Its not just about schools but they do have a role
David Cameron claimed, back in 2007, that without education there can be no social justice. Nicky Morgan, when she was Education Secretary, added that schools were no less than ‘ engines of social justice’ . Robert Halfon MP, the Education Select Committee chair, in the last Parliament , believed that “tackling social justice is the central objective of the Education Committee “ (2018) and that ‘social injustice inhabits every part of our education system.’ Indeed, so keen was Halfon to push the social justice agenda that he sought to introduce a Bill in the Commons that would have strengthened the Social Mobility Commission, broadening its role to assess all domestic legislation for its impact on social justice , giving it additional powers to hold ministers’ ‘feet to the fire.’ He even wanted to change the name of the Commission to ‘The Social Justice Commission’ helping it create much more of an equal opportunity environment , across public policy. Against this backdrop, two things are clear. First, that the pursuit of social justice is not just the preserve of the left, in politics. It is a cross party issue. Second ,that politicians see the pursuit of social justice as integral to informing education policy. To an extent though, social justice means different things to different people, and groups, for that matter. It is seen through many different lenses, particularly in this era of ‘identity’ politics. That said, there is some measure of consensus around the idea that it focuses on the needs of the individual, on equalising opportunity, and in promoting fairness and equity throughout society.
It transpired that the new Social Mobility Commission didn’t much want Halfons unsolicited help in getting its remit extended. It reasoned that it already had more than enough on its plate, given its resource constraints. As for Ministers , they are never very keen for their feet to be held to the fire by anyone, on any issue. So, the idea was quicly kicked into the long grass. Nonetheless, Halfons efforts served a useful purpose. He had correctly focused on equality of opportunity as being central to any conception of social justice, as well as the fact that the pursuit of social justice had to be broad and cross cutting to have any chance of success in knocking down barriers and improving outcomes. In seeking to change the remit of the Commission he was simply suggesting , implicitly, that someone, or some organisation, needed to provide leadership and co-ordination to advance an agenda that was making limited headway.
Like it or not, our education system, including schools, colleges and universities, are crucial to realising any conception of social justice that focuses on equalising opportunities. So, stripping it back to its essentials, social justice means ensuring that every individual is given an equal opportunity to succeed in life, regardless of their economic background, class, age, gender, race or ethnic origin. And this is where education (and early education, particularly) come in. Implicit in this, is a focus on the individual student, providing a personalised teaching and learning environment, with the necessary interventions and support that go with this, ensuring that they have real opportunities to succeed and meet their potential. Children clearly need a holistic education that prepares them not just for vital cognitive tasks, but for the broad gamut of personal, social and professional opportunities, challenges and duties in life.So, Personalisation is about the need to tailor education to individual need, interest and aptitude so as to fulfil every young person’s potential.
For those who seek more clarity on how schools are relevant to social justice, SSAT- the schools and teachers network – has done much work this year, building on the framework of some of their previous work with Professor David Hargreaves , in identifying what schools, their leaders and others might be doing to improve social justice. SSATs annual conference next month, has Social Justice as its main theme. https://www.ssatuk.co.uk/nc19/
SSATs working definition of social justice embraces a commitment to’ ensuring that all young people leave school fully prepared to lead fulfilled and purposeful lives’. The premise is that this can be achieved by returning to a personalised approach to education. Professor David Hargreaves grouped nine gateways of personalisation (see note below) into the four ‘deeps’- learning, experience, support and leadership to give schools a loose framework to work with, adaptable to different models of school organisation. These four ‘deeps’ adapted for social justice are
Deep learning for social justice: the role of pedagogy in nurturing fulfilled lives.
Deep experience for social justice: what knowledge, opportunities and outcomes will end the disadvantaged gap?
Deep support for social justice: taking a broader view of the inclusion agenda to embrace all young people.
Deep leadership for social justice: placing social justice at the heart of your educational vision, philosophy and practice.
If you accept that equalising opportunities is important (not everyone does ,to be fair ) then it is best started early on, meaning that schools, and even pre-schools have their part to play. That is not the same thing as saying that the responsibility for social justice rests just with educators . Remedying injustices and inequities is not, and never can be, the responsibility of teachers and other educators alone. Unfairness extends well beyond the school gates. As things stand, Teachers have to seek, as best they can, to manage their consequences, too often with insufficient resources and understanding from politicians regulators, and the accountability framework itself. Poverty, deprivation, social dysfunction, ill health, poor parenting and other structural issues all impact on a childs opportunities life chances and broader social outcomes . Any strategy to advance social justice has to be joined up, and cross cutting, involving schools and groups of schools, of course, but also other community based organisations, welfare agencies and the third sector . Understanding precisely where schools can play their part, and where their interventions can have an impact, where they cant , and where they should leave it to other agencies, or indeed work with these agencies, is vital.
This requires combining a top down ,and bottom up approach. National politicians have got to have a better understanding the importance of stable forward thinking leadership , of long term strategic planning , of cross departmental working , of dumping the silo mentality, of evidence informed policy and of allocating resources to back a coherent joined up strategy. At the moment, because the political bandwidth is so narrow, the enabling environment for change, at the national level at least , just isn’t there, for now , but we have to look ahead beyond Brexit . But, at the local level , perhaps more can be done , and there is potential for change over the short term. There needs to be local leadership and better collaboration between the education sectors, between schools and groups of schools, with local authorities , community based organisations and welfare services and the third sector.
Not so long ago there was a government initiative called the extended schools programme. These were schools serving the most disadvantaged areas offering a wide range of services or activities outside of the normal school day to help meet the learning and development needs of pupils, their families and local communities. These schools were given additional funding from the government. Possibly we should dust off this idea and develop a variant , community hubs , of which schools are very much part, where resources are pooled, and where there is partnership working, from the bottom up. . Good schools and groups of schools are already embedded in their communities and have a range of productive relationships with others ,outside the school gates, to help support their children’s development and for mutual advantage. So we don’t need to re-invent the wheel. But we do need to change the way the system works if we are to improve our young peoples life opportunities.
As far as schools are concerned and their role, have a look at SSATs series of pamphlets on deep social justice. These suggest where schools and school leaders can make a real difference to individuals and their opportunities., and where progress can be made through personalising learning.
Professor David Hargreaves’ nine Gateways to Personalised Learning (2008) are 1. Student Voice 2. Assessment for Learning 3. Learning to Learn 4. New Technologies 5. Curriculum 6. Advice and Guidance 7. Mentoring and Coaching 8. Workforce Reform 9. Design and Organisation