Social justice and our school system: A blueprint for equity

Written by: David Anderson | Published:
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In a seven-part series, teacher and school leader David Anderson draws on his Master’s research to consider how schools can be a key driver for social justice and how we can make our education system more equitable. In part one, he looks at inequity across the system, the challenges we face and what being a good school means...

SecEd series: A school system that drives social justice

“I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to go to that school,” a taxi driver told me as we made our way through unfamiliar streets. During the short journey, she described the perceived hierarchy of secondary schools in her town in the North West of England.

At the top of the pile was an independent school, then a grammar, which was followed by a faith school. Below those were a number of academies and finally the school I was visiting – which, in her mind, sat firmly at the bottom.

We can probably all bring to mind a similar rank order for the schools in our area, or where we have previously worked or lived. Do we even question why we have so many different types of schools, with differing levels of status and desirability? In 2014, the then education secretary Michael Gove described England as having “one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the world”. Most people probably could not even name the 11 different types of secondary school that the Department for Education (DfE) lists as existing in England.

This is my 25th year of teaching, during which I have worked in three quite different state comprehensives. The schools have differed geographically and in intake, but have a key similarity – they all serve their local communities and admission is open to all within the catchment.

My current school is located in a fairly rural and affluent area and is surrounded by a number of high status independent schools. This has allowed me to glimpse some of the most privileged educational establishments in the country and personally witness the contrast in experiences of our young people in their school life. Furthermore, as part of the research I undertook for my Master’s in education I visited and spoke to students from a school that was perceived locally as being at the “bottom of the pile”.

During my research, I had the rare opportunity to gain insights into the feelings and perceptions of students who attend one of the least desirable schools in their area, where there are grammar schools and selection by ability at age 11. I have also experienced my own children progressing through our education system and witnessed first-hand the decisions made by other parents in determining what is best for their children.

Hence, my insights into the English education system are formed from years of professional and personal experience. I am by no means an educational systems expert, but I have “chalkface” experience of our system from a number of angles. This makes me reasonably qualified to look critically at English education and consider the implications of a “stratified and segregated system” for all students in our schools.

My aim in this series is to shine a light on some of the pieces of the jigsaw that make up a picture of educational inequity in England. I will share some examples of how other countries tackle educational issues in very different ways and with more success.

Our system is imperfect in many ways. I wish to challenge some of its assumptions and make suggestions, based on examples from elsewhere, for how we can improve it.

There are nearly 500,000 teachers working in more than 21,000 state schools in England, together we can be agents for change.

In each of these seven articles I will argue that the English education system should be a key driver for social justice – the objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters. Furthermore, I will argue that we must aim to create a more equitable education system – one where all students have access to high-quality education regardless of home background.

I have grouped the influences on equity in our education system into seven key areas:

  1. Good schools & equity in the system.
  2. Collaboration versus competition.
  3. Resources.
  4. Education policy.
  5. Admissions.
  6. Assessment.
  7. Accountability.

Chapter 1: Good schools & equity in the system

Does your school represent a microcosm of its local community, serving the needs of all the young people in the area? In Finland, they spent more than 30 years refining their education system with this question in mind and with equity at the core of their vision. The aim of the Finnish education system reform was to ensure that all schools are good schools, with little variation between them so the need for parental choice became unnecessary (Sahlberg, 2015).

How different would the English educational landscape be if all schools were good schools? What if all schools represented a microcosm of the community they represent with a broad mixture of faiths, talents and abilities?

Ask any parent what kind of school they want for their child and they are likely to respond with something along the lines of “one that provides the very best for my child to learn, flourish, and grow”. In other words, a really good school. And who could argue with that?

And over the last 30 years, parents have become accustomed to the idea that parental choice of a school for their child is an undeniable right and is central to the improvement of education in this country. But, while all parents want a good school for their child, good schools come in many shapes and sizes. There is certainly not a level playing field when it comes to English secondary schools.

When I consider the school where I work, I might at first conclude that it represents a microcosm of the community in which it is located. As a standalone academy, we have a transparent admissions policy based on proximity, feeder schools and siblings. There is no preference given to those of a certain faith, academic ability, talent or with ability to pay. This may or may not be the same approach as your school.

But scratch beneath the surface and we discover that there are local children who would never come to our school, however good it might be. From an early age, they are educated in a parallel set of local independent schools that have very little contact with us. Our students may walk the same pavements in the morning, but they enjoy very different types of experiences during their days at school.

This is despite both schools being “good” or better in terms of a variety of measures; “good” can clearly mean very different things.

Let us return to my conversation with the taxi driver, and the clear school hierarchy that exists in that town, and many others.

Schools in England have a big variation of both intake and outcomes. I am sure you can instantly picture a diverse range of schools in your area, but perhaps you have never considered why this is, what this variation looks like, and what the impact might be on all of our young people.

The list below shows the proportion of types of secondary schools in England. There is overlap between designations of schools, hence the figures do not equal 100 per cent (sources include DfE official statistics, 2018 figures from the State Boarding Forum, and information from Green, Henseke & Vignoles, 2017).

  1. Community/maintained schools: 15 per cent.
  2. Foundation and voluntary schools: 16 per cent.
  3. Academies: 61 per cent.
  4. Grammar schools: 5 per cent.
  5. Faith schools: 8 per cent.
  6. Faith academies: 11 per cent.
  7. Free schools: 4 per cent.
  8. City technology schools: Less then 1 per cent.
  9. Special schools: 3 per cent.
  10. State boarding schools: 1 per cent.
  11. Independent schools: 7 per cent.

With these different designations come large differences in approaches to admissions, resourcing, governance and accountability. These differences also bring very different experiences of education for our young people. I will be considering the effect of these differences on educational equity in future articles in this series.

According to Ofsted’s 2018/19 annual report, published in January, 86 per cent of schools in England are either “good’ or “outstanding”. That means 14 per cent of schools in England provide an education that is judged to be “not good” for our young people. This is a worrying statistic, but one that is rarely mentioned.

So how does this variation compare with other countries around the world? One of the best comparisons we have is via the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges and their tests and analyses are carried out every three years.

According to the 2018 results (OECD, 2019), England ranks 15th out of 37 countries in terms of variation between schools, with Canada seventh and Finland topping the rankings as having the least variation between schools (measured in terms of standardised tests completed by 15-year-olds).

So, schools in England vary greatly in intake and in outcomes. We know this from our own experiences, and also through the publication of both Ofsted reports and academic attainment data. What is Progress 8 and the published league tables, if not an indicator of great variation between schools?

As I highlight above, schools in England do not necessarily represent a microcosm of the local community. Some schools select by academic ability, faith or ability to pay. I, and many others, would argue that the selection of “more able” students from an area removes these students from the wider pool. This leaves a pool of “less able” students to be divided among the remaining non-selective schools.

Similar selection happens with faith schools, and schools who give priority for talents such as music or sports. Again, this detrimentally affects the pool of students “left-behind”.

Research by Kalogrides and Loeb (2013) and Massey and Fischer (2006) show that students who attend a selective school are more likely to be surrounded by motivated and academically aspirational peers, and therefore “do better” at school.

Similarly, a variety of research shows that students who do not go to a selective school in a selective area, are more likely to be surrounded by less-motivated and less academically aspirational peers, and therefore “do worse” at school (Gorard & Siddiqui, 2018; Kitchen & Hobbs, 2016; Boliver & Swift, 2011; Perera, 2016).

The research into the damaging effects of selective education on the students who do not attend selective schools in selective areas is clear and emphatic. Yet it is not widely admitted by either those making educational policy decisions in government or by parents and teachers.

Interestingly, research from the Sutton Trust (Coe et al, 2008) found that nearly three quarters of schools in England are affected by the presence of a selective school. So, while currently only five per cent of schools in England are grammar schools, the detrimental effect on other schools is disproportionate.

At the time of writing, the government is not showing signs of changing legislation to allow the creation of new grammar schools, although the opportunity for satellite grammar schools, which some have described as “backdoor grammars”, remains.

Finally, on the issue of “selection by ability to pay”, it is well-known that advantaged parents have more books at home and read to their children more often. Research shows that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is around 4,000 words with children in the top quartile having a vocabulary of around 7,000 words (Biemiller, 2004).

The children of the advantaged are therefore already educationally ahead when they start school. And the size of a pupil’s early vocabulary – the number and variety of words that the young person knows – is a significant predictor of academic attainment in later schooling and of success in life (Save the Children, 2016; Parsons & Schoon, 2011).

More advantaged parents can pay for tutors to help their children gain access to selective schools and the most advantaged parents can pay independent schools for their children’s education (about seven per cent are educated this way).

Students who attend independent schools generally have access to more resources, smaller class sizes, different standardised high-stakes tests (e.g. iGCSEs), a more positive culture and climate for learning, superior guidance for university applications, and enhanced job prospects, networking and earning capacity. Of course, the reverse is true for the vast majority of students (93 per cent) who do not have the opportunity to attend fee-paying schools – they are at a disadvantage.

So, England offers a wider variety of schools types and designations than many other countries and this leads to a great disparity in intake and outcomes. Some parents have an advantage in obtaining access to better and segregated school systems for their children. The research shows emphatically that it is the disadvantaged in our society who are disproportionately adversely affected by this lack of a level playing field in our education system.

There is not equity in our system – our young people do not have access to a high-quality education regardless of home background. In my view, the issues surrounding selective and private education sit at the heart of this debate.

What can you do, if like me, you feel strongly that our system is set up to favour the most privileged in society to the detriment of others? I would suggest the following: read widely – there is a suggested reading list at the end of this article to get you started. Find out what your union’s approach is to equity in education and challenge them to take a stand.

You can get involved more directly by engaging in the work of organisations such as the Local Schools Network, Comprehensive Futures or Private School Policy Reform.

Above all, do not assume that the system we have is the best and only option. Authentic change takes time, but is possible.

  • David Anderson is deputy principal at Uppingham Community College in Rutland. The remaining articles in this series will publish between now and the autumn term.

Further information & references

  • Biemiller: Teaching vocabulary in the primary grades. In Vocabulary Instruction: Research to practice, Baumann & Kame’enui (eds), Guilford, 2004.
  • Boliver & Swift: Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility? British Journal of Sociology, March 2011:
  • Coe et al: Evidence on the effects of selective educational systems: A report for the Sutton Trust, CEM Centre, Durham University, 2008:
  • Gorard & Siddiqui: Grammar schools in England: A new analysis of social segregation and academic outcomes, British Journal of Sociology of Education 39, March 2018:
  • Green, Henseke & Vignoles: Private schooling and labour market outcomes, British Educational Research Journal 43, 2017:
  • Kalogrides & Loeb: Different teachers, different peers, Educational Researcher 42, 2013:
  • Kitchen & Hobbs: Academic evidence on selective secondary education, Houses of Parliament Postbrief 22, December 2016:
  • Levaçić & Marsh: Secondary modern schools: Are their pupils disadvantaged? British Educational Research Journal 33, 2007:
  • OECD: PISA 2015 results (volume I): Excellence and equity in education, OECD Publishing, 2016:
  • OECD: PISA 2018 results: Combined executive summaries, OECD Publishing 2019:
  • Ofsted: Annual Report 2018/19, January 2020:
  • Parsons & Schoon: Long-term outcomes for children with early language problems, Children & Society Vol 25, 2011.
  • Perera: Grammar schools: Eight conclusions from the data, Education Policy Institute, November 2016:
  • Save the Children: Early language development and children’s primary school attainment in English and maths, 2016:
  • Sahlberg: Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? Teachers College Press, January 2015.

Further reading

  • 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
  • Finnish Lessons 2.0, Pasi Sahlberg, 2015.
  • Posh Boys, Robert Verkaik, 2018.


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