Values, equity and social justice

This is the text of a presentation I was due to give at Aberdeen University’s ‘Excellence and Equity’ weekend, 14th and 15th March 2020. Despite valiant efforts to keep the show on the road, it was cancelled, so I said I would challenge myself by spending the time writing up what I was going to say… apologies for any typos…

Meanings and relevance for practice: values

According to the model created by Schwartz (2012), values are essentially motivations. Values are what we hold on to as our most important priorities. They don’t always dictate our behaviour: indeed we often act despite our values, not because of them. Values are not always ‘pro-social’. As I will argue below, we are increasingly compelled to do things that do not represent our most cherished values, because neoliberal imperatives such as the market, managerialism, or corporate mindsets say so. I will argue instead that we need to focus our actions on the principle of social justice.

Policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are a good example. It seems that the UK government is willing to risk the lives of its own population by experimenting with the dodgy concept of ‘herd immunity’, for which policy makers are yet to provide any evidence such as complex epidemiological modelling that might at least reveal what their decisions are being based on, allowing for peer review and scientific scrutiny. If the advice for such decisions are coming from the Behavioural Insights Team (Nudge Unit), and not from infectious disease specialists, I think we have good reason to be a bit worried.

It seems that these policy decisions are mainly motivated by economic concerns. This is not unusual, as many policy decisions are based around economics, including those relevant to education. In the case of COVID-19, what is notable is that people are choosing themselves whether to adhere to such policies. Despite the policy position to ‘delay’ social distancing (making the UK an outlier), public events are being cancelled, universities are choosing to move all teaching to online environments etc. None of this is coming from the advice of policy makers, as of yet. People are acting based on their own initiative and intelligence.

I am not saying we should always act in ways that contradict policy, but when policy lacks evidence and is untrustworthy, it is worth remembering that ‘policy’ is not policy if it is not being replicated in practice and in research. The same goes, I would argue , in education. Educators decide during every moment of every day how to interpret and implement policy positions. Focussing on values can help in that process.

Below is an image detailing how values are mapped in the Schwartz (2012) theory mentioned above (image courtesy of the Common Cause Handbook).

These values are not randomly arranged. They are data points based on samples from 68 countries (65,000 people). The closer the values the more aligned they are. If someone values one highly (e.g. excitement in life) they’re very likely to value the other highly (e.g. pleasure). The further away they are, the less they are aligned, so if someone values one highly (e.g. respect for tradition) they’re very likely to not value the other highly (e.g. freedom). The values move around between national samples, but what the researchers found is that there are groups of values that tend to cluster together. There are ten of these groups:

  • Universalism
  • Benevolence
  • Conformity
  • Tradition
  • Security
  • Power
  • Achievement
  • Hedonism
  • Stimulation
  • Self-direction

In general we find that values of self-direction, universalism and benevolence (‘intrinsic’ values) are strongly linked to ‘pro-social’ and environmental outcomes. When motivated by these values, people are more likely to treat each other with empathy, be cooperative/helpful, more likely to act in a sustainable way, supportive of gay rights, human rights etc. Most people are actually motivated by these values, but most people also THINK that other people are motivated by ‘extrinsic’ values such as power and security (see here for details of the study behind this). So we don’t seem to trust each other very much!

The research also tells us that behaviours are informed by the motivational conflict between opposing values. This means that values do not operate individually, it is the relative importance of values and how we overcome value conflicts that matter. This is why values are best understood as motivations and not dispositions – so get those behaviouristic ‘values’ such as kindness and respect off your school walls. They are important, of course, but they are not values, and they over-simplify how values work (click here to read more about values in Scottish education). Values are about what motivates people to be kind and respectful (or not, as the case may be).

Educators should note that the value of social justice (in the universalism group) is directly opposed to ‘achievement’ values such as success, ambition and influence. THIS is the dilemma posed to us by the challenge of achieving both excellence and equity: these principles, from a values perspective, fight against one another. I want to argue that we should ALWAYS prioritise equity over excellence – but that achieving both is possible. It should also be noted that values and outcomes do not always neatly align e.g. an artist can achieve success and fame, but that doesn’t mean they were motivated by those values, it is more likely in fact that artists are motivated by values such as ‘a spiritual life’ or ‘a world of beauty’. Focussing on equity in education does not necessarily mean that we achieve less, but focussing on excellence at all costs will make the system less equitable (see Sahlberg’s 2016 discussion of this in relation to GERM: not COVID-19 this time but the Global Education Reform Movement).

Questions for consideration with relevance to practice:

  • What are the most useful values in the education system?
  • What are the least useful values in the education system?
  • Which values are educators compelled to uphold most often?

Meanings and relevance for practice: equity and social justice

Ainscow (2012) argues the following in relation to educational equity:

I describe Ainscow’s work as a pragmatic view. It is based on years of rigorous research that has been developed alongside teachers, which means it provides very practical insights. A pragmatic view recognises that teachers are required to ‘do something’ on Monday mornings, despite the significant challenges faced by educators (e.g. social and economic challenges, poverty, lack of funding and resources, increasing workloads). I want to argue here that the pragmatic view is needed but that we also need a critical view built around social and political theory. This is reflected in the point raised by Ainscow that ‘there is a danger of separating the challenge of school improvement from a consideration of the impact of wider social and political factors’ (p.291). This critical view is further taken up by Ward et al (2015) in their review of the ‘school leadership for equity’ literature from around the world:

Questions for consideration with relevance to practice:

  • How do the pragmatic and critical viewpoints compare?
  • What values are the pragmatic and critical viewpoints based on?

Ward et al identify three strategies used by educators to further the practice of school leadership for equity and social justice:

They also note the limitations of these approaches, identifying in particular that neoliberalism and new managerialism undermine these efforts. The leadership agenda or other practices such as school ‘consultations’, for instance, can easily become part of the neoliberal frame of schooling, which positions children and families as ‘stakeholders’ or ‘consumers’ of education, instead of subjects of equity and justice. They describe this as the ‘hegemonic trap’ of neoliberalism, but they also note that teachers retain the power to speak up against social injustice and to empower children to do so too:

This would suggest that critical reflection among educators can help to generate a counter-discourse to the neoliberal frame that surfaces issues of social justice and equity.

This raises the question of what do we mean by social justice in the first place. Moving towards a conclusion, I wanted to share two frameworks to help with this, by Smyth (2004) and Westheimer and Kahne (2004), focussing on ‘socially just schools’ and ‘justice-oriented citizens’:

Questions for consideration with relevance to practice:

  • What is needed to enable teachers to engage in critical reflection (e.g. time, trust permission, an external viewpoint?).
  • What prevents teachers from engaging in critical reflection, and what can be done to address this?
  • Does your school and the mode of leadership pursued within it promote the models of ‘socially just schools’ and ‘justice-oriented citizenship’?


It is not possible to be ‘value neutral’. Values are inescapable and they are at work all of the time. Having an awareness of how values are motivating us, including those values that can move us away from social justice, is vital to the task of making informed and reflective leadership decisions. Neoliberalism represents a ‘hegemonic trap’ from which it is difficult to escape. This, I argue, takes us away from social justice and the true meaning of education.

Educators are at the vanguard of protecting the very essence of education from a predatory policy environment (the GERM). Educators are being increasingly required to act as pragmatic ‘problem solvers’ who must produce apolitical technical fixes that compensate for social problems such as poverty and inequality. Some pragmatism is needed here, but it should not eclipse the need to address social and political problems head on. It is all too easy to play the role of uncritical ‘overt apologists’ who go along with unjust policies, or who accept injustice as inevitable and view education simply as a way of enabling marginalised and stigmatised children and families to work their way out of social problems for which they are not responsible. Similarly, it is easy to act as ‘subtle apologists’ who recognise that injustice is wrong and preventable while failing to interrogate the causes of these problems.

In Scotland this is becoming increasingly pressing but increasingly possible with the upcoming incorporation of UNCRC. We must take advantage of this opportunity and ensure that educators are properly empowered to act as advocates for children’s rights, even if that means contesting policies that perpetuate injustices. This is not easy. ‘Doing’ social justice work in education is a struggle, not a catchphrase, tick-in-a-box or a slogan. It should feel difficult, messy and risky. You’ll make life-long allies and you might even make short-term enemies. School leadership characterised by neoliberalism or new managerialism works against these ambitions – let’s be active in our efforts to avoid this.

Social justice is about creating social arrangements that enable ‘parity of participation’, achieved by economic redistribution (of resources e.g. challenging poverty), cultural recognition (of difference, status and rights e.g. challenging racism) and political representation (of interests e.g. challenging a lack of democracy) (Fraser 2013). All of these dimensions of justice – economic, cultural and political – inevitably come within the purview of education. This means that critical reflection, social justice practices and justice-oriented citizenship is needed at all levels. That can be a driving mission for a mode of school leadership in which equity is prioritised and excellence is still achieved.

Being critical or justice-oriented doesn’t necessarily involve stinging like a bee. Small actions such as discussing among peers, quietly challenging an orthodoxy or offsetting new managerialism with empathy or even a bit of skilful gallus humour can create waves: so flap those butterfly wings. I have come to think of the ‘hegemonic trap’ of neoliberalism and the gaze of new managerialism in particular as being like a security camera. Have you ever seen security camera footage of a butterfly? Me neither.

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