British society today has one of the largest prosperity and inequality gaps in Western civilisation (Savage, 2015). Approximately one in four children in Scotland live in poverty (Scottish Government, 2018). The divide between the wealthy and poor is still expanding (Major and Machin, 2018). In response, there are increasing efforts from the Scottish Government to address Britain’s socio-economic divide. They view school as a means to tackle social injustice and societal change, thus identifying teachers as ‘agents’ of social change and justice (Pantić and Florian, 2015). In this essay, I will analyse the definitions and practices of equity and social justice in the context of Scottish education.
Definitions of equity and social justice in the classroom
The terms equity and social justice are multifaceted and one definition for each alone cannot be used to explain such vast terms. Both terms are inter-linked concepts, however, that relate to ideas of fairness, inclusion and equality (Riddell, 2009).
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The National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan 2020 outlines that to achieve educational equity, every child must be provided the “same opportunity to succeed”, notwithstanding their situation (Scottish Government, 2016). This relates to ideas of fairness and inclusion; to ensure every child receives equal opportunities, all children should receive equal access to information and resources. Further, inclusion must be promoted by purposefully encouraging all to contribute and participate (Ford Foundation, 2019). Ayers, Quinn and Stovall (2009) define equity as fair and equal opportunities for all, recognising that equity is a vital element required to deliver a ‘social justice education’. Equity should not be mistaken for equality; equity provides students with support which considers individualised, distinct needs in order to achieve personal and academic success, whilst equality provides the same level of opportunities and intervention (Amadeo, 2019). Field, Kuvzera and Pont (2007) explain that in order to make society more equitable, teachers need to ensure personal, social and economic circumstances are not viewed as ‘barriers’ to achievement and to promote a fairer and more inclusive system.
The term social justice builds on the idea of equity. The policy “everyone matters” rationale for social justice in Scottish Education is to “close the gap in educational achievements between the most disadvantaged children…and the average, to promote equality, inclusion and diversity”(Scottish Executive, 2002a). Social justice in education refers to purposefully avoiding the marginalisation of learners and an exclusion of particular groups, for instance ethnic minority students, pupils from multicultural backgrounds, non-native language speakers, students with physical disabilities, and those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds who may be underprivileged by poverty (Pantić and Florian, 2015). Pupils should be able to develop their full potential, regardless of backgrounds and with due respect for individual rights (Hytten, 2015). Socio-economic background remains the primary predictor of educational attainment in the UK context (Mowat, 2018).
Emma Smith (2018) makes use of philosopher John Rawls’ theory of justice (2013) in order to categorise definitions of social justice under three types; ‘justice as equality’, ‘justice as equity’ and ‘justice as harmony’. Smith explains that both ‘justice as harmony’ and ‘justice as equity’ promote treating people differently and appropriately. However, ‘justice as harmony’ promotes those receiving rewards and opportunities which match a student’s capabilities. Justice as equality represents fair treatment of all whereas justice as equity is based upon using resources and support materials in attempt to meet distinct needs.
What aids and what hinders equitable and socially just practice in a school community?
Numerous key national educational policies relate to social justice and equity within the classroom. The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) attempts to construct a civic education that is all inclusive and equitable; it is a teachers’ main responsibility to make sure each child can access a full education and reach their full potential, based on the four personal capacities (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2009a). Teachers and schools are expected to build and customise pedagogical approaches in order to support children and aid achievement (Smith, 2018). On my first school placement, teachers positively discussed how the flexibility within the curriculum allowed creative strategies for inclusion and differentiation; for instance, one teacher knew of her class’ love of caterpillars, thus knew it would be advantageous to complete a number of interdisciplinary projects based upon the popular book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. Through providing high-quality and engaging learning experiences, a teacher may foster interest and motivation and provide improved outcomes for all, in particular for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Education Scotland, 2020b).
Further, health and wellbeing is also prioritised as one of the primary areas identified to advocate equity in schools (Education Scotland, 2020b), as it has been identified that socio-economic disadvantages can affect a child’s mental and physical health (The Children’s Society, 2019). Thus, elements of social justice and equity are constantly being threaded through children’s learning (Priestly and Minty, 2013). The concept of supporting the wellbeing of children and its key factors for a child to be Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Respected, Responsible and Included (SHANARRI) are now preserved in law under the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 (Scottish Parliament Act, 2014), and form the cornerstone of the Government’s Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) national policy framework. This framework also implements the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into practice, promoting a rights-based system.
Further, the Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education policy states that equity means to raise attainment and “close the gap in attainment” between the least and most disadvantaged children (Scottish Government, 2016). Policies such as this and NIF relate to the concept of ‘justice as equity’, with emphasis upon sameness and universalism, but with the view that some individuals should be provided with more opportunities (such as extra support and resources) than others in order to improve their situation. The question remains as to which needs deserve priority in both practice and policy.
During placement, I witnessed numerous needs across each class. One girl in particular had just moved from Poland to a poor housing domain within the Scottish Borders (SIMD 4th decile). The school was aware that she was sleeping in substandard living conditions. In class, she evidently suffered from an inability to concentrate as well as severe low mood levels, most likely due to lack of sleep. The girl faced potential barriers to learning not only through a lack of English language knowledge but due to socio-economic deprivation. Following this, the school set up meetings with the girl’s parents in order to primarily discuss her sleep deprivation and ways to improve her emotional wellbeing. Furthermore, the teacher adapted her classroom resources accordingly, for instance by adding Polish reading books to the library and promoting the use of visual learning within the classroom (for example, using literacy picture cards). Importantly, the girl’s parents appreciated the support their daughter received from school, and acknowledged that the girl’s sleeping conditions needed to improve. They informed the school that they were in the process of purchasing her a new bed. Studies have proven that lack of sleep can negate a child’s brain development (NHS Choices, 2016), thus this was an important step forward in tackling her individualised barriers to learning.
Furthermore, one boy would often become highly disruptive during school lessons. It was not until later that I became aware of his home life difficulties. His father was absent and mother unemployed, and he also resided in a deprived area of the Scottish Borders (SIMD 2nd decile). His basic needs were struggling to be met as he was often without school materials. Living in poverty can stop children from receiving the practical and emotional support that a child needs, which can lead to cases of neglect (NSPCC, 2016).The teacher took great care in alleviating the child’s vulnerabilities and used individualistic approaches to try and benefit his learning. Again, regular meetings were set up between the school and the pupil’s mum, and soon a support plan was put into place. His behaviour and progress was monitored, with extra support provided where needed. The teacher strove to include him, vocally praising and rewarding him when appropriate. She also provided small responsibilities for him within the classroom to raise his esteem. Over time, his behaviour did show improvements and the boy’s attainment did begin to improve. I thought it extremely valuable to witness this warm and accepting environment for a child who struggled as a result of his background.
Many children can be disproportionately affected by different needs and deprivation, in turn leading to significant additional barriers to learning. Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) was created as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge (Scottish Government, 2017), which involves the allocation of additional monies to schools on the basis of the number of children who have been granted free school meals. Headteachers are provided discretion to decide who would most benefit from intervention “whilst keeping a clear focus on delivering equity” (Scottish Government, 2018). Thus, children from disadvantaged backgrounds may benefit from PEF funding. For example, the school was able to purchase the boy mentioned previously a P.E kit with PEF funding; a small intervention that profoundly impacted his education as it allowed him access to the same opportunities as others.
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The school I attended had a particularly high level of ASN needs, as they shared their building with an additional needs support provision. In the school, funding was used to employ Additional Needs Assistants (ANAs) to provide 1:1 support for children. I noticed ANAs tended to be with those who needed the additional support (such as a child with Down Syndrome) as opposed to addressing any poverty related attainment gaps. As stated previously, research shows that socio-economic background remains the largest predictor of educational attainment (Mowat, 2016). I recognised here that 1:1 support cannot always be granted for all. Further, each classroom I observed had several other cases of ASN needs in each classroom, such as ADHD and Dyslexia; however, these conditions may not receive any additional funding associated with deprivation (Riddell, 2019). Support for ASN pupils is necessary and important, though perhaps in the future PEF could be used to employ staff to work with SIMD 1-4 pupils.
Equity and social justice as foundational values for my own future practice
Research has found that self-belief can determine a connection between socio-economic status and attainment; if a child possesses negative self-belief in their abilities, this can negatively impact effort and achievement (Perry, Dempster and Mackay, 2017). Stemming from Carol Dweck’s term ‘growth mindset’, her approach involves showing children that their “most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work” (Dweck, 2015). In class and through assemblies, I observed how children were encouraged to share proud moments and achievements attained through perseverance. Studies show that enthusiasm can positively impact success (Arshad, Wrigley and Pratt, 2012). Everyday teacher-pupil interactions can be detrimental to a child’s achievement and outlook. Thus, in my own practice I aim to focus upon building relationships and a classroom culture which promotes the confidence and resilience of all, including those facing disadvantages.
Furthermore, I recognise that I need to continue to develop my skills as an effective and inclusive practitioner via strategies such as differentiation, formative assessment techniques, and co-operative learning. Using pedagogical approaches to reduce educational inequalities is linked to research showing teachers are the most significant in-school factor influencing student achievement (Hattie, 2009; OECD, 2005). Teachers can indeed be agents of social change who work towards inclusion and social justice in education (Pantić and Florian, 2015).
The CfE opens up opportunities to develop learning about social justice. Teaching social justice within the classroom can also involve teaching the principles of sustainability, global citizenship, real-world issues and children’s rights, which I will consider in my own practice (Moore and Mitchell, 2008). I aim to develop confidence in my ability to address and teach concepts of social justice and equity in the classroom with special regard to differences and diversity. It is the responsibility of all teachers to play an important role in helping children understand and acknowledge others from diverse backgrounds, such as those with disabilities or different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Social justice is a topic that will only increase in urgency, a topic that pupils must be aware of in adulthood (Merrimack College Editor, 2019).
I also aim to learn about how to encourage parental involvement in a child’s learning, and to develop my behaviour management skills in a way that aids social justice and equity. In an unequal society, it is not surprising that family circumstance can have a profound effect upon wealth, status and wellbeing. Research shows that single parents receive lower levels of income, wealth, and are at greater risk of poverty and poor health (Riddell, 2019). A correspondence between both teacher and pupil is arguably essential to the livelihood and future success of a pupil. Wellbeing and pastoral care should be prioritised in order to address the attainment gap (Scottish Government, 2019).
Reflecting upon social justice and equity in the classroom, I believe that supportive relationships combined with knowledge of students is crucial to teaching pupils from diverse backgrounds (Den Brok et al 2010). If teachers are agents of social justice, it should be necessary that I should experience working with a variety of families from different cultures and social contexts so as to understand the various factors that influence educational development (Flecha and Soler, 2013). Child poverty can have serious consequences for individuals, impacting not only education but health, employment and crime (Nieuwenhuis and Maldonado, 2018). Whilst teachers should ensure children thrive regardless of differences, the question is whether this is a realistic goal. Public policy may need further consideration to redress inequalities in Scotland. Teachers can certainly make a significant difference to a child’s life, however we cannot be exclusively responsible for resolving wider social justice and equity issues.
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