A Positive Education school is a fair school

Dr. Georgie Cameron

Womens Day New 900 x 450

Thursday the 8th of March marks International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate and commemorate the women’s rights movement. It is a time for reflecting on and acknowledging the work of many individuals in their fight for equality across the sexes.  As we consider current news items like the Me Too movement and the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinta Ardern announcing her pregnancy, we can see women’s rights and equity continue to have relevance and gravitas for how we live our lives today. 

Our sense of fairness has a direct impact on our wellbeing. Neuroscience studies have shown that when people observe other people acting unfairly pain centres in their brains light up (Singer, et al, 2006).  So when we watch someone cut in front of us in the supermarket line, the pang of negative emotion you might feel is socially and biologically driven.   Conversely, perceptions of others acting in a fair way activate reward pathways in the brain (Tabibnia, Satpute & Lieberman, 2008).  When we see a commuter give up their seat on the train for an elderly person, we might have pleasant feelings associated with surges in neurotransmitters like serotonin. 

Indeed, there is evidence to suggest the link between perceptions of fairness and negative emotions has an evolutionary history. In his TED Talk Moral Behavior in Animals Professor Frans de Waal describes a famous experiment where they sat two Capuchin monkeys side-by-side and gave both monkeys cucumbers for completing a series of tasks. They then introduced grapes (a superior food for Capuchin monkeys) to one monkey and continued to give cucumber to the other – in this way the monkeys were receiving unequal pay for the same tasks.  Watching this excerpt from the talk best describes the frustration the Capuchin monkey feels about unequal pay. Studies like this have confirmed the important role that fairness plays in an animal’s survival, adaptation and ability to work cooperatively in a group.  


A culture of fairness and workplace wellbeing

Issues of equality and fairness relate directly to what it means to be a Positive Education school.  A meta-analysis of over 80 studies investigating the effects of perceived injustice on employee health found that mental health symptoms, burnout, stress and negative states were significantly associated with perceived injustice in the workplace (Robbins, Ford & Tetrick, 2012).  Researchers have looked at different types of injustice. Distributive injustice refers to the perceived fairness of outcomes, for example, equity of pay and employment conditions. Yet even when outcomes are just, for example, employees receive fair amounts of pay, the methods which led to this outcome may be unjust, i.e., pay scales are decided on by one person’s judgement and reflect personal biases.   This type of injustice is called procedural injustice and refers to the formal processes and policies that are used to make decisions about outcomes.  Related to this type is interactional injustice, when employees feel mistreated in their interactions with the organisation, for example, there is a lack of transparency between managers and employees.  In addition to these types of injustice, there are perceived psychological contract breaches which refer to the sense of reciprocity felt between an employee and their organisation. A psychological contract breach might occur when an employee feels like they have given a great deal of their time, energy and passion to an organisation, yet not received adequate benefits in return.  Benefits are not restricted to financial returns, rather benefits are broad and could include workplace culture, recognition and opportunity for advancement. In Robbins and colleagues’ (2012) meta-analysis all types of injustice predicted negative health outcomes described above – yet it was psychological contract breaches which tended to show the most significant effects. Simply put, if a person feels like the organisation is taking more from them giving back they are at-risk of feeling stressed and disillusioned. 

A recent TED talk by Marco Alverà, The surprising ingredient that makes businesses work better emphasises how unfairness not only feels bad, but is also bad for business.  His message is that when employees work in a culture of fairness, they are more satisfied at work and achieve better results. When a school has a culture of fairness, staff are likely to give more, feel less stress and enjoy their job more, and these effects will flow on to students’ learning and wellbeing.  Yet just like other aspects of Positive Education, a culture of fairness needs continual tending. 


Geelong Grammar School research into fairness and Positive Education

Despite significant investments in and commitment to Positive Education, Geelong Grammar School continues to learn and grow in this all aspects of its delivery. In our research with staff at Geelong Grammar School we have found that perceived unfairness in the organisation can act as a significant barrier to engagement with Positive Education and conversely perceptions of the organisation’s virtuousness relate to workplace happiness (see here for details). 
An exploratory study led by Masters’ student Elizabeth Clancy asked 21 teaching and non-teaching staff to share their views on drivers and barriers to engagement with Positive Education across the whole school. Three themes characterised participants’ responses to engagement barriers: demands of work exceeding their personal resources, inconsistent commitment to Positive Education from leadership and unfairness in accessing opportunities. All three themes relate to the different types of injustice described above.  Participant responses to what increased their engagement were grouped into three themes: feeling a sense of competence, strong relationships and autonomy to make decisions.   This study reveals the importance of continuing to monitor and embed fairness across the organisation
A larger longitudinal study led by Paige Williams (PhD) of 432 teaching and no-teaching staff tracked positive psychological capital (hope, optimism, resilience and efficacy), perception of virtues in the organisation culture (forgiveness, optimism, trust, integrity and compassion) and work happiness (job satisfaction, work engagement and organizational commitment) over a 15 month period.  The research found that both psychological capital and organisational virtuousness predicted work happiness over time.  These findings suggest schools need to focus efforts on developing both bottom-up pathways (e.g. training to develop staff psychological capital) and top-down pathways (e.g. developing a positive culture) to support employee wellbeing (Williams, Kern & Waters, 2015). 


How can schools best support fairness?

Research into factors associated with fair organisations have tended to focus on Organisational Citizenship Behaviour which relates to the sportsmanship, civic virtue, altruism, conscientiousness and courtesy of employees in an organisation (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001).  In a review of Organisational Citizenship Behaviour researchers found a number of facilitating factors which include: providing feedback on tasks, collaborating to set intrinsically rewarding tasks, strong connectedness across whole staff group, transformational versus transactional leadership behaviours (e.g. articulating vision, high expectations, collective goal setting) and supportive leadership behaviour (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Paine & Bachrach, 2000). 

When thinking about the Learn, Live, Teach, Embed applied framework for implementing Positive Education, fairness across the organisation relates to all these processes, yet relates most strongly to the Embed (policies, processes and practices) and Live processes (authenticity and consistency of messages). 

A first step for any school wanting to address issues of fairness might be to become attuned to the different types of injustice discussed above. Applying a critical lens to the way in which staff and students are treated is by no means a simple matter.  Enhancing fairness requires courage to delve into the specific reasons for why things work a certain way. Such questions can sometimes elicit defensive reactions which inhibit constructive discussion.  Framing questions of fairness as part of a whole-school approach to wellbeing can be useful here. As we have already discussed, unfairness has a significant impact on individual’s wellbeing. When making decisions about how to prioritise resources and make cost-effective decisions about Positive Education efforts and implementation plans, research suggests that efforts to increase fairness are likely to have strong and lasting effects on staff and student wellbeing.  

Alongside a review of what is not working, it is important to seek out what is facilitating a culture of fairness. A school might be to consider what strengths they already have in Organisational Citizenship Behaviours, for example, when are staff most likely to display genuine care for the community? What is happening at these times?   As we strive for fairness it is important to remember that nothing happens overnight and by a sole individual.  As one leader of the Suffragette movement, Alice Paul, put it, "I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end."



Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P. E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 86(2), 278-321.
Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Paine, J. B., & Bachrach, D. G. (2000). Organizational citizenship behaviors: A critical review of the theoretical and empirical literature and suggestions for future research. Journal of management, 26(3), 513-563. 
Robbins, J. M., Ford, M. T., & Tetrick, L. E. (2012). Perceived unfairness and employee health: A meta-analytic integration. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), 235. 
Singer, T., Seymour, B., O'doherty, J. P., Stephan, K. E., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439(7075), 466.
Tabibnia, G., Satpute, A. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2008). The sunny side of fairness: preference for fairness activates reward circuitry (and disregarding unfairness activates self-control circuitry). Psychological Science, 19(4), 339-347.
Williams, P., Kern, M., Waters, L. (2015). Happiness at Work: A longitudinal examination of the association between psychological capital, perceptions of organizational virtuousness and employee happiness in school staff, The Psychology of Wellbeing, 5:5.