Skip to main content

Creating a safe space for other peoples' children in colleges - Laura Kayes

09 February 2023

A fundamental element required for positive systemic change in our further education sector is the need to take influence and inspiration from the theory of cognitive justice – and this is particularly the case when we attempt to navigate the impact of poverty on our classrooms.

The term “cognitive justice” was first coined by the Indian scholar Shiv Visvanathan in 1997 to dispute the forceful impressing of Western scientific knowledge and processes onto developing and non-Western countries. Professor Visvanathan argued that the hegemonic enforcing of greater value upon Western knowledge was causing the destruction of traditional knowledge that were closely tied to communities and the working lives of individuals (Visvanathan, 1997). It was proposed instead that decision-makers embrace a common practice of cognitive justice; valuing equally a plurality of knowledge, experiences and values within the spaces they occupied.

The theory of cognitive justice was brought into education by Catherine Odora-Hoppers, and reflecting on my own positionality within my teaching practice in further education, there is a deep discomfort as I connect the behaviours and knowledge that we endeavour to establish in our learning spaces. Not, hopefully, through historical practices of colonial brutality, but through much quieter and less tangible pressures in our classrooms. The normalisation of a carefully-considered, white, middle-class culture extends into our spaces of education; a presumed and promoted “normality” that values an unspoken, socially contracted system of knowledge and experience.

It is a state that “others” children and young people from marginalised backgrounds and erodes learner wellbeing, belongingness and, inevitably, outcomes. Disparities between the attainment prospects of students can be seen across a range of underserved communities from initial school readiness assessments into post-compulsory education prospects and outcomes. Young people from our black and minority ethnic communities, those with additional learning needs, those using English as an additional language and those from low-income households are often labelled as “deficient” and often remain there throughout their experience in education (Allen, 2011).

These trends are prevalent across education agencies, but exist tangibly in our colleges. A variety of factors have influenced the further education sector’s consistently reactive alteration of our structural provision throughout its development (ETF, 2020). The resulting instability and complex infrastructure has contributed to public mistrust and a lingering, harmful view by some of low-quality vocational or remedial learning pathways (Hyland, 2002). Inevitably, public disregard for the value of the sector leads to more reactive reform, which in turn compounds confusion and distrust from employers (DfE, 2020). The perpetual cycle and resulting attitudes can pose further education as a secondary option and a pathway for “other peoples” children’ (Richardson, 2007). Perhaps understandably then, many underserved people of all ages, who have found themselves othered and marginalised at varying stages of their educational journeys, find their way through the doors of their local further education colleges seeking a safe community within which they can belong.

We face distinct challenges in creating these spaces. Further education is increasingly impacted by the marketisation of education and the result is fierce competition, rather than collaboration, between regional college groups to ensure adequate funding to offer competitive provision. As well as these relational chasms, the sector battles chronic wage disparities against school counterparts, yet is held to account and subject to judgement by the same inspectorate body; Ofsted. When the effectiveness of a provider is measured through quantifiable data selected by a hegemonic body with a middle-class agenda, the risk of oppressing alternative knowledges is high, and the room for experimental pedagogical approaches often depletes to conform.

These rigid creations of preferred behaviours and knowledges serve to ‘other’ children and young people. When an institution, perceived in a position of power through the expected social contracts formed between the learner and the setting (The Free Library, 2014), offer little acknowledgement of a young person’s authentic identity outwith the college walls, or worse; claim ownership of expected behaviours through an enforced identity and an expectation to conform.

Nowhere is this cognitive imperialism more blatant than in the compulsory embedding of British Values in schools and colleges as part of the government’s wider anti-terrorism campaign; Prevent. Multiple strands of marginalisation are fiercely intertwined (Santos, 2014), and the United Kingdom continues to see deeply rooted economic inequalities tied strongly to race (Gov, 21020). My own workplace has seen a steady annual increase in the percentage of minority ethnic representation in our student body, and in the academic year 2020-21 these learners made up more than half of enrolments (2021). In 2017 the United Kingdom’s then prime minister Theresa May told an audience that the mandatory content would “assert the superiority of British Values” (François, 2017). The imperialist language and the hegemonic mindset that it promotes are striking to educators striving to develop classrooms as spaces of cognitive justice, and conflict with the framework’s requirement for intercultural translation.

Ozga (2018) describes and analyses the prescribed British Values content as a Conservative Party policy document; acting as a medium for carrying and transmitting a policy message. The use of compulsory action to convey a political agenda in our classrooms is seemingly in direct conflict with the media-fuelled fervour against “woke teachers” playing politics (Hazell, 2022). Consequently, those of us in the further education sector seeking to dismantle colonial power imbalances by valuing a plurality of knowledge, experiences and values find ourselves walking on eggshells around the fractious political divides.

We are seeing the seedlings of overdue movement towards progressive reform of our curricula, but many of these attempts still only appeal and speak to the cosmopolitan side of a dividing line (Santos, 2014), and we are offering too little in the way of progressive practices. This is an essential step in lessening the attainment gap and better serving the rich diversity of the learners within our further education provisions.

There remain, however, wider barriers to the implementation of practices of cognitive justice. Whilst the individual educator can equip themselves to enrich and value the knowledge and aspirations of a diverse student body, they must be supported by their institutions and a wider deconstruction of calculated homogenization to trial positive pedagogical change. For in our active quest towards a cognitive equity, to paraphrase Biesta (1994); our capacity for positive action relies on the participation of others.


Allen-Kinross, P. (2022). Ofsted: Schools with deprived pupils less likely to be 'good'. Retrieved 25 July 2022, from

Biesta, G. (1994) ‘Pragmatism as a pedagogy of communicative action’, Studies in philosophy and education, 13(3-4), pp. 273–290. doi:10.1007/BF01077684.

Biesta, G. and Lawy, R. (2006) ‘From teaching citizenship to learning democracy: overcoming individualism in research, policy and practice’, Cambridge journal of education, 36(1), pp. 63–79. doi:10.1080/03057640500490981.

ETF, 2021 Teacher Report (

Hazell, W. (2022). War on 'woke' teachers as they're told to be 'balanced' over British Empire and not to back BLM. Retrieved 26 July 2022, from

Odora Hoppers, C.A. (2009) ‘Education, culture and society in a globalizing world: implications for comparative and international education’, Compare, 39(5), pp. 601–614. doi:10.1080/03057920903125628.

Odora Hoppers, C.A. (2021) Research on Indigenous knowledge systems: the search for cognitive justice, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 40:4, 310-327, DOI: 10.1080/02601370.2021.1966109

Ofsted (2022) Education Inspection Framework: Further Education and Skills Handbook Further education and skills handbook - Retrieved 25 July 2022, from Further education and skills handbook - GOV.UK (

Social Mobility Commission (2021) State of the Nation: Social Mobility and the Pandemic State of the Nation 2020-21: Social Mobility in Great Britain Retrieved 25 July 2022, <a href="
" class="redactor-autoparser-object"><...

TES, (2019) No boost to schools in poorer areas from Ofsted changes. (2022). Retrieved 25 July 2022, from

Visvanathan, S. (1997) A carnival for science : essays on science, technology and development. Delhi ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whittaker, F. (2020) ‘Requires Improvement’ Schools Less Likely to Improve Under New Framework Ofsted: 'Requires improvement' schools now less likely to improve (

Zembylas, M. (2017) ‘The quest for cognitive justice: towards a pluriversal human rights education’, Globalisation, societies and education, 15(4), pp. 397–409. doi:10.1080/14767724.2017.1357462.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.