Recent Guardian articles have been reporting how this year’s GCSE exam results have been impacted by the crisis in young people’s mental health. There is increasing concern among school leaders about school absence and abnormal levels of anxiety (Weale, & Adams, 2023). The anecdotal evidence, from ex-colleagues in schools, is that a cohort of young people who struggle to attend also find many social situations difficult including attending exams. As I embark on the third blog related to my research, these articles reminded me how schools seem to have lost sight of what some of the most vulnerable young people (YP) need to succeed. I explore how the research processes I developed, positively impacted the YP involved and acts as a counter to much of what YP see as being wrong with schools.
As a PhD student, I was returning to the school where, as a teacher, I had previously implemented a whole-school mental health strategy. The strategy was designed to include the whole school, staff and students, and aimed to create an enabling community who took responsibility for their mental health within a supportive structure. The intention was to do this through education, training, support and collaboration with the broader mental health community. During the research process, I became increasingly aware that there was a section of YP who, for various reasons, may find the concept of ‘taking responsibility’ an alien one.
Power in schools
Having experienced schools for the vast majority of my life, I was able to reflect that they were institutions dominated by power. At secondary school, I experienced power through violence via corporal punishment and as a teacher, I often saw hierarchical power influence staff and YP in various ways. Foucault claimed that power is an essential element in the development of individuals as they are constituted through social interactions, which are power-laden (Saldana, 2013). These interactions in schools, therefore, shape a young person’s identity. Foucault explores power’s role in forming an individual’s agency that develops through interactions within the family and school (Saldana, 2013). Furthermore, YP are subject to dangerous strategic power relations within social institutions, including schools, such as sexism, class oppression, and adultism.
This blog will centre on the role of power in schools, how it has impacted identity and agency, and how it has contributed to my research.
As discussed in my previous blogs, my concerns about returning to my last school were based on power issues. I was an ex-senior leader returning to conduct research with YP and expecting them to open up to me. It was clear that this would only happen if I could mitigate the impact of my previous responsibilities. Having sought advice from groups of YP we decided to develop a young research team (YRT) of volunteer sixth formers who collaborated with me whilst working directly with younger volunteers taken from the school’s Pupil Premium (PP) cohort. As I explained in my previous blog (https://www.acamh.org/blog/developing-schools-to-enhance-young-peoples-mental-health/), a new methodology I call Youth Participative Dialogic Action Research (YPDAR) resulted. This enabled both the YRT and the participants to contribute to the school’s running by contributing to an evaluation of this school strategy. The aim was to shift the power base in favour of YP, empower them, and improve their sense of self and cultural and social capital, helping develop their agency to act.
Power impacting on young people’s agency
Agency concerns the ability of an individual to shape their own life by intervening to bring about change (Houlders, Bortolotti, & Broome, 2021). Being an agent relates to intentionally making things happen so an individual can adapt, develop and renew (Bandura, 2001; 2012). The concept of agency is complex as some believe it is not something individuals possess but only exists in their relationships with others (Oswell, 2013; Horgan et al., 2017). In the context of agency as a relational concept, the link between the two is clear: YP in schools subject to certain adult power regimes are likely to have a diminished sense of agency. YP “are context-dependant relational beings” (Horgan et al., 2017, p.276) who are impacted by the environments in which they live. The circumstances in which YP live differ; in turn, so too will their agency to act. The importance of supporting children and YP to develop their sense of agency cannot be underestimated (Maynard & Stuart, 2017).
In relation to the whole school strategy, we had failed to consider this, and we had assumed that taking responsibility for their mental health (or other aspects of their lives) would be a straightforward task, which it was not, for our participants.
Schools, agency, sense of self and identity
Whilst agency, is linked with a sense of self (Houlders et al., 2021), epistemic agency is the ability and motivation to refine and alter belief-forming methods and practices. Relationships with primary caregivers and personal and traumatic life events exemplify how outside agents can influence YP’s sense of self (Houlders et al., 2021). Throughout my teaching career, I saw how individuals from different backgrounds experienced life differently, impacting their sense of self. This was often communicated through a personal narrative that was also affected by sociological structures, such as schools and interpersonal relationships; these events and interactions often framed their lives (Houlders et al., 2021). YP who live in stable family units and have enough money for food, clothes, heating, and leisure activities will likely have a more stable sense of self than less advantaged YP.
Stuart et al. (2019) suggest schools need to be aware of YP’s backgrounds, and professionals need to try and understand how YP’s lives have been shaped and how this may impact behaviours. However, there is an ongoing struggle between traditionalists who advocate zero-tolerance behaviour policies and progressives who favour more educative approaches, which may enable the background to be considered. To my mind this is down to how society sees YP. If we recognise YP as complete human beings with the facility to participate fully in society, we must treat them this way (Freeman, 1996; Spyrou, 2020). The link between power, relationships and sense of self is played out in schools nationwide. This requires consideration if we have expectations of YP being able to take responsibility.
Schools also have a role to play in YP’s epistemic development as their structures communicate different expectations regarding staff and YP’s roles. These structures influence which or whose knowledge is valuable and how that knowledge should be constructed (Ko & Krist, 2019). A school’s power structures characteristically ascribe epistemic agency and authority to staff rather than YP. Therefore, a young person may have the dual impacts of a less advantageous upbringing alongside attendance at a school where their epistemic agency development is discouraged or ignored. If YP are expected to take responsibility for their behaviour (including their mental health), schools must understand their role in developing their epistemic agency.
There is also a belief that children begin to build their social identity through interactions with other groups in more formal settings, such as schools (Albarello, Crocetti, & Rubini, 2018). As adolescence approaches they are drawn towards their peers, making schools important in identity development (Reay, 2009). Furthermore, this is further complicated as YP construct their learner identity in schools through their relationships with peers and school staff (Reay, 2009). In my first blog (10.13056/acamh.15247), I explore how the marketisation of education has negatively impacted school values. The overemphasis on school assessment has resulted in the valorisation of ability as measured by tests and exams. YP then unwittingly put these misguided values at the centre of their identity formation (Reay, 2009).
Through my research I now understand when teaching what I saw as a lack of aspiration was a far more complex construct. These YP are only partially in control of their destinies. Yes, they can make choices, but these are often limited. I, therefore, suggest some YP have less capacity to take responsibility than others.
Rebalancing the system
My research, using YPDAR has started to address these issues. The findings demonstrated that working in this way developed YP’s confidence, trust and empowered them to act. As the YRT and participants grew into their respective roles, their epistemic agency developed. They were recognised as capable individuals doing a valuable job reviewing a critical area of school policy. In addition, the academic paper we wrote together (McPartlan et al., 2022) and the conferences we attended contributed to this process, adding to their social and cultural capital. The YP’s sense of self improved as they saw opportunities for self-growth; their identity was enhanced as was their agency to act. As I now develop my research further, to test its efficacy over time, I believe there is a place for student-led school improvement research projects such as this in our schools. The Guardian article reported increasing absence and anxiety for YP in school, impacting their life chances. As a society we need to encourage schools to become more holistic by developing systems that are more than just about exams?
- Blog ‘Developing schools to enhance young people’s mental health’ by Dave McPartlan (June 2023)
- Blog ‘Mental Health in schools: learning lessons from the past’ by Dave McPartlan (March 2021)
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Weale, S. and Adams, R. (2023, August 21). GCSEs in England hit by high absence levels and mental ill health, heads say. The Guardian.