04 SES 13 C, Empowering Student Voices In And Out Of The School Context
Background & Theoretical Frameworks
The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been instrumental in directing the global focus on children and their participatory rights (Balagopalan, 2011). However, it has become increasingly clear that children’s voices are largely missing from ‘international’ documents and research on inclusive education (Messiou, 2019). In India, even though children’s education has drawn powerful government and intellectual attention, the development sector has predominantly marginalised the perspectives and experiences of children (Bowen & Hinchy, 2015). In order to lend focus to Indian children as ‘knowers in their own right’ (Bowen & Hincy, 2015; p. 318), as opposed to Euro- and adult-centric notions, our paper highlights the multiple voices of children from a remote school in Uttarakhand, India as agents of inclusive education. The choice of children from a remote school in Uttarakhand lies in the purpose of bringing to the fore, experiences of children in schools that are largely ignored in the current body of literature on inclusive education. For example, within the Indian context, most inclusive education research studies have focused their attention on urban schools in large metropolitan cities.
Moreover, recent scholarship has demonstrated that the predominant reason why the promotion of inclusive education in the countries of the South have led to disappointing results is because international developmental agencies have failed to sufficiently understand local realities (e.g., Le Fanu, 2013; Kamenopoulou, 2018). Consequently, researchers from the Global South have advocated for decolonising and developing contextually sensitive research on inclusive education (e.g., Kamenopoulou, 2020; Walton, 2018). While it may be easier to disregard countries of the South as they try to overcome seemingly unassailable barriers in achieving access to quality education, it is imperative and useful to learn from their experiences (Ainscow & Sandill, 2010). We are of the opinion that when we value marginalised voices through robust and contextually sensitive studies, we could identify already existing strengths and inform practices for not only ‘resource-poor’ but also ‘resource-rich’ schools and countries.
It is widely known that defining inclusive education is contentious and does not seem to enjoy common ground among researchers (e.g., Ainscow, 2020; Messiou, 2019). However, those familiar with the Capabilities Approach have ascertained that it could potentially offer a mutual understanding of inclusive education as a social justice issue and an ethical concern (e.g., Reindal, 2016). Under the Capabilities Approach, inclusive education is conceptualised as the development of valued capabilities for all children (Reindal, 2010). Individual difference is considered neither a deviance nor something to celebrate; it is simply a specific variable of human diversity with an objective reality (Reindal, 2016). Furthermore, the Capabilities Approach places the child at the centre where they are valued and have agency (Reindal, 2016). Thus making children’s voices and inclusion inseparable concepts. Messiou (2019) refers to the multiplicity of children’s ‘voices’ understood as their thoughts, emotions and actions to bring about change. However, Spyrou (2011) has also warned us about the problem of representing children’s ‘authentic’ voices. Children’s voices occur within specific contexts that require reflexivity and transparency on the part of researchers to ensure rigour and creativity in the research process (Spyrou, 2011). We have thus attempted to incorporate the aforementioned nuances of including and representing children’s voices to contextualise inclusive education.
The research questions that guided our paper are:
- What according to children (11 to 14-year-olds), are the most valued aspects of being in school?
- How does school promote children’s valued aspects of being in school?
- How can children’s educational experiences be enhanced in school?
Our paper is part of an ongoing Doctoral Degree project of the first author. An Ethnographic approach was deemed appropriate to conduct the project. Ethnographic fieldwork usually spans over years in time. However, a Rapid Ethnographic design can enable fieldwork to be done within a short and well-defined timeline (Reeves, Peller, Goldman & Kitto, 2013). In our case, the first author engaged in an intensive 6-week long (i.e. from the end of January 2020 until the first week of March 2020) fieldwork at a remote and rural, government upper-primary (i.e., 6 to 8 grade) school in district Chamoli of the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, in Northern India. The fieldwork had begun around the time that COVID-19 had started spreading globally. By 13 March 2020, all schools in India were closed and the country was under complete lockdown until the end of May 2020. As we write this abstract, schools in Uttarakhand continue to remain closed. Originally, the study was multi-sited involving two remote schools where fieldwork had been planned for a duration of around four months. The first author had to significantly alter this research plan owing to difficulties resulting from the pandemic. We found that a carefully planned research design helped the first author engage in a successful short-term fieldwork despite facing diverse challenges before and during the pandemic. The participants of our study included five girls and five boys who were purposively selected as co-researchers. These children, as co-researchers, engaged in a series of group-based workshops with the first author. The workshops involved a combination of diverse activities such as, drawing, group-discussions, and Photovoice methods. A guide had been prepared prior to entering the field to direct the various workshops with the children owing to the limited time available. A set of pre-determined prompts and a schedule of semi-structured questions to co-analyse (with the children) had also been designed. Additionally, the first author engaged in observations at the school and had numerous informal conversations with the children. All the workshops with the children were audio and video recorded. Importantly, the first author also maintained a reflexive field journal. For the analysis and interpretation of the qualitative ethnographic data, LeCompte and Schensul’s (2013) Recursive Analysis is being adapted and applied.
Although the analysis and consolidation of 'data' from the rapid ethnographic fieldwork at a remote upper-primary school in Uttarakhand, India is ongoing, we have gathered rich narratives of children’s experiences of being in school. Our preliminary findings show that children meaningfully engage with diverse methods to express their thoughts, emotions and actions. Children as co-researchers narrated aspects of their daily routine that included coming to school and engaging in forms of play and work within the context of their village environment. Children were able to identify and problematize marginalising issues concerning their age, gender, caste, and family situations among others. The participant children also talked about what they each enjoyed learning, how they preferred to learn, and what motivated them to do well in school. Children were further able to elucidate on their idea of a ‘perfect’ school, where they saw and experienced diversity, and how school helped them in realising their aspirations. We ascertain that by understanding what children value about being in school and the kind of change they would like to see, their educational experiences could be enhanced through the facilitation of contextually meaningful changes to the ways their school functions. Thereby, creating and encouraging plural understandings of how inclusive education could look like and work in different contexts. More importantly, we hope that our study will be able to further the notions of children’s agency and knowledge, that their diverse voices are essential towards transforming schools into becoming more inclusive.
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