Michael Fielding: Student Voice and inclusive education. In Revista Interuniversitaria de Formación del Profesorado. Number 70 (25.1) April 2011

La Voz de los Alumnos
Student Voice

Michael Fielding (2011). Student voice and inclusive education: A radical democratic approach to intergenerational learning
(La voz del alumnado en una escuela inclusiva...). Revista Interuniversitaria de Formación del Profesorado, 70 (25.1) April 2011 (In press).


La "Revista Interuniversitaria de Formación del Profesorado. Continuación de la antigua Revista de Escuelas Normales (RIFOP)" (pulsar aquí), publicará en su número 70 (25.1) Abril 2011, una monografía titulada "La educación inclusiva hoy: escenarios y protagonistas" (pulsar aquí), coordinada por Teresa Susinos, Directora del Departamento de Educación de la Universidad de Cantabria.

Entre los artículos que se publicarán en la citada monografía, destacan los de Len Barton
(La investigación en la educación inclusiva y la difusión de la investigación de la discapacidad) y Michael Fielding (La voz del alumnado en una escuela inclusiva), dos de los académicos más prestigiosos a nivel internacional en el tema de la inclusión.

Como anticipo del citado número de la RIFOP, en este post ofrecemos a nuestros lectores la versión inglesa (a texto completo) del artículo de Fielding, que a su vez estará disponible en español (también a texto completo) en el número 70 de la RIFOP (abril 2011), actualmente en imprenta, y en el blog personal de Michael Fielding (próximamente).


"Student voice and inclusive education": First paper of Michael Feilding in Spanish.

"La voz del alumnado en una escuela inclusiva" es el primer trabajo de Fielding que se publica en español (en imprenta).

Full text in Spanish:

- Revista Interuniversitaria de Formación del Profesorado", number 70 (25.1) April 2011" (in press).

- Fielding's personal blog (coming soon)



Student voice and inclusive education: A radical democratic approach to intergenerational learning

Michael Fielding

Institute of Education
University of London, UK


Despite the remarkable range of developments in the field of student voice a number of serious problems that lie just beneath the surface. Prominent amongst these are issues of inclusion. Against the distortions endemic in dominant neo-liberal, market-led approaches to education a more generously conceived, humane alternative is proposed, namely person-centred education and democratic fellowship. The paper puts forward ten aspects of an approach that provides the beginnings of a framework, not only for student voice and inclusion, but for intergenerational learning as a central task of democracy as a way of life.


Students voice, Inclusive education, Intergenerational learning.

1) Introduction

I begin by briefly sketching out something of the remarkable range of developments in the field of what in the last 20 years has come to be known as student voice. I then identify a number of serious problems that lie just beneath the surface of much of the work. In particular, I suggest that issues of inclusion have either been ignored or seriously distorted by the bulk and weight of neo-liberal expectation. In exposing the main philosophical and ideological flaws within the neo-liberal project I argue for the viability of a more inspiring and more generously conceived humane alternative, namely person-centred education and its companion organisational motif which I call democratic fellowship.

From the vantage point of this particular values base I then explore a number of examples of inclusive student voice within mainstream and special school contexts. Finally, in the light of these mini case studies and earlier discussion, I put forward ten aspects of an approach that provides the beginnings of a framework, not only for student voice and inclusion, but also for intergenerational learning as a central motif of democracy as a way of life.

2) Taking stock of student voice

New forms of student involvement are now an established part of most schools’ approach to the curriculum and to leadership and school development. Thus there is

- Peer listening - activities that suggest 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 schools councils

- 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 (SALP), student ambassadors, and student lead learners

- 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, schools teams or departments, the school as a learning community, or the wider community to which the students belong

e.g. students as observers, students as informants in teacher consultation about effective teaching and learning, students on staff appointment panels, students as governors, student focus groups and surveys, students as key informants in the processes of external inspection and accountability, junior leadership teams, and student action teams identifying key community issues to be addressed.

There are also a number of typologies which aim to go beyond the excitement of lists and headline examples and give us a feel for the different ways in which adults and young people work together, particularly with regard to issues of leadership, power and responsibility. Perhaps the best known are from the field of youth participation e.g. Roger Hart’s ‘ladder of participation’ (Hart 1992) and the equally interesting and useful ‘pathways to participation’ developed by Harry Shier (Shier 2001). Within the school sector some of my own work over the last decade has developed a typology rooted in similar concerns and aspirations (Fielding 2004(a), 2009 and Appendix 1 below)

Problematising student voice

Much of this immensely varied and energetic activity has been encouraged by regional and central government departments as well as by very powerful teacher professional associations, many national and international NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and also by national (ESSA – English Secondary School Students Association) and international student organisations (OBESSU - Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions). Such an overwhelming embrace suggests at least two things: firstly, there is likely to be something important and interesting going on here; secondly, the sheer range and depth of development within twenty years in which neo-liberalism has become increasingly ascendant across the world might point to a potential confluence of interests that affects how student voice is understood and encouraged.

Given these possibilities and contradictions there is, needless to say and quite properly, a lot of disagreement around what student voice is really about and why it is flourishing in its ‘new wave’ forms in such a remarkable way in many countries across the world (see, for example, Fielding 2004(a)(b),2009, Thiessen & Cook-Sather 2007, and International Journal of Leadership in Education 2006). My own view, which I will develop a little more in a moment, is that whilst much of this activity is driven by the national and international imperatives of neo-liberal forms of global capitalism, it nonetheless has within it spaces for alternative views and possibilities, some of which are inclusive and life-affirming in ways this International Congress would approve of.

Before coming to the development of inclusive possibility which is at the heart of what I want to explore in this paper, I will say a little about some of the apprehensions I have about neo-liberal forms of student voice which dominate the international scene at the present time. Perhaps the overriding concern is that the current vogue for student voice is primarily an instrument of control driven by narrow adult purposes linked firmly to economic performance and the continued ascendancy of those in positions of power. Promotion of student engagement turns out to be about the development of essentially disciplinary devices aimed at increased compliance and enhanced productivity. The entry of student voice into the previously forbidden territory of teaching and learning is neither innocent nor innocuous. In re-articulating the largely predictable list of what makes a good teacher, a good lesson or a good school, students become unwitting agents of government control. Equally unsatisfactory is the atomistic individualism typical of neo-liberal thinking, its ironically undifferentiated account of ‘voice’, its pervasive silence about issues of power, and its highly instrumental view of learning.

Thus, within the current valorisation of student voice there is no convincing account of the common good. Neither is there any recognition that not all voices are the same – that some students are more privileged and better placed than others to articulate their needs in the dominant discourse (see especially Rubin & Silva 2003, Silva 2001). Nor is there any acknowledgement that the cultural and structural arrangements and spaces within which student voices are heard are themselves shaped and controlled by positional interests (Fielding 2004b).

3) Student voice and inclusion

For those working with young people who, for a range of reasons, are marginalised or silenced by the societies in which they live at least two major concerns are beginning to emerge. Firstly, there are still a relatively small number of student voice studies which focus on the needs of young people within the field of special education. Citing the work of John Davies (Davies 2005), Carmel Cefai and Paul Cooper’s recent paper, originally and evocatively entitled, ‘Students without voices’ (Cefai & Cooper 2009) suggests that, ‘whilst the number of studies on students’ voice is increasing, those on the voice of students with SEBD are still relatively few’ (Cefai & Cooper 2009:39).

Secondly, for many of us there is considerable disquiet about the ways the voices of students with special needs are heard, interpreted and used within the wider school system. My own take on this suggests three different orientations – marginalisation, condescension, and prudential inclusion - which are typical of the current practices within mainstream schools. In contrast to these, there are two other, positive orientations - person centred education and democratic fellowship - that advocate and enact a quite different view of how adults and young people might listen to and learn with and from each other in formal school settings and it is these that form the intellectual and experiential basis of this paper.

Negative orientations - marginalisation, condescension, and prudential inclusion

The marginalisation perspective is best illustrated by the fact that in most forms of student voice in many countries in the world there is a pervasive disregard of minority groups of students, including those who have special educational needs. On the one hand such students are demonised; on the other, and even in best cases scenarios, insufficient attention is paid to the voices of young people who are marginalised within the system. In either case, there is no attempt to recognise and understanding the silences and absences that contribute to what Jean Rudduck used to call ‘the acoustics’ of the school (Rudduck 2006)

Secondly, there are approaches to engaging students with special needs that range from the tokenistic to the condescending. Here there is a thin recognition of the legitimacy of their points of view, but they are often re-articulated and incorporated within dominant staff perspectives and paraded as a kind of passing puppetry of recognition. In cases where more sustained support is forthcoming it is often given on the basis of a suffocating recognition of difference that traps young people and adults within a culture of benign deprecation devoid of ambition, hope or any real sense of uniquely placed possibility for reciprocal learning with peers and adults in the mainstream .

Thirdly, even where there is an attempt to redress these states of affairs the motivational thrust of the reparation often has its roots in the same ideological soil that nurtured the dismissal of certain students as less worthy of attention and respect than the majority of their peers. It becomes prudentially inclusive, in two respects. On the one hand it is driven by apprehension that, for example, the school’s results profile will be adversely affected or that disaffection amongst marginalised students will become evident through disruptive behaviour which will then draw in precious staff resources and time. On the other hand, if only occasionally, it is driven by the possibility of impressing external (usually inspection) authorities and school ‘customers’ that the school is an institution that welcomes diversity and difference.

Of the three orientations it is this third, prudential approach to inclusion that is most prevalent and in many respects the most worrying. It either feigns concern and interest or, in cases where it is genuine, the weight of external pressure and the narrowness of the dominant view of schooling squeezes and distorts what is creative, caring and worthwhile into a smiling caricature corrosive of any genuinely inclusive aspirations. Prudential inclusion is typical of what I have called ‘high-performance schooling’. Here we have a mode which says, ‘Have a nice day’, as part of a human relations mantra, rather than one which advocates what I call a ‘person-centred’ approach within which such a greeting is genuinely welcoming and engaging of us as individual human beings. Here we have a mode which uses extra time for tutorials and listening to the voices of special needs students to raise test scores and head off disruption, rather than placing personal encounter through dialogue at the very heart of its daily educational processes and intentions Here we have a mode in which the sanctioning of creativity, openness and the notion that every child matters is primarily the servant of the familiar narrow standards agenda, rather than one in which creativity and the engagement with young people as persons is the harbinger of a much richer, more demanding fulfilment of education for and in a democratic society.

They are worlds apart; their felt realties are utterly at odds with each other. And yet, it is not always clear which frame is dominant, whose purposes are being served, whether we are the victims of those whose interests are quite other than those we would applaud, or whether we are part of something which is likely to turn out to be fulfilling and worthy of our support. In sum, it is not clear whether a more sophisticated engagement with the voices of marginalised young people is a seductive re-articulation of institutional insinuation or a genuinely different orientation to what we do and how we might do it.

Putting philosophy to work

It seems to me that philosophy has an important role to play here. We need a way of understanding and articulating the fundamental differences between these two approaches that on the surface often seem to share the same language, but actually intend quite different understandings both of education and the nature of the good society. Drawing on the work of the Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray, I posit a four-fold framework which suggests fundamentally different relations between two necessary, interdependent forms of relationship that underpin all forms of human society. These are (a) ‘functional’ or instrumental relationships which are defined by the tasks or roles they are required to perform and (b) ‘personal’ relationships which provide the interpersonal context within which we are able to be and become ourselves as persons, as human beings in its fullest and most rounded sense.

If we apply these categories to different approaches to education and schooling we come to understand the stark differences between ‘high-performance’ and ‘person-centred’ models (see Figure 1 below) In the case of the high-performance approach the ‘personal is for the sake of the functional’; people and relationships are the servant of instrumental ends. In the ‘person-centred’ approach the relations are reversed. Here ‘the functional is for the sake of and expressive of the personal’. Means must express ends and since, in education, the ends are primarily personal and communal - i.e. how we lead good lives together - then all functional relationships and arrangements should be directed at human ends and intentions. It is those deeper and broader human aspirations that are the arbiters of legitimacy and the goals towards which we should strive.

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Positive orientations – person-centred education and democratic fellowship

In contrast to the three negative orientations, I wish to advocate and support approaches to student voice that are driven, not by the instrumental imperatives of adults under various kinds of pressure, but rather by a set of educational perspectives and values that have their centre of interest and obligation in the child herself and in the wider commitment to how we lead good lives together. Such approaches reject the predations of market-driven schooling which dominate the education system in my country and many others at the present time.

Rather than seeing the child as the focus of organisational performance and economic success, in the person-centred education and democratic fellowship perspectives young people and adults are seen as partners and co-creators of wider, more generously conceived notions of learning and being in the world that will often include measurable results, but will not be constituted or adversely constrained by them. Approaches to student voice here are emergent and dialogic, relational and reciprocal both in the manner of their engagement and the intentions to which they aspire. It is about students and teachers working and learning together in partnership, rather than one party using the other for often covert ends. Relationships between students and staff are based on mutual trust, care, autonomy, and respect and have a double significance. First, they transform the mechanics of consultation and the interstices of power through which young voices are heard, dialogue enacted and action taken. Formal and informal arrangements become expressive of the spirit of enquiry and committed engagement, not merely minimal gestures of thin entitlement and little consequence. Secondly, they succinctly articulate and underscore key aspirations of a democratic way of life.

The form of student voice that brings together the creative richness and adventure of person-centred education within the wider frameworks and dispositions of democracy which it presumes I have called ‘democratic fellowship’. Here we have the full unity of intergenerational educational engagement and democratic political community. Here, as in person-centred education, student voice retains its identity and achieves its full, dialogic potential within the larger framework of democracy as a way of life. Issues of power and hierarchy are at once more transparent and less secure than in other organizational orientations and the place of values is explicit and central, rather than peripheral or opaque.

Both person-centred and democratic fellowship modes of student voice work tend to be student driven, staff supported and often a genuinely joint endeavour. Whilst not eradicating either hierarchy or power, the centrality of negotiation, the foregrounding of values and the willingness to work through their consequences in an iterative way, the explicitly exploratory nature of what is undertaken, and the tolerance of ambiguity and unpredictability do a great deal to address both hierarchy and power in a recursive, on-going way.

Finally, in the context of democratic fellowship there is substantial emphasis on two mutually interdependent features of its commitment to a model of participatory rather than representative democracy. These are, firstly, that the school operates some form of ‘shared responsibility’ in which staff and students meet as a whole community / sub-community on a regular (sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, sometimes half-termly) basis to reflect on their work together, share their aspirations and decide on appropriate courses of action. Secondly, in order to make sure all persons at the Meeting are confident enough to speak and that the Meeting is genuinely inclusive and welcoming of diversity, the school will actively develop what are sometimes called ‘subaltern’ or minority spaces within which the appropriate dispositions, attitudes and skills developed.

The differences and inter-relationships between the three main orientations to student voice - high performance schooling, person-centred education, and democratic fellowship - are set out in diagrammatic form in Figure 2 below

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4) Inclusive student voice in action

Interrogating professional practice

Whilst I believe person-centred perspectives and values provide a more hopeful basis for the development of inclusive student voice practice than their neo-liberal counterparts I am also mindful of the dangers and challenges that face practitioners and researchers in largely unsympathetic contemporary school systems.

As a result of many years of work in this domain I developed a simple framework of evaluative questions to ask of any student voice initiative (Fielding 2001 + see Figure 3 below) and it may well be helpful to bear them in mind when reflecting on the different examples of interesting and predominantly inclusive practice I am about to offer. The questions which make up the framework cluster round eight core considerations - to do with speaking, listening, skills, attitudes and dispositions, systems, organisational culture, spaces for making meaning , and action for the future - on which the success of student voice work would to a considerable degree depend.

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Working against the grain Thus far I hope to have suggested that genuinely inclusive approaches to student voice are few and far between, largely because the overriding assumptions and aspirations of neo-liberalism take a severely instrumental view of education and schooling. Whilst it might steal the discourse of the personal - as, indeed it does with e.g. talk of ‘personalisation’ and ‘Every Child Matters’ - in actual fact neo-liberalism denies the intellectual and existential legitimacy of the kind of person-centred, democratic fellowship for which I am arguing.

Despite the difficulty of working against the grain of such a powerful and sophisticated status quo, there are, nonetheless, some remarkable examples of inclusive student voice work that presume a more holistic understanding of education and practice it, albeit imperfectly and with difficulty, in ways which deserve our admiration and support. It is to a small number of these examples which ignite a sense of possibility that I now turn in order to develop a feel for what student voice looks and feels like within an inclusive school.

My first example comes from a special school and focuses on student involvement in their Annual Reviews. (See Fielding and Kirby (2009) for a comparative look at what we call Student-Led Reviews in primary, special and secondary schools). Drawing on the work of Leora Cruddas, my second example looks at highly innovative work supporting young women with serious emotional and behavioural issues in mainstream secondary schools. The third example is also drawn from a mainstream context, but focuses on the key liberating contributions of a young man with special educational needs whose influence on his mainstream peers enabled a high-profile student voice project to break important new ground in ways which would not have been possible without his leadership and courage. My fourth and final mini case study exemplifies my faith in democratic fellowship as an important direction for future work in our field. Set in a residential special school, it briefly recounts the practice of a daily Meeting that ran on democratic lines and shaped the day-to-day life and future direction of the school’s development as an educational community.

Case Study 1 - Annual Reviews at Harding House Sixth Form

Harding House Sixth Form caters for SLD (Severe Learning Difficulties) / PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities) students aged 16 -19 and is part of the Vale Federation of Special Schools. Students were not originally involved in the running of their own review meetings and were not invited or empowered to make decisions about any matters of significance. Now, for the majority of the meeting it is the student who talks or someone presents on their behalf. Students are involved in every stage of planning for their meeting including deciding who to invite (this may include a friend), choosing the venue, sorting out refreshments, seating plan and so on, and designing invitations and tracking responses.

Before the meeting students prepare a written contribution using a template which can be adapted to the needs of each person (e.g. using symbols, tape recording). They write about a range of issues, including what they like about being at Harding House, why they came to the school, current achievements and aspirations. They also set themselves Individual Education Plan (IEP) targets, which include things they want to do in-school, out of school and post-school: for example, ‘I want to learn to manicure my own nails’, ‘I want to travel on the bus on my own’ or ‘I want to initiate conversations with peers in my group’. The emphasis in the meeting is on celebrating their achievements, and students present a life story via video and/or powerpoint presentation which, together in a group of peers, they spend a long time preparing in advance. Experience suggests every student is highly motivated and excited by presentation of their contribution to the Review and that part of this excitement has to do with the freedom they are given to create their own presentations which embrace their lives and hopes as persons, not just their aspirations as skilled adults. Part also has to do with the vibrancy and support that comes from sharing and developing their work with their peers. The warmth and humour combine with a seriousness of purpose that is life-affirming and practically enabling.

The presentation includes background information about their family and past, and about their lives now (friends, interests, targets, aspirations, etc). When presenting they can choose whether to talk personally at the meeting, to include a pre-prepared voice over or for a personal tutor to present the powerpoint / video. There follows a group discussion exploring the young person’s targets and aspirations and an action plan is agreed. Next there is a contribution from the young person’s family, and residential care and Transition Team, but all discussion is directed to the young person, rather than to professionals or parents. It is clear to all that outside professionals are present solely because they can offer support to the young person. Little time is spent on the young person’s statement - only to check whether it is still relevant - as these are considered too full of jargon and not engaging for young people.

After the meeting students receive a summary of review notes in a meaningful form and, in order to ensure they have the capacity and motivation to engage in an ingoing way with the kind of agency illustrated in these examples, students have ongoing, explicit teaching on relevant communication, negotiation and decision-making skills. The statement is reviewed in more detail within staff team meetings. After the staff meeting great emphasis is placed on making sure that action takes place quickly and that the young person is made aware of everything that happens.

Case Study 2 - Young women’s ‘space to deal with ourselves’

The work of Leora Cruddas and her colleagues from the London Borough of Newham who supported marginalised young women – girls with Emotional and Behavioural Difficutlies (EBD) – in mainstream schools in a range of highly inclusive ways has a wide-ranging resonance across many different contexts and circumstances. The two year action research project (Cruddas 2001, Cruddas & Haddock 2003) provides a number of imaginative and successful examples of ways in which a group of marginalised students in an already marginalised sub-community can be better understood and supported within a mainstream context.

In phase one of the two year project, members of staff were seconded from the Local Authority and developmental work took place in five secondary schools: three single-sex girls’ schools and two co-educational schools. In the second year part of the funding was delegated to schools who appointed a link member of staff who was released to work with the young women.

A range of different groups were formed in project schools. These included peer mentoring groups, conflict management groups, focused group work around a particular topic or theme, groups workshops, Circle Time groups, and outdoor activity-based and problem solving groups. One of the most successful strategies involved the use of ‘developmental group work’ which provided a vehicle for reflection, evaluation, action and change and helped to make clear what the young women felt they needed in order to learn and how they wanted their schools to change in order to meet those needs. The intention was to create a space that liberates, one which, in the words of Augusto Boal whose work inspired Leora and her colleagues, ‘a reflection on reality and a rehearsal for future action.’ Although similar to Circle Time, which has its origins in developmental group work, the latter is much less directive and teacher-led.

Not only did the project help to support the young women involved to name and deal with some of the key barriers to learning and participation in school like

- emotional problems e.g. isolation and lack of self-confidence

- relationship problems e.g. friendships, parents, romantic relationships, death and loss

- academic issues e.g. transitions, lack of oracy opportunities, pressures to succeed

- health issues e.g. pregnancy, mental health, body image

- stereotyping e.g. sexuality, being used as agents of social control, domestic responsibilities, reputations.

It also highlighted a number of recommendations for institutional development and change. These were that these young women felt they needed to

- be listened to

- be heard above the boys

- be treated as equals

- have emotional space

- have friends

- share problems with each other

- be supported by better pastoral systems

Essentially, in Leora Cruddas’s words, what was being asked for was, ‘the need for a voice and for space (in curricular, material and psychological senses) to explore social and emotional issues – what one young woman referred to as ‘space to deal with ourselves’ (Cruddas 2001:65). In some instances the project led, not only to the development of a range of groups and practices, some of which, like workshops on understanding the needs of girls, targeted staff as well as students. It also led to the establishment of things like ‘Girlspace’, a girls-only classroom space within a mixed sex school where girls could go at lunchtime.

Finally, it is also important to attend to Cruddas’s reflections at the end of her paper. Having expressed the hope that developmental group work is a practical and realistic way in which schools can enable all young people to explore their emotional and social worlds in constructive ways which then lead to positive change, she then underscores the essentially relational nature of education. For her ‘meaning and change is generated in and from these relationships – in the dialogue among our various voices’ (Cruddas 2001:66), dialogue between teachers and learners and between learners themselves.

Case Study 3 - COPS, creativity and the absolute necessity of inclusion

My third example looks at some of the ways in which students with Special Needs can not only contribute in groundbreaking ways to mainstream school practices, but also develop highly imaginative, holistic forms of engagement that many outside special schools would wish to emulate. COPS, creativity and the absolute necessity of inclusion gives a brief account of ways in which a major, five year, cross-city student voice initiative in the city of Portsmouth was transformed by the active participation of Special Schools students in mainstream contexts.

In their partnership with the City of Portsmouth the University of Sussex co-developed a significant strand of work round student voice as a key strategy for educational renewal. The explicitly stated values of the Sussex team and the inclusive perspectives and inclinations of many of the Portsmouth staff with whom they worked laid the basis of some of their more successful work.

Early on in development of the work a cross-city Student Voice Day was held at one of the city’s Special Schools. Their hosting of the event, together with their full participation in it reinforced and deepened understandings and aspirations, not just of the Sussex University team, but of all students and staff who attended. Those felt encounters and bonds that grew out of that early event subsequently had an enormous effect on the way things developed over the four years’ work that followed. Not only were all subsequent cross-city Student Voice Days co-planned and eventually co-led by a group of students that included young people from Special Schools, some of the most innovative and adventurous work owed its dynamism, creative insight and tenacity to the significant involvement of Special School students.

Two points of particular importance emerge from the inclusive commitment of these developments. Firstly, the active involvement of special school students and staff helped the work to develop a person-centred, social justice orientation that is unlikely to have been so pronounced or so persistent had they not been involved. Secondly, because of special school involvement the Sussex University and Portsmouth Local Authority student voice team were forced to confront difficult issues and through doing so develop responses that were wiser, more effective, more inclusive and, on occasions, much more creative that they would otherwise have been.

Perhaps one of the most compelling examples concerns the developing work of what became known as COPS (Council of Portsmouth Students). This is a city-wide group of students whose remit is to encourage a range of student voice activity in all schools, link with student councils, and offer a young person’s perspective on matters of importance to students themselves and to officers, councillors and community groups. Inevitably one of the issues with which COPS wrestled was how they developed effective forms of two-way communication between themselves and students across the city. With regard to how they let schools know what they were about and how they were getting on their realisation of the inadequacy of sending schools written Minutes of COPS meetings was immediately made clear by the deputy chair. This young man was from a Special School and he quickly pointed out that many of his peers would not be able to read the Minutes and discuss the key issues, even if they were inclined to do so. This led to a wide-ranging discussion about issues of student-friendly communication and the importance of developing an inclusive approach that used modern technology and contemporary culture in imaginative ways.

The upshot was remarkable. With the enthusiastic help of a member of the Sussex University team, the COPS group developed an audio-visual form of communication which incorporated the written minutes on one side of the screen and video clips of dialogue illustrating the topics under discussion on the other. The key point here is that none of this would have been tackled as quickly or as imaginatively had the deputy-chair of the COPS group not been from a Special School and the culture of the COPS group not been committed intellectually and interpersonally to inclusion.

Case Study 4 – Democratic fellowship at Epping House School

Epping House School was a residential school for what were then known as ‘maladjusted’ emotionally disturbed children between the ages of five and twelve. Set in rural Hertfordshire in England, under the leadership of Howard Case between 1957 and 1974 it became the most radical publicly funded special school of its generation (for a fuller account see Fielding 2010). With thirty-five to forty students and ten adult residential staff, six of whom were teachers, at the heart of the school’s life and work was the daily Meeting which decided, on a one person one vote basis, virtually all matters of significance in the daily life and future development of the school. Not only was the Meeting chaired by a student, with very few refusing an offer to do so, it was, in Case’s view, chaired better than by most adults. Trainee chairpersons were given an opportunity to chair the meeting for a little while before the experienced child chair took over.

The order of items on the Agenda was crucial. The constraining items, such as the Veto and Privileges Lists and communal obligations were dealt with first. The Veto List contained the names of children who had misused an amenity of the school, e.g. selfish or anti-social uses of the swings or ropes, and were thus forbidden to use them thereafter. In order to be taken off the Veto List a child had to apply in writing to the Meeting and the Meeting discussed and voted on his or her case. The Privilege List was made up of the school amenities reserved for children who could be relied upon to use them responsibly. For example, a privilege might entail the possession of a penknife, access to the sitting room or reading room, the right to go up to the bedrooms during the day without first seeking permission from staff. Then came the allocation of voluntary communal work such as sweeping and cleaning and looking after the dogs and cats that had an important role to play in the emotional reparation and development of many of the children at the school.

Once clear about communal obligations, choices about afternoon and evening activities were made. These activities were offered by staff and took place after the 11.00 am – 12.30 pm class groups which the school expected the children to attend and which they, by and large, they did. Children were free to choose which afternoon / evening activities they wished to take part in, or to offer activities of their own, or do nothing at all.

Following a brief review of the previous day’s jobs announcements and reminders about future events preceded an interlude for songs. Then came debate / question time in which day-to-day issues were raised by children and staff. These, together with Notes of Application with regard to the Veto and Privileges Lists were often the kernel of the Meeting.

Whilst the meetings were chaired by children, one of the senior adults in the school accepted a special responsibility for supporting its democratic vitality, a role which in Case’s view required an ‘artistry’ of engagement within which they ‘neither dictate, dominate or withdraw’ (Case 1966:133). Responsibility was significantly shared between adults and young people all with an equal voice, and all equally subject to the will of the community. In Case’s view

The meeting brought increased awareness to each person as an individual and a social being; it encouraged a serious attitude to life; it confirmed to the children that they were taken seriously by adults; it established a harmony between adult and child which formed the basis of all other relationships throughout the day. Though the responsibilities of adults towards children and the areas of adult control were clearly delineated, the conventional concept of adult wisdom and morality gave way to collective inspiration, gained in the concerted seeking and questioning … questionings which had but one end in view: the greater happiness and maturation of each individual (Case 1978:81)

5) From person centred inclusion to democratic fellowship

We are living in interesting times: the literal and metaphorical near-bankruptcy of dominant economic and political systems under which many of us live might well accelerate the range and depth of questioning, not only of its excesses, but of its fundamental presumptions. For those working in schools now is as good a time as any to take stock, not only of current realities but also of future possibilities. An intake of professional breath is not, of course, just a pragmatic matter: it is also and interdependently an intellectual and philosophical matter reflected in the structure and underlying dynamic of this paper

Two models of student voice and Inclusion

In my earlier remarks I drew attention to the fact that the dominant approach to student voice and, indeed, to inclusion owes its energy and legitimacy to a neo-liberal, market-led model of society and formal schooling. In contrast to this, I am arguing here for a model which presumes a very different set of understandings and aspirations for human flourishing and for education. These are summarised in Figure 4 below.
The neo-liberal market perspective presumes a predominantly individualistic view of human beings and puts a lot of emphasis on individual choice. Individuals are encouraged to see themselves as consumers or customers who need to make informed choices about opportunities for learning within the school, often connected with their future life chances within the jobs market. At a collective level, a school committed to this way of working sees its main task as one of maximising its position in competitive league tables by producing better outcomes for students. Student voice is important because in listening to students the school becomes a more accountable and more effective learning organisation and thus better at meeting its core responsibilities. Inclusion is understood largely as a prudential matter in which, like student voice, attending to the demands of those with special needs is seen as a means to improved, publicly accredited performance in the education market place.

The person centred perspective also starts with individuals, but its understanding of what it means to be an individual is quite different. It sees individuals as persons, not as isolated, self-sufficient beings, but as

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essentially relational. As John Macmurray once said, ‘We need one another to be ourselves’ (Macmurray 1961: 211). A person centred perspective does include the responsibility to make choices, but they are choices taken within the context of deeper aspirations than those of the market. They concern fundamental questions to do with how we become good persons and the means of answering those questions are essentially through dialogue with others whom we care for and respect. At a communal level, a school committed to this way of working sees its main task as one of developing an inclusive, creative society through a participatory democracy which benefits everyone. Student voice is important here, not so much through representative structures (though it will have these and operate them well), but rather through a whole range of daily opportunities in which young people can listen and be listened to, make decisions and take a shared responsibility for both the here-and-now of daily encounter and for the creation of a better future. The understanding of inclusion with a person centred perspective is one that entails the valuing of students as persons, not as units of performance and in its most radical forms it seeks to go well beyond listening to develop intergenerational learning based upon notions of shared responsibility and participatory democracy.

Dialogic approaches to student voice and inclusion

Given the sorts of example I sketched out earlier in the four mini case studies and the kind of values position for which I am arguing what might some of the implications be for an approach to student voice that is humanly rather than instrumentally inclusive?

I begin with the fundamental purposes of our work in school and look at some of the key values, dispositions and relationships that form the bedrock of inclusive listening. I then say a little about what this kind of inclusion might mean for the roles of adults and young people for whom reciprocal, dialogic listening is important. If we feel more confident about how people regard each other and how their roles accommodate the flexibility and openness required, we then need to consider what kinds of interpersonal structures and spaces we need to provide for the acoustics of the school to be attentive to the diversity and delight which our work intends. As well as providing an appropriate range of opportunity we need also to attend to the means we deploy to listen to each other with sensitivity and imagination. All this then stands a good chance of enabling those of us whom circumstance and temperament allow to move person centred education into its radical mode of democratic fellowship.

Values, dispositions + relationships

1) Learning to listen with our full humanity

At a time when education and schooling are assumed to be synonymous it is important to remind ourselves that schools are only one way of approaching the task of education, that they have other legitimate purposes, and that, sometimes, schools can be forgetful or even corrosive of their educational responsibilities. We thus need in our approach to student voice to be mindful of the larger human purposes that give education its legitimacy, its joy and the hopes on which we depend for our survival as a species. When we listen to young people, when they listen to us, when members of the school engage with each other in their shared work they must always listen within a wider, deeper framework of human being and becoming. Most of the many failures of target setting have their origins in its propensity to cut the umbilical cord between the immediate focus of activity and the wider human purposes that give it its point and legitimacy (Fielding 1999).

2) The dialogic imperative

This kind of deep listening is not only relational, it is dialogic and for it to be successfully so it needs to live a genuine openness towards each other, a reciprocity that is interested in and attentive to the richness of each person’s humanity, rather than a cursory and incurious consultation. In an inclusive school the interest is thus in the other, not as an object or case, but in all their complexity and possibility. When Macmurray insists that ‘any kind of teaching involves establishing personal relations between teacher and pupil, and the success or failure of the teaching depends very largely upon the character and quality of this relation’ (Macmurray 1958) it is these kinds of relations he has in mind. When Howard Case recalls that ‘Children had their own ways of expressing their points of view, not always logical and immediately intelligible to the adults but sometimes put with great potency, showing much greater insight and these were the occasions when we adults felt enriched and invigorated by thoughts and feelings which we ourselves had not initiated’ (Case 1978:72), it was his deep respect for a dialogic imperative that enabled and ennobled the best of the work at Epping House School.

3) Insistent affirmation of possibility

A companion constituent of a genuinely dialogic approach to education within an inclusive school will be an insistent, persistent affirmation of possibility. Energised both by rage against what the Brazilian social theorist and politician Roberto Unger calls ‘the abandonment of ordinary humanity to perpetual belittlement’ (Unger 2005:46) and by profound belief in the powers of ordinary men and women to create new and better ways of being in the world, this generosity of presumption requires us to resist closure. It requires of us that we assume the best rather than the worst of young people, that we keep options open. It will also insist not only that we counter the confinement of customary or casual expectation, but that – like radical pioneers such as Alex Bloom in my own country (Bloom 1949, Fielding 2005) and Francisco Ferrer in Spain (Ferrer 1913) - we deny the legitimacy of ability grouping, that we promote emulation rather than competition, that we prefer intrinsic motivation and communal recognition to the paraphernalia of marks and prizes.


4) Radical reciprocity – ‘role jumbling’, ‘re-seeing’, ‘restless encounter’ and intergenerational learning

An inclusive approach to education, to schooling, indeed to anything of significance, must, it seems to me, not only keep options open, it must also push further and harder against the rigid proclivities of role and regulation. Whilst both are necessary to human flourishing they must always remain provisional, always accessible to the radical accountability of the human spirit. This can be partly achieved through what Robert Unger calls ‘role defiance and role jumbling’ (Unger 1987: 563). Thus, some of the most innovative student voice work in the last fifteen years has involved students taking the lead in research and enquiry work in their schools and communities e.g. Holdsworth et al 2001, Fielding & Bragg 2003) or undertaking tasks previously reserved for high status adults e.g. in the appointment of new teaching staff.

One of the intended consequences of ‘role jumbling’ is that adults and young people come to see each other differently and often more roundedly and more appreciatively. For these reasons, in an inclusive school the relationships between students, and between adults and young people are likely to be less bounded and more exploratory. In re-seeing each other as persons as well as role occupants we nurture a new understanding, sense of possibility, and felt respect between adults and young people, a joy in each other’s being and a greater sense of shared delight and responsibility. We invite a willingness to be surprised, to welcome the unanticipated as a mark of the partnership’s potential to honour and deal with difference in ways that resist the silencing, homogenising tendencies of position and power.

In its fullest expression the creative synergy of role jumbling, re-seeing and restless encounter expresses itself in intergenerational learning, a key notion which, for me, provides the next important step in the development of student voice.

Spaces for listening – the acoustics of the school

5) Curriculum and pedagogy

What comes through again and again from thriving examples of inclusive approaches to student voice is the need to go beyond a compartmentalised to a pervasive approach in which all young people in the school have many opportunities during the day for the kinds of encounters I have mentioned above. In contexts like these, student voice is neither exotic nor elitist; rather it is the lived expression of a shared delight and shared responsibility between adults and young people for a particular way of learning and living.

An especially important site for this development, is of course, the formal and informal curriculum and pedagogy at the heart of which must lie three imperatives. The first has to do with the necessity of equipping young people and adults with the desire and capacity to seriously interrogate what is given and co-construct a knowledge that assists them in leading good and joyful lives together. The second imperative argues that whilst knowledge must transcend the local, it must, nonetheless, start with the cultures, concerns and hopes of the young people themselves and the communities the school serves. Lastly, whilst perhaps not a curricular requirement, a consequence of taking these first two desiderata seriously more often than not leads to integrated forms of enquiry with students and staff working in small learning communities. Given these three desiderata, the student will have many opportunities within her daily pattern of learning and her interactions with peers and members of staff to hear and be heard, to initiate and respond to dialogue in an adventurous and unfettered way that does not require special occasions or unusually developed confidence or capability.

6) Structures and spaces

Structurally the inclusive school will be mindful of interpersonal and architectural spaces that encourage a multiplicity of different forms of formal and informal engagement with a multiplicity of persons. These will include ‘subaltern spaces’ or spaces in which minority, marginalised or emergent groups can build the confidence, capacity and dispositions that enable them to explore and name what is important to them and also gain the confidence and desire to engage with larger, different groups of people within and beyond the school community. Key questions arising from such work include ‘How can schools co-create with disadvantaged young people a range of ‘spaces where they can deal with themselves’? How can we ensure those spaces do not become ghettoised? How can we find out more about whether some safe spaces unwittingly foster dependency and others are more able to bridge to other groups and wider ‘public’ spaces, cultures and practices in schools? How do we help dominant assumptions, cultures, and practices within schools to be more open to alternative perspectives and understandings?

7) Personal and communal narrative

The notion of narrative is central to the inclusive school for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is important because it connects in a fundamental way with one of the core purposes of education, namely with the making of meaning. There will be multiple spaces and opportunities for individuals, both young people and adults, to making meaning of their work, both personally and as a community. Indeed the two are connected. The anthropology of the self presumed by most inclusive traditions of education is communal rather than atomistic. The anthropology of an inclusive notion of community is one which honours difference and presumes the sanctity of the individual person.

The second reason narrative is important has to do with the necessary connection with history, with the pioneering traditions of inclusive education exemplified earlier by the work of Howard Case. Not only does history have much to teach its contemporary inheritors in a cautionary sense, it also provides many examples of counter-hegemonic significance and power that remind us not only of what has been but also that, in Terry Wrigley’s resonant phrase, ‘Another school is possible’ (Wrigley 2006) within the public sector of schooling.


8) The manner and means of listening

The kind of existential openness and attentiveness required of inclusive listening in an inclusive school must also explore a wide range of ways in which that listening can be accomplished. If we are to both honour and encourage diverse, often emergent identities we must develop commensurate, imaginative ways in which our listening can be developed.

Some of the most creative research and development work in the field of student voice and inclusion is using and developing a remarkable range of approaches (see Bragg 2007 for a useful introduction). Thus there are the familiar surveys and questionnaires, different kinds of interviews, observation, traditional forms of consultation such as councils and forums and newer approaches such as suggestion boxes, ideas booths, listening posts and graffiti walls. There is also increasing use of photography, drawing, collage, multi-media approaches, and audio-recording. Particularly exciting is not only the use of experiential, multi-facetted approaches such as logs and scrapbooks, guided tours, bedroom culture, toys, drama and role play, vignettes and scenarios, but also their co-development with young people themselves (see especially Busher 2009, Riley & Rustique-Forrester 2002)

Democratic fellowship

My final suggestions for developing an approach to student voice that is humanly rather than instrumentally inclusive take us into the territory and traditions of radical education and, as us such, they will appeal more to some readers than others. Ultimately I would want to make a connection between an inclusive school and a radical democratic school because for me both are concerned with the development of practices and aspirations that give the fullest expression to the basic philosophical principles of a democratic way of life – namely those based on freedom, equality, and community. Democracy on this account is about much more than how we arrive at decisions that bind us as individuals and as a community to certain courses of action. It is also about democratic fellowship, about our care for and delight in each other’s uniqueness and shared humanity, which provides the basic grounding on which democracy rests and the just and joyful aspirations towards which it strives (see Macmurray 1950). Democratic fellowship reminds us what democracy is for: it also provides us with a commensurate means of achieving it.

In addition to the eight suggestions outlined above, there are at least two further ways in which schools who share these aspirations might take their work forward. These have to do with approaches to accountability and with the development of a democratic communal forum such as that described by Howard Case at Epping House School.

9) Accountability as shared responsibility

Within current arrangements for external inspection the solicited voices of young people have an important role to play in matters of institutional accountability. Within an inclusive democratic school accountability is better understood and enacted as a form of ‘shared responsibility’ which is morally and politically situated, not merely technically and procedurally ‘delivered’. We cannot know what we are responsible for in anything other than a thin, box-ticking sense unless we return to shared educational purposes and from there co-author an account of core beliefs and the kinds of practices we believe will exemplify their realisation in an appropriately demanding and life-affirming way. Young people can and should be involved in such process, a good example being at Bishops Park College, Clacton, an 11-16 school in England where, towards the end of its radical phase of development, it developed a Research Forum out of which emerged a framework of aspirations and practices that formed the basis of the College’s accountability framework (see Fielding et al 2006).

The Research Forum comprised a core group of students, parents, governors, school staff and a small university research and development team. What is particularly pertinent to this context is the way in which relationships between adults and young people changed over time. Both began to see each other with new eyes. The shared desire to explore matters of some significance and work in new ways led, in many instances and on a number of occasions, not only to respectful and appreciative encounters and new understandings, but also to mutual advocacy of and delight in intergenerational working. It also produced a remarkable document which exemplified the kind of rich accountability, or in my terms, shared responsibility for which I am arguing.

10) School Meeting

The fullest exemplification of shared responsibility - a term which itself has a distinguished history, particularly within the context of 20th century radical education movements (see Fielding 2010) - lies in the development of the school Meeting within which the whole community reflects on its shared life, achievements and aspirations and makes meaning of its work together. In the words of the great pioneer, David Wills, ‘It is an arrangement in which all – adults and children – share the responsibility, all with an equal voice, and all equally subject to the will of the community’ (Wills 1966:27). The school Meeting is the most potent and most iconic of contexts within which inclusive listening moves from the cautious attentiveness of consultation to the more exploratory possibilities of participation. Here student voice is not only fulfilled, but transcended and transformed into a creative form of intergenerational learning. As the example of Epping House School suggests, and as other radical examples involving young people from Spain corroborate (Vulliamy 1948), more than any other equivalent form of school experience, the Meeting potentially offers a demanding and fulfilling expression of care for and delight, not only in each other’s uniqueness, but in the vibrancy and creative power of an inclusive, diverse democratic community.

Developments such as these will, of course, presume the kind of educative intentions and relationships for which I have argued earlier; likewise, the multiplicity of spaces and opportunities for the exploration and development of identities such as those exemplified in the work of Leora Cruddas (Case study 2 above). It will also presume the breaking up of larger schools into the semi-autonomous units typified by the development of the schools-within-schools movement of the past 40 years (see Davies 2009). Whilst size is not the guarantor of the kinds of relationships and practices I have been advocating and describing, it nonetheless remains a necessary precondition of their realisation.

6) ‘Some changes have to start now, else there is no beginning for us’

I end with two quotations. The first is a from the fine sociologist, Roger Dale, who in a talk on comprehensive education given in Madrid 1988 urged us to remember the prefigurative power of education; its power, not just to imagine a better future, but to create one now. Such a view suggests that education through its processes, the experiences it offers, and the expectations it makes, should prefigure, in microcosm, the more equal, just and fulfilling society ... Schools should not merely reflect the world of which they are a part, but be critical of it, and show in their own processes that its shortcomings are not inevitable, but can be changed. They aim to show that society can be characterized by communal as well as individual values, that all people merit equal treatment and equal dignity, that academic ability is not the only measure of a person, that racism and sexism are neither inevitable not acceptable. (Dale 1988: 17)

My second quotation is from the feminist writer, Sheila Rowbotham, who in Beyond the Fragments argues with eloquence and urgency that ‘Some changes have to start now else there is no beginning for us’ (Rowbotham1979: 140). She is right. What she says was true in the 1960s and 70s and is still true, not just for feminism, but for inclusive education today.



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Michael Fielding
Emeritus Professor
Faculty of Policy & Society

Institute of Education, University of London
20 Bedford Way
London WC1H OAL
England, UK

Email: m.fielding@ioe.ac.uk