“Social Justice in Austere Times”

Humpty Dumpty

Four perspectives…and a common theme?

Social Justice in Austere Times: University of Glasgow, School of Education

Social justice seems to be dominating the agenda in the field of education and beyond. However, there is growing concern about how the terminology is being used…and misused. Brian Boyd attended a recent University of Glasgow Seminar and comments on for the Socialist Educational Association Scotland. The seminar included four speakers s offering an international, national and local perspective of social justice in austere times. The speakers had a chance to subject “social justice” to some discourse analysis, and found it wanting.

The words of Humpty-Dumpty provide a salutary lesson; “when I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean; neither more nor less.” If social justice is reduced to numbers and league tables as can be seen in some OECD publications, it may actually lead to a diminution in provision for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. It can disempower the very people whom it is purporting to help, those who live in disadvantaged communities, pupils and parents/carers.

When used by politicians, it can be a mask for centralised control of education.  The First Minister promises to close the gap, and it drowns out any opposing argument.  Is the attainment gap the only gap?  Can it be closed by education alone?  Are schools, or even headteachers, responsible for its closure?  And will the criteria used to determine whether it is closing, be reduced to test scores and examination performance?

There is an underlying issue of trust and empowerment here.  Do we trust enough in state comprehensive schooling, managed on a local basis in collaboration with stakeholders, without the narrow focus on examinations, to produce successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens?

Terms like social justice and closing the gap can all too easily become slogans.  Let’s have a national conversation about the kind of fair and just society we want and the role education can play in achieving it.

The seminar

The panel discussion was led by Professor Bob Lingard from the University of Queensland.  His perspective was international and began with the observation that inequality had grown in the 2000s.  As a consequence, the “social justice” had become ubiquitous but, in his view, remained problematic.  He pointed to the growth of large-scale assessment in education across the world which seem to reduce the concept of social justice to that which can be measured by testing, preferably international testing, such as PISA. Social justice is in danger of being redefined and taken over by numbers.

Drawing on Nancy Fraser’s “Fortunes of Feminism”, he argued that PISA was rearticulating social justice as a technical concept and one which led to the over-attribution of school outcomes to school factors rather than wider social issues.  The key question for us is “how is social justice defined in Scotland?  He drew on what was happening in Australia where the NAPLAN policy means that there is testing in every state and every school is measured against 59 other, “similar” schools.  Headteachers are held responsible and social justice is reduced…to numbers. He posed the question, “who collects the data and for what purpose” (as question which might be asked of the most recent OECD Education at a Glance report which focused heavily on social justice).

The next speaker, Dr Sinead Gormally, explored austerity and its impact on local communities. She say blame being shifted onto individuals and a deficit perspective emerging at the same time as youth services were being decimated, especially in England. She pointed to the draft education bill in Scotland as being heavily focused on “attainment” and …tests. She argued strongly that Community Development, not centralised control, should be at the heart of social justice and pointed to the resilience which is present in all communities, perhaps especially those hit hardest by austerity.  But, she warned that there is growing resentment among communities at the sharp end of austerity and that Governments should be empowering, not alienating, them.

Dr. Robert Doherty suggested that the SNP had made social justice a key feature of its mission since 2007 and in so doing had politicised education.  Reducing inequality had become the defining feature of the present SNP administration and the First Minister, by making “closing the gap” the issue on which she wanted to be judged, had merged politics with education. But, just as “social justice” has become a contested term, “closing the gap” has become a synonym for reducing inequality through education.

Dr. Doherty also described how the School of Education at Glasgow University now had a commitment to social justice. Thus, the conduct of the School itself, its staff and student, should be based on principles of social justice. To achieve this goal, the School was engaged in a “search for coherence” across all of its activities and one of the hoped for outcomes was that the priorities of the University itself would be based on social justice.

The final speaker, Dr. Jacquie Purdie, a serving secondary school headteacher, now seconded to the School of Education, claimed that social justice was “not an option”; it was built into the  GTCS Professional Standards of teachers and headteachers. For her, closing the attainment gap was a party political issue and not the most important challenge facing schools.  There are many gaps in education, not simply that of narrow “attainment” linked to poverty. She argued strongly that the money recently given to schools to help close the gap would have been better given to Early Years education, and echoed the sentiments of the previous speaker in suggesting that education had become increasingly politicised.

The Headteacher Charter had, in her view, led to increased pressure on schools, had contributed to the “over-stretching” of heads and, most importantly, was in danger of diminishing the historic role of local authorities.

Unfortunately, the session was scheduled for an hour and, as might be expected, the speakers found it difficult to stick to the allotted time, and so the Q&A session was curtailed somewhat.  It was, however, a stimulating evening.