The Role of Schools in Developing Students Sense of Justice: a European Comparative Study

The Role of Schools in Developing Students Sense of Justice: a European Comparative Study

The role of schools in developing students’ sense of justice: a European comparative study

Stephen Gorard, Emma Smith and Vanita Sundaram

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007


This paper is based on a comparative project examining pupils’ views on and experiences of justice in five European countries, and across educational contexts. The project is primarily concerned with identifying indicators that are key to pupils’ understanding of equity in school contexts, and examining how these criteria of justice may relate to their views on fairness in a wider, societal context. A priority of the study is also to elicit the views of pupils who are marginalised or disadvantaged in an educational setting, whether by language, special educational needs, physical difficulties, or socio-economic status and whose opinions and voices therefore, are rarely heard or equitably represented. We conducted a pilot study involving a face-to-face survey of 1,820 Year 10 pupils. The results, in addition to helping the design of the full survey of 20,000 pupils just completed, provided some confirmation of the model of equity underlying the work. Pupil outcomes in terms of their judgements about the nature of fairness are strongly linked to their experiences of school and childhood and very weakly linked to the socio-economic background. This is in sharp distinction to the standard work in sociology and school-effectiveness which show strong links between examination scores and pupil SES, and only minor roles for school effects.

Why pupils’ perceptions?

The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts that children and young people have the right to express their opinions on all matters affecting them. The Convention calls upon governments and agencies working with young people to acknowledge and act upon the views expressed in relation to decisions which directly affect their lives. Therefore, as education concerns its pupils, so they should be consulted seriously about its conduct and reform (Fielding and Bragg 2003), and treated with respect in its implementation (Osler 2000). The introduction of citizenship education into the National Curriculum for England in 2002 brought attention to the potential of pupil voice in contributing to learning processes, and stimulated debate about the links between pupils’ experiences of fairness, democracy and participation in school and their views and expectations as citizens in society (DfES 2002).

The views of pupils are still surprisingly scarce in education research, despite pupils’ clear competence as commentators (Wood 2003). This absence is perhaps particularly marked for pupils in already marginalised groups (Rose and Shevlin 2004, Hamill and Boyd 2002). The skewed representation of pupils in the literature towards those already possessing advantages (Reay 2006) may lead to the ‘uncritical adoption’ of their partial view as an accurate reflection of all pupils’ experiences and views of schooling and justice in school (Noyes 2005, p.537). Thus, it is important in understanding more about equity to seek out the views of all, including the most disadvantaged and least likely to speak out.

In health studies, by way of analogy, it has been found that talking and teaching about healthy eating for pupils is largely ineffective unless the school also adopts a health-promoting whole-school approach, most obviously in its catering, but also by listening to and incorporating pupils’ opinions/views on food, bodies and health (Christensen 2004). In the same way, pupil participation in citizenship may be best ‘taught’ by engaging pupils as active partners in school processes and not merely by the inclusion of citizenship in the curriculum. This means moving away from a situation in which pupils largely experience schooling as something that is done to them, and in which they simply learn to perform in order to succeed (Duffield et al. 2000). If citizenship studies is to promote a climate of tolerance, democratic dialogue, respect for human rights and cultural diversity (Osler and Starkey 2006), then these characteristics must be made manifest in the structure and organisation of the school. Schools that model democratic values by promoting an open climate for discussion are more likely to be effective in promoting both civic knowledge and civic engagement among their students (Civic Education Study 2001, Torney-Purta et al. 2001).

However, in many examples, the only apparent motive for engaging with pupils’ views is to increase student performance and attainment in academic terms (Noyes 2005), or to improve pupil self-confidence (Rose et al. 1999). There is little sense that pupils might actually have sound opinions on equity and fairness in school processes, and that listening to them should be an aspect of democratic schooling that seeks to shape well-informed and critical citizens. Further, that engaging with pupil views could not only lead to real educational reform (Pomeroy 1999), but may have longer-term implications for young people’s self-perceived capabilities, resources and values as citizens. The actual impact of suggestions or decisions made by student groups is often very limited (TES 2006). While participatory and democratic initiatives such as school councils are now widespread in England, a limited and highly selected proportion of students actually tend to be involved (Wyness 2006). There is little progress in terms of actually giving pupils a democratic say in the way their schools are run, or in facilitating their participation in, and contribution to, their local community.

It could be thought that pupils’ experiences of equity and citizenship in an educational context may impact upon their perceived and actual trajectories in education and beyond school. This link may be particularly pertinent in an era when purportedly disaffected and alienated (ethnic minority) youth are presented as a threat to social cohesion within and across communities, in many European countries. It is therefore also important to elicit pupils’ views across different schooling contexts, in terms of school types and the mix of pupils in different schools.

Exploring pupils’ views of equity

A concern of the present study was to identify the criteria that young people employ to describe fairness, or justice – and whether these principles are organic, or remain relatively static across situations. If we view schools as organised micro-societies, we might link the criteria of justice used in educational contexts to perceptions of equity and fairness in wider society.

‘Equity’ can represent two related ideas. First, equity is used as a synonym for the terms ‘fair’ and ‘fairness’. It simply means the state, quality, or ideal of being impartial, just, and fair. Secondly, and more importantly, equity refers to an attempt to understand how and why we can judge something to be fair or unfair. It is important to be clear from the outset that any given criterion intended to enhance justice will be flawed in the sense that it will tend to lead to injustice in some situations. For example, should schools and teachers discriminate between pupils? We would probably not want schools to use more funds to educate boys than girls, or offer different curriculum subjects to different ethnic groups. But we might want schools to use more funds for pupils with learning difficulties, or to respect the right of each pupil to study their first language. Should a teacher be allowed to punish a pupil who misbehaves, or reward a pupil who has shown talent or effort? If so, then the teacher is being discriminating. If we adhere inflexibly to a principle of equality of opportunity, then the likely result in education will be marked inequality of outcomes. Is this acceptable?

As part of this study a conceptual model was designed to identify and describe how different principles of justice might be applied in different domains, or contexts (Table 1). Some of the background to this model can be seen in EGREES (2005). For example, a pupil might agree that final outcomes such as public examination results could recognise merit and so differentiate between pupils (cell A in the table).On the other hand, while assets such as respect shown to pupils should be equally applied by teachers (B), some advantages, such as greater attention given to marginalised pupils (C), cannot be employed using the same criteria of equity.

Table 1 - Some principles of justice and the domains in which they might be applied

Principles / School procedures / Classroom interaction / Regular assessment / Final outcomes / Family and home / Wider society
Equal outcome / G
Equal opportunity / I / H
Recognise merit / E / A
Respect individual / F / B
Fair procedures
Appropriate treatment / C / D

We constructed a questionnaire that would address these different principles and domains, in order to identify which criteria pupils employed in developing their sense of educational and social justice – and to describe potential differences between groups of pupils and across educational contexts. The questionnaire thus addressed pupils’ experiences of and views on fairness in school and in wider society, including with their families. We asked young people about their own experiences and were also interested in how they perceived treatment of their peers (by teachers and by other pupils). Previous research(Smith and Gorard 2006, Gorard 2007) has shown that pupils generally think they themselves are treated fairly, but that other students are treated unfairly to a much greater extent. We were thus interested to represent pupils’ own views on fairness in schooling rather than to impose a pre-conceived model of educational justice.

The principles of justice were addressed in three main contexts: You and your school, Life outside school, and Your views on a fair school. Pupils were asked about events occurring since the beginning of the current school year (Year 10). The questionnaire, as a pilot,employeda mixture of scalesincluding Likert scales, yes/no, categories, vignettes and open-ended responses.It tried to measure pupils’ perceptions of given events, such as unfair treatment by teachers, bullying by peers, and family relationships. The items included within each theme sometimes overlapped so we would be able to construct dimensions of justice e.g. a sense of belonging, school climate. A separate section on You and your family addressed background information for the pupil.

You and your school

This section of the questionnaire addressed the ‘amount’ and type of injustice students perceived that they experienced, and dealt mainly with teachers’ treatment of pupils e.g. “I was always treated fairly by my teachers” (B in Table 1) or “Some pupils were punished more than others for the same offence” (D in Table 1). Perceptions of equitable treatment related both to the pupil’s own experience of justice and to their observation of peers’ treatment by teachers. In-school experiences of justice also addressed peer relations, primarily to gain a notion of pupils’ sense of belonging in school. Specific items on friendship e.g.”I was left out by other pupils” or “I have good friends in school” and more general items on self-perceived position in school, such as “Generally speaking, school was a fair place”, “School was a waste of time for me” or “I felt as though I was invisible to my school mates” were included to construct an indicator of pupils’ sense of belonging in the school context. These items mainly reflect B in Table 1: a feeling of respect and inclusion in classroom interactions.

Life outside school

A concern of the project was to link pupils’ experiences of justice in educational settings with a wider sense of fairness in societal and family contexts. Therefore, the questionnaire included a section on pupils’ notions of justice outside school. Specific items addressed family relations e.g. “My parents talk to me about my friends and interests” and “My parents treat my opinions with respect even when we disagree”. Wider political and societal views were elicited through questions such as “It is ok to lie to avoid being punished”, “People coming to live in Britain should be given equal rights” and “I trust the British government to treat people fairly”. The thinking here was to map views on authority, equality of treatment, respect for individuals, appropriate behaviour etc outside school on pupils’ views on in-school situations.

Your views on a fair school

This theme was concerned with uncovering what students themselves feel are the causes of injustice. Questions and vignettes on hypothetical situations in school were included, giving us the possibility of comparing their actual experiences of fairness in school with their ideal model of a fair school. Pupils were asked their opinions on e.g. whether ability or effort should be recognised (E in Table 1), whether individual differences should be respected in terms of school procedures (F in Table 1) and whether respect for individual differences (B), appropriate treatment (D) or equality of treatment (G) were more important in terms of creating and defining a fairer school environment.

You and your family

Background and family relationships were viewed as central in forming young people’s sense of fairness. This section therefore included questions on the pupil’s own background e.g. country of birth, main language spoken at home, and parental background e.g. education, occupation. It was also considered important to elicit information on the pupil’s aspirations, as this might provide an impression of the self-perceived trajectories of these young people – in relation to their current notions and experiences of fairness of opportunity and outcome.We chose to include a question on what type of job they would most like to have in the future as a proxy measure. This type of question was viewed as ethically defensible, as pupils had the informed choice of skipping over any question they found intrusive or distressing. Further, each section was preceded by a description of the types of questions that would follow, so an individual pupil could, in fact, choose to pass over a whole section.

A brief set of school-level questions unique to each country was designed so that we had identical and comparable data on all schools (like that represented in the ASC/PLASC for England). This also allows us to compare pupils’ notions of justice and their experiences of schools across a range of educational settings and in different pupil mixes.

Pupils’ views on justice

The project was conducted in France, Belgium (French-speaking), Italy, CzechRepublic and England. A pilot study was conducted in October-November 2006, in 10 schools in each country. The pilot samples were purposive and regional so that the researchers were able to conduct the fieldwork face-to-face. The sample included – where possible – classes or institutions with pupils who were disadvantaged by language, special educational needs, or physical or behavioural difficulties. Approximately350 pupils took part in each country, for a total of 1,820. Methodologically, this trial has proved very useful in terms of improving access to disadvantaged pupils, as well as revising the instrument.

The main study was conducted between April and July 2007 and comprised a target sample of 100 schools in each country (all secondary schools in each partner country were ranked by size and a sample of 100 was selected). Optimally we wanted to ensure at least one class of 30 students per school, but in some cases (10%), two or more classes were included. Access to the schools was negotiated via letter to the head teacher and follow-up telephone calls to the head teacher, or head of year/subject head. We chose to focus on Year 10 pupils (14-15 year-olds) as this was considered to be the lower limit at which young people begin to form sustained views on social and political matters and more abstract concepts, such as equity, social responsibility and citizenship. Between 75 and 85 schools were obtained in each partner country, giving an approximate total of 400 schools (~ 18,000 pupils) for the study.

Questionnaire packs were sent to participating schools, including a short manual for the administrating teacher and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for returning completed forms in. Returned questionnaires were then sent to the Belgian research team for scanning (using optimal mark recognition) and data cleaning. At the time of writing the last questionnaires are being read and a full dataset should be ready for analysis by October 2007.

Our focus on disadvantaged or marginalised youth necessitated a concerted effort to reach also those students outside mainstream schooling, and to explore how their sense of justice in schools and in life may have been shaped by their less conventional school experiences. Six ‘case-study’ schools in each country were selected in addition to the main sample, to include PRUs, juvenile detention centres, and special schools likely to hold a high proportion of the most disadvantaged students. Interviews with pupils in these schools (approximately 10 pupils per school) will take place in September 2007.

In the following sections, we use the available data from our relatively large pilot study to illustrate briefly how pupils define justice and differentially so in contexts in and outside school. We address principles of justice corresponding to each section of the questionnaire: justice in school, justice outside school, and their views on justice (what a fair school should be like).

The figures are presented as frequencies (percentages) and cross-tabulated. Response categories were collapsed to create binary variables (yes/no, agree/disagree). The variables are separated, a priori, into three main groups. The first consists of predictor variables – such as the pupil’s nationality, sex, age, parental occupation and so on. The second consists of their reports of treatment and justice at school – such as whether they had been bullied, picked on by teachers, treated with respect and so on. An exploratory factor analysis was conducted on these variables which proposed that there were 8 discrete patterns of justice reported, and the subsequent analysis focuses on the 8 variables with the highest loading on each potential factor – such as whether they had been left out of activities by other pupils, whether their marks or grades reflected the effort they put into work, and so on. The third group are outcome variables representing their view of justice in school and society. These include whether pupils trust institutions such as the police, whether they undertake any voluntary work, whether they believe that every citizen should have the same rights, and whether lying, stealing and hitting someone else are justified.