Education for Social Justice Achieving wellbeing for all

Author(s) Laura Chapman and John West-Burnham
Publisher Continuum
Published 2009
Pages 176
Price £22.99
ISBN 9781855394698
Reviewed by Mr Brian Poole
Sohar University (Oman)
Review published 26 April 2010

This is a book which will stimulate debate, disagreement and the questioning of personal positions, and for that reason I would imagine that it could be used fruitfully with undergraduate or Masters-level students of education. In places, and particularly in the early chapters, there is much to engage with and the authors pull no punches. However, this is perhaps not a volume to turn to for practical tips on teaching or curriculum design in relation to social justice, though it certainly contains stimulating insights and advances a strong point of view.
The book has eleven chapters, and these deal successively with topics such as marginalization, discrimination, health and balance, the relationship between physical activity and emotional well-being, and happiness. The final chapters begin to consider the implications of all this for teachers and school managers ("the adult team"), and in an afterword the first author provides a moving account of her experience of education "from the perspective of a disabled woman."  The general stance taken by the authors is one which emphasizes the vulnerability of children and young people when British society is so unequal, and when role models and media images seem so often to promote individualism, consumerism, and material success whatever the cost to others. The authors argue for the importance of "the adult team", including educators, in fostering behaviours and ways of thinking which can counteract these forces and help young people find balance, well-being and happiness. Overall, there is a great deal to take in and the book would undoubtedly re-pay careful re-reading.
The first chapter "Setting the Scene" provides compelling evidence from various highly credible sources, such as the World Health Organization, and the World Economic Forum, that Britain is a rather unequal society, and that British children do not score highly for well-being when compared with those from many other European countries. The second chapter goes on to suggest how terms such as social justice, equality, equity, well-being and happiness relate to each other, and this is helpfully summarised in a diagram on page 38. However it is at this point that some readers might begin to harbour doubts. Popper (1966: 284-285 cited in Magee 1973: 84) argues that "instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all", on the grounds that, as Magee himself suggests (Magee, loc. cit.) "we do not know how to make people happy, but we do know ways of lessening their unhappiness."  Chapman and West-Burnham, on the other hand, take the view that creating happiness for children and young people is important because, among other things:
'Being happy is not just pleasant. It has a greater function – a positive effect on cognition.' (p.92)
Fundamentally, the reader has to decide whether s/he accepts the Popper/Magee line or the Chapman/West-Burnham position. Popper and Magee essentially argue that we do not know how to make people happy, and that politicians, teachers, social workers, medical professionals and others had therefore better concentrate on minimizing avoidable suffering – an aim which is more achievable because we can more easily identify the causes of suffering than the causes of happiness. Chapman and West-Burnham, however, argue that wellbeing and happiness can be promoted in children and young people if we manage such contributory factors as physical health, emotional health, parity of esteem and opportunity to succeed. They further argue for the role of education in achieving this. Among the key works which they refer to in their book are books by Layard (2005) and Layard and Dunn (2009) whose details are given below, and which might well reinforce their position. It is certainly possible that research on the fostering of happiness and well-being among young people has progressed to the point where the Popper/Magee position is weakened.
The fact that the book raises such fundamental questions in the reader's mind is undoubtedly in its favour. Few education professionals would wish to disassociate themselves from the general position taken by the authors, which emphasises the promotion of balance and well-being among school pupils through, for example, a conscious commitment to inclusion, rootedness in the local community, and emotional health. However, some will question whether it is either possible or desirable for schools to shoulder so much of the responsibility for "achieving wellbeing for all", while others might ask whether "social justice" is defined precisely enough either here or elsewhere to serve as a goal for public policy or institutional practice. Popperians (see above), for instance, might wish to argue that minimizing social injustice would be a more workable way to proceed.

Layard, R. (2005) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. London: Penguin Books.

Layard, R. & Dunn, J. (2009) A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age. London; Penguin Books.

Magee, B. (1973) Popper, London: Fontana.

Popper, K. (1966 edn.) The Open Society and its Enemies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.