Disputing Dominant Discourses: Students’ and Teachers’ Interpretations of School
This paper contrasts the ‘voices’ and work-related identities of some students and teachers in a secondary school in England, UK. The school mainly serves an economically deprived neighbourhood of an East Midlands city. The research project on which it is based investigated how student identities are (re) constructed in school, promoting or inhibiting learning, engagement and inclusion.
Recent central government education policy in England, UK, for the secondary school sector has placed great emphasis on student ‘voice’ and inclusive education (DfES, 2004) as a means of facilitating student learning. The DfEE (2001), for example, suggests that pupils should be involved in decisions about their own individual learning and about practices in lessons and a school as a whole. Schools are required to provide evidence of student consultation to School Inspectors. ‘Student voice’ is often focused on school improvement, rather than on children’s rights of citizenship (Thompson and Gunter, 2005). Senior school policy makers seem to perceive ‘pupil voice’ as a means of achieving school improvement and higher standards of attainment (Thompson and Gunter, 2005). However, such ‘consultation’ is often tokenistic (Byrom et al, 2007), taking the form of formal student councils, the remit of which is circumscribed by senior staff. In practice students’ views about what might constitute for them successful teaching and learning are often completely disregarded by teachers (Hancock and Mansfield, 2002). Teachers who try to include students’ voices in school policy-making are constrained by government policies on standards and high attainment (Riley and Rustique-Forrester, 2002). Even when students’ voices are heard, greater respect is accorded to some rather than others (McGregor, 2007). The heterogeneity of student voices rarely seems to be acknowledged.
Our study investigated students’ and teachers’ work-related identities and ‘voices’ in relation to the dominant discourses of a school, and how they perceived schooling. It acknowledged the heterogeneity of student voice by investigating the different perspectives of engaged and disaffected students and their teachers. It draws on conceptual frameworks of post-structuralism (Foucault in Gordon 1980), identity (Giddens, 1991) and student voice (Fielding, 2004; and Byrom et al, 2007) to make sense of the different work-related identities students constructed and the voices they developed and how these affected their views of learning and of school.
This is a case study of engaged and disaffected students (as defined by their class teachers) in a secondary school an East Midlands city in England, UK. It focused on 41 Year Nine (14 year old) students and their teachers from four different classes: top and bottom English teaching sets, the Special Educational Needs group, and a mixed ability Personal and Social Education (PSHE) group. The students were trained in visual ethnography to capture views of themselves in school photographically and then construct a story board /scrapbook with them. These scrapbooks formed the basis of students’ reflexive interviews with the research team. Teachers were asked to carry out a similar process. Students’ and teachers’ views were triangulated with those of senior school managers and some parents, and from school policy documents. Qualitative data was analysed thematically and through critical discourse analysis. Pictorial data was analysed using simple descriptive statistics as well as for its meaning to participants.
Initial findings show the limited scope teachers have to harness students’ views on school because of government agenda and their own views of appropriate relationships with students. Most students show evidence of alienation from schooling which, in some cases is hindering their learning. Greater opportunity for teachers and students to hear and shape action to take account of each others' views is likely to facilitate students' learning. Visual ethnography appears to be a powerful tool for eliciting insights into the complexitiex of students' voices.
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