Theories of potential and the creation of inequality in education

An enthusiastic sell-out audience packed the Simpkins Lee Lecture Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall for the 5th Annual Lecture of the Oxford Education Society delivered by Professor Danny Dorling on Friday 18th September 2015.

Although a geographer by profession with a long-standing interest in and commitment towards the problem of inequalities in all walks of life, Danny quickly showed that eventually it comes down to education as one of the main concerns in this area. This isn’t so much to do with the systems of education as with the theories we have developed on how we view people and what they are capable of achieving – their potential. If, for example, we take the view that all children have equal potential to achieve we will behave very differently than if we believe that only some children have this potential. The problem then is to discover who they are and divert resources to help them achieve this rather than giving all children an equal opportunity to do so. Some people feel very comfortable with certain levels of inequality as reflecting the natural order of things, while others find this abhorrent.

Using examples (including his own personal capabilities as well as his incapacities, for instance in writing, memory retention and mathematics), Danny then went on to illustrate how we are not all that different from each other in terms of what we are capable of achieving. It is only in the ways we perceive each other and the prejudices we have that are the root causes of inequalities in our society. He also explores the word ‘potential’ and the history of its use over the past 15 years or so including the apparent scientific obsession with finding the perfect gene that makes some people ‘more equal’ than others.

Danny goes on to illustrate the role of selective education and academies, attitudes about ‘gifted and talented’ children, differences between catchment areas for comprehensive schools, twin studies and the volatility of OESC/PISA test results, amongst other factors, in perpetuating inequalities. Links between inequality and such factors as household income, town planning and mental health and well-being, even the measurement of ability in mathematics, in particular societies are illustrated in a series of slides.

In the end, however, it comes down to politics and the fact that our educational system is so divisive that it is inherently unequal and continually perpetuates the society in which we live.

Danny fielded questions at the end of his talk:
• Is there a link between potential and musical ability?
• Are we ever likely to return to the idea of educating children rather than examining them?
• How much do we know about home schooling in the UK?
• How can we make people aware of the levels of financial hardship in their own communities and the impact this has on schools?
• Should universities like Oxford reduce their number of student places so as to solely accommodate the ‘highly educated’ 7%?
• Which of your publications would you recommend for further reading?
• What about the recorded differences in assessed educational performance between girls and boys?
• Why is there a difference between the geographical locations of the highest ranking universities and the countries with the highest educational achievement?
• If Oxford prides itself on only recruiting the strongest students, why don’t they all get firsts?

The lecture was followed by the customary drinks reception at the Department of Education.

Danny Dorling joined the School of Geography and the Environment in September 2013 to take up the Halford Mackinder Professorship in Geography. He was previously a professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield. He has also worked in Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds and New Zealand, went to university in Newcastle upon Tyne, and to school in Oxford.

Much of Danny’s work is available open access (see With a group of colleagues he helped create the website which shows who has most and least in the world. His work concerns issues of housing, health, employment, education, wealth and poverty. His recent books include, co-authored texts The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the way we live and Bankrupt Britain: An atlas of social change.

Recent sole authored books include, Injustice: Why social inequalities persist in 2010; So you think you know about Britain and Fair Play, both in 2011; in 2012 The No-nonsense Guide to EqualityThe Visualization of Social Spatial Structure and The Population of the UKUnequal HealthThe 32 Stops and Population Ten Billion in 2013; and All That is Solid in 2014.

Before a career in academia Danny was employed as a play-worker in children’s play-schemes and in pre-school education where the underlying rationale was that playing is learning for living. He tries not to forget this. He is an Academician of the Academy of the Learned Societies in the Social Sciences, Honorary President of the Society of Cartographers and a patron of Roadpeace, the national charity for road crash victims.

This event was generously supported by the Oxford Review of Education.