Students voices matter

Curriculum, Engagement, School Community

Why Student Voice Matters

The reinvention of power in a participative democracy

Why should we be concerned about student voice? In an introduction to one of Paulo Freire’s later works, Henry Giroux argued that “all human beings perform as intellectuals by constantly interpreting and giving meaning to the world.”1 In his own conclusion to the same publication, Freire maintained that in seeking to transform society in the interests of a more habitable, democratic and liberated world, the task ahead is “not to take power but to reinvent power.”2

Young people in schools are indeed intelligent beings who live their lives in these often highly regulated spaces and constantly interpret and give meaning to their lives, but whose interpretation and meaning-making is often marginalized at best and even frequently ignored. For many it is the case that they can neither take nor make power in any reinvented form.

Pessimistic as these words may seem, there is clearly change afoot. First of all, the rights of young people to be heard and for their voices to be listened to in the context of schooling and research in education now has a host of advocates, such as the late Jean Rudduck and Michael Fielding. This wave of interest, policy and activity finds its motivation in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention is comprehensive and entitles children to a broad range of rights, including the right to have their best interests treated as a primary consideration in all actions concerning them, including decisions related to their care and protection (such as their education). In particular, Article 12 states that children have the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them, and to have their views taken seriously.

One outcome of the widespread ratification of the Convention has been that the perception of autonomy and participation rights for children has become the new norm.3 Even so, perception is one thing, actualization is another. Participation, that is the exercise of authentic agency, must address matters of power.

Power over others is never equal, even among young people themselves. However, power in schools and school systems is increasingly centralised, governed by rules and regulations as part of a competitive global scenario over which students have no control. As Taylor and Robinson have observed, there is “an uncritical view of the entrenched, hierarchical power relations in schools,”4 with the result that student voice activities are often little more than tokenistic interventions serving established power. Typically, student representative groups are enabled to run charity events or social occasions such as school assemblies, rather than have an input into the ways in which teaching and learning are conducted. There is an unfortunate tendency to reduce concepts of “voice” to nominal engagement that co-opts student voice to legitimate the entrenched interests that inform the design and enactment of schooling practices.5

There is also a growing acknowledgement that young people in schools are the “consequential stakeholders” who bear the brunt of decisions made on their behalf and thus should be participative in making those decisions. However, many of the arguments are of an instrumental kind, seeking to “improve” student learning outcomes within the existing frameworks of practice. There is an emphasis upon responsibility, accountability and a sense of autonomy, but little space granted to allow for the possibility of questioning the curriculum or the organization of schooling itself. As Prout has recognized, “Listening to children’s voices has become so ubiquitous that is has become part of the ‘rhetorical orthodoxy’.”6

The slow take-up

What is it, then, about the nature of schooling that mitigates against the possibility of a re-imagined place for young people’s learning? Is it that having evolved thus far, the bones and form of the classroom are now given? In 1969 Edward Blishen launched The School I’d Like, a book based upon the huge range of entries to The Observer newspaper’s invitation the previous year for young people to submit their thoughts in a variety of media regarding the school that they would like, but which revealed most insistently what they did not like. The exercise was repeated in 2001 and again in 2011 by The Guardian. Burke and Grosvenor reviewed the collection and reported that the students’ views reflected the most human of needs related to the social and environmental contexts for learning, rather than what is to be learned. Children perceived that they were confronted by “a closed social order.”[7] So what are the factors that constrain an engagement with student voice that is of an authentically satisfying and transforming kind?

Of the many elements and dynamics that inhibit change, there are several key factors:

  • the lack of a public discourse on Children’s Rights to which children themselves have access
  • the fact that children and young people are generally only informed of their rights under exceptional circumstances; it could be argued that it pays to keep them in the dark
  • the fact that students from disadvantaged and challenging backgrounds (lower socio-economic status, students of colour, young people with a disability that may inhibit their engagement) have fewer opportunities and often insufficient social capital to discuss and engage in the civic learning that would enable them to be more participative in school-based decision-making
  • the denial of the legitimacy of student perspectives whereby their claims and perceptions are rarely taken into account, and often dismissed as little more than fantasies
  • the dominance of accountability practices that leave teachers tethered to reductive numeric measures of student performance, leaving little time for dialogue and debate.

Certainly these variables are significant, but do they constitute a complete paralysis? The burgeoning of literature on student voice advocacy and research, including young people being engaged in participatory research, argues that there is some movement of a positive kind.

What is to be done?

So, what is to be done? Is it possible to identify modest but compelling examples that demonstrate the potency of reinventing power in the relations between young people in schools and those who teach them?

A recent international conference held in Cambridge, U.K., part of a series held in honour of the contribution of the late Professor Jean Rudduck, demonstrated the extent to which a range of schools and academic communities have engaged with the notion of student voice in both celebratory and critical fashions. Sessions focused on areas such as the co-creation of learning and teaching; the ethical implications of eliciting young peoples’ voices; an exploration of conceptual and empirical ambiguities; emotional and empathic understandings; and consulting young people in the context of cultural institutions.

A notable feature of the conference was the participation of teachers and students from a range of settings well beyond the academic community, demonstrating the power of voice when groups that are normally excluded from established structures are enabled to take and express a stance both controversial and confronting. For example, Norwegian students discussed the capacity of Norway’s School Student Union, a national organization for students 13 to 18, reporting that Union members were able to attend meetings with senior policy figures such as Ministry officials to discuss issues of relevance to them.

Encouraging consultation with and participation of children and young people as a means of commenting on their circumstances has become, in some cases, the province of employing authorities themselves. For example in Ontario, student voice has been nominated as a tool to be employed in school improvement.8 Through a pedagogy of listening and inquiry, it is argued that a responsive learning environment may be co-created. A framework was constructed to develop student voice work progressing from expression, to consultation, to participation, to partnership and to, at the apex, shared leadership, where students are seen as “co-leaders of learning and accept mutual responsibility for planning, assessment of learning and responsive actions.”9 While the document aims to improve rather than critique, nonetheless it provides an example of an authority taking a positive stance in relation to interacting with young people within a framework that would permit their voices to be heard.

While there are many studies that relate to issues affecting children, there are few that directly present the young person’s point of view. In one of them, Sargent and Gillett Swan10 posed open-ended questions to participants from a range of primary and secondary schools in Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Italy and England (mean age 11). Among them were two that they perceived to be of particular interest: “What is the question that you have for adults?” and “What is the one thing that you would like adults to learn?” Page after page of responses expressed the dissatisfaction and frustration that the young people felt:

They (adults) tell you to do stuff because they feel that’s the right way, but they never actually ask you what you think is the right way.

“The one thing that I’d like adults to know is that us children can have our own opinions and we can do things on our own but we also need a lot of help so they should support us and not make us feel small.”

”There are things that they (adults) don’t think about, coz if we do something that they tell us to do, it might affect us later in ways they don’t know and they can’t help.

There are also examples of more extended engagement with student voice to be found. In a four-year longitudinal study, conducted by Mayes11 in one of Sydney’s most challenging secondary schools, a cohort of young adolescents acted as co-researchers, investigating a series of matters, year by year. The four research areas were: The school I’d like; The teaching I’d like; The learner I would like to be; What I would like to learn.

The study was groundbreaking in its length, scope and the extent of risk-taking on the part of both the young people, as apprentice researchers, and their teachers. It is particularly noteworthy because it engaged a cohort of young people as a community in liaison with their teachers, rather than as individuals endowed with agency. Currently, there is a problematic neo-liberal ensnaring of the notion of “agency” that frames that attribute as a property of the individual, with the implication that teachers can gift agency to their students as a form of individual empowerment. Under the aegis of neo-liberalism, education becomes a commodity that benefits individuals, with little consideration for the communal and public good. In contrast, the Mayes study captured the collective of voices, rather than those of privileged individuals. In effect, it was created to permit those with the least power to speak.

Fostering student voice in schools will remain a challenge in relation to matters of power and agency. In his concluding essay published in the book cited in the introduction to this piece, Freire argues that a profound transformation of education can only take place when society itself is transformed. This can be achieved, not just by revolution, but by a series of smaller steps, one of the first being a recognition that education is both a political enterprise and a moral project. Throughout this article I have argued that education cannot be thought of as independent from the power that constitutes it, but it can be acknowledged as a springboard that allows all who participate in it to be recognized as functioning members of that power base. Reinventing education through the participation of those it most affects may take time, but measure for measure is an investment without parallel.


En Bref: Dans cet article, Susan Groundwater-Smith se penche sur le potentiel qu’ont les voix des élèves de réinventer la nature du pouvoir en classe. De nombreux obstacles se dressent sur la voie d’une nouvelle façon d’imaginer l’école en tenant compte des perspectives des enfants et des jeunes qui en sont les parties prenantes corrélatives, en tenant compte d’aspects tels que l’accès et la légitimité. L’auteure présente néanmoins plusieurs cas où les élèves ont non seulement été consultés au sujet de questions scolaires, mais ont également participé à la recherche et à l’élaboration de politiques. S’appuyant sur le cadre de la Convention de l’ONU sur les droits de l’enfant, elle soutient qu’il n’est pas que pragmatique d’encourager la voix étudiante en éducation, c’est aussi – et surtout – un projet moral.

Photo: Dean Mitchell (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, December 2016

1 H. Giroux in P. Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, power and liberation (Hampshire: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1985), p. xxiii.

2 Freire, p. 179.

3 D. Reynaert, M. Bourverne-de Bie and S. Vandevelde, “A Review of Children’s Rights Literature since the Adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Childhood 16, no.4 (2009): 518–534.

4 C. Taylor and C. Robinson, “Student Voice: Theorising power and participation,” Pedagogy, Culture and Society 17, no.2 (2009): 166.

5 N. Mockler and S. Groundwater-Smith, Engaging with Student Voice in Research, Education and the Community: Beyond legitimation and guardianship (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015).

6 A. Prout, “Participation, Policy and the Changing Conditions of Childhood. In Hearing the Voices of Children: Social policy for a new century, eds. C. Hallett and A. Prout (London: Routledge Falmer, 2003), p. 11.

7 C. Burke and I. Grosvenor, The School I’d Like Revisited (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 96.

8 Student Achievement Division, “Transforming Relationships,” Capacity Building Series (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013).

9 Student Achievement Division, “Transforming Relationships,” p. 8.

10 J. Sargeant and J. Gillet-Swan, “Empowering the Disempowered through Voice Inclusive Practice: Children’s views on adult-centric educational provision,” European Educational Research Journal 14, No. 2 (2015): 177–191.

11 E. Mayes, “Students Researching Teachers’ Practices: Lines of flight and temporary assemblage conversions in and through a students as co-researchers event (paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education, Adelaide, December 2013).

Meet the Expert(s)

Susan Groundwater-Smith

Susan Groundwater-Smith

Susan Groundwater-Smith is an Honorary Professor attached to the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has written widely regarding participatory research with children and young people, both in terms of how it might be accomplished and the cautions that are required. In recent years she has explored the perceptions of children and young people regarding key education provisions that have assisted in informing policy.

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