Student voice and the role of school governors: a case study using participatory action research

PIF 6 February 2020

At our Participatory Inquiry Forum focused on doctoral research, we had Professional EdD student Tracey Price presenting on the early stages of setting up her participatory action research case study on the role of school governors in promoting student voice. She started by reflecting on her professional role as the Chair of Governors at the school where her research takes place, but also her role as a mother of a student at that school, a mother of a teacher at that school, and a member of the local community that the students and teachers are also a part of. Because of these roles, Tracey felt she is not an insider or an outsider but both, partially, at different times.

Tracey began by researching the history of school governance – where did it start and how has it changed over time? The main role and responsibility of the Local Governing Body/Committee is to ensure the school provide a good quality of education for all students. As early as 1977, The Taylor Report advocated for a strong link between governors and the student body. Since then, various agendas have suggested there should be “mechanisms for enabling the board to “listen, understand and respond to the voices of parents/carers, pupils, staff, local communities and employers…pupils” (DfE, 2019, p.10).

However in terms of research into student voice, it is becoming harder and harder to get into schools as they are so pressed for time and focused around grades and Ofsted, who are not necessarily interested in student voice. Ofsted and Governors tend to hear from more articulate/active/elected students or those who are struggling/have behavioural problems and are outspoken, but Tracey is particularly interested in what is happening for those who are just getting along, the “excluded middle” (Wisby, 2011, p.42) and “the silent – or silenced – students” (Rudduck and Fielding, 2006, p.228). This led her to the research questions:

  • What is student voice, and what is available to students in the school to express their voice?
  • How might the link between governors and the student voice be developed and strengthened?

It also led her to a participatory paradigm that is collaborative, with the co-production of knowledge through joint understanding from lived experience (Costley, Elliot and Gibbs, 2010). Tracey’s case study will take place in one secondary school with a group of sixth form students (aged 16-18) as co-researchers. The students have first-hand knowledge of school, while Tracey has experience as a Governor, which is reflecting in an ontology of becoming where no-one has all the expertise (Gallacher and Gallagher, 2008) and they will all be going through the research process together. They will be using McNiff’s revised 2002 PAR model described below:

“We review our current practice; identify an aspect we wish to investigate; asked focused questions about how we can investigate it; imagine a way forwards; try it out, and take stock of what happens; modify our plan in light of what we have found, and continue with the action; evaluate the modified action, and reconsider what we are doing in light of the evaluation. This can lead to a new action-reflection cycle…” (McNiff, 2013, p.90)

She is also drawing on Zuber-Skerritt and Perry (2002, p.177) to understand the relationship between thesis research, core action research and thesis writing:


In terms of progress so far, Tracey has recruited her co-researchers and is establishing the best way to communicate through the school system (rather than on personal emails) and meet with them at times that fit with their school schedule. We discussed boundaries relating back to Tracey’s various roles in the school and community – for example only talking with the students about the research at the research meetings and not when she sees them in other contexts.

Tracey concluded by sharing the following quote, which she said summed up her experience of participatory doctoral research so far:

“For us, research is fundamentally a process of muddling through, sometimes feeling lost and out of place, asking stupid questions, being corrected and having our preconceptions destroyed. In this way, we cannot deny our incompetence and vulnerabilities: our immaturity. And we do not want to.” (Gallacher and Gallagher, 2008, p.509, italics in the original)


Costley, C., Elliot, G. and Gibbs, P., 2010. Doing Work Based Research. London: Sage.

Department for Education (DfE), 2019. Governance Handbook: For academies, multi-academy trusts and maintained schools. [pdf] London: Crown copyright.

Gallacher, L.A. and Gallagher, M., 2008. Methodological Immaturity in Childhood Research? Thinking through participatory methods. Childhood, 15(4), pp.499-516.

McNiff, J., 2013. Action Research Principles and Practice. 3rd ed. Oxon: Routledge.

Rudduck, J. and Fielding, M., 2006. Student voice and the perils of popularity. Educational Review, 58(2), pp.219-231.

Wisby, E., 2011., Student Voice and New Models of Teacher Professionalism. In G. Czerniawski and W. Kidd eds. 2011. The student voice handbook: bridging the academic/practitioner divide. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing, pp. 31-44.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. and Perry C., 2002. Action research within organisations and university thesis writing. The Learning Organization, 9(4), pp.171-79.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at

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