Redistributing power in schools and how this can impact young people’s agency and identity

Dave McPartlan
A teacher in the UK for over 35 years, Dave’s career focussed on pastoral and welfare aspects of education as an Assistant Headteacher at a large secondary comprehensive school in northern England, UK. After leaving teaching he embarked on a research career focussing on YPAR within a school context. His research has enabled young people to be co-research partners in projects which have enabled them to contribute to school improvement for the first time. Dave also led an Emerging Minds SIG which explored what young people need to take responsibility for their own mental health, and what society needs to do to support them in taking responsibility. He also works as the liaison for the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) and the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA), and is also an active member of ARNA's YPAR ARC which is committed to developing a global YPAR network. Dave submitted his PhD in March 2023 and is awaiting his viva; his thesis focuses on the impact of power on young people’s identity and agency to act and the impact this can have on school culture.

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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 (, 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?

Other resources

  • 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)


Albarello, F., Crocetti, E., & Rubini, M. (2018). I and Us: A Longitudinal Study on the Interplay of Personal and Social Identity in Adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(4), 689–702.

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Bandura, Albert. (2001). SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY : An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1–26. Retrieved from

Freeman, M. (1996). Children’s education; a test case for best interests and autonomy,. In D. Davie, R. & Galloway (Ed.), Listening to children in education. London: David Fulton.

Horgan, D., Forde, C., Martin, S., & Parkes, A. (2017). Children’s participation: moving from the performative to the social. Children’s Geographies, Vol. 15, pp. 274–288.

Houlders, J. W., Bortolotti, L., & Broome, M. R. (2021). Threats to epistemic agency in young people with unusual experiences and beliefs. Synthese.

Ko, M. L. M., & Krist, C. (2019). Opening up curricula to redistribute epistemic agency: A framework for supporting science teaching. Science Education, 103(4), 979–1010.

Maynard, L., & Stuart, K. (2017). Promoting young people’s wellbeing through empowerment and agency: A critical framework for practice. In Promoting Young People’s Wellbeing through Empowerment and Agency: A Critical Framework for Practice.

McPartlan, D., Bell, S., Greenup, C., Liddell, J., Liddell, K., Norwood, E. & Schollick, J. (2022). The International Resilience Revolution Conference. The Benefits of Young Researchers in a School YPAR Project.

Oswell, D. (2013). The Agency of Children: From Family to Global Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reay, D. (2009). Identity Making in Schools and Classrooms. 1–18.

Saldana, J. (2013). Power and Conformity in Today’s Schools. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 3(1), 228–232. Retrieved from

Spyrou, S. (2020). Children as future-makers. Childhood, 27(1), 3–7.

Stuart, K., Bunting, M., Boyd, P., Cammack, P., Hornbæk Frostholm, P., Thore Graveson, D., … Walker, S. (2019). Developing an equalities literacy for practitioners working with children, young people and families through action research. Educational Action Research, 28(3), 362–382.

Weale, S. and Adams, R. (2023, August 21). GCSEs in England hit by high absence levels and mental ill health, heads say. The Guardian.

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