We Belong Together

As educators and school managers, we have all been in the situation when we see an upcoming staff development session labelled ‘transformation’ and give a collective groan.

The core of our reactions may differ, but whatever the reason and the reaction, there is no doubt that ‘transformation’ is necessary and urgent. In an age where we know words matter, the word ‘transformation’ needs a paradigm shift to achieve the collective buy-in it needs. My bold suggestion is that we replace ‘transformation’ with the term ‘social justice’, as ultimately that is the goal.

‘Transformation’ is merely the journey on which we all need to embark to reach a society in which Everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities … (and we need to) aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need. If we know that a society based on the idea of social justice is our goal, the journey becomes easier. However, even with buy-in, it is going to be a fraught journey.

Social justice protest

The sweet spot

The way I see it, the key to achieving social justice in a school is focusing on belonging. When every student and every other member of the school community too – irrespective of race, gender, sexuality, religion, creed – feels that authentic sense of belonging to an institution, only then can we have social justice. And belonging flourishes in the sweet spot of the intersection of diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Schools in South Africa are all on this journey towards social justice through internal policies, procedures, and the appointment of social justice officers. Indeed, generally speaking, independent schools in South Africa have recognised the need to diversify their institutions for a long time – over and above the role they had played since the late 1970s with integration in the face of Bantu Education.

One only needs to surf multiple some websites to see that our schools are diverse through the representation of multiple identities in these organisations. Whilst the representation of race and religious identity is clear, schools are now starting to acknowledge that diversity now also extends to gender and sexuality – but that is another article in itself.

Many schools have become adept at celebrating diversity through heritage events to religious days, visual embodiments, and social media. These celebrations are authentic ways to get the members of school communities to try to understand each other and the challenges facing disadvantaged groups.

That independent schools are all at different stages of the journey to social justice is expected, and is a result of variables that include geography, cultural demographics, finances and a commitment to the process by school leaders. That having been said, schools cannot slow the process down owing to these pre-existing norms – the truths being pursued as self-evident and universal.

From the diversity of our schools come policies of inclusion where the thoughts, ideas and perspectives of all individuals are considered to matter. The very nature of teaching itself is about ensuring that each child in our class is included through a recognition of each one and a celebration of their ideas. Indeed, this philosophy needs to infiltrate every aspect of human capital in a school.

We have seen the expansion of the student voice in our school through councils and peer programmes – woe be a school leadership that in the 21st century ignores the voice of its students! Indeed, in staffrooms, we are seeing a generational shift that is also demanding a voice, where only previously there was only topdown decision-making by Baby Boomers.

We belong together

Equality and equity not the same

Only recently have we come to understand the idea of equity as a tool to recognise and redistribute power within educational institutions.3 Equity and equality are often misunderstood and are therefore used interchangeably as term.

Equality is literally the state of being equal but does not focus on specific needs. Giving every student a laptop creates equality but whether the student has access to the internet at home raises the question of equity. One writer puts it thus:

Schools that prioritise equity versus equality are more in tune to their students’ needs and provide resources to overcome their specific challenges.

Independent schools are perhaps vulnerable to the lack of equity, in that the pursuit of diversity through scholarship and bursary opportunities may see black students left behind through the unwitting lack of empathy of their daily struggles. Increasingly, teachers are more vocal about the challenges they face, and about their families’ physical and mental health needs.

The pitfalls on the journey to social justice are many. A school that celebrates diversity and inclusion but lacks equity, only creates a situation where the dominant group is deferred to for decision making, opportunities and advancement. However, where we have equity and inclusion, but no diversity, we see an oversaturation of ‘sameness’, a homogenous culture with simplified points of view that do not fully grasp the concept of social justice.

Further to this, an institution that overlooks inclusion but has diversity and equity, simply creates cultural disengagement amongst students and low retention of staff. Whilst these analyses may be simplistic, I am sure all schools can identify with such pitfalls.

Thus, the challenge exists to find that sweet spot of diversity, inclusion, and equity, to create a school that engages fully with the potential of each individual, and where innovation thrives, and views and beliefs and values are integrated. And that is:

Belonging, which has a crucial role in internalisation and transfer of cultural norms and values … school belonging determines the students’ perceptions, which source from their interpersonal relations with the individuals at school, with regards to their being loved, respected and valued by others.

And so, belonging is the ultimate prize for social justice.