Social justice

One more effort for equality of opportunity

Picture by txemag on Adobe Stock

Picture by txemag on Adobe Stock

Does everyone have the same opportunity to succeed at school? While there is a certain consensus on the inequalities caused by social differences, a team of researchers demonstrates that the effort of each pupil is underestimated in explaining school results.

By Alain Trannoy

Alain Trannoy

Auteur scientifique, EHESS, AMSE

Sophie Bourlet

Sophie Bourlet

Journaliste scientifique


While dedicated policies emerged in France in the 2000s, thinking on the subject dates back some thirty years. Between philosophy, sociology and economics, the notion is complex to grasp and measure.

The economist Alain Trannoy is one of the pioneers of this thinking. In 2020, in "Measuring educational inequality of opportunity: pupil's effort matters", published in World Development, he uses a 2009 UN study in rural Bangladesh to demonstrate the importance of individual action in measuring inequality of opportunity. The effort, preferences and talents of secondary school pupils contribute to one third of school outcomes.

Effort or circumstances?

In 1971, the American philosopher John Rawls laid the groundwork for the notion of equality of opportunity in his Theory of Justice. In studying how to reconcile equality and liberty in the United States, he theorized a principle that inequalities could only be accepted if they benefited the most disadvantaged. Since 1960, affirmative action laws have encouraged employers to take steps for the employment and treatment of African-American employees. And these inequalities, according to many studies, have their roots in education. Education is said to be a key factor in access to work, health and well-being, and could be a vehicle for reducing inequalities.

group of children around a teacher explaining a point.

Picture by Balance Form Creative on Adobe Stock

Although many people now agree on the importance of equalizing success in education, the question of how to implement this social objective is nevertheless open to debate. Does social success necessarily depend on academic achievement? What are the origins of inequalities? What parameters should be changed? The economist Alain Trannoy is interested in the factors that determine school results. For him, social circumstances are often studied more than individual effort. There are several opposing views on this subject, the best known being the controversy between researchers John E. Roemer and Brian Barry. For the former, effort leads to legitimate inequality while circumstances lead to illegitimate inequality. Effort, however, is a function of circumstances. For Barry, even if effort were related to circumstances, individuals would not be less deserving. These opposing philosophical and moral views only make sense above the age of reason, which Alain Trannoy considers to be adolescence.

For the researcher and his co-authors, beyond social origin and circumstances, the effort made by the pupil, parents and teachers counts for a lot, below the age of reason. This hypothesis is confirmed by the data, the survey conducted by the United Nations in schools in rural Bangladesh. This region of the country has the advantage of a very low level of social inequalities. This is an ideal terrain for extracting the notion of effort from social origin. The study is based on a series of assessments of the effort, preferences and talent of young students. The questions, filled in with the help of the teacher, bear upon the frequency of distraction of the pupil, his or her relationship to work, or even his or her own feeling of being popular within the class. The results are edifying: one third of the difference in the level of the pupils is linked to effort.

Mathematics more impacted by effort

To reach this conclusion, the researchers analyze school results in English and mathematics. Basic maths skills are essential for everyday life and English, one of the languages used in the country, is a prerequisite for some Bangladeshi jobs. According to the researchers, the two subjects are essential for life in the community, but they are not affected in the same way by the efforts made. Thus, mathematics would be more related to effort than English. This can be explained by the fact that language skills are more easily transmitted at home, by parents around the dinner table for example, than mathematics.

A mother and daughter happily complete a homework assignment

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In France, mathematics is traditionally highly valued in the school curriculum. In 2019, one and a half hours of mathematics were removed from the core curriculum at the lycée. The reform caused such an outcry that in 2022, this time slot was reinstated.If the study’s results are transposable to France, this decision could put the effort of pupils back at the center of the disparities in school results. On the other hand, competitive examinations that favour linguistic and cultural knowledge, such as for entrance into Science Po courses, would be more discriminating with regard to social origin, regardless of the effort made.

Other factors to be taken into account

However, there are limitations to this study. The efforts made by parents or teachers, the initial IQ of pupils or the geographical distribution are data that are not included in the survey. However, these are parameters that could be modified to improve equality of opportunity and do not depend on the goodwill of the pupil. A teacher who telephones parents every evening to follow up on homework would improve children's success. On the parents' side, the use of appropriate methods, the establishment of a calm environment at home offered to the child are all tools that would promote the child's success. For Alain Trannoy, it is important to bring parents into the loop and put an end to implicit injunctions. It is assumed that parents know what to do outside of school: check that homework is done, help with finding documents, set up homework time. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, in France, the children of teachers do better than others on average, partly because they are more familiar with the expectations of the school system.


In Bangladesh, there are government schools and religious schools, the madrasas. Students attending the latter are known to have a lower standard than in government schools, especially in English. The choice of schools may be a strategy of the parents, or it may simply be related to the geographical location of the family. The quality of the school remains an important parameter and it is possible to act on it. If we were able to equalize the quality of schools, the inequality of opportunity would decrease by at least a quarter, according to the authors of the study.

"Measuring educational inequality of opportunity: pupil's effort matters" article thus aims to challenge the idea that educational outcomes depend solely on social circumstances. In the absence of data to measure effort, the role of circumstances may be biased and overestimated. Whatever one's view of the legitimate or illegitimate sources of inequality, it still persists and is even intensifying. In May 2022, INSEE, in a study on intergenerational income mobility, concluded that children from wealthy families were three times more likely to be among the wealthiest 20% than those from modest families.

Translated from French by

Translated from french by Cate Evans


M. N. Asadullah, A. Trannoy, S. Tubeuf, G. Yalonetzky, 2021. "Measuring educational inequality of opportunity : Pupil’s effort matters" World Development. 138, 105262.