Freedom To Learn Project | Socially just education and inequalities: outlining the challenge. Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge University
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Diane Ray

Socially just education and inequalities: outlining the challenge. Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge University

In 2014 we have an educational system that is as inequitable as state education under the tripartite system. The difference is that today is that, although inequalities permeate the whole of the system, they are less overt, more hidden, than in a system of grammar schools and secondary moderns. In this paper I am going to look at the contemporary unjust status quo before outlining possible ways forward to a fairer educational system that provides a good education for all rather than a good education for the advantaged few.

Arguing for socially just education at the beginning of the last century R H Tawney asserted:

I should be lacking in candour if I did not state my conviction that the only basis of educational policy worthy of a civilised nation is one which accepts as its objective, unpopular though such a view is in England, the establishment of the completest possible educational equality and that it is the duty of such educationalists as agree with that view to make it clear by definite, explicit and repeated statements that that and nothing less is what they mean. (Tawney 1934, 1)

In 21st century Britain we have moved a very long way from the principles, policies and practices Tawney was advocating. The establishment of the completest possible educational equality is no nearer to realization now than it was then. In his seminal text ‘Equality’ Tawney argued against the view that was dominant in England at the time, that liberty and equality are antithetical. Rather he asserted inequalities, and in particular economic inequalities, were a major threat to liberty. For Tawney the liberty of the working classes depended on the restraint of the middle and upper classes. He quotes A F Pollard (1920: 183) “Every man (sic) should have this liberty and no more, to do unto others as he would that they should do unto him; upon that common foundation rest liberty, equality and morality’. The socially just society is one that can call itself a community rather than being comprised of competing fractions with very unequal distributions of social and economic power.   I would argue we see evidence all around us in the UK that the freedom and liberty accorded to the upper and middle classes comes at the cost of severe restrictions placed on the freedoms of the working classes. And as Tawney argued, liberty for the advantaged is not freedom at all if it involves imprisoning the less advantaged in poverty and lack of opportunity. Instead Tawney made the case for building a society are based on a common culture because, as he pointed out, a community without a common culture is not a community at all:

Social well-being depends upon cohesion and solidarity. It implies the existence, not merely of opportunities to ascend, but of a high level of general culture, and a strong sense of common interests, and a diffusion throughout society of a conviction that civilization is not the business of an elite alone, but a common enterprise which is the concern of all. And individual happiness does not only require that men (sic) should be free to rise to new positions of comfort and distinction; it also requires that they should be able to lead a life of dignity and culture , whether they rise or not (Tawney 1964a: 108)

‘The good society’ was one that resolutely pursued the elimination of all forms of special privilege, including those of education. According to Tawney, the price of a socially unjust educational system, underpinned by a tradition of inequality,   was servility and resentment on the one side and arrogance and patronage on the other (Tawney 1964a). It is unsurprising then that Tawney advocated for an educational system ‘unimpeded by the vulgar irrelevancies of class and income’ (Tawney 1943) and argued for universal university education on the basis that it is just as important for those who remain working class all their lives as it is for the upper and middle classes (Tawney 1964a). Despite himself attending a private school, throughout his life Tawney denounced private schooling arguing that:

The effect of the division of schools into free and fee-paying is to create a mistaken impression that the latter are in some sense superior, and thus to encourage a social snobbery which it should be one of the functions of education to discredit (Tawney 1942: 4)

Tawney abhorred practices of ‘getting the best for your own child’ if it was at the expense of other people’s children, labeling such practices as ‘antisocial egotism’ (Tawney 1943). Also, for Tawney, a vision of a socially just educational system should be much bolder and brighter than simply a focus on social mobility which he dismissed as ‘merely converting into doctors, barristers and professors a certain number of people who would otherwise have been manual workers’ (Tawney 1964b: 77). Rather, a socially just educational system is one in which education is seen as an end in itself, a space that ‘people seek out not in order that they may become something else but because they are what they are’ (pg 78), rather than a means of getting ahead of others, of stealing a competitive edge. Instead, Tawney put the case for a common school asserting that ‘the English educational system will never be one worthy of a civilised society until the children of all classes in the nation attend the same schools’ (Tawney 1964a: 144). So, in Tawney’s terms a socially just educational system is one in which a nation secures educationally for all children ‘what a wise parent would desire for his own children’ (Tawney 1964a: 146).

Understanding why the UK and in particular, England, has moved so far away from a commitment to educational equality we need to focus not just on what is happening within education but also to look at what is happening outside it. So this is a paper of two halves. First I am going to focus on the challenges to socially just education within the educational system, then secondly, I am going to look more broadly at the barriers within the wider social and economic context.

A socially just educational system would require a very different structure to the existing one with a much flatter hierarchy of schooling. And one of the major challenges to social justice within our educational system is the private schools. Currently 23% of British school educational spending goes on the 7% of pupils who are privately educated. Any commitment to social justice is fundamentally undermined by structures, such as private schools, that perpetuate advantage. However, current policy is privatizing the state system from the inside out. Private schools are just the tip of an iceberg of privatization as increasing numbers of schools, from church schools to academies and free schools enjoy some form of separation from the mainstream state sector while continuing to derive large parts of their income from the state. Such schools encourage and facilitate segregation and polarisation within education, and prevent the possibilities for a truly comprehensive system where the differences between schools are minimized, while the diversity within them is maximized. I want to look briefly at some statistics which make clear the polarisation within the system and also the growing unfair distribution of resources within the state sector .

Significantly Segregated Primary Schools, London



21% of all primary schools in London exhibit significant levels of class and ethnic segregation

The figure rises to an average of 44% for all ‘faith schools’

In the two years from April 2010 to March 2012, the Department of Education spent £8.3 billion on Academies; £1 billion of this was an additional cost to the Department not originally budgeted for. As the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee pointed out some of the budgets the Department drew upon to fund the expansion had been

previously earmarked for underachieving schools.

  • In 2011–12, £96 million originally allocated to underachieving schools was taken to pay for the extra spending on academies,
  • In 2012–13, the amount had risen to £400 million

(Report of the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts Department for

Education: Managing the expansion of the Academies Programme

Forty-first Report of Session 2012–13)

This has happened at a time when the Coalition government have cut the education budget by more than £5 billion

  • In 2010/11 the median total income (£ per pupil) for secondary academies with key stage 4 was £7,880.
  • In 2010/11 the median total income (£ per pupil) for maintained secondary schools with key stage 4 was £5,411

(Department for Education, Statistical First Release, October 2013)

But much needs to be done inside schools and classrooms, as well as working on the structure of the educational system. Classrooms would have to operate very differently from the stressful, task-driven, target-led, overly competitive environments they are currently. In 2014 we have an educational system characterised by low autonomy and high accountability in which neither teachers nor children are adequately respected and trusted. Instead classrooms should be environments where the main concern is learning not control. This would involve providing both teachers and students with far more freedom in relation to teaching and learning. As one London teacher asserted:

Nowadays teaching is all about getting children to perform well in relation to very narrow, test-driven targets. I believe that education is learning to think critically, asking questions and using one’s imagination; creating a classroom environment where thinking, questioning, and imagining is encouraged because this is what permits students the freedom to truly learn.


When we move to the broader national and international context, it is important to recognize that in twenty-first century Britain we cannot consider equality or social justice within national schooling systems without considering the effects of globalization. Inequalities are experienced within nations and across the globe in deeply interconnected economic ways. David Held (1991) defined globalization as ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’. Over 20 years later, we still cannot talk of a global market in schooling but we can see the profound impact of policies and practices in other parts of the globe on the UK educational policy and practice. In particular, it is important to recognize that global agencies like the IMF, The World Bank, UNESCO and OECD have a powerful steering influence on nation states and their educational systems across the globe. They have resulted in an international move towards test-driven accountability, the standardisation o teaching and learning in general, the fostering of competition between schools, and of commercialisation within them, growing privatisation including public-private partnerships, and a preoccupation with outputs. There has been a global movement towards data-driven policy and practice. There are many visible impacts on Teaching and learning in UK schools but a particularly pernicious one arises from the A to C economy. Now when I go into both primary and secondary schools I regularly see photos in staffrooms of focal students those on the border of D to C grades in secondary schools and those on the 2/3 border in primary schools. Increasingly these photos are prominently displayed in staffrooms to remind staff these are the children they should be giving their main attention to. Within the field of education we have moved from a position of measuring what we value to one of valuing what we measure! Globally, the policy imperatives and dominant discourses governing powerful external agencies such as the OECD and the IMF need to be transformed in order to prioritize equity goals over those of economy, efficiency and competition. (drivers that all operate currently to increase educational inequalities both globally across nations and internally within them; Our national leaders are obsessed with PISA scores but PISA has had a reductionist impact on teaching and learning shifting the attention of the general public and politicians almost exclusively to the core subjects of mathematics, science and reading. This leaves history, geography, citizenship education, foreign languages, and all the other subjects taught in schools marginalized.

Further complicating any project of constructing a socially just educational system has been the appropriation of the term ‘social justice’ by the political right in the UK. Since the 1980s, they have engaged in an ideological project in which the terms ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’ have become shadows of what they were seen to constitute for those on the left in the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘Equalities’ Minister, Theresa May‘s speech on 17 November 2010 exemplifies this shift. She states that ‘you do not improve the lives of those at the bottom by limiting the ambitions and opportunities of others’. She stresses three times that ‘people are individuals’, railing against categorization and asserting that we need to stop defining people by their membership of of groups. Race, gender, sexuality and disability are all listed as getting in the way of greater equality, but the unspoken axis of inequality in English society, social class is never once mentioned despite the admission ‘that money still matters’. However, for May, just as important as how much you have to spend is how you spend it. Such behaviourist individualism is classic neoliberalism but,a neoliberal socially just educational system is a contradiction in terms. Yet, in the 2010s neoliberal thinking, despite its massive failures economically, appears to have tightened its grip on political, and beyond that wider commonsense, discourses (Clegg 2010). As a consequence social injustices in education and their remediation are seen to be the responsibility of the individual suffering the injustice rather than the collective responsibility of society. The working classes are now seen to be deficient if they aren’t engaged in a personal project of becoming middle class.

Recent reports (Bamfield and Horton 2009; O’Brien 2011) shows that judgemental

and neoliberally inclined attitudes are also pervasive among the British public. Seventy per cent of the respondents in Bamfield and Horton’s survey agreed that ‘There is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated’. Only 30% were prepared to believe that some people face insurmountable barriers. Similarly, the Policy Exchange survey (O’Brien 2011) found 63% of people felt fairness was a

question of people getting what they deserved with only 26% saying that it was about equality. The results of the most recent 2010 British Social Attitudes survey found that Britain is now more Thatcherite than when Margaret Thatcher was in office, with people much less supportive of the welfare state and the redistribution of wealth than in the 1980s. SHOW SLIDE In 2003 only 36% of those surveyed supported redistribution compared with 51% in 1993, while 66% felt the unemployed could get a job if they really wanted one compared with 27% in 1993 (Curtis 2010). In all three surveys highly individualized explanations of unequal outcomes were combined with more negative and punitive attitudes towards those at the bottom of society than to those at the ‘top’. Such cultural views of working-class underachievement displace attention and blame from the policy and practices of the powerful in society to those who are relatively powerless. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the vision of a socially just educational system that is currently dominant is the dystopian vision of the Right in which the economic ends of education are transcendent and competitive individualism is seen to be a virtue.

Yet, British social attitudes about education are not all of a piece, they are deeply contradictory, Even in neo-liberal times like the present, research shows that the vast majority   of British people still see education as a right that should be made available to all rather than a commodity to be competed for in an educational marketplace. 63 per cent of people in Britain agree that parents ought to send their children to the nearest state school. A further 22 per cent ‘would

agree’ in a context of greater equity between schools. It seems unconvincing then to claim that an educational marketplace is what the public ‘wants’. Similarly, the vast majority also do not want to run their children’s schools. They just want them to have a good education that realizes their potential.

Yet, the current status quo in terms of social justice generally, and more specifically in delineating a socially just educational system, places those with more collectivist, egalitarian philosophies in a painful position. It is difficult for those genuinely committed to greater social justice in education to reconcile equality with elitism, fairness with rigid hierarchies, as our political leaders appear to. But I would argue that it is futile to wrestle with the current neoliberal terms of engagement, to try and make them ‘better’. Tinkering with an unjust educational system is not going to transform it into a just system. What we need are totally different ways of envisioning education, ones that enable a move beyond narrow secular self-interests and economic ends.

As the findings from the recent surveys reveal, values, attitudes and dominant discourses in wider society would need to change substantially in order to provide a supportive context in which social justice in education might flourish. There are myriad social and economic hurdles in the way of a socially just educational system, but the major barriers to an educational system that works for all of society in the twenty-first century could be grouped into three main areas.

First, as I have already touched on, there is the thorny area of attitudes. The most intractable barrier to a socially just educationally system is the hearts and minds of the more privileged and powerful in society. As long as the elites remain invested in the belief of their own social and intellectual superiority they will continue to associate fairness in education with their own children winning what is an extremely unfair educational contest. Also while there has been a shift in upper class

attitudes to the working classes, they are still powerfully influenced by understandings of class as cultural. Now the elites’ view of the working classes as an unruly undisciplined mass has been transformed into a view of the working classes as

made up of individuals who need to take more responsibility for their lives. Our media and politicians are both wedded to a focus on cultural aspects of working class underachievement. But beyond our political and media elites the majority view is that class position and poverty are lifestyle choices: that anyone who wants to be, and tries hard enough, can be middle class. Changing such views is a vital precursor to a socially just educational system. More problematic is whether such attitudes are amenable to change in the current political context.

The second intractable area is the economy. A popular belief has been that the

working class as a group is much diminished in the 2010s. Of course class groupings change in composition and quantity over time, and the number of manual workers in manufacturing industries has shrunk rapidly over the last century. However, if we take the working class as a labour market category, which is how they have been traditionally understood, manual workers currently make up 38% of the working population. If we then include sales and shop workers plus the unemployed then the working classes add up to around 50% of the working-age population (Bottero 2009). So despite popular belief, we are not all middle class apart from a small disreputable underclass. Instead of the myth of an endlessly expanding middle class we have the reality of a still significant and large working-class cohort – all those cleaners, nannies and service sector workers that an increasingly prosperous middle and upper class rely on for their leisure. Rather than education policy that focuses remorselessly on social mobility and raising working-class aspirations in the narrow sense of becoming middle class, what is required is an educational approach that values vocational routes and careers and the existing knowledges of working-class young people.

Another related economic factor is the growing relative poverty of the working class. Economic inequality in Britain has risen relentlessly over the past 25 years fuelled by a redistribution from wages to profits in GDP (Glyn 2007; Jansson 2008). So for example between 1986 and 1995, measured by the Gini coefficient, inequality increased by 28%, more than in the USA and very much more than in Nordic countries. By 2007 Britain had higher income inequality than all bar five of the EU 25 countries, wealth inequality also increased under the last Labour Government and is set to increase even more under the conservative- liberal coalition. John Hills (2010) LSE report states that the richest 10% in Britain are now more than 100 times better off than the bottom 10%. And all the historical evidence indicates that recessions and economic downturns impact more negatively on the working than the middle classes. So, despite the rhetoric around economic recovery, a concern is that the next decade will see a deterioration in working-class opportunities in education as economic inequalities increase.

A socially just educational system would both recognize and take cognizance of these economic realities. Rather than continuing with the unremitting focus on

social mobility and raising aspirations, an ideological whip with which to beat the white working classes, it would value and respect working class as well as middle and upper class ways of knowing where the vocational has esteem alongside the academic, rather than being perceived to be an inferior form of knowledge.

Attitudes and economic factors are reinforced by a strongly individualistic, competitive culture of neoliberalism. Together these constitute powerful and entrenched barriers to greater educational equality. A socially just educational system requires far reaching systemic changes, wide ranging social redistribution, radical curriculum innovation and discursive shifts. The reports, I referred to earlier, also show that the more privileged in society believe people should be rewarded according to what they deserve rather than according to what they need, and unsurprisingly they also happen to believe they deserve more than others. It is these deeply held and entrenched beliefs that need to shift if we are to have a socially just educational system. So contrary to current orthodoxies that see the less privileged – black and white working-class students and their families – as needing to change, I would argue that the most important change needs to be in the attitudes and values, and in particular the investment in hierarchy, intellectual superiority and elitism, of our political and economic elites. A socially just educational system is one premised on themaxim that a good education is the democratic right of all rather than a prize to be competitively fought over.

In the UK class seeps into the soul creating divisions between people that are not nearly as pronounced in, for example, the Nordic context. So given the enormous salience of class in English society how do we create an educational system where the commonalities among students are emphasized and the differences downplayed.

To what extent is a highly individualized, class saturated, strongly neoliberal country like the United Kingdom able to set up a socially just educational system in which schools share parity of esteem. In the past, almost immediately a hierarchy of worth and esteem was established and continues to be established, undermining the comprehensive principle . The great unspoken, rarely admitted, is that in the United Kingdom the activities and practices associated with the working classes have automatically been assigned a lower value and deemed to be inferior (Skeggs, 2004). As I stated earlier, this is a question of hearts and minds as much as it is pedagogy and educational policy.

As a result to achieve socially just schooling , in the sense of creating a system where differences become relatively unimportant because there are not enormous inequalities between people and where the emphasis is on what students share, would be a massive undertaking in the UK context. It is not merely a question of totally rethinking and overhauling an increasingly unequal hierarchical educational system but more important, of changing the national psyche. And despite all the differences among the British what we appear to share across class, gender, and ethnicity is a deeply troubling propensity to tolerate intolerable levels of economic inequalities and the educational injustices they give rise to. In contrast, schooling for genuine democracy would recognize and address cultural and social inequalities among students and takes a central role in creating “a society permeated by mutual regard of all citizens for all other citizens” (Dewey, 1916/2001, p. 311). It would require an emphasis on developing cooperative citizens not competitive individuals and a focus on educating for togetherness not for social separation.

This is a major challenge for the left but one we should seize. For too long the right has dominated educational as well as more general political thinking by thinking the unthinkable. And they are still dishing up an unsavory concoction of unpalatably elitist, unjust policies which position education as a commodity, pander to the acquisitiveness of the privileged, and position those lacking in material and cultural resources as deficient. We only have to look around us to see the consequences of lazy right wing thinking that is overwhelmingly selfish and self-interested. It is increasingly on the left that we must look for solutions that are both intellectually and morally sound, and caring and empathetic. Just as the Black papers of the 1960s and 70s thought the unthinkable and radically changed the educational landscape now we on the left need to propose policies and practices that run powerfully counter to mainstream neo-liberal thinking – and when could be a better time than when capitalism is imploding, and its rapaciousness damaging more and more people’s lives. Together we need to build a new ethical and moral framework for the 21st century that allows people to become more comfortable and at ease in the society they live in – one that centres care and concern, empathy and solidarities across differences.



  • Max Hope
    Posted at 16:07h, 22 January Reply

    This is the text from the keynote session that Diane gave at the first ESRC seminar series event in October.
    Reading the text is not quite as good as hearing Diane deliver it as a passionate, inspiring, motivating speech – but it as good as it gets, for now!
    In future, we are going to try and film the keynote sessions.

  • Andrew Clark
    Posted at 12:39h, 29 January Reply

    As a secondary teacher in training whose subject is amongst those most marginalised in the current view of education (RE), my ideals are enlivened by the rhetoric of Professor Reay. The landscape of my professional praxis necessitates my journeying through it via a route which appears counterintuitive. I was about to continue by referring to the purpose of RE, but on reflection, I believe it would be incongruous to speak in terms of it having any purpose at all. Rather, I ought to talk only of its value. The value of RE is that it benefacts young people with currencies of critical thought and wonderment. These are the core purposes of education; to liberate the oppressed as Freire might say. Yet who are the opressed? In my view, they are as much the slaves of convention, whether knowing or other wise, as much as they are the victims of socio/economic/political inequity. RE is a microcosm for education itself, in that it is an arena in which one promotes intrinsic motivation to ask questions and autonomy in attempts to answer them. However, such logic seems discordant with the schools in which I have worked so far, where the potential for the subject is so vastly undermined by attempts to frame it with arbitrary targets.

    I am in total agreement with Professor Reay that a paradigmatic shift needs to occur in the collective psyche as to the purpose of education, away from its merely serving an economic system and creating/defining places within it.

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