Socially just education

Professor Diane Reay
Cambridge University

A socially just educational system is one premised on the maxim that a good education is the democratic right of all rather than a prize to be competitively fought over. It is also one which seeks to value and enhance children’s well-being as well as their intellectual growth. Yet, current education policy has intensified educational cruelties in schooling. There are many examples but my research has focussed on two in particular. First, testing regimes in primary schools has shown that assessment procedures have powerful effects on how students come to see themselves as learners. It also reveals the emotional consequences – of anxiety and discomfort – for children, and highlights the paradox of contemporary English assessment regimes, that, while the stated aim is to raise the achievement of all children, one consequence is the fixing of failure in the working classes. Although children expressed anxieties across class differences, it was primarily black and white working-class girls agonising that they would be ‘a nothing’. And the risks of finding they have very little value in education are disproportionately high for such working-class girls.

The second area is that of setting and streaming, and in particular, the symbolic violence enacted on those in the bottom sets. The growing emphasis on competition between schools based on test results has encouraged both setting practices and ‘game playing’. Such practices have been growing exponentially across the state sector over the last decade, and are now endemic in primary as well as secondary schools. At the secondary stage they result in white middle class children in socially mixed schools being mostly educated separately in top sets away from their black and white working class peers. They also fix failure in the working classes who are disproportionately allocated to the bottom sets. This is an extremely perverse form of the fair chance and fair play for all that is traditionally viewed as underpinning our educational system.

Classrooms need to be transformed from the stressful, task-driven, target-led overly competitive environments they are currently. And while the 3Rs are important, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important. There is a great deal of scope for widening currently narrowly conceived teaching and learning opportunities, and for developing ‘disruptive pedagogies’ that encourage student to question,  as well as develop social and political awareness. A revalorizing of vocational and working class knowledges and a broadening out of what constitutes educational success beyond the narrowly academic is long overdue.

However, social justice for children and young people is not just an issue of what is happening in classrooms. All the major political parties valorize choice without recognizing that choices come with resources that remain very unequally distributed. Parental choice has become the main policy that the middle and upper classes have successfully mobilized in their strategy of keeping ahead. One consequence of a choice-based system is that the working classes have largely ended up with the educational ‘choices’ that the middle classes do not want to make.

A socially just educational system would require a very different structure to the existing one with a much flatter hierarchy of schooling. Currently 23% of British school educational spending goes on the 7% of pupils who are privately educated. Any commitment to social justice is fundamentally undermined by structures, such as private schools, that perpetuate advantage. However, current policy is privatizing the state system from the inside out. Private schools are just the tip of an iceberg of privatization as increasing numbers of schools, from church schools to academies and free schools enjoy some form of separation from the mainstream state sector while continuing to derive large parts of their income from the state. These would need to be replaced by a truly comprehensive system where the differences between schools are minimized, while the diversity within them is maximized. With the abolition of the existing inequitable diversity of types of schools, all with their different funding mechanisms and selection requirements, there could be a renewed focus on achieving a social mix within schools that is underpinned by social mixing. Our current highly competitive, hierarchical and fragmented educational system could then be replaced with a collegial system founded on collaboration and mutual support between schools.

4 thoughts on “Socially just education”

  1. Great to see this new blog. Education isn’t just a democratic right, it is a human right (even where there is no democracy). Many of the issues discussed – discrimination and parent’s rights to choose (or not ) – are also human rights issues. Respect for children is at the core of a rights-based approach. The UK government has just reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the issues discussed here and there is current window of opportunity to inform the alternative civil society report.

  2. Glad to see this new project up and running as well as the possibilities for change that it brings. We are at present going through yet another phase of qualification reform in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that brings uncertainty and fragmentation. Proposed changes to GCSEs and A levels across the nations of the UK will have major (and differential) ramifications for young people and their futures. Likewise, there are major changes to assessment systems for lower secondary and primary school children and the full impact of international testing regimes (such as PISA) on the educational experiences generally of children across all ages have yet to be fully understood. Children’s and young people’s participation in the area of assessment has been limited generally and relatively non-existent within policy formation or qualification development. Their input is decidedly missing from any meaningful engagement about the current round of assessment proposals and decisions concerning qualifications reform. This is the significantly missed opportunity of our day, to see the bigger picture – the full extent of assessment policy change and its impact.

  3. Thank you for sharing your understanding !!
    As someone who was denied primary instruction and had to move to a private school in order to get taught i resonate to this both personally and professionally. I think recent reductionist views of learning have had a detrimental impact on ALL young people. The attainment culture may be viewed as a fixed mindset (Dweck), one that prevents learners engaging in their own development by understanding their own potential for intellectual growth. I fear there will be more lack of progress, as teachers themselves work harder against growing pressure. Autonomy is being eroded at the cost of well-being and creativity. this might hurt typical learners, however it may be toxic and discriminatory for those from vulnerable / marginalised groups. Sadly, i think our belief in the system, and its procedure has increased inequality. this systemic oppression needs to be central to all T&L, but also to governance in my view. I look forward to reading your findings. BW

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