SSAT’s first ever student roundtable discussion, on deep social justice, held on 6 November, was a lively affair, with plenty of interaction over the students’ passionately held opinions, as they debated the key issues of social justice.
Led by SSAT’s head of policy and public affairs, Tom Middlehurst, and director, Angelina Idun, the roundtable began with students sharing school experiences, their knowledge of the topic and its effect on their daily lives. Though, as Middlehurst pointed out: “There is no ‘correct’ definition of social justice, it means many things to many people.”
Each table was prompted to answer: “Social justice is mostly about…”, resulting in some fascinating conclusions. One group felt that “class” was one of the most important ongoing social justice issues. They thought “ending homelessness” and “every individual being able to live a successful life” were the most critical issues to tackle in their neighbourhood.
Perhaps developing this theme, the students at two other tables felt that equal opportunity is the most important social justice issue, stating “with the same opportunities [as others], you can build your way up,” and it is “vital to have an equal society, equal access to variety of things to avoid being stuck in a cycle.” These tables also agreed that ending intolerance was the second most important issue, as “it’s important that we do not segregate, and we should all respect each other and should respect each individual’s views and background.”
However, these two tables disagreed about knife crime. While one saw ending knife crime, which was “very prevalent in the area”, as a major aim, the other saw knife crime as “a choice”, arguing that it “depends on where you’re coming from. Sometimes you’re forced into that lifestyle when there’s another world out there…”
Interestingly, one of the points most widely agreed was that, in the context of social justice, more students going to university was a low priority.
Tom concluded this section with SSAT’s broader definition of social justice – as a commitment ensuring that all students are valued; ability is considered; the postcode lottery is addressed; and young people leave school fully prepared to play an active role in society, having gained not only skills and knowledge but personal empowerment.
The biggest challenge: mental health
He then posed the question: “What are the biggest challenges facing young people today?” While answers varied, they all led back to one crucial issue: mental health.
The stigma associated with students’ mental health was concerning: “Schools jump to conclusions about how things like social media affect us… there are so many more aspects than schools are touching on – we really need a conversation.” For example, another said: “We’ve become exam machines… it’s not like we’re learning valuable information that we’ll use in the future, it’s about doing exams to finish school… there is no free space to learn what we need to learn.”
The implications of this are important for students’ preparation for ‘real life’: “After school, we go straight into work and the real world, exploring ourselves… schools have not become a preparation for life, but for that test [GCSE]. Where is the preparation for the thing you do after the test, for life?” Choosing subjects for GCSEs taken in Y11 was also seen as unhelpful: “It’s impossible to know what you’re going to be doing when you’re 25 years old and you have to pick subjects at 13,” one respondent commented. “That’s insane.” Many school leaders would agree with these students, as the education media have widely reported this month.
Students’ views on what schools are doing
Students cited work experience, careers days, school ambassador visits, computer time, study spaces and reducing the use of plastics as elements their schools are working on in an effort to combat social justice. Access to websites and resources, offering language courses, mental wellbeing surveys and networking opportunities were further listed enthusiastically by participating students, as the accessibility to these elements has ultimately improved their school experiences.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the young people held some very varied views, with the most heated debate at this point was restriction on personal expression – schools’ control over piercings and hair dyeing, designated toilets and strict uniform rules.
Students’ role in social justice
When asked about the future in the fight for deep social justice, participants generally agreed that young people into the 2020s and beyond will have a role in creating a more equitable society. While “the stereotypical teenager is loud, obnoxious, probably getting into crime… [our] generation needs to change the stereotype.” One respondent added: “The stereotype of teenagers hating rules, being rebellious, it’s different for a majority of us… we have further reach, with social media for example… but because of the false stigma around us, when we do talk about these things, we’re not listened to.”
Another looked ahead: “We should listen to all generations… we have laws that adults are voting for, but they’re not going into it themselves. What they’re voting for is what we’re going to have to fix.”
Ultimately, one student’s statement summarised the issue: “Until people take us seriously, we’re not going to be able to change anything.”
These animated discussions continued throughout the day, with students not only debating and disagreeing but coming up with collaborative opportunities, sharing ideas and actions for their schools. Some even expressed interest in leading roundtable discussions of their own, demonstrating that SSAT has touched a chord in its fight for deep social justice.