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Schools: a new front for social justice?

Updated: Aug 17

Saturday 2 November, 14:00—15:30, Cinema 3

Tarjinder Gill

Pamela Dow

David Perks

Jess Staufenberg

Chair: Mark Taylor

Tarjinder Gill, Mark Taylor, David Perks, Pamela Dow and Jess Staufenberg

I still don’t know what social justice is. It is an expression that gets used a great deal to the point where I feel as though I should know what it means. What confuses me is why the word ‘justice’ requires a pre-modifier. What is ‘just’ surely means what is ‘right’, including in the eyes of the law - I believe the word ‘just’ derives from the word ‘law’. So I wonder whether social justice is a synonym for fairness. I am not sure that justice and fairness are the same thing. Perhaps the Battle of Ideas should hold a debate about fairness and unfairness (but they’ll need longer than ninety minutes).

What was certainly evident from this Battle of Ideas discussion is that social justice is interpreted in different ways. Unsurprisingly perhaps, East London School of Science headteacher David Perks saw the potential for greater social justice in the hands of schools, including people who run schools. The problem is, he added, headteachers do not always enjoy much power because they are not trusted. It is interesting, I think, that the role of a headteacher is, amongst other things, to spend taxpayers’ money. Which teachers to employ, which resources to buy and which buildings to update or build (money permitting) are decisions in the hands of headteachers to a degree at least. We live in odd times when, on the one hand, many people wish to see more power in the hands of the state, and yet, on the other hand, the state and its agents (teachers included) are not trusted very much. If schools are going to help people, Perks argued, there will need to be greater trust. The stakes are big, with knife crime amongst one of many problems. The question is, are schools being asked to solve such problems at the same time as being seen as part of the trouble?


Tarjinder Gill pointed out that social justice is not the same as social mobility. Gill focused on the problem of academics who seek to influence education along the lines that, since they see education as political, it is in turn acceptable to politicise it. Fads get introduced, she feared, not because they will benefit young people, but because they suit political objectives. Fads are certainly not always based on hard data. This struck a chord with me since very few educational ‘initiatives’ seem to be supported with empirical evidence. This might be because teaching is not a science, but an art, a point that the Chair, Mark Taylor, made in ‘What really makes a good teacher.’

Jess Staufenberg argues her case

Still, that is not entirely true. Pamela Dow highlighted that some things do work: focusing on literacy and numeracy will afford children the best life chances and enhance social mobility. There is something to be said maybe for the idea, ‘don’t just do something, sit there.’ In fact well-meaning attempts to intervene and improve the life chances of young people might make things worse. The understandable desire to improve social mobility does not necessarily lead to an effective outcome. I taught at a school during the ‘peak’ of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The money poured in, but one of the things that the school spent it on was re-painting the toilets every time students defecated all over the floor and walls. In the end some of the money went literally down the toilet. For all the money it had this particular school never had a grip.

progression in education

Jess Staufenberg challenged the claim that schools have lost power, including headteachers having the right to exclude students. In her many school visits around the UK she did not recognise the view that schools have been taken over by left wing progressives. Schools are not becoming a branch of the social justice warrior movement. Then again, she conceded, social justice has led to progression in education: the classics have long since given way to ‘newer’ subjects that are now mainstays of the curriculum. I sometimes find it hard to understand why education costs so much money. An adult reads some books then teachers knowledge to children. It sounds quite cheap. Jess Staufenberg believed that schools should be career-focused and provide social networks for later life. Getting former students in (success stories) to inspire the next generation should be more common. It is what independent schools do so well, she said.

What emerged loud and clear from this debate is that there is no agreed focus over what education is, and what the education system in the UK is for. One audience member suggested that her daughter’s life chances would be improved significantly if teachers stopped interrupting valuable teaching time with non-academic advice and teaching. Just teach! Staufenberg disagreed (I think). There are other valuable things that schools should be doing. It was a dividing issue of the panel after Gill had already said that foundational skills at primary schools do not always get adequately covered, leading to a knowledge gap that follows the child into secondary school.

Perhaps the real problem is that there is too much vested interest in interfering with education. The worst thing you can do in education is to point out that the emperor is stark naked, if you don’t want your card marked.