In this article, Christopher Williams unpacks recent DfES guidance on student involvement.

In Working Together: Giving Children and Young People a Say, the DfES presented the ‘benefits’ of participation in school councils and similar activities. The Carnegie Trust Young People’s Initiative recently commissioned the Centre for International Education and Research (CIER) at Birmingham University to investigate the ‘impact’ evidence further. This article outlines the shortcomings of current research, in the hope that future assessments can provide better evidence for and understanding of the benefits of participation.

What are the benefits of participation?

Children and young people

  • develop new skills – debating, negotiating, group decision-making and influencing decision-makers
  • understand how decisions are made and how to contribute to them
  • recognise they are taken seriously, resulting in increased confidence, self-esteem and aspirations
  • receive better services which are more responsive to their needs
  • become more motivated to get involved in their school and wider community.

The school

  • greater academic achievement through participative processes
  • improved behaviour and attendance as alienation and disaffection diminish
  • a more inclusive environment
  • enhanced curriculum provision, including PSHE
  • contribution to meeting the National Healthy School Standard
  • the creation of listening and democratic schools.

Working Together: Giving Children and Young People a Say (DfES, 2004).

Subjective or objective?

Many assessments appear objective and ‘empirical’, but are based on self-perceptions. Usually these are the views of participants and activity organisers rather than of other stakeholders. In-house perception studies are useful, but their strengths are that they identify relevant issues and opportunities for developing specific activities, rather than providing robust generalisable assessments of impact. But even if self-perceptions of benefits such as ‘greater confidence’ and ‘ability to speak out’ are not objective measures of those particular outcomes, they indicate that participants view the activity positively. In the context of general school life that is often a significant outcome.

Cause or catalyst?

Many studies assume direct causation between the participatory activity and the apparent benefit. This may be a false link. Can a distinct impact on ‘school achievement’ be claimed if the participatory activity is less than 1% of the time children spent on formal lessons? Longitudinal studies are problematic because outcomes such as ‘increased confidence’ may arise more from general personal development over two or three years than from a specific activity.

Participatory activities may function more as catalysts than causes of benefits. But this is not unimportant. Outcomes may be better assessed in terms of the activity providing valuable space, for example providing a place where children of different ages and ethnic groups meet and learn to respect one another. The tangible ‘benefits’ may be evident much later, elsewhere.

Presence or distance?

The impact of ‘distance’ participation is rarely mentioned. This might include young people’s websites, texting and non-ICT strategies such as mail and outreach work. Distance activities provide benefits for students who cannot, or do not want to, be part of a committee, but still want to participate. This is particularly relevant in relation to special needs, children in hospitals or other forms of care, traveller children, and those who live abroad or travel frequently as part of an international family. 

‘Benefit’ or hidden agenda?

There is often a mismatch between the expected outcome and the nature of the activity. Why, for example, should activities set in ‘after-school recreation clubs’ be expected to increase ‘school performance’? Surely the point is that these clubs are not an extension of schooling, but a place for completely different activities. Is it surprising that ‘in centres that operated on a drop-in basis, attendance was sporadic’? Surely accommodating sporadic attendance is the distinctive function of a drop-in centre. The first purpose of a ‘field trip committee’ is to arrange a field trip efficiently, not to improve accounting skills or gender relations. Often, hidden agendas are operating – whatever the stated purpose of an activity, the aim is social control and the improvement of school grades.

Voting or democracy?

‘Likelihood of voting’ is still presented as a major goal of participation, yet throughout the western world the trend is that young people are finding other more effective ways to achieve ‘direct democratic accountability’, such as the ‘Battle of Seattle’, anti-war protests, netizenship (citizen use of the net), phone-ins and pod-casting. Voting is only one aspect of political accountability, and if national governance continues to be centred on political party systems that have few benefits for an electorate and are seen as irrelevant and self-serving by young people, they will abstain. Abstention is a rational and significant political act, and should not be presented as contrary to democracy.

Participation or containment?

The ‘containment function’ (eg avoiding crime, drugs; childcare for working parents) of activities is assumed to be an intrinsic benefit of many after-school activities. It is rarely considered that sometimes young people might find something better to do with their time. Should there be an assumption that ‘keeping them off the streets’ is an intrinsically desirable outcome of all out-of-school-hours activities?


DfES (2004) Working Together: Giving Children and Young People a Say. DfES/0134/2004
CIER (2006) Inspiring Schools: Impact and Outcomes, London: Carnegie Trust Young People’s Initiative.

Dr Christopher Williams is lecturer in international education at the Centre for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham.

First published in Learning for Life, October 2006