Education and the Future

This week (02.09.20) I attended my first online academic conference. It was a Philosophy of Education postgraduate conference, supported by PESGB and organised by postgraduate researchers Sharon Smith (University of Birmingham) and Laura Watson (University of Winchester). I must admit I was a little doubtful at first about how effective an online conference could be – but within a few minutes all my doubts were gone as it was clear that a huge amount of effort and organisation had gone into the event. As I commented on Twitter:

The event had an impressive range of keynotes and paper presentations that I couldn’t possibly summarise here with any adequacy. Instead, here are a few selected highlights from the sessions I attended along with some of my own thoughts.

Who is Philosophy for? Public Philosophy of Representation

Rebecca Buxton (DPhil candidate, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford) and Lisa Whiting (MSc student in Politics, Birkbeck) are the co-editors of a new book: The Philosopher Queens: The lives and legacies of philosophy’s unsung women. This is a book about women in philosophy written by women in philosophy. It is a vital contribution given that philosophy is a discipline traditionally dominated by white males – a huge injustice in itself given the importance of work by Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch and Iris Marion Young (all of whom feature in the book) among many other women. I particularly appreciated the intersectional approach taken in the book, as it draws attention to black women in philosophy such as Anita Allen (the first African-American woman to hold both a Ph.D in philosophy and a law degree) and the political activist and philosopher, Angela Davis. This project, crowdfunded and published by Unbound, is a real inspiration and perhaps a sign of things to come if a refreshed view of public philosophy can begin to take shape. You can order the book using this link (ordering books through supports your local independent bookshop).

Tragic Education: Violence and Failure

Iain Tidbury (PhD researcher, University of Winchester) provided a thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between education, violence and failure. He drew on Slavoj Žižek, who asks: “Couldn’t the entire history of humanity be seen as a growing normalisation of injustice, entailing the nameless and faceless suffering of millions?” (Žižek 2008: 179). I had a lot of sympathy with this approach, as I consider many injustices to be forms of social violence, the politics of austerity being a good example. Indeed, it has been argued by Allen (2014) that education itself is an act of benign violence, and that this is concealed by good intentions. In his paper, Iain invited us to consider whether justice will come by way of violence or education. It is a question that resonates powerfully in these troubling and uncertain times. I would hope that the answer to this can be found in what Albert Einstein referred to as ‘militant pacifism’ – a theme taken up and reshaped by Judith Butler as ‘aggressive nonviolence’ in her latest book, The Force of Nonviolence, published by the radical publishing house, Verso.

Creating Space for dissenting voices and Social Justice at Universities

Monika Maini (Doctoral Research Scholar, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India) spoke about incidences of social injustice based on class, caste, gender and region in Indian public universities, arguing convincingly for the adoption of a ‘pedagogy of consciousness’ (drawing on Paulo Freire’s emancipatory concept of critical consciousness or conscientização) to achieve social justice and development of dissenting spaces at universities. Monika illustrated her ideas by speaking about students in India who have been protesting against increasing fees and the rising privatisation of Indian universities.

Building an academic profile

The keynote session in the afternoon was delivered by Professor Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham) and Dr Frances Howard (Nottingham Trent University). It helpfully focussed on the practicalities of building an academic profile and ‘finding your professional community’, while also recognising the difficulties and uncertainties currently faced by postgraduate researchers, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession. This brings me to a final point of reflection on the theme of the event: Education and the Future.

Education and the Future

Arguably, the future has rarely been more uncertain, owing to the combination of global shocks such as the climate crisis, the pandemic, economic recession and unprecedented global migration. Millions of displaced people are seeking refuge and sanctuary, many of whom are simply being ignored, in what is surely one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time, soon to be made infinitely worse by climate change and the possibilities of further political unrest. We live in an age unlike any other, characterised by multiple crises.

Education has to step up to play a vital part in this situation. During the conference I was struck by two implicit themes. Firstly, there is an important role for the philosophy of education. To put it simply – we need ideas and we need them now. The philosophy of education can and should be providing an outlet for the kind of radical, interventionist thinking that we need to traverse this period of crisis. Secondly, and somewhat frustratingly, postgraduate researchers in the field of philosophy of education are at the vanguard of such ideas, while simultaneously facing our own challenges of precarity in an increasingly volatile jobs market. Perhaps events such as the excellent ‘Education and the Future’ conference provide the opportunity to find our professional community, yes, but with the longer-term aim of changing education in ways that allow it to become the radical force for social justice and transformation that it needs to be.

As highlighted by one of the other presenters at the conference, Grace Lockrobin, the challenge is nothing less than to collectively work out how education and philosophy can enable us to survive and thrive in the face of existential threat.

The ‘exams debacle’ without exams

Image by Santeri Viinamäki. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

On 12th August 2000, the SQA Chief resigned because of the ‘exams debacle’ around Higher Still. The education secretary at the time was resisting calls for resignation. This will sound familiar given the current controversy over the latest SQA results. Ironically, the Opposition education spokesperson leading the calls for the education secretary’s resignation in 2000 was Nicola Sturgeon. At the time, she said

for a Scottish Minister to say he could not guarantee the higher results is without parallel and he has to go… Ministers have been warned for months [that] the new exam system was not ready, but they made the political decision to press ahead and now we are seeing the consequences

Nicola Sturgeon, quoted in the Guardian, 13th August 2000

Again, this is strikingly familiar territory. The current circumstances are completely different and incredibly challenging, of course. We should not understate the devastation and disruption caused by COVID-19, but neither can it be legitimately claimed that this situation is without any precedent. The pandemic has revealed and exacerbated pre-existing injustices, and as such it presents an opportunity to address them. This is not a party political argument – the game of political football around education carries on being played by all parties – in 2000 it was Scottish Labour and Lib Dems in power, now it is the SNP, and just today we are seeing a similar turn of events in England, Wales and Northern Ireland under the Conservatives. The point is that these events reveal the prior and underlying vectors of power, injustice and inequality. It is these underlying issues that I am concerned with here.

The First & Deputy Ministers were right to apologise about the latest SQA results and to act decisively. However, this situation could have been avoided. It was entirely predictable and the scale of the challenge was clearly beyond the abilities of statistical modelling. Now we have a situation where the very meaning and value of these results can legitimately be brought into question by universities, employers and others. Perhaps this was true all along: there is a bigger philosophical discussion to be had around the role of schools and examination results in education. Ivan Illich argued in 1971 that selection on the basis of prior education is just another form of discrimination. Indeed, as pointed out to me on Twitter, the 1947 Advisory Council report on Scottish secondary education states that external examinations are ‘one of the greatest obstacles’ to the ideals of education (see Fyfe Report, 1947, para 197-198). Why do we adhere to a system where examination results – at best an unreliable proxy measure of ability and learning – determine subsequent opportunities for young people? Why do we cling to the myth of social mobility at the expense of social justice?

A stubborn attainment gap is inevitable while unjust social inequalities persist and deepen. No amount of innovation – be it pedagogical, algorithmic or bureaucratic – can counter the effects of social inequality. Some young people will continue to miss out unless things really change. The latest political crisis about SQA results could turn out to be an important catalyst for such change, but only if it leads to real dialogue and a shift in power that exposes and opposes an exploitative, discriminatory, exclusive and indifferent status quo. As the Higher Still fiasco in 2000 shows, we have been here before, and crises do not necessarily lead to resolution or sustained improvements. Platitudes of ‘unprecedented circumstances’ or ‘lessons to be learned’ are simply not relevant.

John Swinney’s announcement of an expansion of university places is to be welcomed and can go some way to compensate for the botched results. This can ensure that more Scottish-domiciled students, including those who need additional support, can further their education (as indicated in comments from Anton Muscatelli, Principal at University of Glasgow). All is not lost. However, this is not enough. Many young people will continue to miss out. Surely a national Job Guarantee and/or Basic Income scheme for young people, and other policies for economic recovery such as those being developed by Common Weal and the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, are now necessary in the medium to longer term.

The immediate situation with SQA results can be best analysed if we understand that it reveals some of the enduring political and economic interests at play in the Scottish education system. We still have a stubbornly hierarchical system dominated by a ‘leadership class’ (Humes 1986). In this scenario it is clear that Govt Ministers and the policy community, once again, simply ignored the concerns and warnings of critics. Critique and protest are important – but there is a hegemonic trap at play in this routine of policy making in Scottish education, which seems to be shifting from a model of ‘consensus’ to one of contestation. It cannot be right that these debates mainly play out in the press or parliamentary chambers, where education inevitably becomes a political football for opportunistic agenda-setters to have a square go. This makes it seem as though young people’s futures are somehow up for debate. That is the trap. Whoever wins the contest, it is ‘the system’ that ultimately wins and remains roughly the same. We are trapped into thinking that radical change is not possible and that education will always be a crude sorting of winners and losers. This need not, indeed it cannot, continue.

Illich’s solution was to ‘deschool’ (or de-institutionalise) society completely. Most philosophers of education would now recognise this as an important but flawed thesis, as did Illich himself in 1995, when he wrote

While my criticism of schooling in that book may have helped some people reflect on the unwanted social side effects of that institution — and perhaps pursue meaningful alternatives to it — I now realize that I was largely barking up the wrong tree.

Illich 1995, quoted by Bruno-Jofré and Zaldivar, 2012, p.574

If anything we need to re-institutionalise education and society so that progress is not determined by the volatility of markets, domestic politics or global shocks. This means re-institutionalising education around the principles of social justice and democracy, informed by an understanding of current relations of power and the disenfranchisement caused by the current system. Addressing the ‘poverty-related attainment gap’ is vital but it barely scratches the surface of what is needed. Given the context of pandemic and long-term economic decline, we need to be radical in our conceptualisation and actions.

Above all we need to work out how to transcend short-term vested interests in the longer-term interests of young people, with young people themselves at the front and centre of that discussion. However clichéd it might sound – it is their future after all.

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.

Citizenship education: confronting inequalities (part 2)

by Gary Walsh

This is the second part of a series of blogs I wrote after the NECE 2019 conference (24-27 October, Glasgow) in which I summarise the key points from the presentations and seminars I attended. Click here to read part 1.

David Kerr provided a summary of approaches to citizenship education across the UK. He said that the emphasis on citizenship education has dropped from the educational and political agenda since 2010 and we need to ask why this is happening. He suggested it could be due to a combination of radical changes in the economy, the process of globalisation and the rise of populism. He asked if we should reframe citizenship education to suit the current political context (that’s a clear YES from me) and if so, how do we do that?

Professor Bryony Hoskins introduced her book Education Democracy and Inequality, which details her research on participatory citizenship and knowledge acquisition. She found that middle class students generally take up more participatory opportunities and this lack of access to participatory citizenship is increasing inequality. She emphasised that the development of critical, active citizenship is required and that we should not simply expect students to accept a form of citizenship that is defined by the attenuated economic roles they should play in society.

Next, Dr Daniela Sime spoke about her research on the Migrant Youth project: a study of identity, citizenship and belonging among settled Eastern European migrant children and young people in the UK. She said that identity formation is a constant process in flux and is currently being shaped by factors such as the Brexit ‘rupture’, neoliberalism and precarious employment. She outlined a theoretical view of citizenship that sees it in a holistic way, an ’embodied category’ that focuses on the lived experience of citizenship. Her research indicates that Brexit has increased feelings of ‘unbelonging’ among migrant young people, and that they have experienced an increase in racism as a result of the current political context. She concluded that citizenship education has a key role to play in (re)creating a sense of social cohesion.

Dr Daniela Sime, NECE 2019 conference, Glasgow

Next I had the privelege of listening to Professor Kathleen Lynch talking about affective equality, gender and the intersectionality of injustices. She first outlined her understanding of the dimensions of inequalities. Inequality can be generated in the economic, cultural, political and affective systems. The economic dimension refers to inequalities in resources, wealth and income; cultural inequality is about respect and recognition where, for example, being feminine is defined as inferior; and political inequality refers to unequal representation, power and influence.

These dimensions are well understood in social justice theory, but Lynch argues that these theories tend to forget about the affective domain and relational inequalities. This is about inequalities in the level of love, care and solidarity in people’s lives. She gave examples of care work being lowly paid or unpaid, older people living in isolation, and women being the ‘default carers’ in society. Lynch argued that affective relations of love, care and solidarity matter because they are what makes us human. In her conclusion she argued that gender equality is about addressing masculinity as well as femininity; education has a key role to play in how we think about concepts such as gender; gender inequalities should be addressed intersectionally in ways that recognise politics, race, disability and sexuality; and neoliberal capitalism has resulted in rising inequalities which disproportionality affect the most vulnerable citizens, especially women, immigrants and young people.

All in all, it was a very thought provoking second day at NECE 2019. The final part of this blog series will discuss justice-oriented citizenship, racial inequalities and Global Citizenship Education.

Citizenship education: confronting inequalities (part 1)

by Gary Walsh

I recently attended the #NECE2019 conference – a yearly event organised by the NECE network (Networking European Citizenship Education). It took place at University of Strathclyde from 24-27 October. Live streamed recordings and other conference materials are available on the NECE website.

I decided to write a summary of the key points I took from the presentations and seminars I attended. It is not possible to cover everything from such a rich and diverse event here. I have split the summary into three separate blogs covering all three days, based on a thread of live tweets I shared during the conference. These posts will hopefully be of interest to anybody who is keen to learn some more about the role of education in relation to citizenship, democracy, social justice and inequalities.

Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari, kicked off the conference. His refreshing style was irreverent, honest, brutal at times, and perhaps a wee bit ‘ranty’. He spoke about his life and the views he has developed as a result of his background and his new-found fame: two massive parts of his life that clearly come into conflict. His background is one that includes poverty, drugs, violence, prison and hip-hop. He contrasted middle-class and working-class lives and attitudes, addressing individual and collective approaches to empowerment, saying that both approaches are needed. He spoke about the need for people to cross-pollinate, creating solidarity across social divisions, to walk alongside people without being scared or put off by how they dress or speak. He challenged the myth of social mobility and addressed the role of education in the achievement of social justice.

Next, Professor Anja Neundorf drew on her research looking at citizenship education and levels of democracy across Europe. She said that ‘inequality of voices leads to inequality of policy output’ and that people from socially deprived backgrounds tend not to be heard or represented in politics. This creates a feedback loop, leading to apathy, resentment and ultimately more inequality of voices. She claimed that people become active in politics due to knowledge and motivation, so civic education can compensate for lack of parental socialisation into political engagement. Her key messages were that we need to break the cycle of schools perpetuating inequality; she recommended compulsory civic education and quality teacher education in this area; and challenged attendees to consider how technology can be used to promote civic education and democracy throughout life.

Prof Anja Neundorf at NECE 2019 conference, University of Strathclyde, 24 October 2019

After listening to Darren, Anja and other inputs from the first day of the event, a key issue in my mind was about the education system itself recreating inequalities in various ways. This contrasted with the title of the conference, ‘citizenship education: confronting inequalities’. In addition to confronting inequalities it seems vital to me that the education system confronts itself. This can be uncomfortable territory. It involves recognising that education for social justice can sometimes involve being ‘in and against the state’, prepared to recognise the dilemma of acting as an instrument of state policy while also retaining a critical view of the very system in which we work. Getting our own house in order in relation to social justice and democracy might be the most effective strategy that we can pursue, despite being asked by policy makers to sort out society’s problems.

With that in mind, below are four ways the education system can ‘confront itself’, which I offer here by way of conclusion to part 1 of this blog series:

  • Representation: Working to achieve democratic, inclusive, equitable representation of voices from all sections of society. This means confronting educational myths of social mobility, ‘bad behaviour’ and ‘hard to reach’ parents.
  • Recognition and Respect: Recognising the aspirations, frustrations, struggles, lives, cultures, abilities and strengths of working-class families.
  • Redistribution of rights and resources. Recognising the urgent need to become human rights defenders. Meeting the radical challenge of justice-oriented citizenship (I ran a session on this at the conference – more about this soon)
  • Hope: Remaining hopeful while doggedly pursuing the challenges above. To put it another way: seeking to grow roses in concrete.

Click here to read part 2.

The Emotional Roots of Social Justice

The People's Republic Of Escotia

Gary and MSYPs Gary with members of the Scottish Youth Parliament

Image source:

I am a PhD Researcher based at the School of Education in University of Glasgow. My main interests relate to social justice, citizenship education and values. My background is in education, having worked in a variety of roles including teacher, trainer, youth development worker, project manager and researcher. I’ve worked in schools all across Scotland and the UK and more recently I have been working as a researcher for Education Scotland and the Scottish Government. I am equally interested in practical, political and theoretical perspectives, and I am especially interested in the tricky spaces between those perspectives. I recently co-authored a book exploring the role of values through a series of interviews – ‘Speaking of Values’ – and I have conducted a critical analysis of character education from a social justice perspective, which was informed by extensive…

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School Values in Scotland

by Gary Walsh and Neil McLennan

Neil McLennan and I have been ‘speaking of values’ for a number of years now. We co-wrote a book entitled Speaking of Values with Dr Emma Fossey in 2016. The book is a series of interviews with various people in Scotland – leaders in the fields of education, business, social enterprise, the arts, youth activism, hospitality, medicine, and the Public and Third sectors – reflecting on the role of values in their lives and work.

On the back of that, we decided to try and learn some more about how values are understood and promoted in Scottish schools. The simplest way to do that seemed to be to ask teachers what their stated school values are, and to dig a little deeper to try and learn how the values had been identified and how they are defined. So we created a survey designed to do just that. It is a small-scale piece of work from which we can draw no firm conclusions: more robust research would be required to explore the issues in depth. The intention of creating the survey and sharing the results is to spark some further thought and dialogue, encouraging people in education to continue ‘speaking of values’ at a time when values couldn’t be more important. It seems entirely appropriate to be sharing the results in conjunction with World Values Day (19th October 2017).

This post does not offer a full analysis of the survey results – it presents the raw data gained so far and offers some thoughts by way of an initial conclusion. The survey responses suggest to us that there is a lot more to school values than what is written on school walls and websites. To borrow a recent quote from a Scottish teacher on Twitter, schools often try to ensure that values are “lived and not laminated”. The survey indicates that this is an attractive but ultimately extremely complex ambition.

Summary of survey results

As at 16th October 2017, approximately 45 teachers had submitted completed responses to the survey, covering a wide range of schools from across Scotland including primary, secondary, an independent school, state schools, non-denominational schools, faith schools, urban, rural, semi-rural and schools with specialist provision for additional support needs. School rolls varied from less than 10 to over 800, and schools were situated across all areas accounted for in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

94% have a list of school values, with a small number saying they need to be reviewed. The most common school value was ‘respect’. Below is a word cloud that summarises the most popular words found in school statements associated with school values (taken from a combination of school values ‘lists’ and mission statements, provided by respondents).

How were your school values identified?

26 respondents (58%) said that their school values were identified “by consulting with various groups of people”.  3 respondents (7%) said they were identified by “teachers only”, 1 respondent (2%) said they were identified “by school management only”.

Who specifically contributed to the identification of your school values?

26 respondents (57%) indicated that “all pupils” contributed to the identification of school values, 8 (17%) said a “specific group of pupils” contributed (e.g. pupil council), 20 (43%) said all staff contributed, 9 (20%) said a specific group of staff contributed (e.g. management team or working group), 18 (39%) said all parents contributed, 9 (20%) said a specific group of parents contributed (e.g. parent council) and 10 (20%) said that members of the community contributed.

Respondents also said that other people involved in the identification of school values include former school captains, partner agencies and the local business community. Values were sometimes identified using a series of consultations that were later deciphered by teachers. 5 respondents commented that they did not know how values were decided, with 2 saying that the values had been decided before they started their role in the school.

How were the final values agreed upon?

17 (39%), the largest number of respondents, said that they did not know how the values were agreed. 2 (5%) respondents said that one person decided. 3 (7%) respondents said the values were agreed by vote. 16 (36%) respondents said that the values were agreed by group discussion. 4 (9%) said that the values were agreed using a survey or questionnaire.

2 respondents further explained that the final decision was made by staff during inservice days. 1 respondent said that the headteacher had the final say. 2 respondents said that the decision was made by pupil and parent councils, and 1 respondent said it was done during school assembly.

How often are your school values reviewed?

18 (40%), the largest number of respondents, said that they did not know how often school values are reviewed. 3 (7%) said they were reviewed every year, 4 (9%) said they were reviewed every two years and 7 (16%) said they were reviewed every three years.

1 respondent further explained that it depended on the number of new staff joining the school. 3 respondents indicated that a review tends to take place over longer timescales e.g. every 4/5 years, 5-10 years. 1 respondent said the values are never reviewed. 2 respondents explained that the values were new to the school and still being embedded.

Did you use any of the following policy documents when identifying your school values?

27 (66%), the largest number of respondents, said they used How Good is Our School when identifying school values. 21 (51%) said they used Curriculum for Excellence. 10 (24%) said they used the GTCS Professional Standards. 25 (61%) said they used GIRFEC.

3 respondents said they referred to UNICEF (Rights Respecting Schools) or UN values. 1 respondent said they referred to partner schools from around the world. 1 respondent indicated that, as the school is a community campus, the school consulted with the local Leisure Centre and Community Learning and Development services. 1 respondent indicated they will be using the policy documents listed above to help inform a vote on school values. Another respondent said they used HGIOS to identify “what we are good at”, and children were invited to contribute later at an assembly. 3 respondents said that they did not use policy documents. 1 respondent said they did not know.

Did you use any research frameworks or theories when identifying your school values?

21 (50%), the majority of respondents, said they did not use any research frameworks or theories. 8 (19%) said they did use research frameworks or theories.

6 respondents explained that they did not know whether research frameworks were used. 1 respondent said they used Growth Mindset theory. 1 respondent said they used the “hierarchy of childrens’ needs”. 1 respondent said they used “ethics and values led education”. 1 respondent said they would use the values element of their Into Headship programme.

Did you use any other tools, resources or points of reference when identifying your school values? (e.g. community artefact, website, book etc.)

16 (38%), the largest number of respondents, said they did not use any other tools. 9 (21%) said they did.

5 respondents said they looked at the values of other schools. 1 respondent further explained: “we talked with partner schools from Scotland/ Africa to discuss values which were important and why to those cultures and communities to help us develop a list”.

3 respondents said they referred to community values, with one explaining “During open days members of the community could put their thoughts down on posters. Parents and families voted” and another explaining “Our values are influenced by ex pupils and members of the community who have gone on to achieve and then visit the school to talk about their experiences”.

One respondent said they used “whole school challenges” to identify values, one said they referred to “Scottish values”, one said they referred to “Catholic values” and another said they referred to “values education theories”.

Is there an underlying theory regarding your school values? (e.g. ideas/principles regarding how they work or how they are best realised)

14 (36%), the largest number of respondents, said they don’t know if there is an underlying theory regarding school values. 9 (23%) said there is an underlying theory and 8 (21%) said there was not an underlying theory. Further comments received were as follows:

“Social constructivism, learning styles, emotional intelligence.”

“Again, not really a theory, but a belief that shared values form the basis of what the school community stands for and aspires to be. It is so important for staff to model these in day to day interactions in and out of the classroom and to refer to these as part of our Rights Respecting School agenda, our Five Pillars for Successful Learning and our ethos of the PB Factor – Personal Best.”

“If everyone in our school community (pupils, parents, staff) are involved in deciding the values then there is buy-in from all. This will mean they are most effective in impacting the ethos and direction of our school and ultimately in ensuring it is the best place for the children.”

“We looked at different values that were important and people chose the ones appropriate to our school.”

“From work in Values based education”

“RRSA and Girfec”

“We have a vision that our values will help the pupils and staff can attain and achieve all they can with and in the community”

In your opinion, are your school values visible and active in the daily life of your school?

22 (56%), the majority of respondents, said that school values are visible and active. 4 (10%) said they were not and 1 (3%) said they did not know. Further comments received as follows:

“Works in line with the classroom code for success and learning and teaching statements.”

“On the wall all around the school and discussed in school assembly fortnightly.”

“I refer to the core values when setting class tasks and also when a student may be unaware that they care challenging these values.”

“behaviour system, assemblies, possible new report card format”

“Most definitely. We make regular reference to our values through assembly, school newsletters, class discussions, parent engagement. Children, parents and staff are very aware of our values.”

“Some are, some less so. Some staff make reference to them, and some of the SLT use them in their communications. There are copies displayed in all teaching areas. Some staff do not explicitly refer to them. Pupils in general do not refer to them regularly.”

“Huge banner displaying our values outside the building, glossy posters of our values displayed in every classroom, regular assemblies delivered by SMT referring to values, values referred to regularly in staff meetings and CPD sessions. Values included in all teachers planning folders as point of reference. Values highlighted in school handbook and website, values included as banner on school letterhead.”

“The Vision and Values are embedded through regular references in assemblies, posters throughout the school, inclusion in pupil planners and references during vertical tutor time. In some subjects, projects can revolve around sharing and discussion of the vision and values.”

“On boards where they are seen daily by everyone in school. Referred to at assemblies and in classes”

“visible and on display, tied into behaviour policy and restorative conversations framework.”

In your opinion, how accurate are each of these statements?

Responses indicate that values are most commonly understood as dispositions: defined in the survey as “the attitudes, beliefs or norms we promote in our school”. Values are also commonly understood as relational (“they describe how we relate to one another and how we interact”), aspirational (“they describe or relate to the aims of our school”) and cultural (“they are the values of society that we uphold in our school”). It is noticeable that values are understood in various ways, with positive results for all categories provided in the survey, with the exception of values as absolute (“they are not open to change, exception or negotiation”). It is also noticeable that values are simultaneously understood in ways that might seem incompatible e.g. motivational and aspirational; rule-based and relative; personal, relational and cultural; intrinsic and extrinsic.

Have you got any further comments about your school values, or about this survey?

Comments received were as follows:

“We just updated these values in March 2017 and they were finalised in May 2017”

“We ‘reimagined’ our values and redesigned sharing to make more inclusive (dyslexic friendly etc) colour coded and visually graphic.”

“Our core values have been recently introduced this term and so it may take time for the school community to absorb them into our culture. However they hint at the work of Schwartz theory of basic values where our core values are universalism, benovolence, self direction and achievement.”

“As values are constantly under review they are adaptable to the needs of the school.”

“Brand new values for this academy session due to new HT, still implementing these into school life so hard to fully comment on impacts after only one term.”

“I think our school values are an ideal. I think policy can often conflict with our school values. I think that national, top-down policy implementation can directly challenge the reality of living by our school values. School management and middle leaders have the dilemma of reconciling our school values with implementation of policy from above.”

“Our values work is one of the most important pieces of work I have completed in school.”

“Resilience is a new value in our school and this has been promoted and developed through the Bounceback programme.”

“The previous question was hard to answer as our values are not yet clearly displayed and acknowledged in the school. They are referred to frequently but as general values not as specific school values.”

“The role of vision and values could be discussed further. However as a relative newcomer to the school I have observed that the values are part of the intrinsic ethos of the whole community”

“From thinking about these questions, there is more to school values than I had realised. Will look forward to exploring this further.”

“It took a long time for the working group to develop values that could help all but I think we did a good job. They have been in place for more than five years, they are used in restorative practice, in class management, between pupils and staff.”

“We are currently reviewing our values through an extensive consultation process”

Final thoughts

There are a number of possible explanations for the results in this survey, particularly the more nuanced responses that give a glimpse into the ways in which school values are interpreted by teachers. One of the most important factors is the limitations of the survey itself and the wording of questions and categories used.

Another explanation, however, could be a lack of understanding of values theory. The respondents in this survey said that values are most commonly understood as being dispositions. This is entirely fair given that educational discourse often says that we should be equipping pupils with certain values, particularly those that relate to responsible and active citizenship. However, the Schwarz Theory of Basic Values, for instance, indicates that values differ substantially from dispositions, attitudes, beliefs or norms. Instead, dispositions are underpinned by a combination of different values, and especially the ways in which values come into conflict. Dispositional characteristics “describe what people are like” but do not necessarily describe their values, understood as “what people consider important” (Schwarz 2012: 17). Similarly, Schwarz’s framework indicates that there can be a difference between values and the results of our actions e.g. an artist may be successful but may have been motivated by something like ‘a world of beauty’ or ‘meaning in life’, rather than being motivated by success or achievement itself. This could indicate that it would be perilous to allow a situation where the values driving education are too closely associated with instrumental views of success in a competitive job market.

This leads to another consideration that is mentioned in one of the final comments in the survey. One of the respondents said “I think our school values are an ideal. I think policy can often conflict with our school values. I think that national, top-down policy implementation can directly challenge the reality of living by our school values. School management and middle leaders have the dilemma of reconciling our school values with implementation of policy from above.” Perhaps this hints at the way in which educational policy has developed in recent years and the ways in which we understand the purposes of education. Since the 1970s in particular, educational policy in Scotland and other countries has been shaped by a conflict between the values of child-centred education and education driven by economic and social goals. This can leave teachers with the challenge of working in a situation where their capacity to act in accordance with professional values is threatened, distorted or limited by the values driving educational policy.

It may be of benefit therefore to bolster teachers’ ability to traverse these issues by developing a more in depth and shared understanding of values theory, the often implicit role that values play in the development of educational policy, the conflict between evidence-based and values-based education and the various positions on values education. It also seems important to explore the dangers of having an overtly behaviouristic approach to values in schools. The paper Research into Values in Secondary Education: A Report to the Gordon Cook Foundation recommends that pupils have an opportunity for a genuine exploration of values, which would involve the opportunity to challenge the values being espoused to them through critical analysis, democratic participation and activism. Are we ready to have that conversation, if it is not already happening? Making the effort to do so could help to further inform values-based practice and leadership in schools.

With 57% of respondents saying all pupils were involved: what about the other 43% where not all pupils were involved? Which pupils were excluded, if indeed they were excluded? Why were they not involved?

39% responded said they don’t know how the school values are agreed upon. Does this say something about communication of the formation and finalising of values in schools or more about the individual and their awareness of the processes going on? Either way, there is more to explore here.

It was interesting to see what respondents said they used to stimulate thinking in formation and identification of values. In our survey, 66% said they used How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) to form school values. How Good Is Our School 4 (HGIOS4) references “values” 23 times, however it does not offer a wide overview of what values are or references to further exploratory works, nor does the General Teaching Council for Scotland (regulatory body for teachers) in the Standards for Career Long Professional Learning. This document references “values” 21 times. At present, GTCS frameworks are being revised and a deeper exploration of values might be worth considering as part of that process. Only 25% of respondents use GTCS standards when identifying values. Even from this we can see whilst this references values and the importance of them to the profession and schooling, this might not give any frameworks, philosophy, historic overview or further readings to support a deeper analysis and understanding of values. The same might be said for HGIOS.

Exactly half said they did not use any frameworks or other theories in their identification of values. It is especially striking that respondents strongly indicated they referred to policy documents to help identify school values but they also strongly indicated that they do not refer to values theory or research. This is concerning as it may limit teachers’ capacity to critically engage with values. It seems clear that we should not rely solely on policy documents to inform our understanding of educational values, especially when policy documents offer little or no in depth analysis.

We started our publication ‘Speaking of Values’ with an introduction to how the values on the Scottish Parliament mace came about. Those values are referenced in the HGIOS document along with an image of that mace: compassion, wisdom, justice and integrity. One might ask if these are indeed values. Furthermore, there is scope to consider how they were formed. The silversmith who made the mace chose the values by himself: he was given no briefing and there was no widespread consultation on what should appear on the mace. Donald Gillies questions whether this undermines the notion that Curriculum for Excellence is based on the principle of democracy.

Most striking perhaps was that only 56% think school values are ‘visible and active’. One teacher contacted us about the survey to say: ‘It would be interesting to talk values at our school- very strange imposed values (a number of them) they’re everywhere and blithely ignored by staff and pupils alike despite enormous managerial drive on them. Corporate values vs values and character of the school body.’

Our values should be an active, evolving exploration and we would hope this survey sparks further thinking and activity on this area which is ripe for more discussion. After all, we are promoting more Speaking Of Values.

Join the conversation online using #SpeakingOfValues

Character education and social justice

by Gary Walsh

As character education continues to gain influence in educational policy in the UK and elsewhere, it becomes more and more important to ensure it receives adequate critique. Having worked in the field of character education and studied the research base for a number of years, I have concluded that the legitimacy of traditional approaches to character education should be critically examined from a social justice perspective. The purpose of this post is to explain why I think this is the case. In doing so I hope this proves a useful point of reflection for any interested practitioners or researchers.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues make the grand and enticing claim that character is “the basis for human and societal flourishing“. This is somewhat alluring because it sounds empowering and inclusive: the implicit promise is that we can all flourish no matter who we are.

However, this claim underplays the role of social, political and economic contexts and the structural forces of inequality. Proponents of character education appear to concede that social context matters, but they conclude that it is more pragmatic to change individuals than it is to change society (Arthur et al, 2017). Far from being empowering and inclusive, this approach risks disempowerment: it obscures the role of democracy and distracts from social justice issues such as tackling poverty, food insecurity and health inequalities, while concealing the pernicious roles of power, privilege and prejudice. These are some of the REAL problems that prevent human flourishing – it is not about deficiencies in the moral character of children.

At the same time, the claim of character education is presented in moral terms, which implicitly suggests that such a forensic focus on the individual can be somehow morally justifiable. The irony is that this risks perpetuating what Zygmunt Bauman called Moral Blindness: the tendency to forget about the causes and impact of everyday suffering. As Nel Noddings points out:

The courage of a warrior may, for example, be so admired that members of the society do not think (or dare) to criticize war itself.” (Noddings 2012: 167)

The question needing asked here is whether it is legitimate to examine the moral character of individuals without also examining that of social arrangements. Unfortunately, any hope that the character education movement treats this question seriously may well be misplaced. Traditional character education offers little critique of the structural inequalities that erode the very values it purports to uphold. Nor does it explicitly recognise critical political analysis, activism or tackling the structural causes of inequality as examples of virtue or citizenship. It is also important to reflect on the fact that character education tends to gain appeal at times of economic crises or social unrest, and to ask why that might be the case. For example, in the UK, character education made a sudden return to educational policy in the wake of the London riots in 2011, where the resulting recommendations concentrated largely on fixing the moral characters of young people.

Character education teaches classical virtues such as honesty, gratitude and humility. This may sound at first like a reasonable endeavour, but a critical social justice perspective quickly reveals the concerning implications of this approach. 1 in 4 children in the UK are currently living in poverty – do they really need lessons in gratitude and humility? What and whose purposes are being served? The work of Nel Noddings raises the possibility that focusing on virtues such as honesty can result in children experiencing less caring relationships in the classroom. For instance, imagine a child lies to their teacher because they feel afraid or they want to hide something. If the teacher’s attention is focused on developing the child’s virtue of honesty, they could miss what might be really happening for that child.

Character education seeks to promote compassion by encouraging ‘service’ to others. Digging deeper into this reveals that service is framed as an apolitical, charitable ‘good deed’. To help understand why this is problematic, Westheimer and Kahne (2004) provide a useful framework to help us understand different kinds of citizens that education typically tries to produce. They refer to citizens who are a) personally responsible, b) participatory, and c) justice oriented. The authors illustrate the various kinds of citizen by theorising how each might respond to a humanitarian crisis that involves victims experiencing hunger:

“…if participatory citizens are organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food, justice oriented citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.” (Westheimer and Kahne 2004: 4)

They find that personally responsible citizenship, typified by a character education approach, is the most common approach pursued by schools, while justice-oriented citizenship receives the least attention.

(Incidentally, the issue of using moralistic language with reference to food banks in the UK came into sharp focus recently when Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was severely criticised for saying that charitable donations to food banks “is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are”.)

This analysis provides some possible directions for a ‘socially just’ approach to character development. Such an approach could involve calling out the immorality and social violence of political decisions that leave people destitute. It could seek to support the ways in which people, relationships and communities can be nurtured, cared for and loved. It could draw on resilience research which demonstrates that resilience is not a character trait, but a developmental process that is strengthened by reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors. It could recognise the role of positive attachments and the impact of adverse childhood experiences. It could be based on politically hard-edged concepts such as human rights, social justice and participative democracy. It could draw on social theories such as Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach, Bourdieu’s Habitus & Cultural Capital, Fromm’s Social Character, integrative views of identity or ecological understandings of agency.

In other words, ‘character’ could be re-constructed as a dynamic concept that describes the qualities of people while also describing the relationship with our social world. If we are to ask ‘what kind of people’ the world needs, is it not incumbent on us to also ask ‘what kind of world’ people need? Unfortunately, character education has yet to make any notable moves in this direction. These theoretical possibilities are ignored in favour of something altogether more esoteric: Aristotelian virtue ethics. Herein lies the ideological rub. Aristotle endorsed slavery, describing slaves as living tools. While this can be brushed off as a trite objection or simply a ‘sign of the times’ in Ancient Greece, it is important to point out that Aristotle’s theory of a flourishing society depended on oppression, elitism and authoritarianism. Oppression was required at home too: it was the (superior) man’s job to instil character in the (inferior) woman and children. 

Does one person’s flourishing require another person’s suffering? The award-winning short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, is a powerful reflection on that very question and is well worth a read. Working towards social justice, in my view, involves a commitment to the idea that human flourishing is for all of us, not just a few of us. Aristotle seemed to have particular ideas about who should flourish and who should not. 2500 years later, this remains the battleground of what we now refer to as social justice.

It seems fair to ask, therefore, what the character education movement has to say about social justice, and whether character education assumes that injustice, inequality and oppression are inevitable (and therefore acceptable), given its philosophical antecedents. In response to such challenges (see Winton 2012 for a good example), proponents of character education refuse to work WITH such criticisms, trying instead to deflect them as mere myths. Is this lack of acknowledgement an adequate response? Surely, as in all educational efforts, self-critique and a commitment to the principle of ‘do no harm’ should prevail. 

At the very least, we should be guided by the available evidence. Simply put, there is no firm evidence to establish credibility for the claim that the possession of virtues is the basis of human flourishing. Neither is there firm evidence to say that traditional character education interventions improve the life outcomes of children and young people. There is good evidence, however, showing not only that character education has ‘no significant impact’ but that it can have detrimental impacts too (Social and Character Development Research Consortium, 2010).

The legitimacy of character education can and should be questioned on the grounds of efficacy and even moreso on the grounds of ideology. Social Justice education offers a narrative that is fundamentally different to that of character education in ways that are important to understand. It suggests that the ways in which we should seek to change ourselves for the better are not to be found by aiming to ‘be’ a certain way (virtuous or otherwise). The challenge of social justice involves deciding what we refuse to become – much like the ones who walk away from Omelas. It suggests that we change ourselves by changing the world around us. Perhaps this is a more worthy starting point for our attention and efforts.

Neoliberalism and the family: a question of ethics

Reclaiming Schools

by Pam Jarvis, Reader in Childhood, Youth and Education, Leeds Trinity University


Long before my university post, and even before I was a classroom teacher, I was a young mother in Thatcher’s Britain. In my mid-twenties, I had three small children, including twins, with less than three years between them, Thatcher’s policy for children under five was that they were their parents’ responsibility, so as we had no family close by to share childcare, I became a sort of stay at home mum until my oldest daughter was ten. I say ‘sort of’ because I started my first degree with the Open University, and began teaching adults in community education on a very part time basis directly after graduation.

It is difficult to communicate how different things were then; as L. P. Hartley says in The Go Between (1953)

‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.

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Curriculum for equity: the journey so far


by Gary Walsh

The intention of this post is to summarise some of the insights shared on the Curriculum for Equity platform to date and to suggest some themes to focus on going forward.

I created the Curriculum for Equity website and Twitter account towards the end of 2015. Part of the motivation for doing it was a frustration that in Scotland we seem to be constructing an understanding of equity in education that is framed in terms of academic attainment at the expense of other issues. While attainment is important, I am concerned that this is a very narrow understanding of equity that could divert attention away from vital precursors to equity such as social justice, rights and democracy.

In their literature review, Woods et al (2013) describe the tendency of education policy makers to construct this narrow understanding of equity:

“…policy on school leadership and equity has, in fact, been implemented by governments as a means to identify and exclude factors that inhibit national education performance, which is measured through PISA to produce performance league tables for international comparison (OECD, 2010). The standards agenda is, arguably, incompatible with the account of equity as the reduction of social injustices that affect people’s lives… [it] creates a spurious meritocracy that favours the interests of middle class pupils.” (Woods et al 2013, 16)

The idea of Curriculum for Equity therefore is to share relevant research, news articles and other bits of content that are relevant to educational equity in the wider (and arguably, correct) sense.

Each of the website’s contributors have outlined some of the approaches and ways of thinking that are needed to achieve equity in education.

Dr Avis Glaze emphasised the importance of teacher quality among other key components. Ken Cunningham CBE cautioned against the language of ‘closing gaps’ and the risk it poses of leading us down various rabbit holes. George Gilchrist reminded us of the social factors and broader structures (including educational ones) that can disadvantage some learners. Jackie Brock challenged us to be ambitious and realise that innovative community partnership approaches and support for a range of other practical measures are needed, including learning through play in the early years, support for parents and teachers, building on successes and reducing bureaucracy. Mandy Davidson reflected on her role as a teacher and the importance of relationships in achieving equity. Ed Cadwallader suggested that the ambition of achieving equity is actually a form of ‘social engineering’ and that we should not be afraid to consider it as such.

All of these perspectives informed my recent piece for the website, in which I suggested that we need to reconsider the meaning of equity and the role of values in our education system, and that we should actively challenge the politicisation of education and other forms of systematic injustice.

What is particularly encouraging is that many of the contributions and indeed the principles guiding Curriculum for Equity can be located in relevant research. For instance, Smyth (2004) outlines the idea of a ‘socially just school’, which is reminiscent of some of the website contributions. They are schools that

  • articulate their purposes;
  • advance a concern for social injustice;
  • continually (re)focus around learning;
  • pursue a culture of innovation;
  • enact democratic forms of practice;
  • are community minded;
  • display educative forms of leadership; and
  • engage in critical literacies

While this initially looks hopeful, Smyth notes that this is not an easy fix: he finds that progress in schools that use this approach can be hampered by two related factors. The first is when schools are operating within a neoliberal policy arena, which itself is a direct cause of social injustice and can undermine the efforts of schools. The second is when teachers and school leaders have a limited understanding of what social justice actually involves, despite their commitment to the rhetoric of social justice, thereby limiting their abilities to enact approaches that could help to achieve it.

Regarding the latter, Smyth’s concern is when teachers are compelled, often by policy makers, to adopt an understanding of social justice that locates the ‘deficit’ in pupils themselves rather than in policy or the education system. His research suggests that this can result in teachers focusing on approaches that aim to compensate for the perceived cultural or psychological deficits of disadvantaged children and young people (’emotional intelligence’ is given as an example). The aim of such interventions is to increase the abilities of children and young people to ‘decode the system’ and become ‘successful consumers and entrepreneurs of schooling’, thereby allowing them access to the kind of relationships and social capital that are needed for success – something that their more privileged peers tend to be able to do without much effort.

In other words, achieving equity and social justice is understood in terms of ‘fixing the kids’ and not ‘fixing the system’. In such cases, school curricula tend to be designed around the needs of the education system instead of the needs of children and young people.

If we were to lead the equity drive by taking systemic, cultural, social and political factors into account, challenging them where necessary, that would mean something very different to focusing purely on the ‘poverty-related attainment gap’, which risks presenting the abilities of children as the problem. It would challenge us to tackle the opportunity gap and to ask critical and potentially uncomfortable questions such as:

  • Why do we continue with ability grouping in Scotland when research strongly suggests that it can add to the disadvantage experienced by many children?
  • How can we better connect educational research and educational policy in Scotland? Evidence suggests that doing so may improve educational equity.
  • What do we do if policy makers succumb to the lure of a ‘market-based’ education system? Evidence suggests that this would further endanger educational equity.
  • How do we construct a version of ‘educational leadership for equity’ that foregrounds issues of social justice, rights and democracy? Distributed Leadership for Equity and Learning could be an example.
  • Related to above, how do we create the kind of structures and cultures in which teachers’ knowledge and agency can develop, particularly around the issue of equity?

Perhaps these are the kind of questions that the Curriculum for Equity platform could help us to explore – feel free to suggest some others in the comment section below.

I hope that the website continues to evolve and perhaps even makes a difference to education and ultimately to children and young people in Scotland. At the moment the intention is to keep it as an unofficial space for dialogue, learning and what Stephen Ball (2015) refers to as a “site of struggle” and a platform for “fearless speech”. Feedback and comments received so far seem to indicate that this approach is the right one to take – it is feedback such as this that emboldens these efforts.

It has proven to be an illuminating and worthwhile experience so far. Thank you to everybody involved!

About the author

Gary is the creator of the Curriculum for Equity website. Click here for more information.