25 SES 16, Students' Views on Their Voice and Participation in Education
Despite extensive political, organisational and pedagogical posturing that occurs in the name of student wellbeing, educational enhancement and child safety, many educational institutions are yet to appreciate and consequently continue to ignore, a fundamental informant that can assure progress, the voice of the child. Why? Perhaps it is because, at its core, the institution that is school remains as it did 150 years ago; a top-down, hierarchy where the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless can still prevail. Both historical and contemporary issues that cause community concern, child abuse, bullying, radicalisation, behavioural disruption all reflect an imbalance of power between the protagonists that has persisted for decades. Respect for the student’s perspective was advocated by John Dewey as long ago as 1910 yet continues to elude in schools that position the child as unreliable, vulnerable and at-risk. The construction of an educational environment that supports child wellbeing and results in a felt-sense of wellbeing by children can only be achieved through recognition of each school member’s capacity to contribute to education.
Initiatives that listen to children’s voices have recently gathered considerable momentum (Ben-Arieh et al. 2001; Clark & Moss, 2001; Murray & Harrison, 2005; Wyness & Lang, 2016; Palaiologou, 2017) and provide significant evidence of the child’s capacity to offer credible contributions to knowledge. Such works are often underpinned by an interpretation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (United Nations, 1989) that mandates the child’s active participation in matters affecting them. Many studies assert that not only can children put forward their views and represent their interests, but that children also hold an expectation that they should be listened to and respected (Adams, 2012; Anderson & Graham, 2016; Gillett-Swan, 2013, 2014, 2017; Simmons, Graham & Thomas, 2016). Several child-focused initiatives that reflect the principles of Voice-Inclusive Practice (VIP)(Sargeant & Gillett-Swan 2017b) position children at the centre of inquiry where decision-making processes are informed by an ongoing and open dialogue with children on matters affecting them (Sargeant, 2017).
Within education, a key objective of VIP is to authentically seek children’s perspectives and include these perspectives in pedagogical and wellbeing decision making. While several studies have begun to explore and affirm the central need to understand children’s views about wellbeing (Adams, 2012; Anderson & Graham, 2016; Fattore, Mason, Watson, 2007, 2017; Gillett-Swan, 2014, 2017; Gillett-Swan & Sargeant, 2016, 2017; Mashford-Scott, Church & Tayler, 2012; Redmond et. al., 2016; Simmons, Graham & Thomas, 2016; Wyness & Lang, 2016), still, little is known about how children and young people view the wellbeing support promoted in schools, and how children’s own accounts might contribute to the debates, decision making, and processes of school improvement (Fattore, Mason, & Watson, 2017; Anderson & Graham, 2016).
Research in the area of student voice, generally focuses on what students have to say about their experiences at school with a view to enhanced learning experiences, higher attainment levels, improved engagement, and better relationships (Fielding, 2011; Mitra, 2014; Rudduck & Fielding, 2006; Wyness & Lang, 2016), and therefore improved wellbeing. Eliciting student voice is premised on the belief that children’s perspectives on teaching, learning and school are unique and deserving of adult attention and response, including opportunities to directly impact educational processes (Cook-Sather, 2006). However, this standpoint is not universal and challenges some fundamental assumptions of educational philosophy, policy, and practice that marginalise children’s voices in schools. This paper highlights the validity of the child’s perspective in informing educational provision as evidenced by the insights revealed in a project conducted with children that explored their perspectives on wellbeing as relevant to their school context.
Through the application of Voice Inclusive Practice [VIP] (Sargeant & Gillett-Swan 2015), sixty-one primary school children aged between 8 and 12 years old provided their perspectives on the conditions, experiences and challenges of life at school through a wellbeing lens. The project sought to reveal, in the children's own words, a conceptualisation of wellbeing as relevant to their school experience underpinned by the core research question: "What key factors do tweens view as affecting their wellbeing?". Participating children were offered multiple opportunities to raise and share their perspectives on wellbeing through small focus group sessions, open-ended questionnaires and sharing activities. The project was underpinned by the view that children are inherently capable of having meaningful conversations on matters that affect their lives (Clark & Moss, 2001; Cook-Sather, 2006; Gillett-Swan, 2013; 2014, 2017; Gillett-Swan & Sargeant, 2016, 2017; Kellett, 2010; Sargeant, 2014; Sargeant & Gillett-Swan, 2015) and aligns with the participatory mandates of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989). The theoretical framework employed in this project sought to embody and recognise the unique contributions children make when consulted directly via a child-centred participatory action research model (Sargeant & Harcourt, 2012). Participating children in year levels 4, 5 and 6 were involved in five focus group sessions of 30-45 minutes each, that were facilitated by the researchers. The project was conducted in two phases that progressed from a researcher directed initiating phase to a child led project phase where self-selected inquiry groups of participant children chose a key area of wellbeing for focused, targeted inquiry. The researchers adopted a facilitatory role to allow as much of the process as possible to be student led. Phase 1 required a high level of directed consultation with the children to establish the process for subsequent workshops. During Phase 1, the researchers facilitated a range of activities to assist the students in recording their concepts and definitions of wellbeing. Phase 2 utilised child-centred participatory action research methodologies to enable the children to generate their own research agenda, conduct their own inquiry, and situate possible strategies to support wellbeing in their school community. By transitioning from a traditional, researcher-led process towards the child-directed activity, the wide range of perspectives added to the richness of available data for analysis. Each of the sessions were conducted and arranged in consultation with the schools to fit in with the school and student schedules.
Overall the students conveyed a sense that their schools were effectively catering for their wellbeing. Some children chose to incorporate multiple aspects from their thematic analysis, while other children chose to focus on a single aspect. The students' ideas reflected a strong level of connection with the school as an institution in that they were predominantly community focussed with a social justice orientation. That is, the children focused on wellbeing issues that they felt were relevant to the school community more widely, than investigating things that may serve a more direct personal benefit to them. Focus topics included; *making everyone happy at school, *friendship, *health, *behaviour, *having a peaceful school, *hospitality at school, *school safety, *school cleanliness, *use of school spaces, *whether sadness is a problem at school, *how students want to be treated when they feel different emotions, *how students work best, and *the quality of relationships at school. From these focused investigations, the key themes of space, place, relationships, and the socio-emotional aspects of wellbeing emerged. While the initial focus of the study was to identify, through the child's lens, the key aspects that challenge and support wellbeing at school, an additional and key outcome of the study was the emergence of direct appeals from the children to have their ideas taken seriously by the school community. In doing so, the children effectively demonstrated their capacity to think about and investigate a complex issue such as wellbeing, while also advocating for the inclusion of student voice in school decision-making processes. By pursuing the hope that someone might listen to their ideas, the students' focus was more on the awareness raising of the issues rather than simply seeking a means to an end.
Anderson, D. L., & Graham, A. P. (2016). Improving student wellbeing: having a say at school. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 27(3), 348-366. Ben-Arieh, A. (2001). Measuring and monitoring children's well-being (Vol. 7). Netherlands: Springer. Clark, A., & Moss, P. (2011). Listening to Young Children: The Mosaic approach. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Cook-Sather, A. (2006). Sound, presence, and power: "Student voice" in educational research and reform. Curriculum Inquiry, 36(4), 359-390. Fattore, T. Mason, J. & Watson, E. (2009) When Children are Asked About Their Wellbeing: Towards a Framework for Guiding Policy. Child Indicators Research, 2(1), 57-77. Fattore, T., Mason, J., & Watson, E. (2017). Children's Understandings of Well-being (Vol.14). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. Fielding, M. (2011). Patterns of Partnership: Student Voice, Intergenerational Learning and Democratic Fellowship. In N. Mockler & J. Sachs (Eds.), Rethinking Educational Practice Through Reflexive Inquiry (pp. 61-75). Springer Netherlands. Gillett-Swan, J. K. (2017). Children's analysis processes when analysing qualitative research data: a missing piece to the qualitative research puzzle, Qualitative Research. Gillett-Swan, J., & Sargeant, J. (2015). Wellbeing as a Process of Accrual: Beyond Subjectivity and Beyond the Moment. Social Indicators Research, 121(1), 135-148. Gillett-Swan, J., & Sargeant, J. (2017a). Beyond the project: Recognising children's commitment to research as subjects and participants. Connect: Supporting Student Participation, (224-225), 21-22. La Placa, V., McNaught, A., & Knight, A. (2013). Discourse on wellbeing in research and practice. International Journal of Wellbeing, 3(1), 116-125. Pascal, C., & Bertram, T. (2009). Listening to young citizens: The struggle to make real a participatory paradigm in research with young children. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 17(2), 249-262. Pollard, E.L., & Lee, P.D. (2003). Child well-being: A systematic review of the literature. Social Indicators Research 61: 59-78. Sargeant, J., & Harcourt, D. (2012). Doing Ethical Research with Children. Open University Press: Maiden- head, Berkshire. Simmons, C., Graham, A., & Thomas, N. (2015). Imagining an ideal school for wellbeing: Locating student voice. Journal of Educational Change, 16(2): 129-144. Tisdall, K., & Elsley, S. (2014). Children and young people's participation in policy-making: sharing practice. http://hdl.handle.net/1842/20974 Tisdall, E. K. M. (2015a). Children's Rights and Children's Wellbeing: Equivalent Policy Concepts? Journal of Social Policy, 44(4), 807-823. Wyness, M., & Lang, P. (2016). The social and emotional dimensions of schooling: A case study in challenging the "barriers to learning." British Educational Research Journal, 42.
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