Social Justice and Poverty: Critical Essay

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It can be argued that teachers who engage with the issues of social justice are able to offer a more enriched academical education which formulates pupils into becoming effective contributors and confident individuals not only in society as a whole but the world of work beyond school (Arshad et al., 2012). Social Justice is an aspect that is embedded in the Standards for Registration put forward by the GTCS, General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS, 2017). “There is clear evidence of a persistent gap in attainment between pupils from the richest and poorest households in Scotland” (Sosu & Ellis, 2014). Thus, brings about the issue of social deprivation and its relationship with attainment. The Attainment Gap in Scotland is a current issue within education that emphasizes the bond between academic achievement and its interference with positive school-leaver destinations for pupils from a low-income background. Scottish Government (2014), projects the concern that children living in the most deprived areas are around two years of schooling behind their peers at age 15’, the age when exams and future prospects become a focus within secondary school. This aspect of social justice became a noteworthy interest whilst placed in a secondary school in central Scotland, where 78% of students reside in Scottish index for multiple deprivations (SIMD) deciles 1-3 therefore the influence of teacher’s actions and lesson content is substantial. This inquiry seeks to analyze the methods being implemented to increase positive school leaver destinations for pupils from socially deprived backgrounds, going beyond Gillborn and Youdell's (2001) theory of educational triage and following a school’s journey in its aim to achieve social justice for all. Hence, this essay will discuss the relationship between social deprivation and attainment whilst considering how schools use the additional funding to support programs and groups for those in this bracket, literature that influenced my inquiry, then relate my findings back to relevant research and theory.

Literature Review

The attainment gap starts in the early years of education and continues through individuals’ primary and secondary school experience and in most cases, widens as pupils progress through the school years. As previously indicated, the poverty attainment gap has a direct impact on school leaver destinations and therefore can determine income levels within adulthood. Wrigley et al (2012) state that after a review of educational systems around the world, the challenge faced by the school is that learning must reflect and support the needs of their pupils. This triggers the need for inclusive practice within our schools. Inclusion defined by Ainscow (2016) is said to address the ‘problems’ of social injustice and diversity in societies. Therefore, it can be said that we cannot achieve social justice without inclusion and vice versa. A central aim of the inclusion agenda is to remove barriers to participation and barriers to achievement in learning that some students had identified and experienced - social deprivation. With inclusion being a means to implement social justice, we have policies to enhance inclusive educational practice. Underpinned by the Curriculum for Excellence and inclusion-centered policy; Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC), the Scottish Government responded with a plan developed to improve Scottish education; (Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education, 2016) which incorporated the ‘Scottish Attainment Gap Challenge’ policy where the aim is to achieve equity in education. This can be achieved by ensuring every child has the same opportunity to succeed. The policy draws attention to the damning discovery that those living in the least deprived areas are twice as likely as those living in the most deprived areas to leave school with a higher qualification (Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education, 2016). However, Murphy (2014) criticized the policy by expressing that the attainment gap in fact doesn’t exist, although there is a clear link between pupils’ social status and their attainment. Murphy further projects the concern of unfair outcomes in positive leaver destinations relating to social class and states that those from low-class backgrounds are seen to have fragmented lives, limiting their opportunities to focus on studies. This exposes the substantial link between a pupil’s family background and educational achievement. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Hirsch, 2007), states that a primary cause of child poverty is a lack of opportunities among parents with low skills and low qualifications. This may result in children experiencing limited opportunities to grow their knowledge from a young age simply because their families may not have the finance to support educational activities.

Sociological explanations for the link between a pupil's schooling success and family background refer to the importance of cultural capital (De Graaf, P.M., 1986). The concept of ‘capital’ has allowed researchers to view culture as a resource and one that enables access to scarce rewards and can be transmitted down each generation (Lareau, A.& Weininger E.B., 2003). Bourdieu’s theory gives scope for those children from middle-class families to be at an educational advantage due to their possession of cultural capital ahead of those from lower-class backgrounds (Sullivan, 2001). Cultural capital demonstrates an individual’s cultural competence and therefore, social status by the accumulation of knowledge and skills. Bourdieu further presents the association between both social class and educational attainment with participation in cultural activities such as book reading, cinema, and attending museums and gave the explanation that it leads to the development of knowledge or skills which enhance a pupil’s success in school and therefore, school leaver destination (Bourdieu and Boltanski 1981; Sullivan, 2001).

With the diverse range of success within schools, there has been a growing interest in the placement of ability within schools. The current educational system places a huge emphasis on achieving grades A-C. Gillborn and Youdell (2001), echo this by stating that a school now lives or dies on its results and that teachers are under pressure more now than ever to get A-C passes. This creates the discussion of the ‘A-C economy’, a term used for the competitive and increasingly fraught realities of secondary education in a system dominated by annually publishing league tables of performance, labeling schools as the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ relating to their A-C pass numbers (Gillborn and Youdell, 2001). Responding to the A-C economy and the need to survive, a study carried out by Gillborn and Youdell (2001) places a huge emphasis on the understanding of ‘ability’ and how it influences a school’s decisions on how to improve performance. Often ability is seen as relatively fixed within schools and it can be measured through tests to identify an individual’s academic potential. The Government has proclaimed that not only does ability exists as a measurable trait through the use of examinations, but that ability is also unevenly distributed through social class groups and the best way for schools to engage with the power of the government is to separate pupils in accordance (Gillborn and Youdell, 2001). This idea is reflected in the Labour Party’s manifesto, where it is declared that in order to maximize the potential of pupils, ‘setting’ them into groups is necessary for different abilities to be benefited. A theoretical framework of this claim is that of viewing education as a ‘triage’. The educational triage theory involves categorizing pupils into three groups in accordance with their abilities. The groups are ‘safe’, those perceived by the school to be on track to achieve the benchmark of five A-C grades, and the group ‘without hope’, those perceived to be incapable of achieving the benchmark (Youdell, 2004). These groups are seen to be neglected within the educational triage as their achievements are said to be set. However, those within the ‘under-achievers’ bracket where they are regarded as ‘borderline’ of achieving the benchmark five A-C grades receive additional resources as they are deemed to be most likely to benefit from this support. The theory of educational triage became increasingly valuable to this inquiry after an examination of the division of pupils across the three triage groups. It showed the correlation between a high number of pupils of low social background and therefore deprivation to be placed in the group ‘without hope’ (Youdell, 2004). Therefore, papers such as McKnight et al (2005) and Leos-Urbel et al (2013) suggest that underachievement is associated with social deprivation (Arshad, Wrigley, and Pratt 20). A suggestion of this could be the earlier identified lack of cultural capital which influenced the accumulation of knowledge and skills from a young age and therefore viewed as set to fail due to their decreased access to educational activities out with school. Research highlights that although schools cannot hope to address all inequalities faced by pupils, teachers can and do make a difference (Arshad et al, 2012). Therefore, this theory of educational triage will be later explored through the inquiry into how the additional funding is used to raise attainment and increase positive leave of pupils of social deprivation.

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As part of the Scottish Governments attempts to close the attainment gap, a £120 million Pupil equity funding (PEF) was allocated to 2,300 Scottish schools which form part of the £179 million Attainment Scotland Fund for 2018-2019 to tackle the growing poverty-related attainment gap (Gov. scot, 2018). Deputy first minister, John Swinney stated that “Every child should have the best possible start in life, no matter their background. Schools have a significant role to play in ensuring every child is given the right support to help them achieve their full potential.” How PEF is used within Scottish schools at a micro level is at the discrepancy of each school therefore, localizing power to individual schools based on the surrounding community and pupils within, creates a targeted support based on the background-related needs of their own pupils. This in turn supports a greater holistic development of pupils to constrain the influence of social deprivation and ensure pupils are presented with opportunities to achieve their full potential and enhance a positive school leaver destination.

Context and Method

Research for this inquiry was undertaken in a comprehensive secondary school within central Scotland in an area where social deprivation is heightened within the community for pupils and their families with 78% living within the lowest SIMD deciles. For the purpose of this inquiry, ethically we will regard this school as School A. BERA guidelines indicate that anonymity should remain throughout the inquiry for ethical reasons (BERA, 2011). The inquiry aimed to examine programs within the school that were in place by the school and wider community as a consequence of PEF funding in an attempt to raise attainment and increase positive school-leaver destinations. Information for this inquiry was gathered through observations and informal conversations with both pupils and teaching staff. An interesting aspect of many of these programs was that they were provided by the PE department due to their strong relationships with pupils and in particular those in the senior phase regarded as nearing school leavers. This was reflected in the high uptake of PE, where four national, four higher, and two sports leadership classes for the 2018/19 school year were supported. Focusing on the attainment gap within the boundaries of the school, Scottish Public Health Observatory, 2018 reported that of pupils living within the local authority, 55.3 % were likely to leave with 1 or more qualifications of SCQF level 6, higher, compared to to the national average of 61.6%. Furthermore, (2019) indicated that 21% of school leavers from this secondary school leave with 5 or higher qualifications compared to the national average of 31%. Drawing on these statistics and that of 78% of pupils living in SIMD 1-3. The school received a share of £194,400 share of PEF allocated to close the attainment gap (Gov. Scot, 2018). However, it is noteworthy to mention that (2019) also highlights that within the school’s role of 982 pupils, the school exceeds the national benchmark with 93% of school leavers entering a positive destination (S4-S6) compared to the national average of 68%. This could be in light of the programs which are in place to increase the attainment not only through SQA qualifications but wider achievements.


The school in which the inquiry took place took full advantage of PEF by implementing programs and groups to support and increase inclusion. Many initiatives targeted those affected by social deprivation which aimed to influence their educational attainment, therefore, driving them to achieve social justice. The Scottish attainment gap report by Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Sosu & Ellis, 2014) highlights that carefully implemented nurture groups and mentoring schemes have a positive impact on reducing the attainment gap associated with pupils from socially deprived backgrounds. Aspects of these interventions were apparent within the school in its journey to closing the attainment gap. An interestingly eye-opening conversation with the head teacher of School A made me aware of the abundance of support within the school, they stated that:

“We have 4 catchment schools within the areas which is considerably less than the average 6, however, we receive around 60% placing requests each year from parents who wish for their children to attend School A due to the support we offer through our teacher mentoring groups, especially in the senior phase”

This supports the statement made by Hart et al. (2004) that teachers can make a difference, be it a limited one. The mentoring groups present in school A were inevitable in the younger years (S1-3) however, played a greater role in the senior phase (S4-6). The aims of these were groups to provide a nurturing and nourishing role in a pupil’s life to bridge the way for increasing academic success and allow pupils to confide in a strong adult relationship that may not be available at home. The mentoring scheme (NAME OF GROUP) was run by the newly appointed “head of nurture” who had previously been a pupil support teacher. The group was not one in which you could opt into but one in which pupils were advised to attend reflecting on their current educational progress and which SIMD they reside in.

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