The Social Justice Educator
Updated: May 10
So why should we all be bothered about social justice? Why should educators be concerned and actively try to influence the way society works in how it distributes wealth, opportunities, and privileges? That the playing field of life that some people are born into is so unfair from the outset?
Aside from the moral argument that it’s simply wrong that children born into certain circumstances such as poverty have less chance to lead a good life, there’s the mutuality argument – we all prosper when more people in society fulfil their potential. As a country, we simply cannot afford to keep stifling – and therefore wasting - our creative assets. In her book, Born to Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View, Sonia Blandford informs us, “This is estimated to cost to the UK economy some £77 billion a year.”
Then there’s the character argument. We’ve just come to the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. Narcissists like Trump have no compassion for others. They regard themselves as ‘entitled’ people or what singer Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy calls a ‘Queuejumper’ (“I jumped the queue cos I’m better than you”). The survival of the planet literally hinges on people of good character reigning in the selfish who oppress and overconsume.
The key components of social justice are equity and equality. We live in a country with vast inequalities and lots of unfairness. This has especially grown since the 2008 financial crisis and what governments did in its aftermath – pursue policies of austerity.
Here are some headlines that you should be aware of as an educator:
Child poverty is on the increase. According to government figures, there were 4.2 million children living in poverty in 2019. It has gone up further in the pandemic.
Our schools ‘fail’ around a third of all students by the end of their formal education. Many of these students continue to feel this sense of ‘failure’ throughout their lives.
The pressure not to fail summative exams, which may cause one to slip down the social class ladder, might also be a factor in explaining why we have the unhappiest and anxious young people in Europe.
The pandemic has deepened these problems. Lots of data, such as the recent Teacher Tapp survey of school leaders shown below, reveals the wide disparity in work completed by children from different families and socio-economic groups. The completion of work is a good indicator of that the lack of engagement with education is heavily linked to a family’s income level. And, despite what some tabloids try to tell us most of the families in the bottom income quartile are in work.
However, one positive outcome of the pandemic is that social justice is now higher on the public’s agenda. Driven, in part, by high-profile individuals like Marcus Rashford – someone whose personal experience of inequality informs his actions – the social justice debate is a hot topic, and one that is increasingly difficult to ignore. There’s now a greater appreciation of the key roles working-class people and people from the BAME community play in our daily lives, roles that many were previously unaware of or took for granted. More people have actively supported vulnerable people within their communities and there’s also a growing movement around something called effective altruism. I’ve got a few books on this and I’m not really prepared to lend them! But here’s a weblink: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism/
Whilst the need for social justice – in all its forms – is now more widely recognised, there’s still work to do there also needs to be deliberate and specific interventions to secure these basic rights. This isn’t the sole responsibility of educators (although I’ll focus on that here and discuss the significant role of educators and education in instigating change). No, the delivery of social justice is essentially a shared responsibility, and its success relies on individuals and institutions wanting, and working towards, greater fairness for all.
Most teachers come into profession to make a difference, and they do. However, to quote Frankie Boyle, “One of the reasons evil people triumph is that good people have such fuller diaries.” Educators are already swamped with huge workloads. Nevertheless, I hope to persuade you (or help you to persuade those around you) to redirect some time and resources towards practical things that will help you and your institution to be more effective in delivering social justice.
How can schools deliver more social justice?
I’m going to lay out some ideas in this blog. They’ve been inspired by working countless social justice educators around the country (although in their modesty they would not recognise themselves as such). Hopefully these can make an impact on social justice. I’ll also provide some reflective questions and attempt to address some elephants in the room such as finding the time and resources to make these changes.
1. Examining Education’s Metrics for Success
Psychologists tell us that if we want to find happiness we should learn to measure success in our own terms. They exhort us to, ‘Run your own lane’ and not compare yourself with others. Unfortunately, too many people are manipulated to do the opposite. The media they ingest, and the norms of our neo-liberal society often lead people to follow metrics which ultimately cause their unhappiness.
At a school and system level we also need to examine our own metrics and see if they are fit for purpose. What does it say about us as a school when we communicate “success” in terms of solely how well someone does in written exams?
Let’s consider two responses to exam results from two different headteachers. In 2019, Thomas Brendan Tapping, head of a secondary Catholic College in South Shields was forced to apologise to his school community for writing in a letter: ‘Your level of success in National examinations will probably have a key role to play in the type of house you live in, the car you drive and the holidays you can afford'. Not a great message to those who don’t attain perceived as “good” grades. Contrast Rachel Tomlinson, headteacher of Barrowfield School. Her brilliant letter to parents after their SAT’s, congratulates all pupils on their results and finishes with: ‘So enjoy your results and be very proud of these but remember there are many ways of being smart.’
We need to think carefully about how your school communicates notions of success. Also consider other metrics for success which can run alongside the mandatory ones that schools have to report.
In the mid-1990’s Daniel Goleman published a book called Emotional Intelligence- and the IQ vs EQ debate began. Of course, both are important and from my work, I’ve seen that EQ traits such as motivation, empathy, self-control, self-awareness and social skills are immensely developable. If we focus on just one of these for a second – self-control. It’s pretty clear that through developing impulse-control and subsequently concentration can enhance self-regulation and even reducing anxiety. Isn’t this worth measuring too?
Note both the Educational Endowment Foundation and Professor John Hattie attribute high effect sizes to the development of self-regulation and metacognition in children and young people.
I like this definition of Wellbeing: “feeling good and functioning well” (Aked et al, Five Ways to Wellbeing). When an organisation like a school is successful at improving this it can help a positive impact on social justice because wellbeing gives people greater agency. A focus on this helps staff too.
Regular dialogue with parents and learners about what they want from education can provide insight into other people’s lives - the formerly hidden becomes unhidden. The process of listening to others gives us a greater appreciation of their hopes, fears, beliefs, challenges and life journeys.
I’ve learned a lot through reading educational research but I’ve also learned from observing, dialogue and listening. In nature, hybrids tend to be stronger and we need to look for more of a hybrid approach to how we measure “success”. This can be achieved through examining a combination of objective indicators for wellbeing such as income, poverty, academic achievement alongside subjective measures such as levels of self-regard, perceptions of health and enjoyment of life measures. The subjective is too often neglected. To gather this subjective information, we need to allocate more time to learning and applying rich qualitative tools that uncover through dialogue, learning that might help educators to better understand the barriers faced by some members of the (school) community. This might mean we spend less time gathering what we might call more objective data, but more on this later.
Do your staff have the skillset to achieve more balanced data gathering?
How can you develop yourself and others as accurate collectors of other people’s lived experience?
2. Seeking to understand causes and effects of injustice
Are your staff Equalities Literate? Do they understand why someone might be oppressed?
Equalities Literacy does not emerge from some sort of bang-on-the-table style tirade against those who don’t fully understand the impact of (in no particular order) racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, prejudice around physical abilities and learning differences. It’s best developed through dialogue and analysis rather than forced on people to adopt. The last thing we need in education is another tyranny.
Dr Kaz Stuart and Dr Lucy Maynard have created an Equalities Framework that is a very helpful analytical tool. Their excellent book, Promoting Young People’s Wellbeing Through Empowerment and Agencyprovide an Equalities Literacy Framework which examines the conditions a person is born into, lived experiences, the treatment they get from others, and how they respond all interact to create an outcome or trajectory.
Learning about the lived experience of others
I have a better understanding of the impact of racism than a lot of white people, due to having had a black step-dad, Emerson Griffith. In the 1980’s he was a football referee and linesman. I went to many football matches with him and watched him officiate lots of games. I witnessed open racism towards him and other white people who wilfully ignored it. Some were only openly racist when they felt it was safe to do so but I know that he was heartened by the many white people who encouraged him and stood up racism. Being a part of Emerson’s life gave me an awareness of an issue that I did not formerly know was an issue - well not an issue for people like me anyway. Learning about other people’s challenges may help us to recognise that we all have blind spots and are can suffer from unconscious bias, both can prevent us being better social justice educators.
How can you allocate more time for listening and learning about the lives of others facing injustice (both within and outside your school community)?
How can staff become more Equalities Literate and be more aware of the barriers that some learners and families face?
3. Developing ‘Cultural Capital’
Too many students don’t particularly do well in our education system. Could this be because they lack something called cultural capital? The Cultural Learning Alliance define cultural capital as something, “embodied by an individual who is knowledgeable about a wide range of culture and is comfortable discussing its value and merits. It is characterised by the experience and skill to be able to deploy the appropriate knowledge in any given situation: a job interview, a conversation with a neighbour, building a work network and so on”. Ofsted describe it as “the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens”.
The most lucid and compelling writer on this matter is Phil Beadle. His latest book, The Fascist Painting/What is Cultural Capital? is a great read. How well schools build cultural capital is something that Ofsted will now inspect. Beadle explains that Ofsted has confused cultural capital with cultural literacy and that, “Cultural capital can be a conduit for teaching how the world works”.
Learners, especially if they come from working-class backgrounds, should not feel that ‘culture’ is not for them. As educators, we need to be careful not to be too deferential to “the best that has been thought and said”as Ofsted have also said. Challenging notions of ‘high culture’ and its so-called opposite ‘low-culture’ means that we should not be teaching children and young people that the ‘best’ art and literature has come from the elite classes - because it hasn’t.
Ofsted’s focus on the building of cultural capital provides schools and colleges with an opportunity to teach some politics. It’s simply naïve to not recognise that politics has played - and still does play - a part in the design of the education system. Helping children and young people to develop critical dispositions that best prepare them can prevent some of them being used or oppressed by others.
Ensure that some meaningful space is allocated to designing experiences that builds on the cultural capital that learners already possess. In so doing we honour what is good about coming from a working-class background but recognise that due to constraints such as low income and perhaps low self-efficacy, some learners may have missed out on experiences that may make their lives more enjoyable and meaningful. Take art for instance. Many working class people might think that artists are only from privileged backgrounds. When they see the art created from people of their own class such as the paintings created by some of the miners from the Ashlington Colliery they can derive a sense of shared pride and a sense of possibility for themselves.
One way of doing this is through making some promises to learners, to give them certain entitlements such as creating a manifesto for social justice.
Why a Manifesto?
Manifestos are traditionally produced by political parties to outline their intentions for what they would do in government. They are effectively promises. The best manifesto I have read isn’t from a political party it’s from comedian and social activist Mark Thomas. He toured the country seeking audience ideas about how to make Britain a better place. From this he created The People’s Manifesto. Ideas were voted on and included if a majority agreed with an audience member’s proposal. And there were some great ones, such as:
• People who allow their dogs to shit on the pavement without cleaning it up should be forced to wear it as a moustache.
• Politicians should have to wear tabards displaying the names and logos of the companies with whom they have a financial relationship, like a racing driver. They should also be forced to sing the company's jingle when they stand up in the Chamber.
• Deem elections void if a political party breaks over 50% of their election pledges.
So what should be in a Social Justice Manifesto? We can’t make laws in our schools but we can outline a position – what we stand for, what we will do and what we won’t do. Here are a few suggestions:
“We Won’t Label You”
When the school community becomes more Equalities Literate it will stop labelling and stereotyping. Most labels are unhelpful and often unwanted by the recipients. Such labels and stereotypes are known as Technologies of Oppression or Liberation by Sociologists. At worse, labels objectify people and can render some as socially abject. We need to be mindful that the UK has a lot of reality television and mass media which casts a lot of vulnerable people in a bad light. We need to explicitly counter those stereotypes and labels. This might involve children from asylum seekers, refugees, traveler communities and other marginalized groups.
“We Won’t Aim Low – And Nor Should You”
Your manifesto should also state boldly and explicitly that you won’t dumb down the curriculum. The best schools have high expectations for the whole of their school community. Access to high quality resources, environment and exemplars (WAGOLL) should be a key part of learning design. The commitment to continuous improvement and aiming ever higher should be clearly stated as part of the school’s DNA.
“We Will Give You Rich Experiences”
Varied and well-thought out experiences have the potential to empower, raise wellbeing, develop self-efficacy and enhance cultural capital. Visiting the theatre and see a play, attending an art exhibition, visiting a business, listening to a speaker, or watching a sub-titled film can help learners to challenge their own beliefs about who certain things, like the arts, are for. They can act as “sparks” that can help learners to appreciate what they want or don’t want, and recognise that other pathways and pursuits might be possible for them. I’ve seen the transformational impact of things such as work experience, mock interviews, mentoring, residentials and trips. However, that we always have to be mindful that it is not enough to raise awareness for students that these places or artefacts exist, and can be enjoyed or consumed by them. We also need to support them in accessing what they now want – either directly or by finding organisations, individuals or agencies who can help.
Trips and experiences that raise student’s awareness should not be viewed as an additionality. They need to be an integral part of the curriculum if it is to impact on social justice. Efficient and creative schools build these experiences into curriculum planning. A well-written school calendar can provide opportunities to develop cultural capital, which in turn may create more social justice for those learners in later life.
Collapsed timetable days provide another time-efficient way of supporting experiential learning. Examples include: theatre groups performing plays, outside speakers, workshops offered by an employer, industry body or university and meeting people from other faiths and cultures.
Some teachers and schools can have a mental block to organising these but it’s not as hard as you might think. Providing with the opportunity to experience something out of their comfort zone is another potential opportunity for ‘sparking’. Or what about extending the offer of after-school and lunchtime activities? Teachers have big workloads but some may be happy to share their passion for something they love. This could be an after-school one off talk, a lunchtime club, a short course for students or even for parents – some of this can even be delivered remotely. In the school where I work, All Saints in Kirkby, Merseyside teachers have made informative Screencasts and instructional videos for parents that they can watch, learn from and use them to support their children at home.
“We Will Help You To Improve Your World”
We may learn from our research that some learners and families have developed narratives that may be holding them back. By helping them to understand that we all create and edit our own stories we can help them to create some alternative or counter-narratives. Referred to as “breaking the script” by writers Chip and Dan Heath in their book Moments, helping people to take control of their own story is especially important if they regard themselves as a ‘failure’, ‘doomed’, ‘overwhelmed’ or ‘stupid’. Challenging students and possibly parents to examine and critique their own narratives doesn’t mean that we are putting all of the responsibility on them to work through their obstacles, but the reframing process can help them to be more open to our interventions.
Media critique is another important skill that students should be taught. In Reading in the Dark, John Golden advocates that studying film can help students to develop critical thinking skills. Being able to analyse media beyond its content might involve getting students to consider the intentions and biases of the author. Understanding how media can manipulate can be empowering. Studying film builds cultural capital and give students opportunities to develop discussion skills.
Could you set up a film club? The organisation Into Filmhas some good resources that can be harvested. https://www.intofilm.org
“We Will Bring Out The Best In You”
Mentoring is another initiative than can especially help working-class learners. Trained mentors, well-matched to students, can raise expectations and build self-efficacy. Working class families have less access to contacts with knowledge of certain career paths and how important work experience and internships can be. All teachers understand the power of relationships. Equally, a strong mentor-mentee relationship leads to better plans which more likely to come to fruition.
“We Will Creatively Record Your Progress”
Remember the burgundy folders of the National Record of Achievement? Surely, in this digital age we can find efficient and creative ways for students to show off their best work and highlight their strongest personal qualities.I’ve always been a big fan of learners building portfolios. The platforms that have enabled home learning in the pandemic can now be used for students to build portfolios guided by teachers and teaching assistants who know them well. The whole notion of portfolio-building is an exciting one for schools to curate. Professor Amy Wrzesniewski believes that purpose isn’t discovered, it’s cultivated. The very process of picking work to include, and reflecting on progress made, can build motivation and help learners to be more future-focused.
A manifesto is a series of promises. It can be seen as a kind of kitemark or set of standards that give the families in your community certain guarantees. Stick to it and you’ll get bags of trust and good will from the whole school community. The construction and enactment of a Social Justice Manifesto requires listening, collaboration and democracy - a bit different from the normal top-down delivery we’re useful in our education system. If this sounds like a refreshing change, why not try to create one within your school community?
When I work with teachers and schools I always ask (for the obvious reason that I want to sell a few more books) what are you teaching backwards from? In most cases respondents will have the word ‘all’ embedded within their reply or that everyone will benefit is implicit. Here are some common answers:
“We teach backwards from all our learners learning powerful knowledge”.
“We teach backwards from independent learners”.
“We teach backwards from confident learners”.
But do they really do this? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Some schools lose sight of the wider purpose of education. For example, the ‘powerful knowledge curriculum’ which is the work of Professor Michael Young can be a liberating force. Done well it can provide rich cultural capital for many students. Sadly, he notes that some schools have hijacked his work and used it to create “a curriculum of compliance that in extreme cases encourages little more than memorisation and rote learning.”Johan Miller and Michael Young, Knowledge Power and Powerful Knowledge Revisited, Curriculum Journey (2019). Is this to do with Ofsted pressures? Weak leadership? Whatever the reason, a Social Justice Manifesto can provide the north compass that can stop schools drifting towards delivering a mundane and sometimes oppressive education experience for many. This isn’t a trade-off. Higher cultural capital by the end of a student’s educational journey can go hand in hand with strong grades.
Do all staff understand cultural capital? Do they understand the opportunities and challenges that developing it brings?
Does every department or subject in your school contribute to developing cultural capital?
Do staff have the knowledge of not just why ‘Sparking’ experiences are needed but how to organise them? Do they know how to support students who are inspired by the experience?
Do you make bold promises to your school community? Where are these promises derived from? Are you good at keeping them?
Next, let’s look at how we need to work on the system as well as in it.
4. Using the language of ‘Justice’ rather ‘Mobility’.
If you’re committed to the idea of social justice then use the language of justice rather than mobility. I was someone who has ‘benefited’ from something referred to as social mobility. Note this is the first time I’ve used that term in this article because I don’t like it. Again, Phil Beadle puts it so well, “Social mobility says your mum and dad are shit…Social mobility says here are our values they are better than yours…Social mobility says you are less than”.
There is absolutely no way that someone from my background would even think of applying to university today, let alone go to one. The existence of a full grant enabled this for me and I am appalled by the current costs of higher education.
Your own lived experience will be mixed with elements of good and bad luck. Your life may have given you insights into societal injustice which you may want to act upon to help others. But even if your lived experience hasn’t been one of oppression and struggle, I implore you to use language around notions of justice.
I’m sure that whatever your own context is a few extra resources and finance would make a big difference. If we look at early years education, Sure Start programmes set up in the 1990’s have been proven by the Nuffield Foundation and others to have a positive effects on children’s health, which in turn will help them to be more successful in school.
This is basic Maslow, fulfil someone’s basic physiological needs and you’ll enable a child to climb a hierarchy where they hopefully end up as a self-actualised adult – a great thing to teach backwards from. Early years expert Penny Tasoni helpfully gets us to think about children as either lucky or unlucky. According to Penny, lucky children have:
Strong relationships and time with adults;
Consistency and appropriate boundary setting;
Opportunities to interact;
Opportunities to share books;
Varied experiences/ adult directed activities;
Challenging play opportunities.
Sure Start centres, libraries and other services that especially helped disadvantaged families to become ‘luckier’ were savagely cut in the austerity years. Remember, the pandemic has also taught us that austerity was a political choice.
Discussions around justice, luck and fairness can emanate from analysing current events, consuming literature and making this a core part of your school’s raison d’etre. Discussing issues around injustice that occur before and after the key stage you teach is also crucial. Consider the quote from the Frank Field report into child poverty below as a possible stimulus for staff discussion. What should have been done about this? What can be done about this?
“The successes individuals achieve during their adult life can be predicted by the level of cognitive and non-cognitive skills they already possess on their first day at school. These differences in skill levels have been noted after as little as 22 months of life, and are shown to widen within the toddler population by the age of five.” (Frank Field report 2010)
Addressing some elephants in the room
We’ve only got so much time on this world and we’ve only got so much energy too. Social injustice can be radically reduced by how we work in the system and on it.
Elephant 1: “Where will we find the time from?”
Time is a finite resource which is the same for everyone. So here’s a few suggestions how you might re-allocate time:
· Conduct less formal data collecting and use this time for dialogue with students instead.
· Give some staff mornings and days off if they work evenings and weekends on these ideas.
· Visit and learn from schools that have successfully made their curriculum more experience -rich.
· Widen the partners and organisation who can use your school premises to work with your community.
Elephant 2: “Won’t distributing opportunities and challenges mean that some have to let go of certain privileges?
Yes it will. Of course some people will lose out but remember the mutuality argument earlier. Climate change is another social justice issue - the poorer people's the world will suffer its effects the most. The biggest polluters in the world will need to change. Many of us who live in richer countries will need give up some things that we have come to expect and rely on.
Elephant 3: Why should it just be on educators to solve these problems?
It’s not. Returning to the injustice of racism, I’ve been heartened for the first time in my lifetime to see a private company, Sky Sports, both raise more awareness of the effect of historical racism and racist abuse and act on this by promoting more black ex-footballers as pundits and giving more coverage to BAME sports journalists. Although there’s still a long way to go, they have acted.
Elephant 4: “Isn’t the problem just too large?”
For this elephant I always use the famous story of the boy and the starfish. A boy sees thousands of starfish washed up on the beach. To save them he picks them up and starts throwing them back into the sea. A passer-by asks him what he’s doing. The boy explains he’s saving starfish to which the passer-by replies, “what’s the point, there’s so many. It won’t make any difference”. To which the boy replies, holding the starfish in his hand, “it will sure make a difference to this one”.
I believe that human beings can grow in the face of adversity. Collective efficacy – the belief that we can all make a difference to problems we encounter has an incredible power to change things. When you are part of a ‘Community of Possibilities’ everyone’s vitality is heightened.
Social injustice is not an inevitability. It can be reduced by intelligent action. I hope this blog has given you a few more ideas to play your part. I’ll leave the last words to writer James Baldwin.
“It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancour, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but one must fight them with all one’s strength.”
Andy Griffith February 2021
Follow me on Twitter @OTeaching and @Malitcommunity.
A quick plug. I recently recorded a podcast Dr Kaz Stuart and Dr Lucy Maynard as part of the Communitea Talks series we run. It will provide some great learning for anyone interested in social justice. Look out for our announcements when it’s released on all our social media platforms @Malitcommunity.
Race, Class and the Ruins of Empire, Akala
Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
The Fascist painting/What is Cultural Capital? Phil Beadle
Born to Fail? Sandra Blandford
Community, Peter Block
The Future of British Politics, Frankie Boyle
Precarious Life, Judith Butler
Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire
The Working Class: Poverty, education and alternative voices, Ian Gilbert
Reading in the Dark, John Golden
Moments, Chip and Dan Heath
Powers of Horror: an essay on abjection, Julia Kristeva’s
Social Mobility And Its Enemies, Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin
Miseducation, Diane Reay
Promoting Young People's Empowerment and Agency:A Critical Framework for Practice, Kaz Stuart and Lucy Maynard
Reducing Educational Disadvantage, Penny Tasoni
The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer
Education for Social Justice: Achieving Wellbeing for All, Laura Chapman, John West-Burnham
Learning to Labour, Paul Willis