Education and Social Justice ECE IAFOR THINK

July 25, 2016

In his Conference Chair Address at The European Conference on Education 2016, held in Brighton, UK June 29 to July 3, 2016, Professor Brian Hudson reflects on the conference theme of “Education and Social Justice: Democratising Education”.

In starting to think about democratising education, my first thoughts were about the work of John Dewey (Dewey, 1916) who has influenced my thinking over many years and in particular his book entitled Democracy and Education, which was published 100 years ago this year, in 1916.

In chapter seven of this book Dewey addresses “The Democratic Conception in Education” and begins by saying that the conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind. Consequently, he considers the Democratic Ideal and relates this to a democratically constituted society. In doing so he highlights issues of social justice as being central in arguing that:

A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension of space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his (or her) own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his (or her) own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men (and women) from perceiving the full import of their activity.

He also emphasises the importance of education and highlights the way in which education is critical to the healthy functioning of a democratically constituted society. He writes:

A society which makes equal provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education, which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind, which secure social changes without introducing disorder.

I will come back to some of these issues shortly.

Undoing the Demos

A second stimulus to my thinking was the book that I was reading at the time I received the invitation by the political scientist from the University of California, Wendy Brown, who writes about Undoing the Demos and what she describes as Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Brown, 2015), in which she argues convincingly that democracy itself is imperilled by the neoliberal agenda.

So what do I mean by the use of the term neoliberal agenda and neoliberalism?

I use it in the sense used by Brown, such that the term neoliberalism is understood as much more than a set of economic policies, an ideology or even a re-setting of the relations between the state and the economy so as to drastically shrink the former. Rather it as described by Brown as:

… a normative order of reasoning developed over three decades into a widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality, neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavour, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus … as an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all of its endeavours and venues. (Brown 2015, 9–10).

In an interview with Timothy Schenk she talks about democracy being reduced to a whisper in the Euro-Atlantic nations today and also about it being “pretty much reduced to personal liberty”. She says that such liberty is not nothing, but that it could not be further from the idea of rule by and for the people. Despite the dramatic and quite cataclysmic event here in the UK on 23 June, I would argue that the result of the referendum reflects a failure over a period of the best part of the last decade to fully reflect the needs and aspirations of the less advantaged 50% of the population in the UK.

Overcoming Fragmentation

A third stimulus for this contribution is a book that I am currently writing for and editing. I have just completed a first draft of a chapter with my colleague Pavel Zgaga from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia (Hudson and Zgaga, 2016). In this we have reflected on trends and in particular the way in which the neoliberal agenda has impacted on education, and teacher education in particular, over a twenty-year period of time or so that we have worked together in European networks.

What we can observe is a trend that is profoundly changing the nature of education and also the nature of the societies in which we live. From the age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century onwards, both academic and political debates on education have been framed within a broadly humanistic paradigm and there was a common and central aim regarding education which was to empower individuals, cultivate the nation and to modernise society, and the like. Now, however, learning has primarily become an ‘investment in human capital’; its background is no longer the nation state and the national interest, but the global market and economic value. An almost exclusively economic paradigm has come to penetrate all fields of educational theory and practice.

In Higher Education, universities as the traditional institutions of knowledge and scholarship are deeply challenged by requirements to focus on producing ‘useful’ knowledge and traditional ‘academic’ knowledge no longer counts in the global market place. This trend drives academic institutions towards instrumentalising knowledge production and, thus, towards instrumentalising learning and teaching processes and practices.

Schools and teachers – and, teacher educators – have been traditionally respected as institutions and as professions. Yet, increasingly in more recent years schools and teachers – and teacher educators – frequently find themselves the target of public and political criticisms worldwide. This phenomenon seems to be more pronounced the more a country is economically developed; in other words, the more a country is at the centre (and not on the periphery) of the neoliberal world.

“In the not so recent past, Education was considered a public policy priority, but it seems that today it has become a policy problem.”

In the not so recent past, Education was considered a public policy priority, but it seems that today it has become a policy problem. Propaganda wars are waged by policy makers against teachers who are accused of being responsible for the poor performance of their students and against teacher educators, University Departments of Education and all academic experts who are subjected to discourses of derision according to a pattern.

In this context we can see how the impact drives towards further reductionism, atomisation and fragmentation. For example, this can lead to the very purpose of Education becoming reduced to that of examination and accreditation as a result of the increasingly heavy emphasis on high stakes testing and league tables.

It can also lead to the role of the school being reduced to that of a business unit and students simply to disposable commodities. On this question I will give you an example of a recent report from a small scale and rather obscure centre calling itself The Centre for High-Performance (with a hyphen) that is located in the Business School of Kingston University. This is not to be confused with the very well established and large scale Centre for High Performance (without a hyphen) that is based in Chicago. The UK centre recently produced a Report entitled How to Turn Around a Failing School: Lessons from 160 UK Academies. In it the authors write that:

The findings suggest academies should make eight changes, the fourth of which is expressed under the heading Student Quality with the proposal to exclude poor quality students (their words not mine) and improve admissions.

If you decide to “Google” it however you will not find it at the Centre website, but rather you will find a message to say that:

Unfortunately, the wording in the report published on the CHP website led to some misinterpretation of the findings (though it does not say by whom) … and that … the Centre had decided to take down the offending work and close the website so that the wording in the report could be updated.

Time does not allow me to go into detail on further examples, though my own recent research on Developing Mathematical Thinking in the Primary Classroom highlights the way in which the pressure of high stakes testing leads to the knowledge being taught in school (mathematics in this case) to be reduced, atomised and fragmented which for us (Hudson et al., 2015) is an issue of epistemic quality.

So, to thinking about how we respond to this dominating normative order of reasoning and governing rationality (or rather ir-rationality) and also about the role of social justice in democratising education.

The role of Social Justice in Democratising Education

Firstly, it seems to me that we need to defend democracy where it currently exists in Education by resisting the forces of the neoliberal agenda, whether these relate to structural changes at the system level or to social practices at the pedagogical level. In doing so we need to form alliances with all those interest groups in Education and especially with parents and the wider public. An example of this was the successful social movement to resist a recent attempt by the Westminster government to force all schools in England to become academies and to break their links with Local Education Authorities, including the removal of parents from School Governing Bodies. This policy was first announced, not by the Minister of Education, but rather by the Finance Minister in his budget speech and was resisted by teachers, head teachers, unions, parents and cross-party politicians at the local and national level.

“universal access to quality education is an essential prerequisite for individual empowerment, the development of equitable societies and the promotion of social justice”

If we consider Education from an international perspective, which a conference such as this gives us the opportunity to do, I suggest that brings to the foreground the challenge of global inequality as a core challenge for contemporary societies and for educational systems. The crucial role of education in relation to this challenge is highlighted in the UNICEF/UNESCO report on the Global Thematic Consultation in the Post-2015 Development Agenda (Sayed, 2013). This stresses Education as a “fundamental human right” and affirms that “quality education and lifelong learning are key to sustainable development … and that universal access to quality education is an essential prerequisite for individual empowerment, the development of equitable societies and the promotion of social justice.” The report calls for two main education-specific goals to be addressed as part of the future development framework: equitable access and equitable quality education. Although formulated in response to the global developmental agenda, I would argue that such aims are equally applicable at a national level given the social inequalities and differential levels of social disadvantage within all our societies. Such equitable access does not simply mean access to school from my perspective but also access to knowledge of high epistemic quality (Hudson et al., 2015).

Neoliberalism: Oversold?

However, there are also signs of cracks at the heart of the neoliberal world itself following the recent article in Finance and Development by three members of the IMF’s Research Department entitled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” (Ostry et al., 2016). The authors raise fundamental questions about aspects of the neoliberal agenda that have not delivered as expected. In particular, they pose questions about the effectiveness of “fiscal consolidation” better known as “austerity measures” related to policies to reduce fiscal deficits and debt levels. In so doing, they reach a number of “disquieting conclusions” which include the following that:

The costs (of austerity) in terms of increased inequality are prominent
and that
Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth.

It is not just the recognition of increased inequality that results from austerity policies but also the impact of this on the level and sustainability of economic growth that is most significant for our field. The authors describe this as “the very thing that the neoliberal agenda is intent on boosting” (ibid., 41) and highlight the need for a “more nuanced view of what the neoliberal agenda is likely to be able to achieve”. As my colleague from Finland Pasi Sahlberg has noted, we have witnessed an education reform orthodoxy over recent years that has relied on standardisation, test-based accountability models and the use of corporate management models most often driven by national hegemony and economic profit rather than by moral goals of human development. This has had the result of limiting the role of national policy development and also has paralysed teachers’ and schools’ attempts to learn from the past and from each other.

The authors from the IMF argue that the evidence of the economic damage due to inequality requires policy-makers to be more open to redistribution than they currently are. In particular, they call for increased spending on Education and Training as a means to expand equality of opportunity. It is at this point in particular that we can see convergence with the post-2015 Education for All agenda and the need to focus strongly on achieving equitable learning outcomes for all.

In doing so I would argue that we need to distinguish clearly between democratically constituted societies and free market economies and also ensure that Education is seen as a crucial integrated aspect of the former and not of the latter. We also need to think in terms of human capability and not in terms of a mechanistic and reductive notion of human capital.

Finally, any consideration of exclusion should be in terms of how we combat this in all its forms in relation to the aim to provide educational opportunity for all.


Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York: Zone Books.
Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: The Free Press.
Hudson, B. and Zgaga, P. (2016) History, Context and Overview: Implications for Teacher Education Policy, Practice and Future Research. In B. Hudson (Ed.) (2016) Overcoming Fragmentation in Teacher Education Policy and Practice, Cambridge University Press (In press).
Hudson, B., Henderson, S. and Hudson, A., (2015) Developing Mathematical Thinking in the Primary Classroom: Liberating Teachers and Students as Learners of Mathematics, Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 47, Issue 3, 374-398. Developing Mathematical Thinking in the Primary Classroom: Liberating Teachers and Students as Learners of Mathematics
Ostry, D. O., Loungani, P. and Furceri, D. (2016). Neoliberalism: Oversold?, Finance and Development, 38–41.
Sahlberg, P. (2011) Finnish Lessons. New York: Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Sayed, Y. (2013). Envisioning Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Report of the Global Thematic Consultation on Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, UNICEF/UNESCO. Envisioning Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Report of the Global Thematic Consultation on Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, UNICEF/UNESCO

Professor Brian Hudson gave this Conference Chair Address at The European Conference on Education 2016 (ECE 2016), in Brighton, UK.

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About Brian Hudson

Brian Hudson is Professor of Education and has until recently been Head of the School of Education and Social Work (2012-16) at the University of Sussex. He is the main Organiser of the World Education Research Association (WERA) International Research Network on Didactics – Learning and Teaching; a member of the WERA Outreach Committee; an Associate Editor of the Journal of Curriculum Studies and a Board Member of the Teacher Education Policy in Europe (TEPE) Network. He is Honorary Member of the EERA Network on Didactics – Learning and Teaching; Honorary Professor at the University of Dundee and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Education Studies and Leadership at the University of Ghana.

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