David Lammy, recently re-elected Labour MP for Tottenham, is the Patron of SSAT’s campaign for deep social justice. One of five children raised by a single mother, he was called to the bar in 1994, and was the first black Briton to study a Master’s in law at Harvard Law School. His work for social justice includes leading the campaign for the Windrush British citizens to be granted British citizenship and to be paid compensation by the government, and campaigning for Oxbridge to improve access for students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds. David opened the SSAT National Conference last month; read his keynote address below, where he outlines why social justice remains as important to him now as it was when he was a student.
My own education changed my life and led me to appreciate social justice. I grew up in a single-parent household, the son of Windrush migrants in Tottenham, North London. The primary school I went to in Tottenham was a wonderful school with an unfortunate name: Downhill’s Primary. But it wasn’t downhill for me. It put music and drama at the centre of our learning. And in some ways, it was typical of the growing multiethnic, multicultural environment at the time.
I went to school with many second-generation British Caribbean immigrants; and Asian, Pakistani and Indian, Jewish, and white working-class. That was North London at that time. We had wonderful teachers, who had a vocation to serving in a city environment. And I have to say I am here because of their commitment. However, it’s also right to say that our opportunities were limited. We were not raised with the expectation of going to university. So our career prospects were somewhat limited. From a young age, I resisted the boundaries on ambition I was told to have. I suppose it was because I knew my parents worked phenomenally hard. So, I aspired to something different. I was awarded a scholarship at the King’s Cathedral School, a state boarding school in Peterborough. This was my lucky break, because the school was academic and had a strong culture of ambition and discipline. But even there I was told to manage my expectations. On choosing my options, I expressed a desire to become a barrister. But my teacher giving careers advice said, “Look, David. A barrister, really? I think you should become a fireman.” Nevertheless, I pushed, took advantage of the academic environment, and ended up studying law, first at the School of African and Oriental Studies, and then at Harvard Law School.
The reason why one of my main missions over the last 20 years in politics has been social justice is because, representing Tottenham, I see working people up and down the country are still not getting enough breaks, partly as a result of the education they are receiving.
Low expectation is still acute in many parts of the country – a lack of equality of opportunity, fair distribution of rewards, or indeed social justice. Politicians who publicly oppose these ideals are few and far between, but:
- Why then do the richest 1% of people in the UK own almost a quarter of the country’s wealth?
- Why did over half a million people use food banks last year?
- Why do the average incomes of the poorest fifth continue to drop while the average incomes of the richest fifth continue to rise?
Surely, if our lawmakers were champions of social justice, we wouldn’t live in a society that’s expected to push 1.5 million more children into poverty by 2021 than there were in 2018 [according to a study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission].
To many politicians, it appears, social justice has become nothing more than a buzzword, an abstract piece of jargon in a game of political bingo. They add social justice to their political vocabulary without showing any willingness to get into the fight on its behalf.
So, deep social justice is about making sure that the lives people lead are a product of their own agency. In this sense, deep social justice is about equity. It’s about giving people the opportunity to become who they want to be. It’s about making sure that people’s access to fundamental goods is not blocked from the very beginning of their lives. And that’s why I’m working with SSAT as patron – wholeheartedly behind this fantastic campaign.
Deep social justice in every school
Every school in this country needs to be in the business of deep social justice. We currently have a competitive market in education that pits desperate schools against each other to retain their market position. There’s no greater evidence of this than off-rolling, where schools remove certain pupils before exams in order to improve their league table position. And a high proportion of off-rolled pupils have special needs, are eligible for free school meals or looked after. Education is meant to be a level playing field, it’s supposed to level up, not kick people off.
And then there’s the nature of the curriculum, which should reflect who people are and the stories that give them agency in their lives. This is very real for black, Asian and minority ethnic pupils, and for working-class pupils. And it is crucial, when 40% of the jobs that young people currently in primary school will take up when they become adults have not yet been invented.
There are many colleagues in parliament who have had the very best of education – including extensive extracurricular opportunities. Vast playing fields, swimming pools, wonderful centres for drama, conferences and all the rest of it. Why is it right for one group of children to have access to that, but a state school’s budget is pared to the bone, such they can’t even cut the grass on the fields that they have? This is a basic lack of equity for children who need that extra regular provision more, not less, than their privileged peers. It’s why I believe so strongly that we must make comprehensive youth provision statutory to ensure that we are serving populations like the one I represent – especially if we’re serious about cutting the violent crime that we’re seeing in our communities.
It’s not just social mobility
But there’s only so much that schools can do while hidden inequalities persist. As a child, how do you do your homework if you’re in an overcrowded house? As a parent, how can you plan your child’s future if you’re on a zero-hour contract? Three-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families are 37% less likely to be read to every day than their advantaged peers.
We cannot legislate to redistribute bedtime stories, but we can ensure that parents have the financial and social support that they need. So deep social justice can also be summed up with an old idea, of what it is to live in a good society. A good society is where you can do a day’s work, earn a fair wage, provide for your family and their wellbeing, and provide for their learning at the same time. That’s equity, that’s agency. It lifts confidence, it lifts communities. That’s what deep social justice is about.
SSAT Members can watch: David Lammy’s keynote speech from SSAT National Conference 2019