The challenges of student voice in primary schools: Students ‘having a voice’ and ‘speaking for’ others

Year: 2019

Author: Mayes, Eve, Finneran, Rachel, Black, Rosalyn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Student participation in school decision-making and reform processes has taken inspiration from reconceptualisations of childhood; advocates for student voice argue for the repositioning of children and young people in relation to adults in schools. Fielding and Moss (2011) construct a typology for the reconfiguring of students’ roles in schools, describing how the ‘radical democratic school’ encourages ‘fluidity and exploration, not only amongst staff but also between staff and students’ (p. 75). Students may be positioned as: ‘data sources’, ‘active respondents’, ‘co-inquirers’, ‘knowledge creators’ and ‘joint authors’ – and finally, adults and children may collaboratively engage in ‘intergenerational learning as participatory democracy’ (Fielding & Moss, 2011, pp. 75-79).

This paper works with data from a multi-sited case study of three primary schools and students’, teachers’ and school leaders’ accounts of their student voice practices, asking: What are the challenges of enacting ‘student voice’ practices in primary school contexts? While student voice research and practice has long been concerned to unsettle and rework hierarchical relationships between teachers and students, our conversations with students, teachers and school leaders have suggested that there is more to be explored in the relationship between students – between representative students and students who are not student representatives, and between older students and younger students. Listening to accounts from students, teachers and principals from the case study schools of their practices, we also add another type of role to Fielding and Moss’ (2011) typology of the roles that students may take on: Students initiating action, and acting as mediators for other students. While Fielding and Moss’ (2011) roles are ‘radical’ in their re-definition of student/ teacher relations, the role that we add suggests a shift in relations amongst students. We consider the relationships between students in student voice activities in primary schools, and the possibilities and ambivalences of representative students ‘speaking for’ other students. We integrate recent insights from moves beyond voice in Childhood Studies, and from the ‘turn’ to listening in cultural studies, and raise questions for students, teachers and researchers who seek to encourage student voice in primary schooling.


Fielding, M., & Moss, P. (2011). Radical education and the common school: A democratic alternative. London & New York: Routledge.