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Notions  of "pupil voice" and "listening to young people" are all the vogue at present, and many schools have class reps and school councils, with some schools even involving pupil reps on interview panels for new staff. Clearly, with the RSA’s interest in democratising education these themes tend to emerge at events and projects with which we’re involved – recent examples include a QCDA/RSA seminar exploring pupil agency in schooling; and the launch of the campaign for Whole Education here at the RSA this week, where presenters included a range of young people, from school pupils to apprentices. Indeed, "young people" (apparently meaning anything from age 13-30) are now officially represented on many bodies including government panels by a designated "young person".

Notions  of "pupil voice" and "listening to young people" are all the vogue at present, and many schools have class reps and school councils, with some schools even involving pupil reps on interview panels for new staff. Clearly, with the RSA’s interest in democratising education these themes tend to emerge at events and projects with which we’re involved – recent examples include a QCDA/RSA seminar exploring pupil agency in schooling; and the launch of the campaign for Whole Education here at the RSA this week, where presenters included a range of young people, from school pupils to apprentices. Indeed, "young people" (apparently meaning anything from age 13-30) are now officially represented on many bodies including government panels by a designated "young person".

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That one can now be a professional "young person" raises a series of interesting questions in relation to critiques of identity politics. Such understandings of a single person being able to represent and speak for large groups simply on the basis of age, gender, ethnicity etc has been widely problematised in academe and in social theory such as feminist theory, but does not yet seem to have filtered through to many voluntary organisations (or schools).  For example, can a 23-year-old White middle-class Cambridge graduate speak for, say, a 16-year-old working class schoolboy – or indeed vice-versa - simply because they are both seen as "young" by grey-haired professionals?

But beyond such questions of representation, it is also notable that discussions of agency and "voice" for pupils in school tend to proceed apparently oblivious to the oxymoron underpinning them. Agency and ‘"voice" are inevitably narrowly circumscribed in schooling because attendance is mandatory, and failure to comply to school rules is punishable. As such, while it would be churlish not to applaud attempts to give pupils a greater say in their schooling, and for practitioners to listen to their opinions, we have to ask how meaningful such practices can be in the present system. Real pupil agency demands completely different educational models, such as Summerhill, where pupils can choose whether or not to attend lessons. But are we ready to embrace such steps?

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