Social justice and schools: Education policy & policy-makers

Written by: David Anderson | Published:
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In a seven-part series, teacher and school leader David Anderson considers how schools can be a key driver for social justice and how we can make our education system more equitable. In part four, he looks at how education policy can help or hinder social justice

SecEd series: A school system that drives social justice

During the 25 years that I have been teaching there have been 12 education secretaries – roughly one every two years. Only two of these, Justine Greening and the current incumbent, Gavin Williamson, attended comprehensive schools. The rest all went to grammar schools (four) or private schools (five), with the exception of David Blunkett who went to a special school.

Only about 12 per cent of people in the country go to either private school or grammar school, but their alumni have largely been responsible for the highest office in education, overseeing all our schools, 88 per cent of which are comprehensives.

So, but for two exceptions, they have no experience of what it is like to attend the type of school that the majority of children go to.

There are some who would argue that this is exactly as it should be – the “best and brightest minds” or “the products of a superior education” making the important policy decisions on behalf of the nation.

However, those of us dedicated to the notion that all children, regardless of family background, have an equal propensity for intelligence, skill, creativity and academia find such views abhorrent.

As the Sutton Trust/Social Mobility Commission report Elitist Britain (2019a) observes: “Politicians are also ultimately responsible for education policy… it is therefore important that many of those responsible for these areas have experience of the state education system.”

When Nicky Morgan became education secretary, her entire department at that time was privately educated (according to Green & Kynaston in their 2019 book Engines of Privilege). How are things now? Well, 41 per cent of the current Conservative government was educated privately, compared to 14 per cent of Labour MPs. Overall, 33 per cent of MPs in England were educated privately, 15 per cent went to selective schools and 50 per cent attended comprehensives (Sutton Trust, 2019b).

Up until recently, things were moving towards better representation but, as of February 2020, 69 per cent of Boris Johnson’s cabinet were educated privately, which is the highest proportion since John Major’s tenure in 1992 (BBC, 2020).

Another way of looking at this, is that members of the cabinet are 10 times more likely to have attended private school than members of the public. This begs the question: How can the people responsible for making decisions about how our nation is run have a true empathy and understanding of its people, when so many of them have been educated in a parallel and segregated system?

As Mike Trace, a former government advisor and co-founder of Private School Policy Reform, eloquently puts it: “A much more important qualification for people making policy decisions is the ability to understand, empathise and communicate with the people they are governing. In this sense, the over-representation of ‘the elite’ in the most senior positions is a real problem.”

He adds: “To pursue effective policies … leaders need to understand the lives and motivations of ordinary people: those who struggle to get access to good healthcare, education for their kids, or social care for their parents. My experience is that government leaders – not all but most – are supremely poorly qualified to do their job well in these areas.” (For more, see Trace, 2020)

So, my first suggestion for improving equity through policy in our education system is for those making those policies to be well represented by people who have had first-hand experience of the state school system.

Let us now consider how education policy looks in a country where they have put equity at the heart of policy – Finland. While there are obvious limitations in comparing us with a nation that has just 5.5 million people and a very different socio-political history and structure, their approach to education has been so radically different to ours that it is worth consideration, not least since Finland outperforms us by a variety of measures, such as for reading, maths and science but also financial literacy, student wellbeing and frequency of bullying (OECD, 2018). Here, then, are a few snapshots of the Finnish educational approach (Sahlberg, 2015):

  • Policies are based on equal opportunities and equity in education, and put teachers at the core of educational change.
  • Policies since the 1970s have prioritised creating equal opportunities for all children to have a good education (compare this to the English segregated system where a minority receive a substantially better resourced education).
  • Educational policies designed to raise student achievement have focused on teaching and learning. These are seen to be the key elements that make a difference in what students learn – not standards, assessment or alternative instruction programmes.
  • There are no standardised high-stakes tests before the matriculation exam at the end of upper secondary (age 18). Compare this to SATs (years 1, 4, 6), GCSEs et al (year 11), A levels et al (year 13).
  • During the 1960s and 1970s, private schools and grammar schools were integrated into a single “municipal structure” (equivalent to a nine-year comprehensive school).
  • Between the ages of seven and 16 all students are educated at the same type of school. From age 16 there are vocational schools or upper secondary routes, both leading via different routes to university.

These are not necessarily policies that I would jump to introduce in England. But the contrast is stark and reminds me of two things. First, the system we have is not the only way of organising education. Second, with careful planning, inclusive dialogue, and time, a much more equitable system of education is achievable.

Of course, when the Finns first proposed their new system it was not without its critics, particularly in Parliament, hence the time it took to establish, from 1950 through to the mid-80s.

However, what they have now has persisted despite 20 changes of government and 27 education ministers. The Finnish goal of building a good, publically financed, and locally governed school for every child is so deeply rooted in politics and public services that it has survived opposing political governments and ministries.

Rather than repeatedly allocating financial resources and time to implement new reforms, teachers in Finland have been given the professional freedom to develop pedagogical knowledge and skills related to their individual needs (Sahlberg, 2015).

So, how should educational policy in England be reformed to make our system more equitable?

The English educational expert, Peter Mortimore, in his 2014 book Education Under Siege, argues: “In the legal sphere there is a permanent Law Commission charged with monitoring the legal system and suggesting improvements and revisions. Surely this is what we need for education?” This could take the form of a permanent commission of non-party political experts.

Renowned British educator Sir Tim Brighouse, writing in the Guardian in 2018, suggests an educational revolution similar in scale to the 1944 Education Act, claiming our system to be broken and in need of a new act and a new body to oversee education. His act would have five aims:

  • Resolving teacher recruitment and retention.
  • Reforming the curriculum.
  • Reforming the accountability system.
  • Fairer admissions.
  • Closing the funding gap between private and public education.

In her excellent 2018 book, Life Lessons, Melissa Benn, argues for a National Education Service, “like the NHS, providing a framework for a life-long entitlement to education: from early years provision to Apprenticeships, universities and adult education”. She adds: “It should be free at the point of delivery and its aim should be an integrated, comprehensive system available to all.”

The Headteachers’ Roundtable, an independent group of school leaders, has proposed an idea for a “rigorous, inclusive and flexible curriculum and qualifications framework” (2013). Among its five guiding principles, it states: “The pace of educational change should not be affected by party politics. The teaching profession should be centrally involved in developing future education policy.”

There are numerous other educational organisations we could list – our teaching unions, the Chartered College, the SSAT, teacher training institutions and research schools, for example – who are all dedicated to improving education in this country. And yet I fear many expend much energy interpreting and then aligning with the latest government educational policies.

For those of us working in the English education system, it is easy to recall myriad changes of policy direction – initiatives launching and collapsing at the whims of various school ministers and governments over the last 25 years.

Education has always been a party-political football; for most of us in education this is all we have ever known and experienced.

A recurring theme in this series is that school leaders and teachers are too tied up with meeting high-stakes public accountability measures and other pressures to question or challenge the fundamental issues at stake.

Policy decisions about education should be carefully considered and made by professionals with a deep understanding of and a background in education. Educational policy should sit outside political influence and must reflect quality educational research.

There should be an overarching single aim – to deliver high-quality schools for all students, regardless of their family background and where all students have the opportunity to perform beyond their potential.

In my next article, I consider the issue of school admissions and examine how it is impossible to provide an equitable education system without significant changes to how admissions work.

  • David Anderson is deputy principal at Uppingham Community College in Rutland. The remaining articles in this series will publish in September.

Further information & resources

Further reading

  • Life Lessons, Melissa Benn, 2018
  • Finnish Lessons 2.0, Pasi Sahlberg, 2015
  • Education Under Siege, Peter Mortimore, 2014
  • Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan, 2016
  • Engines of Privilege, Francis Green and David Kynaston, 2019.
  • Miseducation, Diane Reay, 2017
  • Reframing Education, Mike Murray, 2019
  • The Truth about Our Schools, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs, 2016
  • Posh Boys, Robert Verkaik, 2018


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