Portret van Eddie Denessen
Portret van Eddie Denessen

“If there was no relationship between qualification and income, the problem of unequal opportunities would disappear”

Education and social inequality are inextricably linked. Children who grow up in less favourable circumstances have fewer educational opportunities, as a result of which they are more likely to end up in an unfavourable social position later on. Eddie Denessen, recently appointed Professor of Education and Social Inequality, argues for more clarity around the concept of ‘equal opportunities’ and a more equal appreciation of different qualifications.

What are unequal opportunities in education?

“In the Netherlands, you gain qualifications, skills and degrees during your school and professional career. You earn a place in society based on your talents and efforts in school, with qualifications as a proof. Those qualifications open doors to certain professions and social circles. This sounds fair in theory, but in practice it is not. Our educational system not only determines what qualifications and diplomas you can gain based on individual abilities and efforts, but also on the basis of your social background. Your parents' occupation and income, the neighbourhood you grow up in, and the school you attend strongly predict your success in school.”

Inequality in society affects education and education creates inequality in society?

“The educational system favours the children of more highly educated parents. And in doing so, it places children higher or lower on the prosperity ladder. This then carries over to the next generation. A 2016 study by the Education Inspectorate showed that children with the same school recommendations in Grade 8 had different opportunities in secondary education. Children of highly educated parents were more likely to attend a pre-university school (VWO) and go on to a university of applied sciences or a research university than children of less educated parents. Analyses of school careers repeatedly point to the same conclusion: the social environment in which children grow up has a strong influence on their school performance.”

Influence of parental education level
Sixty-three percent of children of parents who completed higher education attend a general secondary education (HAVO) or pre-university school (VWO), or obtain a higher education degree. Among parents with a secondary vocational degree (MBO) level 3 or 4, this figure is 32%, and among parents with up to MBO level 2, it is 18%. Children of parents who completed higher education rarely go on to vocational education (only 9% obtain a VMBO basic, VMBO kader or MBO level 1 or 2 qualification). (Statistics Netherlands, CBS, over the period 2018-2020)

Equal opportunities for all – isn't it what we all want? How is it that not everyone is on board yet?

“Striving for the best for everyone means going the extra mile for those who need it most, and becoming aware that some pupils have many more opportunities because of the extra support they receive at home. If we want to create more equal opportunities in education, we must take into account that children start off unequally because of different family backgrounds. This means that the school should compensate for the differences in support children receive at home. Some people find this unfair.”

Are truly equal opportunities realistic?

“The short answer is ‘no’. Inequality is inherent to our society. I do not think that truly equal opportunities in education are a feasible goal. But we do have to consider how much inequality we find acceptable. Everyone understands that if you study longer, you are likely to earn more. Or that a surgeon earns more than a car mechanic. But differences must remain proportional. As inequality grows, so does the number of people who see it as unjust. You cannot justify someone earning much more than someone else purely because they have a certain qualification. If there was no relationship between qualification and income, the whole problem of equal opportunities would disappear.” 

Education and income
People with a university of applied sciences or a research university degree had an average income of €66,500 last year. That is significantly higher than people with an MBO qualification, who earned an average of €48,200. People with little education, MBO level 1 or below, earned an average of €39,300. (Statistics Netherlands, CBS, 2023)

That is not solely the responsibility of education? 

“It is a complex social problem woven into many aspects of society. The Equal Opportunities Alliance of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science formulated 264 measures for equal opportunities based on 11 themes, including early language development, parental involvement, teacher quality, and addressing poverty. The Dutch government, municipalities, school boards, school managers, parents, teachers, and other professionals in and around education must all work together to combat opportunity inequality.”

What do you think could be a solution?

“Governments, schools and teachers all have their own ideas about ‘equal opportunities’. But before we go any further, we really need to clarify what we mean by this. To me, good education is both about equal opportunities to earn a qualification and equal opportunities for broader personal development. This is why I advocate a distinction between career opportunities and development opportunities. Career opportunities are about how much children's backgrounds affect their school careers, while development opportunities are about how well education enables all pupils to develop according to their own interests and ambitions. To reduce confusion, schools and governments should distinguish between career opportunities and development opportunities in their policies and targets. They can use these terms to describe more concretely the goals they pursue and justify what they do to promote equal opportunities.

Politicians and the education sector have put opportunity inequality high on the agenda. And there is also growing attention for unequal opportunities in educational research. My chair focuses mainly on helping people to clarify the concept of ‘equal opportunities’. To that end, I talk to school boards and municipalities to fine-tune their policy theory and remind them of their responsibilities. My list of practice-based lectures is already very long. There is a huge need for knowledge and direction around this topic.”

What would more equal opportunities in education mean for society? 

“I think we will be more generous to one another. We will accept that not everyone is equal, but because everyone will get enough opportunities, it will not matter. We will still have the problem of qualifications leading to social differences. If these differences are too great, equal opportunities will not be enough to create a just society. There needs to be a more equal appreciation of different qualifications, not just in words, but also in practice, with more social equality.”

Eddie Denessen´s inaugural lecture (in Dutch)

Contact information

Education, Society