answer. Many people have learned to live with such discrimination to the extent that they cannot envisage what life would be like without it: they may even be unaware of the extent to which it has impeded their learning and life chances to date.

The second is that if you go purely on the basis of students' suggestions, it is not beyond them to distort their reply to their own advantage—beyond the actual equal opportunities considerations. The fact that someone is from a group which experiences discrimination does not preclude them from the manipulation practised by all self-respecting students at some time or another.

Your (and my) perspective, after all, is about creating opportunities for students to learn. Theirs may well be about opportunities to pass. They are not necessarily the same thing.

Of Tails and Dogs

On occasion, we may become so enamoured of a method that we create problems for students—not only minority students—by our insistence on using it. Role-play is the prime example. It is useful, but it can engender so much anxiety that it obstructs rather than enables learning.

For some minority students, it is method rather than content which presents an obstacle. Asking a dyslexic student to produce written work for public scrutiny or to read aloud is to invite public humiliation. To set up small group working in which young women from some Asian cultures are expected to challenge their male counterparts is to ask them to violate cultural norms which are much more important than the learning exercise. (But of course...)

Consensual good practice emphasises motivating students and accommodating their approaches to learning: if this focus is maintained, equal opportunities requirements are almost bound to be met. Ah, but what about the "Confucian heritage" student who believes that it is disrespectful to be critical of the published eork of elders and betters?


There are two questions around resources. The first concerns their accessibility: this may be a matter of whether students are able to get at library books, or read them if they are partially sighted, and so on. There is a perennial argument about the availability of textbooks, of course. Many students seem to believe that there ought to be a copy of the textbook for everyone to take out on permanent loan (which is what they have become used to in schools, after all). How much one can realistically demand of students on this front is a matter of professional judgement, and raises the more general question of legitimate demands. Does the fact that some students find it more difficult than others to find the money for textbooks make it an equal opportunities issue? Does the question of travel to the library make study more difficult for some students than others? If so, at what point does it become an equal opportunities issue? Similar questions can be raised about electronic resources: not everyone has a computer at home with unmetered net access, or a smartphone.

The second issue concerns the problem of creating offence, or the invisibility of minority groups in the literature and handouts. Many recent text- and academic books take the visibility issue on board, usually in a fairly tokenistic way, such as using some ethnic minority names in case-studies; but older resources (including primary sources) may well be creatures of their time, and can embody attitudes which would no longer be acceptable in present culture. It does not seem unreasonable to me to ask or require students to read relevant material of this nature, but it does seem appropriate to make a specific effort to warn them and to discuss the issues afterwards. The problem is not only the potential offence, but also the extent to which that looms larger than the significant point the text is making (after all, if it is not making a significant point, why ask them to read it?)


Earlier, I asked whether one can ever justifiably dismiss a complaint on the grounds that the student (or colleague) has a "chip on their shoulder". If — a big "if" — one can, it will be on the grounds of generalisability. This principle has two very similar forms. The domestic form is one we heard from our parents and teachers throughout childhood, "What if everyone did that?" The academic form is known as Kant's categorical imperative, which enjoins one to act in such a way that the principle of action could be elevated to a general principle good for all circumstances and all times. Comes down to the same thing.

Generalisability in this context works in two ways:

The original version of this page was written in 1998; it has been minimally up-dated. Not much has changed. "Notes" boxes like this one are from 2009.

Latest up-date 24.01.13

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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