The Role of Social Justice Theory in Education Studies

Experience across multiple HEIs and their related courses in Education Studies has highlighted the commitment and perseverance of both students and academics to the role of social justice within Education Studies. Passionate tutors patiently guide students towards an understanding of justice that helps them to understand both the subject’s purpose in society and student’s own role as socially-just future educators.

One of the freedoms of Education Studies is the space to question how things are and how things should be and to do that, students need to develop a critical approach. The benchmark standards mention criticality 9 times in relation to critical engagement, capabilities, analysis, reflection, debate and understanding. Critical skills play a central role in the subject and it is this questioning, debate and new thinking that enables students to explore problems and imagine a different future for education. By comparison, social justice is explicitly mentioned only twice (QAA, 2019).

An often used approach is a consideration of ‘harmony, equity and justice’ as described by Smith (2018). However, this can arguably present a surface level, easily dismissed notion aligned simply with ‘fairness’. This presentation argues for a deeper approach to social justice which can support the interconnected thinking Education Studies aims to foster and better equip students to navigate education in an increasingly complex future.

Beyond Smith’s approach, Nancy Fraser’s theory of Democratic Justice is presented. The theory’s potential to provide a more thorough examination of issues and to support the interconnected thinking and orientation towards social justice that Education Studies aspires to foster is discussed. It is argued that implementing this throughout the course can enable students to more fully appreciate the systemic nature of justice on multiple levels. As such, students can be better equipped to navigate their future work, potentially find greater personal fulfilment and create social change. This presentation is the subject of a forthcoming chapter for a new textbook for Education Studies and invites discussion on the following points: Does Fraser’s theory equip students to navigate education? How could this be developed across an Education Studies degree and how can it be used to empower students to pose concrete solutions for the issues they are likely to face?