Reflections on Activism in Education

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

As I noted before Christmas, a recent workshop on activism which I listened to was disappointing.  It might have begun by exploring what activism entails (what it is and isn’t) as a prelude to the discussion, but it didn't, and that absence prompted these thoughts.


There are many definitions.  Here are three from near the top of a recent web search:

“Taking action to create social change. Usually, you do this together with other people. Activism means the advocacy or active support of a cause, such as a political or social issue”.   Activist Handbook

“The use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.”   Cambridge Dictionary

“A doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”   Merriam Webster

What does it involve?

It’s clear from these that activism involves taking action for a purpose, where the purpose has a social and/or political end.  It can be done alone or with others.  It follows that not all actions constitute activism; indeed, that most everyday actions do not.  For example, having breakfast or catching a bus are actions that fall well short of being activism.  Although it is not explicit in the extracts, activism also implies some level of commitment to an idea, cause, end, goal, etc.

It's possible to set out a number of typologies or hierarchies associated with activism.  For example, there is the three-part framework that was outlined in the webinar.  Here’s one possible hierarchy:

Activism through …

  • donations, memberships, subscriptions to support an organisation, programme, cause, etc
  • social media engagement, letter-writing, canvassing, etc to spread the word
  • focused practical activities that make an immediate difference on the ground
  • public protests, demonstrations, etc, to raise social consciousness
  • direct disruptive action

Most activism involves at least some of these.

Activism in an educational setting

This is constrained by a number of factors; there are two main ones: [i] the legal framework that governs schools and [ii] the primacy of learning.

In England the 2002 Education Act and associated Orders in Council set the framework which the DfE uses to guide schools.  This guidance is more permissive than many think (a point made well in the meeting).  By contrast, the idea that clearly identified learning goals should be an outcome of school-based activism (many would say the principle one) is less of a legal requirement, and is policed by schools themselves.  This is especially so where the activism is initiated by the school and can be seen, loosely or tightly, as a curriculum activity, whether extra or mainstream.  This helps make the point that it is useful to distinguish between those activities that are school supported and those that are not.

The best known example of the latter is probably the pre-pandemic Friday school strikes that aimed to change national government policy on the curriculum.  A few schools did support these through a citizenship education justification.  DfE took a dim view relentlessly making the principle point that students needed to be in schools in order to learn.  You will have noticed that this was an argument, pace Groucho Marx, that it quietly abandoned during the pandemic.  Most of this Friday strike activism involved leaving the school premises; in some schools, however, there was parallel activism within schools.  A prominent example was the campaign by Izzy Lewis and her friends at Cheney School Oxford.

In-school Activision

Within schools, there is enormous scope for school-focused activism and in many schools it’s now almost a mainstream activity through eco (and other) clubs, school councils, etc.  The focus of this ranges from wide-ranging campaigns to get school leaders to change the school curriculum to a greater focus on climate/environment and related issues, to change how the school operates, or to change what its goals are.  There can also be campaigns around infrastructure, transport, waste and energy.  The meeting illustrated many examples of these.  These, and the examples here, illustrate a typology rather than a hierarchy.

A big difference across schools is the extent to which leaders and managers view such activity as useful or something to be tolerated.  In the latter, the hidden curriculum is likely to show up the tensions.

There’s much more to be said, but not at the moment.

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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