How do the ways student voice is engaged support or diminish student agency?

Dr Jennifer Charteris and Dianne Smardon (University of New England)

Through engaging meaningfully with what children and young people say, partnerships and appreciation of what is important to rangatahi (youth) can develop. However, instrumental conceptions of student voice can lose the potential to promote inclusive classrooms and school cultures that value a consultative approach.

For almost two decades, student voice work has been deployed in educational settings for a range of purposes in the Aotearoa / New Zealand context. For example, student voice has been linked with:

Student ‘choice and voice’ are also aligned with principles of personalised learning and student empowerment.

In our 2016-2017 research, we examined the discourses articulated by 38 school leaders in Aotearoa NZ – the threads of conversation and the language, messages and underlying dynamics within those conversations. Discourses are social practices and ways of talking that influence what people can say, do, and be. They are interesting topics of study because they tell us about ‘what goes on’ in a particular setting – discourses create possibilities for some specific practices, while excluding others. Discourses also construct (and illustrate) power relations through a process of authorising what can and cannot be said and done. Those discourses identified in the research data were drawn from Education literature.

Within NZ school leader discourses, we specifically explored the extent to which school students were ascribed positions as active agents. We were looking for whether student voice, agency and autonomy seemed to be part of ‘what goes on’ in NZ schools. We identified five influential discourses related to schooling – five key topics of recurring conversation among the school leaders:

  • Governmentality – conversations and considerations by those who are ‘in charge’ of education around what they want, expect, provide, require and do;
  • Accountability – conversations and considerations around the provision of observable and/or quantifiable evidence;
  • Student Agency – conversations and considerations around the active positioning of students in schooling partnerships within existing frameworks in schools;
  • Personalising Learning – conversations and considerations around a tailored approach to learning for individual students; and
  • Radical Collegiality – conversations and considerations around locating students authoritatively so they work with teachers to co-produce knowledge and develop initiatives that can influence and change schooling frameworks.

In this blog post, we outline what we found in relation to each of these topics and we describe some of the different representations of student voice that we identified in New Zealand schools.

Discourse of governmentality

Connections have long been drawn between schooling improvement concerns and the use of student voice as a process of control and governance. The governmentality of voice can be both a means to monitor the effectiveness of teaching and a process of supporting student and teacher learning through reflection. Student voice has been used as a mechanism for organisational surveillance – as a triangulation device to check up on classroom teaching practice to indicate if teachers and/or school leaders are ‘measuring up’ or not. Bragg (2007) describes how student voice is used as a governmentality discourse:

The fact that student voice now appears to be fully compatible with government and management objectives and that senior staff are introducing it with the explicit aim of school improvement, causes disquiet, even concerns that it might be cynical and manipulative, intentionally or not masking the ‘‘real’’ interests of those in power. (p. 344)

Governmentality can appear invisible to those in schools who are required to enforce and enact it. Yet it is also highly visible when it is legitimated though the use of data that is aimed to ‘govern’ schools and school systems. Governmentality can also manifest through a linked discourse – ‘accountability’.

Discourse of accountability

Accountability for teachers and school leaders implies working efficiently to provide visible evidence for school and public accountability purposes. Processes of learning and levels of achievement can be made visible for children, teachers, leaders, parents/carers and the community. Accountability is a managerial discourse, where practitioners strive to meet corporate goals that are systematically determined elsewhere. There is a focus on producing ‘evidence’ of quality.

Aside from the production of regulation, compliance and its audit, there is also a nuanced face of accountability in the form of moral and professional accountability to students, community and the public good. However, within accountability discourse, students are positioned as vehicles for quality assurance but not necessarily as participant stakeholders.

Both governmentality and accountability discourses have a specific focus on systemic improvement and this macro focus can prioritised above student, teacher and even leader agency.

Discourse of student agency

Student agency is a where learners are able to make decisions and take action, demonstrating command of personal and social resources. Student agency discourse is contextualised in the New Zealand curriculum key competencies. It can be read as an unproblematic conception of the learner as ‘in control’ of his/her environment and capable of self-determining and self-regulating. The power relations inherent in schools that appear to be about agency can reinforce structural inequities in schooling contexts:

Much of what purports to employ the voices of young people as a form of authentic dialogue is conducted within spaces where the power relationships are significantly distorted in favour of the adult. At worst this contributes to existing technologies of power, at best to paternalism and tokenism. (Groundwater-Smith, 2011, p. 55)

While it appears that students can be agentic in speaking about their experiences, there may be no follow up that includes students. We question whether learner agency is in play if learners are not kept abreast of the ongoing actions that result from their voice work. Without resulting action that is recognisable to learners, the gathering of student voice is tokenistic and does not support learner agency.

Discourse of personalising learning

Personalised learning is where curriculum, teaching and learning activities are tailored to individuals’ needs and interests. As a pedagogical tool, engagement with student voice can support effective teaching and promote personalised learning approaches. However, within a personalised framework, students can be positioned as individual units; competitive and self-interested. This individualism can reflect a contested neoliberal conception of agency as only ‘student ownership’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘individual empowerment’.

Discourse of radical collegiality

First coined by Fielding (1999), the notion of radical collegiality involves educational policies, practices and research that can enable young people to be positioned agentically as action-oriented individuals who can tell their own stories. Students are more than sources of data. They can be co-researchers, engaging in active student–teacher partnerships where there is joint construction of knowledge. Students contribute to school governance and take initiative in the conception and execution of projects within the schools and beyond.

Although ‘radical collegiality’ can also serve neoliberal purposes, with its emphasis on the active, systemic engagement of individuals, participation in governance partnerships may offer opportunities for students to maximise their influence within responsive and reciprocal classroom pedagogy and curriculum design. Within a discourse of radical collegiality, student participation is valued.

Voice to support or diminish student agency?

Our research suggests that despite the plethora of literature that highlights the value of democratic participation in schooling, there remains a strong emphasis on the use of student voice for systemic improvement.

We suggest that there are institutionally focused discourses of

  • governmentality and
  • accountability

and learner oriented discourses of

  • learner agency,
  • personalising learning and
  • radical collegiality.

These discourses all have properties that, in particular contexts, at particular times, serve students, practitioners and communities well. All of these student voice-related discourses offer possibilities for schooling enhancement at the systemic level and are taken up by school leaders (in different ways and sometimes reluctantly) in the interests of improving education provision in schools.

Two discourses that were most common across the interviews were associated with governmentality and accountability. The nature of governance in these relations is not partnership-oriented and students are consulted for improvement, surveillance, and social control purposes. There is also the potential for student voice to alienate students through tokenism that positions them as consumers of education. When students unproblematically report on teaching practices to influence ongoing school reform, they may have little if any influence on their own education.

We urge close attention to the purpose behind student voice work in schools and how it is used. This work can serve to challenge detrimental schooling practices. For instance, the meaningful engagement of Māori students’ voices and those of whānau are important in schooling partnerships where radical collegiality is valued. Here we see the potential for an important element of Māori agency, tino rangatiratanga (self-determination and autonomy). Associated with this agency is whakawhanaungatanga (building respectful relationships) and ako (reciprocal teaching and learning).

It is timely to challenge persistent and well-critiqued approaches to voice that maintain students in power relations where they report on schooling practices but exert limited influence on school decision-making or classroom relations.

The research on which this blog is based is reported in the following three articles:

Charteris, J., & Smardon, D. (2018). The politics of student voice: Unravelling the multiple discourses articulated in schools. Cambridge Journal of Education. Available at

Charteris, J., & Smardon, D. (2018). Assessment and student participation: ‘Choice and voice’ in school principal accounts of schooling territories. Teaching Education.

Charteris, J. & Smardon, D. (2018). ‘Student voice in learning: Instrumentalism and tokenism or opportunity for altering the status and positioning of students?’ Pedagogy, Culture & Society. Available at

JenniferJennifer Charteris is a teacher educator with teaching experience in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. She has worked with students, teachers, principals, school communities and school in-service advisors across the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. Her doctoral research was in the area of learner agency. As an in-service teacher educator with the University of Waikato, Jennifer provided professional learning for principals and teachers that aimed to raise student achievement through targeted assessment for learning and culturally responsive pedagogies. She is currently Senior Lecturer of School Pedagogy at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia.

DianneBased in Hamilton, New Zealand, Dianne Smardon undertakes contract work for the University of New England as a teacher educator and researcher on the Nauru Teacher Education Project. Between 1998 and 2013, she led Assessment and Leadership professional development projects for teachers and school leaders in New Zealand. In researching teacher education in New Zealand and the Pacific, she has contributed to a range of research outputs. She has published research articles on school leadership and systemic improvement though collaborative peer coaching practices.

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