Social Justice Leadership


This section of the website will explore the issue of social justice (SJ) and equity. For the purpose of initial exploration of this area it is possible to provide a working definition of SJ as a ‘focus on the experiences of marginalised groups an inequities in educational opportunities and outcomes’ (Furman 2012, 194).

Questions for reflection:


  • meeting the needs of individual students by placing different cultures and abilities as the point of departure for all practice?
  • promoting equality by providing positive messages and challenging all forms of prejudice and discrimination in visible and explicit ways?
  • promoting diversity by getting different groups to work together encouraging respect being inclusive and valuing difference



Social justice is sometimes viewed as an umbrella term in that it often encompasses a range of cognate terms some of which are better understood and better theorised than others. Words such as equity, equality, inequality, inclusion and diversity are all related to the issue of SJ. The extent to which SJ acts as an umbrella terms is itself contested because with the widely varied meanings of SJ ‘it is possible for different groups to act in opposition to each other, yet each can do so under the aegis of SJ’ (Boyles, Carusi and Attick 2009, 37). This is compounded by the fact that understandings of SJ and many of its cognate concepts are mediated by different national contexts with the result that they take on different meanings (Blackmore 2009). While it is important not to conflate terminology nor to be guilty of conceptual laziness, for the purpose of early work with this component of the website it is possible to provide a working definition of the area broadly captured by the field of social justice. A key part of evaluation or internal review is the need to revisit policy and practice in order to refine and improve them. In this context and in order to enable schools to start with some degree of a solid foundation, we will define SJ in the case of a school as a ‘focus on the experiences of marginalised groups and inequities in educational opportunities and outcomes’ (Furman 2012, 194). This is a very solid starting point for this review.  In later work, as part of the cyclical nature of on-going school internal evaluation, school leaders can re-interrogate policy, plans and praxis with an increasingly more nuanced sense of what each of the terms related to social justice mean for each element of school practice. 

Is this a leadership issue?

There is now a significant body of scholarship that concludes that school leadership is a ‘powerful intervening variable whether schools are successful or not with students especially those who are from diverse backgrounds (Reys and Wagstaff 2005, 101). ‘School leadership is a critical building block in the educational equity project’ (Marshall, Young and Moll 2010; 315).  It is important to be clear about the research findings in support of the view that individual leaders and the overall work of leadership for SJ can and does make a difference and that this difference has tangible and significant positive impact. The exercise of agency in this case is possible and it does lead to better outcomes. While this is possible it is neither easy nor straightforward. ‘Leaders for social justice . . . resist, dissent, rebel, subvert, possess oppositional imaginations and are committed to transforming oppressive and exploitative social relations in and out of schools’ (Rapp, 2002: 226). It is important,  however, in this conceptualization of leadership with its resistant and arguable subversive subtext, that we do not conflate this heroic type of work with heroic models of transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership is most often based on a separation of leaders from followers, hence leadership is based on what role incumbents have as skills and attributes that enable them to be inspirational, to appeal to individual and groups of followers, to influence their thinking and to build an emotional commitment to the organization (Gunter 2005, 175) 

Leadership for Social Justice requires the antithesis of this type of approach to leadership. It involves the development of a culture that puts all practice under scrutiny from a variety of perspectives, the more diverse these perspectives the better – hence the move away from the unitary perspective of the transformational leader. What needs to develop is a social justice leadership that is not about the person doing the leadership but rather about what it is they do to contribute to the sum of social justice leadership in the school. 



It is the right thing to do?

Have schools  been part of the reproduction of privilege and prejudice in society for too long?

2.  HOW TO DO IT? 

  • Aim to choose resources for use in school in school that do not stereotype, disadvantage or poke fun at anyone based on their race, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, gender, where they live or any other personal characteristics.
  • Use materials that promote good equality practice and community.
  • Challenge racist, sexist and homophobic assumptions because these assumptions and attitudes denigrate individuals and have serious consequences for all of us. Such attitudes will have consequences when students progress to the “real world”.
  • Promote respect for diversity.
  • Make sure that the schools equality policies are explicit and lived
  • Challenge and avoid the use of negative or potentially offensive stereotypes or assumptions.
  • Encourage students to value similarities as well as differences.
  • Challenge and actively discourage any language or behaviour which is racist, sexist and homophobic or which demeans people with disabilities from particular neighbourhoods, areas and so on.


  • Blackmore, J. (2009). Leadership for social justice: A transnational dialogue. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 4(1), Article 5. Retrieved from
  • Boyles, D., Carusi, T., & Attick, D. (2009). Historical and critical interpretations of social justice. In W. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stoval (Eds.), Handbook of social justice in education (pp. 30-42). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Furman, G. (2012) Social Justice Leadership as Praxis: Developing Capacities Through Preparation Programs Educational Administration Quarterly 48(2) 191-229.
  • Reyes, P., & Wagstaff, L. (2005). How does leadership promote successful teaching and learning for diverse students? In W. A. Firestone & C. Riehl (Eds.), A new agenda for research in educational leadership (pp. 101-118). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Marshall, C., Young, M. D., & Moll, L. (2010). The wider societal challenge: An afterword. In C. Marshall & M. Oliva (Eds.), Leadership for social justice (2nd ed., pp. 315-327). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Rapp, D. (2002). Social justice and the importance of rebellious, oppositionalimaginations. Journal of School Leadership, 12, 226-245.
  • Gunter, H. (2005) Conceptualizing Research in Educational Leadership
  • Educational Management Administration & Leadership Vol 33(2) 165–180; 051051