What's the best way to improve the lives of children from poor backgrounds? Polly Toynbee raises the issue when she says:
Under Labour so far, despite rising general achievement there has been no narrowing of the [educational] gap between those on free school meals and the rest. As Estelle Morris said sadly as she left government, every year a poor child is in school, he or she falls further behind. All that school does after the age of five is to widen the gap between the social classes.
Here's a theory. Education might be a prohibitively expensive way of equalizing the life-chances of people from poor backgrounds. Cash transfers would be cheaper.
This rests on three premises:
1. Higher spending on education generally has little effect on outcomes (pdf). Huge rises in spending might therefore be necessary to achieve even small rises in educational attainment.
2. People with low cognitive skills (say because of low birth-weight) find it difficult to convert education into qualifications or other qualities attractive to empoyers.
3. Education explains only a fraction of the dispersion in earnings. This paper (pdf) shows that, although there is a decent average return even to GCSEs, differences in men's qualifications and other observable characteristics account for only one-third of the variation in wages.
Education spending, then, might not be a cost-effective way of improving equality of opportunity; for US evidence on this, see this great paper (pdf) by John Roemer and Julian Betts or this by James Heckman.
Perhaps, therefore, egalitarians should think less about improving the lot of the worst-off through education, and focus instead upon higher cash transfers to such people in later life. Equalizing incomes (to a point) might be more cost-effective than equalizing opportunities.
You might object that equalizing incomes is expensive because it creates disincentive effects. But these could be reduced if cash grants were paid unconditionally to adults who had low birthweight or free school meals - factors associated with poor educational outcomes.
Now, I'm not denying the possibility that some interventions, such as Sure Start, might be a cost-effective way of improving equality of opportunity.
I'm just challenging a common prejudice. Most people think equal opportunity is more desirable or attainable than "fuller" conceptions of equality. But it ain't necessarily so.