A representative curriculum and the ‘hidden curriculum’ for social justice

SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow Gifty Laryea-Daniels, Blackfen School for Girls, unpicks the importance of social justice within education, while also looking at how as educators, we can do better for our students.

“‘Deep experience’, taken at its broadest, is the formal school timetable and curriculum – plus the delivery and implementation of that curriculum, the activities that sit alongside the formal curriculum, and the unplanned day-to-day interactions between students and staff.” – Tom Middlehurst (SSAT, 2019)

Students experiences in education

As described in the quote above, education professionals have a responsibility to recognise the impact of both the formal curriculum and the ‘hidden’ curriculum in shaping the futures of young people, explicitly through the young person’s experiences.  It is therefore emphasised that our responsibility to carefully consider the role of schools in promoting social justice for all students and strategically plan the experiences of students over the course of a child’s formal education, is paramount. Our experiences of formal education shape the adults we become. Therefore, as teachers we must make a conscious effort to ensure our unplanned day-to-day social interactions with students and staff promote a sense of social justice for the entire school community.

Resh and Sabbah (2014) highlight the significance of students’ experiences in schools; in relation to how they build trust in formal institutions, based on an individual sense of justice. It was found that whilst individual experiences of justice are extremely important, fair school procedures make a significant contribution to the shaping of student attitudes. Students tend to be more liberal and trustful in schools that are procedurally fair; but equally, without a sense of social justice, students will experience a feeling of disenfranchisement.

Due to the nature of the subjects that I teach (Politics Philosophy & Economics, Citizenship and Psychology) and the faculty I teach within (the Social Sciences Faculty), I have been privy to the discussions and concerns of students over the years. Social justice is a key topic that we discuss regularly within lessons and students often reflect on their own experiences as examples when making sense of issues in the wider world. In addition to this, I have also shared and discussed the focus of my reflections and research with the Associate Head Teacher for Equality and Diversity, which has given me greater insight into these issues. During focus groups held with a selection of students across all year groups it was evident that very few students, if any, felt that the curriculum was representative of them or their family and culture regardless of race or ethnicity.

From these conversations and experiences, in order to give students the best possible chance of succeeding outside of the classroom, it is essential for the current curriculum to be representative of the diverse ethnic, cultural and circumstantial backgrounds the pupils come from, and society reflects. By developing a curriculum that is representative and therefore inclusive, some of the barriers to learning that prevent students from engaging are removed. This gives pupils a better opportunity to make good progress whilst preparing them for the wider world that they will integrate into on leaving full time education (UCL, 2020).

Nunan et al (2000) suggested that where the curriculum is not truly reflective and represents a ‘dominant Eurocentric view’ students who are not part of this culture are excluded from the process of education and the ‘social advantages’ that accompany success. As educators it is our responsibility to make sure we successfully equip pupils with the skills and knowledge to become functional citizens.

The mission statement of our school is ‘Raising aspirations, releasing potential’. Part of our vision is as follows; “We believe in developing our students into confident, responsible citizens ready to play an active role in the wider community.” I intend to discuss how effective our school curriculum is in developing the confidence of our students and preparing them to take part in the wider world. Teaching is a profession where constant reflection on practice is necessary. This discussion is intended to be a reflection on the current curriculum and the ‘hidden curriculum’ of the school. As one of the few black members of staff in a leadership I am very conscious that students from black and asian backgrounds need a positive role model and to see a reflection of themselves in a leadership position.

Raising aspirations and releasing potential

The best schools consider themselves to be part of the national and international conversation. They are not focused on the local community alone, which may not be socially or economically diverse, but recognise that we are part of the global community. This therefore makes way for schools to teach students about how to become active members of their community and citizens of the wider world (Bromley, 2020). Discussing issues such as Black Lives Matter is therefore not a reactive approach but proactive which extends beyond the classroom; and is relevant to all students and parents and not just black and Asian students. As a citizenship teacher I have encountered issues where white parents have complained that discussing the history of Black and minority ethnic groups has made their children feel uncomfortable; even though this is only a fraction of the GCSE content.

David Lammy MP discusses the issues an unrepresentative curriculum can create and places emphasis on the need for the curriculum to be representative and inclusive for black and Asian Pupils and students of Traveller and Gypsy Roma Backgrounds (SSAT, 2019). The purpose of education is to level the playing field for all students regardless of socio-economic background. It should not have the opposite effect of disadvantaging students. In is important that as practitioners we reflect on the current curriculum and assess whether it reflects who people are and the stories that will give them agency in their lives. For example, does the current curriculum reflect black and Asian students or students from different backgrounds? An inclusive curriculum will have the positive effect on the experience and outcomes of all students. Traditional curriculum content has overwhelmingly been white, male European dominated, which has the effect of an alienating learning experience for many students (UCL, 2020).

According to David Lammy MP, we need to provide more opportunities for students to learn about “heroes, stories and experiences which don’t just come from Shakespeare and Shelly; and it means really looking hard in the curriculum to give that sense of agency and belonging that’s so important” (SSAT, 2019). Some definitions refer to an inclusive curriculum as “the process of developing, designing and delivering programmes of study to minimise the barriers that students, regardless of educational dispositional, circumstantial or cultural background, may face in accessing and engaging with the curriculum” (UCL, 2020).

As a department spend time exploring controversial issues in a safe environment and ensuring that minority ethnic groups are represented in the curriculum. For example, KS3 explore Black History Month from September to October. We give students the opportunities to choose the heroes they would like to celebrate without limiting their choices to the black community, providing an inclusive environment to celebrate different cultures in history. They are free to choose any person from an ethnic minority background as long as they can justify their choice. We encourage students to explore historical figures that they have never heard of such as, Carmen Beckford MBE of Bristol (UK) and Paul Stephenson of Bristol; instead of Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther kings who are constantly celebrated. At GCSE these discussions take place more regularly as we develop students’ ideas about current affairs and issues in the global community, in preparation for their coursework. This helps to reduce the feeling of marginalisation students experience and also promotes cultural diversity. Unfortunately, black and asian students have expressed during our discussions in lessons that this is one of the few departments where they see themselves represented in the curriculum. Many students therefore, feel comfortable enough and proud to share and discuss their cultural backgrounds or identities in our lessons. For example, we have had students disclose that their families are part of the travelling community and LGBTQIA+ community.

Cultural transmission is one of the most important reasons for education. That is, passing on the best that has been thought or said. We hear the phrase “knowledge is power” but it is possible that this could hinder social justice aims as the knowledge being transmitted may favour a middle-class culture and not challenge the status quo (Middlehurst, 2019). On the one hand we could argue that the curriculum is representative within our department, due to the nature of the subject. However, this should not be limited to one department. Students should be able to see themselves represented in all subjects in the school.

Student perceptions

Fighting for deep social justice

The demographic of the school is constantly evolving and although it becomes more diverse year after year; the population of black and Asian students and staff at our school remains significantly small. Currently we have a school population of 1457. 69.6% of the school population identify as White British in ethnicity and 0.41% as White Irish. 29.9% identify as black and Asian. Students have been happy to open a dialogue with our department and the Associate Head for Equality and Diversity, about the issues surrounding the under-representation of black and Asian ethnic groups in the curriculum and staff. Black and Asian Students have vocalised the fact they have noticed a lack of representation in other subjects. Some enjoy the subjects but do not have the same connection with the subject as those who feel represented and progress is stifled at times due to a lack of full engagement.

There are a number of students who are notorious around the school and often truant or school refuse regularly. However, these students attend lessons in our department and exhibit positive behaviour for learning. These students have expressed that their voices are heard; and they are able to discuss and debate the issues that affect them within our subject. They feel a sense of justice as their opinions are heard and not dismissed. Student discussions have revealed that they are comfortable and engage well as they do not have to wait for Black History Month, for example, to learn about historical figures and events that relate to their socio-economic backgrounds. Whilst the focus of this discussion has been on black and Asian students thus, far the above does not exclusively affect black and Asian students. Students who rely financial support from the school, LGBTQIA+ students, students who need SEND support etc. are also affected by a lack of representation in the curriculum.

Equality vs equity in education

A socially just curriculum is one that does not ignore or erase difference but recognises difference as central to curriculum planning Otherness and singularity is celebrated. Making the curriculum meaningful to young people should be the central issue (Mills, 2019). Equity and equality tend to be used interchangeably however, to give every child the best possible opportunity to achieve we need to ensure that we are aware of the distinction between the two. By doing so we can address the issues faced by disadvantaged students. Simplified, the difference between the two is being fair vs being equal (Waterford.org, 2020). I recall when training to become a teacher, emphasis was placed on treating students equally. However, this does not automatically result in equality of opportunity.

When treating students equally we are providing all students with the same resources. Waterford.org (2020) gives the example of the distribution of laptops for example. If we provide all students with laptops, it does not address the issue of students who do not have access to the internet, or a stable address. When reflecting on the curriculum and how representative it is for our students, we need to consider the concept of equity. When curriculum planning it is essential to consider the content of the curriculum and how it meets the needs of all learners. Secondly, we should also reflect on how far our curriculum intent is lived out in students’ experiences (SSAT). We must always plan with the end in mind.

In order to improve the equity of SEND students the Associate Head Teacher for Equality and Diversity is proposing AQA Unit Awards Scheme (UAS) to promote equality for all in accessing work, particularly at GCSE. This is so those who need SEND support or those who are severely disengaged when it comes to traditional qualifications, can access these certificates and have an equal opportunity to achieve. Schools are required by law and to provide such opportunities and resources to promote equality of opportunity and diversity; it is a requirement under the Equality Act 2010.

According to AQA, with the AQA Unit Awards Scheme (UAS), there are no limits on:

  • What can be accredited, as long as it is worthwhile and meaningful for the learner.
  • Who can achieve, in terms of age or ability.
  • How long it takes to achieve or when this takes place.
  • How learning can be evidenced.

This method of recording achievement would have a significant impact on improving equity in the school. For students with SEND, traditional GCSE and BTEC qualifications do not consider the progress that the student has made over the course of the two to three years of study. GSCEs and BTECs are prescriptive in relation the evidence that needs to be produced and when it needs to be produced. This means it is very likely that progress and achievement will go unrecognised for the pupils. Many pupils with complex SEND needs are making good progress but not in ways that are easy to measure with traditional methods. This also leads to some students not being entered for exams many as the method of assessment does not meet the needs of the learner. Thus, reducing equity and equality of opportunity. The AQA Unit Awards however, takes this into consideration; recognising progress and achievement looks different for every learner.

The ‘hidden’ curriculum

Deep leadership for social justice involves redesigning education; both the formal and informal processes involved in our day-to-day activities. By cultivating a culture of personalisation, the school can ensure deep experience, support and learning for all students within the school. As leaders and role models to students we must recognise that the world is not quite as it should be and every opportunity to make a difference must be taken to break the cycle of inequality and injustice. Teaching is a moral profession with a moral purpose (Williamson, 2019). How we interact with other teachers and students is ‘unofficially’ monitored by students who, as stated previously, shape their ideas and attitudes about justice and democracy; based on these interactions. These interactions include but are not limited to the following:

  • How we speak to staff and students
  • How rewards and sanctions are distributed i.e. are all students sanctioned for the same behaviours? Are all students rewarded for the same behaviours?
  • How students are supported in relation to welfare issues
  • How staff listen to students
  • How support is provided with the classroom; especially where there are students with additional needs

Students often campaign about issues within that the school, where they feel there is injustice and inequality. They use their citizenship coursework as an opportunity to do so. However, as teachers it is our moral duty to recognise and correct these inequalities long before they are brought to our attention by students. From the discussions that have taken place before coursework begins, it has become apparent that sometimes these are issues that students have identified during early KS3 however, they only choose to raise them in the safe environment of our department and for their coursework. Without this they may not raise them at all; which does not represent the ‘British Values’ and SMSC policy we promote and discuss so regularly


Based on my discussion and reflections above I have listed my recommendations discussed with the Associate Head Teacher for Equality and Diversity:

  1. A focus on curriculum planning – Spending some time during our Teaching and Learning Community sessions (Inset) would be beneficial to adapt the current formal curriculum and educate staff on the ‘hidden’ curriculum and the impact of our day-to-day interactions with staff and students. This requires a whole-school reflection on our interaction with students from various backgrounds. I would recommend that departments meet during these sessions to evaluate the current content in order to ensure that representation of students is widened. This is not something that can be done in one session but constant reflection and a conscious effort to make the curriculum content, experience and delivery more inclusive.
  2. Share good practice – Sharing good practice should be encouraged on a departmental and whole school level i.e. where staff have been successful in redesigning the curriculum with their departments. This may result in cross curricular collaboration which would further reinforce the values and morals being promoted as a school community. This process could be embedded into the Teaching and Learning Community as described above.
  3. The AQA Unit Award Scheme recognises that students learn and achieve differently. It will give students an opportunity to achieve and leave formal education with a record of achievement which a formal GCSE would not provide.
  4. Ensure parents are part of the conversation. As stated previously, due to the demographic of the school and the local community, there have been occasions where parents have complained that students are uncomfortable with the content of lessons where the focus has been on black and Asian groups. This could be done through parent mail updates on the curriculum for each subject on a termly basis, accompanied by a few points for discussion or links to useful websites for optional home learning. Whilst the curriculum information is on the website, not all parents are aware of where to find this or how to access it.

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