Putting social justice at the heart of education leadership

Based on a panel contribution at SSAT National Conference on Deep Social Justice

I wonder how many of you, like me, have often dreamed of the ability to create a force field around our school. A happy, bullet-proof place, capable of absorbing the waves of negativity in wider society…. just like in the movies.

The problem is, much as I might fancy the outfit I am no Marvel superhero and my school is not in Wakanda or any other such magical kingdom. Some might think it comes close, tucked safely in the Sussex countryside it might on the surface appear likely to be immune to the inequalities discussed today. I can promise you, it’s not.

If we want a sense of social justice we need to accept what that will actually take for every child to have the chance to grow and thrive no matter what their start in life, such as pre-school provision and environments that level the playing field at the beginning. Too many children start school with significant pre-existing gulfs in their working memory, attentiveness or reading fluency. Gaps caused by their pre-school experiences which only seem to widen with each age and stage they move through; long before we label them as disadvantaged and start incessantly tracking or measuring them.

However, the gaps children start with cannot be closed if the specialist staff they need are leaving the profession faster than they are joining. At primary or secondary, systemic failures in recruitment mean schools are too often judged for failing to provide that which cannot be found. Retention in some quarters is woeful as teachers flee the profession they felt inspired to join, worn out by practices which do little to inspire staff or students and rarely enhance the outcomes they are designed to promote. Workload Reform rhetoric is all very well but we must re-establish teaching as a desirable profession which genuinely values autonomy, actively develops career-long expertise and promotes cohesive communities with a sense of moral purpose.

In my school’s community the illusion of Range Rovers and country-living is a truly magnificent disguise for the all-too-often overlooked rural poverty that many of my students’ experience. We cannot talk about equality or justice while education is funded according to a lottery based on their postcode.

Let’s overlook for a moment the biggest differentials. We all know them. But even the smaller difference between my funding and a statistical neighbour sounds small at £200 more per pupil but at 240 in a year group that’s £250,000 across the main school. I don’t need to tell you how many teachers, mental health workers or enrichment activities that is. Yet they all sit the same exams and are expected to demonstrate the same levels of ‘cultural literacy’.

Most school sixth forms are nowhere near sufficiently funded to create the learning environment or additional opportunities they deserve and many SENDCo’s deserve a News Years Honour of their own for the support they offer as families’ battle resource-starved local authorities to get their children what they need. If we are to talk about social justice then every child, everywhere needs an equitably funded educational experience.

And that educational experience has to mean something. There is literally nobody I know who gets up every morning determined to set low aspirations for young people. So why are we constrained by an examination system that has failure for a forgotten third of students baked into it by design? There’s no justice for the ones who have to fail so that others can pass. Equally we have to be honest about the effects of an accountability system that creates benchmarks to measure that sometimes have little to do with the lives and ambitions of those being measured. These structures are not new, they are not party political, they have evolved and been manipulated over many different governments. But they create pressure and inequality for all involved.

Very few students, especially those with chronic mental health issues will tell you that sitting 33 exams in the summer of their year 11 felt like good evidence of a deep and rich curriculum. As I sat on prom night last year holding the hand of a fabulously bright young woman as she breathed her way through another panic attack, not for one second did I regret the fact that we spaced her GCSEs over a 3-year Key Stage 4, enabling her to achieve the grades that will allow her to apply for medicine this year.

But we appear to have enabled a system that seems to prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach to what is taught and when it is taught, creating injustice for those who do not fit a particular mould.

However, it is not just about school funding, or curriculum change. When even the journey to a counsellor or even the foodbank involves a 20 min walk to the bus stop and a half hour bus journey as the local service has been cut to the core, and when literally no support service is easily reachable, even if the wait times are sensible, then this issue goes much wider.

So, to be genuinely serious about social justice in education we already know what we have to do. We have to remove it from the electoral cycle. Ideally it has to connect to the services that support children and their families but at the very least, if we could establish cross party agreement on at least a 10-year plan for funding, accountability, recruitment and retention, then we would be able to properly plan long term.

The harsh reality is that life is not designed on a level playing field, nobody promised us it would always be fair but with focused determination we (politicians, school leaders, governors and parents) should be able to harness our collective talents and build that force-field that allows all our children to grow up safe enough that they have an equal chance to be as brilliant as they can be.

The Headteachers Roundtable manifesto attempts to move us in this direction, none of us are politicians, we all have different political persuasions but we do know what impacts on schools and what makes a difference for children. These 5 key proposals address the root problems and urge a collective response:

  1. Sufficient Great Teachers: Every parent wants a good teacher in front of their child; every pupil needs a good teacher if they are to thrive and flourish.
  2. Funding: Education needs to be a priority for financial investment. Our children have only one chance of education and must not suffer due to insufficient funding and the postcode lottery of different funding levels
  3. Protection for the Vulnerable: Our Education System must ensure that the most vulnerable children have their needs met.
  4. High Levels of Professional Trust: Parents trust school leaders, teachers and the support staff to do the best for their children. Politicians must also show this high level of trust and reform the high stakes accountability system
  5. Ethical Leadership: System ‘drivers’ must reflect the ethical behaviour of the overwhelming majority of school leaders & teachers and challenge the few who do not play their part

Caroline Barlow, Headteacher, Heathfield Community College, East Sussex


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