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The Social Justice Dilemma in Schools

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Social justice sounds like a good thing. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it refers to the fair treatment and equitable status of all individuals and social groups within a state or society. Who could argue with that? I am a teacher, and I have seen social justice enter the education lexicon, but while the terminology is widely used, that does not necessarily mean that it is understood. And even when it is understood, does everyone share the same understanding?

In 2015, Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, set out “the social justice case for an academic curriculum”. He seemed to imply a more traditional use of the term – a rigorous curriculum of academic subjects for all students, including the most disadvantaged. But eight years later, I am not convinced that meaning still holds. Social justice has become a concept that can be delivered in those schools – for example, lessons on racism, homophobia, transphobia, and how those attitudes can be stamped out.

But while we should be making every effort to include all children and deal with anti-social language and behaviour, how are schools doing it? The Brittanica definition was clear when it referred to individuals and social groups. Where should the emphasis lie? Should schools strive to include all children within the school community, or should the focus be on protected characteristics? Making sure, for example, that different races feel equally at home or that those who are same-sex attracted do not feel marginalised.

Immersed as I am in the education sector, I worry that the latter approach is in ascendency. If we are to protect social groups, then, inevitably, those groups gain meaning and significance. Not only that, but rather than identify with the school – something that can and should include them all – children may be drawn first to various social groups. The identity shifts from the school to the sub-group. It’s hardly inclusion to divide a population up, and I am concerned that it has contributed to the reported deterioration in mental health among young people.

However, while I am certainly worried about the impact of social justice in schools, I feel unable to challenge these ideas in a professional setting. Firstly, I am not an expert in social justice; I am a physics teacher. I have two degrees in the subject and almost 30 years’ experience. My expertise lies in how to teach electrical circuits, not the qualities needed to be an anti-racist or a trans-ally. That said, as a transsexual who transitioned over a decade ago, I know quite a bit about trans issues and why some of the materials that come into schools are unhelpful. Children do not need to be labelled with some gender identity, for example, if they prefer to eschew the stereotypes that apply to their sex. Much, in my view, to leave children to find themselves and not be corralled into an off-the-peg gender, however colourful the flag.

The law, however, places restrictions on me at school. At first glance, guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) gives me licence to explore the different views with my pupils. Indeed, I am specifically prohibited from encouraging them to “support or adopt a one-sided view expressed with a political purpose”. In addition to the policies of political parties, that includes “some views held by campaign groups, lobbyists, charitable organisations, and other external agencies”. The sort of people who promote the idea that children need a gender identity to be protected from discrimination that applies to gender identities.

However, according to the Teachers’ Standards – published by that same DfE – teachers must not undermine “fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. But what is a fundamental value – British or otherwise – and what is a “one-sided view expressed with a political purpose”? I don’t know where the line is drawn, and so, with my livelihood potentially at stake, I follow the script when social justice appears in the classroom. That approach might be pragmatic rather than courageous, but I suspect it is rather common across education.

While teachers might moderate debates between opposing political positions, the real power lies in the hands of those who decide what is a political position and what is a fundamental value – what can be debated and what must not be debated. In a democracy, that should be our elected representatives, but I fear that too much thinking has been subcontracted to those “campaign groups, lobbyists, charitable organisations, and other external agencies”.

If those agencies deem something to be a shared value and produce pre-packaged teaching materials for teachers to deliver, then their ideas may go unchallenged in schools.

A new approach is needed, and one more fundamental than substituting a different set of materials. Critical thinking needs to be re-established in the minds of schools, teachers, and pupils. The government could perhaps begin by resurrecting A-Level Critical Thinking, a subject discontinued in 2016. Indeed, the claim that everyone has a gender identity would make an excellent case study for students to analyse, along with the credibility of those making those claims.

Our young people deserve better than to be cajoled into identity groups; they need to be taught to think for themselves.  If that is a contentious political issue, then let the debate begin.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist. Her first book, “Transsexual Apostate: My Journey Back to Reality” will be published by Forum on 8th February 2024.

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