Social Justice: poverty, inequality, diversity

The Third International Scientific Conference of Scuola Democratica shall be dedicated to theoretical reflection, empirical analyses and debates on the connections between education and training (school, university, professional training, and adult education) as a common good and social injustice: poverty and widespread unjustifiable inequalities.  To these two main themes we shall add a third: diversity among students (culture, gender, ethnicity, nationality, disability), which is certainly not a new issue but, in Europe as in other parts of the world, has now become much stronger and more complex. In order to be properly inclusive, education must be able to confront this issue openly, respectfully and incisively.

Never before has the theme of social justice been so crucial, not only at national, but also at transnational and global level. Economic instability spreading from country to country, wars and consequent energy shortages, the climate crisis and resulting demand for a new economic policy of transition to a global, viable ecological model, migration and its backlash of nationalist protectionism against the acceptance of those fleeing southern countries, the courage and desperation of women and younger generations and their protests in many parts of the world (from China to Iran and Afghanistan).

The link between inequalities and democracies in crisis

The endurance of democracies too is endangered as autocracies seek and find a foothold in many parts of the planet. Even historically democratic nations have shown alarming signs of destabilisation.  After all, international reasearch depicts a growing disaffection towards democratic principles in those countries. We therefore dedicated our first Conference in 2019 to the theme of post-democracy, a theme which investigates the important link between education and the development of a political and cultural orientation of a populist nature among the social classes negatively impacted by a deregulated global economy and both social and educational poverty.

The growth of poverty and inequalities and their causes

Poverty and inequalities have been increasing since the impact of the global economic crisis and the resulting austerity measures and cuts to public funding. This was compounded by the short and long term effects of the pandemic on the running of schools and universities. The advent of neo-liberalism and its glorification of the market as a generally all-pervasive regulatory tool became a crucial factor from the 1980s onwards, overflowing into the public sphere – the New Public Management – including education (the Quasi-Market).  Although not even the school has been spared the incursion of this new policy paradigm, its influence has been much greater on the university, with the creation of a highly competitive international market, both culturally and socially stratified among individual institutions, with their predominant focus on research at the expense of their other two functions:  training and the so-called “Third mission.”

The globalisation of social injustice  

The growth of inequalities, however, is not only to be found in Western democracies. Together with that of the economy, the social issue is ever more globalised, also in terms of learning inequalities at worldwide level, particularly in large macro-geographic areas such as the Great North and Great South. All these nationwide, transnational and global phenomena act in an interconnected and chaotic way in our world of today, and call for  a reflection on how to achieve a radical transformation also in the educational field.  Furthermore, they are dramatically linked to the ecological crisis. In this sense, issues of environmental and climate justice are compounded with older and current instances of social justice. Our planet unequivocally appears to be under pressures capable of inflicting grave impacts of impoverishment and damage, both environmental and socio-economic, precisely because they affect  less developed countries and the poorer social classes most severely.  As educational poverty and educational inequality have ever been at the same time  cause and effect of poverty and social inequality,  it is more and more important today to elaborate new ideas of justice and educational policies to be put into practice at various levels: locally, nationally, transnationally and globally. 

The equity/quality links in education and a redefinition of their meanings

In the scenario outlined here, the challenge posed by social injustice, though not new, has become more complex as the issues at stake have grown.   An in-depth analysis of the current relationships, and of those which could or should be established, between equity and quality (or effectiveness) in education become necessary.  At the same time, we should reflect on how to redefine their meanings, a fundamental issue which has rekindled polarisation in favour of or against the prioritising of merit and meritocracy  as principles of justice in the educational sphere in various western countries, such as Italy. 

For example, redefining quality could  mean  fostering more and more among students  an individualistic and hyper-competitive ethos,  or conversely a community, cooperative and solidaristic one.. These alternatives are not without important impacts in the field of equity in education and prospectively on society as a whole.

The debate surrounding equity and quality also comprises the effects of digitalisation processes whose development has been accelerated by the pandemic, and which have impacted the educational sphere pervasively and in hitherto unknown ways with all their unresolved ambivalence. For example, in the school and in Higher Education, though they have become crucial, they can sometimes foster the embedding and reproduction of social inequalities or even new cultures. 

Outcomes and criticalities in policies aimed at contrasting inequalities in education

Educational processes have long been burdened with the issue of social inequality of opportunities and results (educational poverty), and elaborating the policies necessary in contrasting them. What are the outcomes? These are debatable, as research results are neither fully homogeneous nor stabilised. In light of these, we might suppose that  neither the most optimistic nor the most pessimistic expectations have been confirmed: in short, the glass is half full and half empty.  On the one hand, no cast-iron law of unalterable inequality has emerged in capitalist countries. Reductions of inequality,  sometimes significant ones, in time and/or space – i.e. compared with other countries – have been verified in some cases.

None of these reductions, however, have matched the aspirations of those who had seen education as potentially the main driver of social justice.  This is why social and educational research has for some time been striving to better understand the reasons underlying the disillusionment. 

We must continue to examine the many criticalities and obstacles encountered, and hope to do so in this conference.  One ever-crucial criticality whch today appears even more complicated is that of the relationship between school and family.Others crucial points concerning  both equity  and the quality of education have arisen with the arrival of new and powerful informal educational agencies and a new more radical polycentrism (and fragmentation) on the horizon.  

Two types of educational regulations relevant to equity

A widely shared idea is that education plays an important part but alone can do little: unless, it acts sinergically within a more ample and convergent process of change, together with cultural, economic and social policies. Educational regulations indicated by research as being relevant to equity are twofold: macro-structural policies and proximity rules.

1. Macro-structural policies

The above are those which impact on stratification within educational systems, i.e. among the different channels of tertiary and secondary education or among individual institutions (schools and universities), influencing the careers and competencies  of students and thus contributing decisively to the inter-generational reproduction of socio-familial and territorial  inequalities.  

Here are five examples:

– The organisation of school cycles which, as well as creating a horizontal stratification based on a lower esteem for professional channels, can also result in a vertical type of stratification by  characterising  some of these programmes as dead ends which fail to allow progress to higher levels of study.

– Pprogramming the duration of  compulsory schooling or training: beginning, end and a potential return for adults who have prematurely abandoned their studies and are offered the possibility of resuming them – the so-called “second chance.”

– The governance structure of systems: a balance between centralisation and decentralisation.

– Staffing policies: competencies, training, recruitment, career, pay. The professional profile and the quality of teaching staff represents the most important resource within the entire system of education and training.  This is true above all for a policy which intends to pursue the aims of equity together with quality by taking advantage of changes in educational models and practices.

– The distribution of funding and its use for the benefit of disadvantaged social classes, schools and  geographical areas. 

2. Regulations at school level

In centralised systems too, these are no less important than  macro-structural policies , in that they penetrate more deeply into the “black box” of educational practices and are thus able to fit  into specific contexts.  The preeminent figures here are headteachers and teachers.  Regulations of various types are involved, concerning planning (also of learning environments), didactics, evaluation , guidance and counselling,  and even curriculum  since in many countries curricula are defined at individual school level and put into practice, sometimes not without adjustments and variations, by teachers in their classrooms.  

At this level differentiation may play a stratifying role, but also the contrary, as contextualising and personalising didactic strategies may serve to reach egalitarian aims.

Personalisation, however, might also serve in engaging the students’ interest as their learning progresses, thus promoting excellence.  But how to find a balance between inclusion and equality on the one hand and excellence on the other? How to avoid support for excellence entering into contrast with the appeals for social justice.

The pluralist approach of the Conference

Themes which deal with various dimensions and which almost always benefit from being addressed in a pluridisciplinary and interdisciplinary way, i.e. prompting  the diverse educational sciences to collaborate more closely than before with social, economic and political sciences, shall be tackled in the Conference. We would therefore like such an approach to continue to represent a distinctive characteristic of our Conferences  as much as our Journal,  in order to provide greater space for analysis, reflection and debate involving multiple objectives and a vast array of fields.

The pluralist approach of the Conference shall embrace the following aspects :

1.  the disciplines which may be involved:

    • from sociology of economics to political analysis; from pedagogy to psychology to cultural anthropology and philosophy itself (the theoretical debate surrounding social justice) and the nature of education itself with which it reconnects.

2.  the scale of the analyses : 

    • from global down to national and local level, a particularly  fruitful  coupling in some areas (e.g. the impact of the pandemic). 

3. the methodologies:

    • theoretical and empirical, quantitative and qualitative, also relative to the disciplines of reference involved. 

4.  the educational and formative fields to which the analyses may refer:

    • formal and informal;

    • pre-school, school, training, university, adult education.

5.  the themes:

In addition to the numerous themes cited in this document, any other which may be linked to the general perspective here outlined.