Authentic student leadership initiatives and their impact on educational transformation

Svetlana Radashkevich, Curriculum Leader, Music

Recognition of the importance of the student voice and leadership has recently become a part of important educational discourses known as student voice and leadership for learning.

I agree that educational reform requires significant reconceptualisation of the role of students and learning within an educational institution based on the principles of inclusion and democratic young people-adult partnership. Furthermore, educational transformation implies significant expansion of the concept of learning per se, which is no longer considered to be a property of the student population of the school. According to MacBeath (1998), the entire school is a learning community, where every member has an access to a variety of leadership opportunities and decision-making. From this perspective, the traditional teaching-learning dichotomy based on ‘biosocial gap’ (Brasof, 2015) between adult and young people is the key factor, which undermines and inhibits educational transformation.

According to Brasof (2015), neglecting the significance of student resources and voice as valuable agents of change has a long history, influenced by several cultural myths about young people’s capacities and the objectives of school. One of the most common misconceptions is that students are completely different from teachers as professional adults and they have to be “controlled and taught rather than partaking in more balanced conversations” (Brasof, 2015, p. 32). As a result, students are not considered by adults as partners who are responsible enough to contribute to resolution of important school leadership issues. Furthermore, adults’ assumptions about student inability to take part in the school leadership initiatives results in them being consistently blocked and excluded from important decision-making processes related to so-called serious school issues. Brasof further explains that students are encouraged to hold “leadership positions” on their student councils”, but important decisions about school are made elsewhere” (ibid., p.32).

As a result, schools fail to utilise the student body as important leadership resource and agency for positive change and transformation. Brasof (ibid.) draws our attention to an interesting observation that even the currently very fashionable concept of Professional Learning Communities also demonstrates the negative influence of the so-called ‘biosocial gap’ on teachers’ opinion of student role in school reform.

Recent educational research has recommended a number of structures and practices that could promote student voice in schools, including students participating with teacher in professional development sessions with the purpose to select the most suitable textbooks; heading whole-school assemblies on school culture (Mitra, 2004); participating in student seminars to provide valuable feedback on school policies, taking part in peer discussion to settle peer conflict, partaking in Socratic dialogues; participating in student teacher development programmes by analysing and voicing their views on teaching and learning (Brasof, 2015; Cook-Sather, 2003). These practices can provide a wide range of opportunities for students to participate in various school reform projects taking on diverse leadership roles.

At the same time, Mitra (2009) maintains that promoting youth-adult collaboration is a very challenging task due to existing ‘power and status distinctions in school settings’ which create ‘a dramatic form of asymmetry between youth and adults. These asymmetries are manifested in the institutional norms of deference to adult authority and the separation of adult and youth roles in schools’(pp. 409 ). Similarly, Fielding (2001) argues that very often school leadership initiatives to encourage and promote student voice turn out to be ‘stifling rather than empowering, not only for students, but for their teachers too’ (ibid., pp.123-124). He goes on saying that ‘students views are sought more often and more urgently than ever before, usually via teacher generated questionnaires, increasingly (and ironically) administered by fellow students. What both have in common is fear and the attendant desire to control. Student voice is sought primarily through insistent imperatives of accountability rather than enduring commitments to democratic agency’ (ibid.).

In his often-cited article ‘Students as radical agents of change’ Michael Fielding (2001) presented findings of ‘Students as researchers’ project based on what he defined as ‘a transformative’ and ‘transversal’ approach in which the voices of students, teachers and significant others involved in the
process of education construct ways of working that are emancipatory in both process and outcome’ (ibid., pp. 124 ).

‘Students as researchers’ was ‘a collaborative research and development project between Sharnbrook Upper School & Community College, a Bedfordshire Upper School (High School) serving students between the ages of 13 and 18 … for the period of three years’ (Fielding, 2001, p.124).

The aim of this transformational project was to facilitate authentic student leadership initiatives, in which ‘students themselves identified issues they saw as important in their daily experience of schooling. With the support of staff in facilitating and enabling roles, they gathered data, made meaning together and put forward subsequent recommendations for change shared with their fellow students, with staff and with the governing body of the school’ (ibid., pp. 125). Although this research was not a case study, I believe that the data gathered, led to understanding of important dimensions of the student voice.

The research was carried out by mixed groups consisted of students and members of staff and it was focused on three major topics – ‘student voice, student experience of trainee teachers and the school’s assessment and profiling system’ (Fielding, 2001, pp. 126). Various methods were employed for data collection and analysis, which were presented in the form of report highlighting ‘research intentions, outlining their methodology, presenting their data and its analysis, and offering recommendations for future action’ (ibid.).

Students themselves were made responsible for presenting their reports using various communication platforms, such as ‘parents evenings, governing body meetings, student council meetings, internal TV broadcasts to tutor groups, staff meetings and also to special interest groups who had a particular stake in the area that had been researched’ (ibid.).

The main outcome of the project which was described by Fielding as ‘transformational’ or ‘transversal’, was ‘the emergence of new organisational structures which incorporated students as equal partners in the process of curriculum renewal’ (ibid., p129). Students were able to critically analysea number of important issues, such as use of ‘overdidactic pedagogy’ that denied them an opportunity for a more active learning experiences through implementation of the IT skills (ibid., p. 127).

Furthermore, according to Fielding, students ‘challenged the whole model of curriculum that underpins current thinking and practice in the UK’ (ibid., pp. 127-128). He went on describing how students ‘were arguing for a move away from curriculum as delivery to curriculum as the joint making of meaning’ (ibid.) ‘They wanted the school to integrate their views as learners and provide them with an opportunity to negotiate the school curriculum pedagogy’ (ibid., p.128)

I believe that the key outcome of the research, however, is expressed by the following statement made by one of the research groups: ‘contemporary teacher professionalism needs to incorporate an expectation that teacher learning is both enabled and enhanced by dialogic encounters with their students in which the interdependent nature of teaching and learning and the shared responsibility for its success is made explicit’ (ibid. p. 130). This statement resonates with the key principles of the leadership for learning model, developed by MacBeath (1998) and a group of his colleagues who argue that learning can no longer be considered to be a property of students. Effective or transformational school is a democratic community where every member is a learner. This school is defined by culture, facilitating ‘opportunities for growth, not only for pupils but for teachers and school leaders’ (MacBeath, 1998, p. 143).

Thus, student voice and leadership for learning perspectives have revealed a new important dimension of transformational leadership – continuous and inclusive organisational learning based on principles of democracy and youth-adult partnership.

  • Brasof, M. (2015) Student Voice and School Governance: Distributing Leadership to Youth and Adults. Taylor &Francis Group, London.
  • Fielding, M. (2001) Students as radical agents of change. Journal of Educational Change [online] 2: pp. 123–141. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1017949213447 [Accessed 10 December 2020]
  • MacBeath, J. (ed.) (1998), Effective School Leadership: Responding to Change. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Mitra, D. L. (2009) Collaborating with Students: Building Youth‐Adult Partnerships in Schools. American Journal of Education [online] 115 (3): pp. 407-436. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/597488 JSTOR [Accessed 31 December 2020]