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Updated: Jul 12, 2021

With the outcome of a General Election in UK recently decided, it is regrettably the case that the incoming government will seemingly not regard the preservation and enhancement of social justice as one of its perceived early aspirations or commitments.

Yet, if one scratches the surface to reveal contemporary issues across western society, the notion of social justice figures prominently and especially in those countries that seek approval for their perceived social norms. Whilst we have good reason to argue that there has been considerable political and policy change of late in the US, it is over ten years ago since the then Secretary of State for Education, Duncan was saying:

“I believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start. Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.”

Arne Duncan, speech at University of Virginia 9 October 2009.

Trump’s America might in recent times be less than convincing in its enactment of the principles underlying social justice but for educators, the need to educate our children and students in such ways as to engender an understanding of just those principles is paramount as we seek to inform and to help shape the next generations.

With human rights and notions of equality traditionally the benchmarks of social justice, the UK has arguably seen a recent downturn in social coherence and at worst, has witnessed rancour and hostility within and from parts of the population towards citizens of other nations. Sadly, this is perpetuated by seeming hostility towards former EU partners emanating from government in the early days of the new order. Whatever the source of or reasons for this and the difficulty of changing entrenched attitudes, there must remain the conviction that social justice is an entirely worthwhile mission and Duncan’s words send a powerful message to educators to continue the journey.

If they do so, how might UK schools address social justice in curricular terms? For sure, we need to embrace the widest notion of ‘curriculum’ in any response we give. To see curriculum in terms of a set of subjects or a programme of learning is inadequate; rather we need to see the curriculum as the totality of learning, skills, experience and attitudes acquired within and beyond the classroom. Schools and teachers have often accepted the challenge in recent times but inevitably differ in response. Speaking of her own school and its priorities, a London Headteacher argued:

Social justice is academic for lots of children. Bare survival is the reality for many. At our school we are battling to reduce the impact of social injustice, because I don’t know how to eradicate it when our society exists on the premise that some people will have a lot more than others.’ (Maya Rollins in ‘How Can Schools Promote Social Justice?’, Guardian 3 November 2015.)

She continues:

‘To improve social justice through education you have to start further back. First, I would ensure that all our families have decent housing. Overcrowding in damp, unhealthy housing is a blight on children’s lives. We work in an already very poor area, and on top of that, some of our children whose families have fled dire and terrifying situations have no access to public funds. The effects are wide‑ranging and entirely detrimental’.

Clearly, those schools in the most disadvantaged areas perceive their task in radically different ways to schools in more favoured situations where the promotion of social justice in the curriculum means having pupils:

‘participate in a broad range of activities aimed at the building of empathy through various experiences such as pupils acting as ‘reading buddies’ in a school in a disadvantaged are or working with pupils with additional learning needs.’ (communication from an Independent School Headteacher, 2018).

In arguing that the two perspectives above lie at different ends of the spectrum of response, the middle ground is vast and varied both in terms of intensity and commitment.

Recent UK Secretaries of State for Education can be argued to have paid lip service to the idea of schools being potent agents for the building and maintenance of social justice. Nicky (now Baroness) Morgan, Conservative Secretary of State in 2015, saw schools as ‘the modern engines of social justice’ (18 June 2015, speaking at Sunday Times Festival of Education). Yet there are many who would argue that her confidence in the ability of schools to bring that about, against a background of often perceived social divisions and increasing poverty, is high on rhetoric and low on reality. Meanwhile, the latest Ofsted framework focuses upon the ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ and the progressive scaffolding of that knowledge. New times; old theory. Certainly, the latter reflects Bruner’s ‘spiral curriculum’ that is almost sixty years old.[1]

The Ofsted School Inspection Update of January 2019[2]devoted a Section 32 to Cultural Capital and comments: ‘It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought, and said, and helping them to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

This of course begs the question of whether an ‘educated’ citizen is one who can, through the curriculum, be exposed to the elements of and thinking behind social justice and thus gain a growing appreciation of how this affects lives?

In the same publication, Section 24 says that:

‘It is profoundly important to make sure that all pupils receive a high-quality education, built around an ambitious, well-designed and well-sequenced curriculum. This is a matter of social justice and equity (my bold), because it is the most disadvantaged children who are most likely to miss out on the things that a strong curriculum supplies.’

So social justice is to be achieved through the curriculum by schools creating a forward thinking, creative and progressive learning experience? Even allowing for individuality of response by schools, this is vague and to an extent hollow. Schools do not and should not live in a vacuum but to create in young minds a framework that enables an understanding and appreciation of social justice in everyday life is quite something else. At that point, politicians of our day arguably seek to limit the time schools spend in fostering social justice in so many forms. Rather, time to be spent on the curriculum as a set of subjects holds precedence and there is no suggestion in the Framework that Ofsted would see this as inappropriate.

Clearly, even without government support, the often-brilliant leadership teams and teachers in schools do a great deal to address the ideals of social justice. They do this whilst fighting the tide of increased social division and, as we have seen, without the clear support of those who are charged with oversight of education nationally. That schools continue to believe in and foster social justice is commendable; but without evidence that government is serious about the cause (and there is little to evidence that), impetus will weaken and even the most hardened and committed teacher can become disillusioned.

Peter Abbotts

  1. [1]Bruner J.S. (1960), The Process of Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press [2]

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