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How can we create a ‘socially just’ school system?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 January 2020

IOE Events.

For some time, political rhetoric has focused on social mobility and the need to enable individuals to ‘fulfil their potential’ regardless of their background. But now social justice seems to have taken over as the new underpinning principle for public policy.  

The problem is, neither term has been deployed with much precision, not least when talking about education.  

For the IOE’s latest What if… debate, we wanted to take a look at our political parties’ stances on these matters by asking What if… education policy was shaped by a commitment to social justice?  

To answer the question of what a ‘socially just’ schools system might look like, we assembled: Louise Archer, Karl Mannheim Professor of Sociology of Education here at the IOE; Dr Jason Arday, Assistant Professor in Sociology at Durham University; Dan Morrow, CEO of the Woodland Academy Trust; and Iesha Small, author, speaker and head of strategy at national youth charity YHA.  You can read more about our panelists here.


We started with definitions: justice is defined as fairness – impartial treatment without favouritism or discrimination. We layered over some conceptual frameworks: when we refer to justice and fairness, do we mean equality (equal treatment regardless of need), equity (differential treatment according to need), or justice (removing the structures that create inequalities)?  

Picture a group of people of different statures watching a sports event behind a wall; you can give them all the same step to see over the wall, give them steps of different heights, or remove the wall.  When we consider notions of social mobility against this backdrop we can see it reflected in the first two concepts (equality and equity), but there is no inherent challenge to the existing structures, the wall, or to the positions of privilege they serve to perpetuate.  

As our panel pointed out, social justice cannot be a zero sum game: to achieve greater social justice, those who currently have privilege will need to relinquish some of it.  Just as the political rhetoric has conveniently ignored the phenomenon of downward mobility, it hasn’t always faced up to this challenge directly either. 

Towards education policy shaped by social justice concerns

In the meantime, what might policy that did address that conundrum look like? Among them, our panellists identified many changes.  Here are some of the broad themes they fell into:

  • Participatory models of policymaking – less politicised education policy, based in consultation and evidence; educating those in positions of power about what social justice is and diversifying those gatekeepers.
  • Recognition and representation for all – education provision that meaningfully recognises the experiences and backgrounds of all young people, not just some. This could take the form of, for instance, improved BAME representation in the curriculum, pedagogical approaches that better engage pupils from a wider range of backgrounds (the Science Capital Teaching Approach providing a widely-praised example), or a more diverse teaching profession.  
  • Accountability frameworks that recognise the interconnection between schools and their communities (and remove perverse incentives in the process) – finding a better balance in data collection and inspection between an emphasis on outcomes and on process (or between expectations and personalisation); removing the incentives for selective admissions, and exclusions and off-rolling; better supporting schools in challenged circumstances.


There were doubts among some of the panellists that merely urging ‘commitment’ to social justice concerns would suffice. Instead, they saw a need for a mandatory duty to address those concerns that trumps all others.  

Others saw glimmers of hope that hearts and minds could be won to such a project.  They saw a growing recognition of the deficiencies of the ‘social mobility project’ (experienced for them personally as imposter syndrome and the absence of a sense of belonging), as well as growing recognition of the toll that a relentless focus on outcomes and a particular image of success is having on mental health and wellbeing. They also saw fairness, generosity and parity as motivating for people.  How far can a change of rhetoric begin to re-frame and shift our sense of what success means and what our education system is for?

The debate continues…

You can watch the debate on social justice in full here.

Our upcoming debates:

What if… the world really did revolve around teenagers?, 29 January 2020

What if… we wanted more effective school improvement?, 18 March 2020

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