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Social justice should begin in the classroom

Income inequality is rising, child poverty remains intractably stuck.

Three-quarters of the total increase in UK incomes over the last decade have gone to those with above-average incomes. The incomes of the richest tenth of the population equal the combined income of the bottom five-tenths. Income inequality has risen more rapidly in Scotland than in the UK since 2004-05.

At age five, children with a degree-educated parent have a vocabulary around 18 months ahead of those with unqualified parents. So it continues throughout education: Scotland's oldest universities take only a handful of students from Scotland's poorest communities, St Andrews 2.7 %, Aberdeen 3.1%.

If poverty and economic inequality have sustained social injustice, inequalities of power in respect of gender, ethnicity and sexuality have added to the layers of injustice.

The 2006 report on Minority Ethnic Pupils' Experiences in Scottish Schools and recent reports by LGBT Scotland on the experience of gay school students illustrated the extent of these outstanding issues.

An exploration of social injustice and its impact on education is therefore timely. In co-editing Social Justice Re-examined: dilemmas and solutions for the classroom teacher (published by Trentham, £22.99) Rowena Arshad, Terry Wrigley and Lynne Pratt have examined key issues for Scottish society but have also sought to offer practical advice to teachers.

In particular, Helen Knowles's fine chapter on gender issues in the classroom is excellent. Starting from boys in a primary class who refused to write on pink paper, it offers practical advice on challenging sexist stereotypes, even with young primary students.

Similarly, Shereen Benjamin addresses the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender school students, starting from a set of useful, non-judgemental definitions of terms such as gay, bisexual and homophobia, and Rowena Arshad provides countless references and resources for anti-racist work in classrooms.

Terry Wrigley offers a valuable perspective for teachers on poverty and social class. He argues that teachers must not underestimate or write off children growing up in poverty.

The concept of the underclass has created a capacity for professionals to ignore the potential of many children from the poorest families, a position which leads to either defeatism or a reinforcement of stereotypes. He reminds teachers that habitual ways of speaking about children and families in the staffroom inevitably leak into how they treat children in class.

He states, utterly validly, that "schools can make a difference but not all the difference". The causes of poverty lie outside schools and teachers appalled by the impact of poverty on schools must be engaged not only in creating socially just schools but also a fairer, socially just world.

The book's strength, however, is its insistence that individual teachers make a difference in the classroom and the schools. Small acts and attitudes can have major impacts on countless learners.

But there are inconsistencies within this work. Ann McDonald's chapter on religion, arguing that faith and religion are central to identities and rejecting a secular perspective, stands in stark contradiction to other chapters in the book. As she observes herself, an inclusive view of sexuality lies in direct opposition to the views of various faith groups.

That issue perhaps underscores a deeper problem for a work such as this. How do we define social justice? How many issues and possible areas of injustice can be lumped together and discussed as if they patently had a common core? Nonetheless, this brave attempt to bring together social theory and what happens in the classroom marks a step forward in Scottish educational thinking.

Alex Wood is an educational consultant and was a member of the judging panel for the Herald Society Awards 2012.

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