Student voice: patterns of partnership and the demands of deep democracy

At the College of Teachers’ annual Awards Ceremony on 16 May 2012, Professor Michael Fielding delivered The College of Teachers’ Biennial Lecture, “Student Voice: patterns of partnership and the demands of deep democracy”, in which he discussed the development of the range of student voice work in many countries across the world in the last two decades.

Listening to the voices of young people is now actively advocated by government departments in the context of formal education and also within the framework of childhood services. Professor Fielding considers the very different readings of what student voice is, why it has flourished as it has, what its strengths and weakness are, and what its future prospects might be.
In this article based on the lecture Professor Fielding highlights four clusters of issues that seem particularly significant.

1. Taking stock of Student Voice

Celebrating Student Voice

Because in large part my lecture is a celebration of student voice, it is important to begin by acknowledging that the range of work that has developed in many countries across the world in the last two decades has been quite remarkable. Thus we have:

Peer support – i.e. activities that suggest that young people benefit, both socially and academically, from listening to each other’s voices whether individually, e.g. buddying, coaching, mentoring and peer teaching, or more collectively, e.g. prefects, student leaders and class and school councils and circle time.

Student / teacher learning partnerships - in which students are given responsibility for working alongside teachers and other adults in a developmental capacity e.g. student-led learning walks, students as co-researchers and lead researchers, Students as Learning Partners (where teachers invite students to observe their teaching), student ambassadors, and student lead learners. Not only does much of this flourish at institutional level, it is also possible for individual teachers to undertake a wide range of student voice work within their own classrooms through an increasingly imaginative range of practices supplementing the more familiar observation, video-recording, questionnaires, focus groups, interviews and diaries with such things as collage, drawings, learning logs and scrap-books, drama and role play, and suggestion boxes. Indeed, for writers like Jean Rudduck and Donald McIntyre the classroom is the most important arena for student voice work since, in their view, it is the classroom that constitutes the dominant daily context and most important site of the realisation of the school’s core purpose, namely teaching and learning.

Student evaluation of staff / the school - activities in which students express their views on a range of matters, sometimes after collecting and interpreting data, either on individual members of staff, school teams or departments, the school as a learning community e.g. students as observers, students as informants in teacher consultation about effective teaching and learning, students on staff appointment panels, students as associate governors, student focus groups and surveys, students as key informants in the processes of external inspection and accountability, and junior leadership teams.

Student engagement with the community – often through student-led initiatives like student action teams addressing issues such as environmental health, road safety or the development of mutual understanding and support between generations. Likewise youth councils and fledgling attempts to involve whole towns in student-oriented initiatives such as the UNICEF RRR (Rights Respect Responsibility) programme.

Listening to the voices of young people, including very young children, is now something that is not merely espoused, but actively advocated, by government departments and their satellite organisations, both in the context of formal education and also within an increasingly integrated multi-professional framework of childhood services. There has also been very substantial grass-roots interest in student voice from teachers, from young people themselves and from university researchers. That said, there are, of course, very different readings of what student voice is, why it has flourished in the way it has, what its strengths and weakness are, and what its future prospects might be.

Emerging Issues

In the course of this lecture I will highlight four clusters of issues that seem to me particularly significant at this time. One of the most important points to absences, such as the voices of those deemed less successful or less important in school and society. We need to ask ourselves whose voices are heard and why and reflect on the nature and extent of the silences that so often go unnoticed and unrecorded.

Secondly, a very important strand of the literature argues for the entitlement of rights-based approaches rather than the condescending uncertainties of patronage and circumstantial good will.

Thirdly, a number of writers are concerned to expose exuberant claims of participation as little more than glossy enticement into the Scylla of performativity and the Charybdis of perpetual consumption. Here the concern is that student voice becomes a tool of management aping the practices of quality assurance, sometimes (though thankfully rarely) through covert observation and rating of teachers. Even in less pernicious variants there are real dangers of an unwitting descent to superficial responses to poorly constructed questionnaires and the predictable reproduction of standard notions of good teaching and learning that migrate too readily into various forms of box-ticking and professional dereliction.

Lastly, even when these dangers are overtly avoided, there remain significant tensions for many teachers, in particular, lack of institutional support, and unremitting pressures of curriculum coverage and exam performance. There are also deeper issues that remain largely unaddressed e.g. whether the driving force is an expression of consumerist ideology or democratic agency and the companion challenge of clarifying the appropriate relationship between professional expertise of teachers and the integrity and validity of learner-oriented approaches to education in both its more restricted and more expansive senses.

What these emerging concerns point to is a series of underlying questions, not just about the successes and difficulties of student voice in the second decade of the 21st century, but also about fundamental purposes e.g. What is all this activity for? Whose interests does it serve? Is student voice a neutral technology or an inevitable expression of a set of values and assumptions, not just about teaching and learning, but about the kind of society we wish to live in? My own view is that student voice is inevitably and properly saturated by values: it cannot be neutral and to suggest otherwise is either a profound mistake or a convenient subterfuge.

2.  Patterns of partnership: how adults listen to and learn with students in schools

Purposes, power and relationships

In a moment I will illustrate the inevitable partiality of student voice, both in action and conception, but before I do I want to touch on the key issue of power which will enable us to move beyond the excitement of multiple examples and establish a clearer view of the nature of student voice work being undertaken. Perhaps the best known of the typologies that help us to differentiate in a searching and discriminating way are from the field of youth participation e.g. Roger Hart’s ‘ladder of participation’ (Hart, 1992) and the equally interesting and useful, but less well-known ‘pathways to participation’ developed by Harry Shier (Shier, 2001). My own typology – ‘patterns of partnership’ – owes a considerable debt to both of these leading pioneers. However, it differs in a number of important respects. Firstly, whilst it offers a framework that has generic significance across contexts and professions, it is also one which draws distinctions about different ways in which young people and adults work together that pay particular attention to the complexities and specificities of school-based environments.

Secondly, I have become increasingly convinced of the need to name and explore participatory democracy as a legitimate and increasingly urgent aspiration, not only in society at large, but in schools themselves. Of course, many will disagree with this, but my hope is that some at least will not only warm to the naming of democracy as a legitimate aspiration to be overtly addressed on a day-to-day basis in the processes and culture of the school, but also welcome the incremental possibilities that my typology supports and encourages.

Thirdly, and as a consequence of the particular view of democracy for which I am arguing, I wish to go beyond Hart’s and Shier’s quite proper insistence that we take seriously the power relations that inevitably circumscribe or enable different kinds of engagement. Power is not the only characteristic of human relations that prohibits or facilitates different kinds of outcome. Equally important, and especially so when taken into account with the calibrations of power, are relationships, i.e. the way we regard each other, the way in which our dispositions are directed and shaped by our willingness to treat each other as persons in our own right, as beings with all the distinctiveness and possibility our uniqueness proclaims and the rich commonality our humanity presumes and requires.

Patterns of partnership

Leaving a fuller exploration of this relational dimension of my proposals until later, I set out below my typology, Patterns of partnership: how adults listen to and learn with students in schools – which suggests six forms of interaction between adults and young people within schools and other educational contexts. These are

Students as data source – in which staff utilise information about student progress and well-being

Students as active respondents – in which staff invite student dialogue and discussion to deepen learning / professional decisions

Students as co-enquirers - in which staff take a lead role with high-profile, active student support

Students as knowledge creators – in which students take lead roles with active staff support

Students as joint authors – in which students and staff decide on a joint course of action together

Intergenerational learning as lived democracy – in which there is a shared commitment to / responsibility for the common good

In each of these ways of working, the power relations are different, thus not only enabling or prohibiting the contributions of one side of the partnership, but also influencing the potential synergy of the joint work and thereby affecting the possibility of both adults and young people being able to listen to and learn with and from each other. In order to explore their possible resonance with the current and future realities of work in schools I illustrate each of the six forms of interaction at the classroom level, the unit / team /department level, and at the level of the whole school.

In the Students as data source mode (see Table 1) staff work hard to utilise information about student progress and well-being. There is a real teacher commitment to paying attention to student voices speaking through the practical realities of work done and targets agreed. It acknowledges that for teaching and learning to improve there is a need to take more explicit account of relevant data about individual students and group or class achievement. At unit / team / department level this way of working might express itself through, say, samples of student work being shared across a staff group, either as a form of moderation, or, less formally, as part of a celebration of the range of work going on. At whole school level, an example would be the now much more common practice of conducting an annual survey of student opinion on matters the school deems important.

1  Students as data source
Staff utilise information about student progress and well-being

ClassroomUnit / team / departmentSchool
Lesson planning takes account of student test scores and other dataSamples of student work shared across staff groupStudent attitude survey

In the Students as active respondents mode (see Table 2) staff invite student dialogue and discussion in order to deepen their approach to student learning and enhance the professional decisions they make. Here staff move beyond the accumulation of passive data and, in order to deepen the learning of young people and enrich staff professional decisions, they feel a need to hear what students have to say about their own experience in lessons or their active engagement in contributing to its development via, for example, assessment-for-learning approaches. Students are discussants rather than recipients of current approaches and thereby contribute to the development of teaching and learning in their school. At unit / team / department level this active respondent role might express itself through, say, every fourth meeting having a significant agenda item based on pupil views / evaluations of the work they have been doing. At whole school level, an example would be the inclusion of pupils in the appointment process for new staff.

2  Students as active respondents
Staff invite student dialogue and discussion to deepen learning / professional decisions

ClassroomUnit /team / departmentSchool
Engaging with and adapting explicit assessment criteriaTeam agenda based on students views / evaluationsStudents on staff appointment panels

In the Students as co-enquirers partnership (see Table 3) we see an increase in both student and teacher involvement and a greater degree of partnership than in the previous two modes. Whilst student and teacher roles are not equal, they are shifting strongly, if not in an egalitarian, then in a more strenuously interdependent direction. Students move from being discussants to being co-enquirers into matters of agreed significance and importance. While the focus and the boundaries of exploration are fixed by the teacher the commitment and agreement of students are essential. At a classroom level this might involve, for example, a shared enquiry into and development of more independent / interdependent ways of student working. At unit / team / department level this kind of approach might express itself through student evaluation of a unit of work, as, for example, undertaken by a group in a girls’ secondary school calling themselves the ‘History Dudettes’. At whole school level an example would be a joint staff-student evaluation of the Reports to Parents system.

3  Students as co-enquirers
Staff take lead role with high-profile, active student support

ClassroomUnit /team / departmentSchool
How can we develop more independence in learning?Student evaluation of e.g. a History unit of workJoint evaluation of current system of Reports

Students as knowledge creators (see Table 4) deepens and extends the egalitarian thrust of the co-enquiry approach. Partnership and dialogue remain the dominant ways of working, but here it is the voice of the student that comes to the fore in a leadership or initiating, not just a responsive, role. It is students who identify the issues to be pursued and students who subsequently undertake the enquiry / development with the support of staff. At classroom level this has sometimes expressed itself through annual Student-Led Reviews which replace traditional Parents’ Evenings (where parents come to the school to hear the teacher’s views about the progress of their child). At unit / team / department level a good example comes from a Student Year Council who were concerned that their playground buddying system was not working in the ways they had hoped. At whole school level students in an innovative secondary school used photo-elicitation as part of their enquiry into the causes of low-level bullying that went largely undetected by staff.

4  Students as knowledge creators
Students take lead role with active staff support

ClassroomUnit / team / departmentSchool
Development of Student-Led ReviewsIs the playground buddying system working?What is the cause of low level bullying in class?

The Joint authors model (see Table 5) involves a genuinely shared, fully collaborative partnership between students and staff. Leadership, planning and conduct of research and the subsequent commitment to responsive action are embraced as both a mutual responsibility and energising adventure. At classroom level this might express itself through the co-construction of, for example, a Maths lesson. At unit / team / department level this might take the form of a Research Lesson in which, say, three staff and three students co-plan a lesson, observe it, meet to discuss the observation data, plan version two in the light of it and repeat the process. And all of this endeavour is undertaken on behalf of the team / department and their students. At whole school level this kind of approach might express itself in a jointly led Learning Walk. Here a focus or centre of interest is agreed and the school (and any other participating institution) becomes the site of enquiry within which the focused Walk is undertaken.

5  Students as joint authors
Students and staff decide on a joint course of action together


Unit / team / department


Co-construct e.g. a Maths lesson

Develop a ‘Research Lesson’ for the department

Joint student + staff Learning Walk

Finally, the Intergenerational learning as lived democracy approach (see Table 6) extends the shared and collaborative partnership between students and staff in ways that (a) emphasise a joint commitment to the common good, and (b) include occasions and opportunities for an equal sharing of power and responsibility. At its best it is an instantiation and explicit acknowledgement of the creativity and promise of intergenerational learning.

6  Intergenerational learning as lived democracy
Shared commitment to / responsibility for the common good


Unit / team / department


Students + staff plan lesson for younger students

Classes as critical friends in thematic conference

Whole School Meeting to decide a key issue

At classroom level it might involve staff, students and museum staff planning a visit to a museum for younger students. At unit / team / department level this might take the form of classes acting as critical friends to each other in the wider context of a thematic or interdisciplinary project within and / or between years. At whole school level this might express itself through the development of whole School Meetings that are such an important iconic practice within the radical traditions of both private and publicly funded education.

3.  Democratic fellowship and the demands of deep democracy

Deep democracy

Whilst deliberately naming democracy as a form of partnership that is pre-eminently desirable and incrementally achievable in schools through something like the patterns of partnership between adults and young people, it is important to say a little more about the view of democracy on which such advocacy rests. In so doing it is also important to relate it to earlier arguments about relationships as a key component in the nexus of power and purposes that define and enable the intergenerational work that schools and the wider practices of society intend and develop. Relationships as an integral component of the nexus of power and purpose in reconfiguring our aspirations and practices is fundamentally tied to, though not exhausted by, a view of democracy that insists on the link between the personal and the political, between democracy’s purposes and the means by which it seeks to realise its intentions.

Democracy is much more than a collaborative mechanism by which we agree our aspirations, take action, hold each other to account and revise or renew our commitments in the light of public deliberation. It is primarily a way of living and learning together at the heart of which lie the three mutually conditioning commitments to freedom, equality and community. Certainly, it transcends the now ubiquitous intrusions of the market in much contemporary theory and practice of democracy. As Michael Sandel has so eloquently reminded us,

Democratic governance is radically devalued if reduced to the role of handmaiden to the market economy. Democracy is about more than fixing and tweaking and nudging incentives to make markets work better…(It) is about much more than maximising GDP, or satisfying consumer preferences. It’s also about seeking distributive justice; promoting the health of democratic institutions; and cultivating the solidarity, and sense of community that democracy requires. Market-mimicking governance – at its best – can satisfy us as consumers. But it can do nothing to make us democratic citizens (Sandel, 2009: 4).

Of course, many will disagree with Sandel and with me: but that is as it should be. Democracy is an essentially contested concept and part of its health and legitimacy depends on the disagreements which make up its ideal aspirations and its daily enactment. As I suggested earlier, the same is true of student voice: it cannot be a neutral technology. The machinery of democracy, and student voice as one of its many instantiations, must articulate and enable the kinds of human encounter, the kinds of living and learning which democracy intends.

The practical realisation of deep democracy will ultimately and immediately depend on the lived dispositions and values, on what writers within this tradition have often called fellowship, or what I, for reasons sketched out below, call democratic fellowship. Democracy needs fellowship to forestall, for example, the tyranny of a populist or racist injustice: fellowship needs democracy in order to forestall, for example, the wistful reaffirmation of hierarchical communities in which all come, once again, to know and love their place. For me, as for writers like the great Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, fellowship is the point of politics. Indeed, politics ‘has significance only through the human fellowship which it makes possible; and by this its validity and its success must be judged’ (Macmurray, 1950: 69–70). Democratic fellowship is not just the point of politics, but the precondition of democracy’s daily development and future flourishing: ‘the extent and quality of such political freedom as we can achieve depends in the last resort upon the extent and quality of the fellowship which is available to sustain it’ (Macmurray 1950: 69). Human fellowship is at once the precursor to and hope of democratic politics which is both its agent and an important site of its prefigurative enactment. ‘The democratic slogan - liberty, equality fraternity - embodies correctly the principles of human fellowship. To achieve freedom and equality is to create friendship, to constitute community between men’ (Macmurray, 1950:74–75).

If we supplement this relational view of democracy which presumes, nurtures and anticipates more inclusive and more generously conceived forms of human sociality with a number of other allied considerations, a fully fledged democratic fellowship perspective will interpret and act on the patterns of partnership with very different understandings, intentions and results to those who approach them from market-led, neo-liberal standpoints. Three such considerations seem to me particularly apt here. Firstly, there will be an optimistic, enabling view of what young people are capable of that was at one time much more widely held by, amongst others, the now much maligned progressive education movement. Secondly, there will be an acknowledgement, tacit or otherwise, that those more open views of young people are partnered with both a respect and a regard for what the children’s rights movement has done so much to develop in the last two decades. Thirdly, and this is the point it is important to press most insistently here, attention will be paid to relationships, to care as well as to rights, justice and power. When teachers and students begin to work in these new ways they are not just redrawing the boundaries of what is permissible and thereby jointly extending a sense of what is possible: they are also giving each other the desire and the strength to do so through their regard and care for each other. In sum, a democratic fellowship perspective not only insists on the necessity of emancipatory values guiding its development, it also requires a similarly open and creative set of dispositions and understandings that provide the motivational energy and responsive engagement at the heart of its aspirations.

Democratic fellowship in action

How, then, might democratic fellowship engage with the lived realities towards which I have gestured in my six-fold ‘patterns of partnership’? Space permits only one or two examples:

A democratic fellowship reading of the classroom example of Partnership 1 - Students as data source in which staff utilise information about student progress and well-being might draw attention to and encourage a teacher to go beyond test data and draw on her emerging knowledge and understanding of the student’s range of involvement in many areas of the curriculum, and on her developing knowledge and appreciation of the young person in both formal and informal and school and non-school situations, including those in which she is developing her agency as a public actor in communal and interpersonal contexts.

A democratic fellowship reading of the classroom example of Partnership 4 - Students as knowledge creators in which students take a lead role with active staff support would bring out the fact that students themselves have responsibility for organising the Annual Review meeting by liaising between themselves, their teachers and their parents, about mundane but important practicalities. These would include, for example, the student attending to the physical details of the meeting such as seating arrangements that reflect who and what are the central focus of the imminent dialogue. It would also bring out the student’s leading role in the moral and existential conduct of the encounter as well as the establishment of clarity about outcomes and the resulting responsibilities of each of the partners involved. Furthermore, in some of the best examples I know of, the fellowship dimensions of the Review Meeting involve not just the teachers and parents, but a group of the young person’s peers who act as critical friends to the student in the preparation of the presentation of the achievements and aspirations which lie at the heart of the Review process. They also transcend an exclusive preoccupation with reductive measurement and the myopia of performance: here young people are asking profound, practical questions about what it means to lead a good life, not merely map a partial picture of some of its narrower components.

4.  Reaffirming and renewing radical democratic traditions of education

My hope is that my patterns of partnership typology and the democratic fellowship perspective for which I have argued will not only challenge the domination of neo-liberal perspectives, but also provide a practical means towards the realisation of democracy as a way of living and learning together and of schools as themselves examples of democracy in action. However, practical steps of the kind I am suggesting will not be enough to support and sustain the development of schools as democratic learning communities. We also need at least two other enabling commitments. These are, firstly, an analytic tool that helps us to identify key factors that not only name what we are committed to, but also points to the core elements that are necessary to sustain and develop our work over time. Secondly, we must actively and extensively draw on radical democratic traditions of public education: we must, in other words reclaim our histories, for without them we are prisoners of a contextless present and an impoverished future.

The first of these imperatives, which I have explored in some of my recent work, will not detain us here (see Fielding and Moss, 2011). I do however, wish to draw this lecture to a close by saying just a little about the second imperative, about the necessity of countering what E.P.Thomson once tellingly called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ (Thompson, 1968: 13). My strongly held view is that there is a necessary link between our pasts and our capacity to understand the present and shape the future in ways that our values demand and our hopes suggest. Russell Jacoby is entirely right in his judgement that any society that has lost its memory has also lost its mind. ‘The inability or refusal to think back takes its toll in the inability to think’ (Jacoby, 1977: 3-4). We cannot think the present or the future unless we think our pasts. More sombrely, the great Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, reminds us that ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’ (Kundera, 1982:3).

Just as there is no one history, so there is a plurality of alternative traditions reflecting particular standpoints, preoccupations and aspirations. Following the advice of Roberto Unger, we must find our genealogies, not merely inherit them (Unger, 1998: 235). For me that genealogy would include, for example, the pioneering work of Alex Bloom in the East End of London from 1945-1955 (Bloom, 1953, Fielding, 2005), Howard Case’s work in a residential special school in Hertfordshire, England from 1958-1972 (Case, 1966, Fielding, 2010), and Lawrence Kohlberg’s work in the USA during the 1970s and 80s (Kohlberg, 1980, Fielding, 2010). For readers of this paper and for recipients of College of Teachers awards the genealogies will be different. The key point, however, is the necessity of commitment: you must choose a historical narrative that expresses the kind of student voice work you admire and the kind of future to which you aspire. There is no neutral ground to occupy. Student voice is not a technique devoid of aims or purpose: those purposes exist, either explicitly or, more frequently, implicitly in the policy context or wider zeitgeist that gives energy and resonance to its contemporary appeal.


Bloom, A. A. (1953) ‘Self-Government, Study & Choice at a Secondary Modern School’ New Era 34 (9): 174-177.

Case, H. (1966) A Therapeutic Discipline for Living New Era 47 (7), 131-136.

Fielding, M. (2005) Alex Bloom: Pioneer of radical state education Forum 47 (2 & 3), 119-134.

Fielding, M. (2010) Whole School Meetings and the development of radical democratic community Studies in Philosophy and Education published online 13 November.

Fielding, M. & Moss, P. (2011) Radical education and the common school: a democratic alternative Abingdon, Routledge.

Hart, R. (1992) Children’s Participation: From tokenism to citizenship. Florence: UNICEF International Child Development Centre.

Jacoby, R. (1977) Social Amnesia: a critique of conformist psychology from Adler to Jung Hassocks, Harvester Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1980) High school democracy and educating for a just society, in R. Mosher (ed) Moral education: a first generation of research and development New York, Praeger, 20-57.

Kundera, M. (1982) The Book of Laughter and Forgetting London, Faber.

Macmurray, J. (1950) Conditions of Freedom London, Faber.

Sandel, M. (2009) A new politics of the common good, Lecture 4, BBC Reith Lectures, 30th June.

Shier, H. (2001) Pathways to participation: openings, opportunities and obligations Children and Society, 15 (2), 107–117.

Thompson, E.P. (1968) The Making of the English Working Class Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Unger, R.M. (1998) Democracy Realized London, Verso

PROFESSOR MICHAEL FIELDING is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. Well known for his work in the fields of radical education, student voice, school leadership and professional learning, Michael brings a perspective strongly influenced by person-centred, radical democratic traditions of publicly funded education. If we forget history or marginalise purposes we may get somewhere faster - but not where we need to go.

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