Student Engagement and Democratic Justice in Education: For One and for All?

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Callingham, Margaret (2019) Student Engagement and Democratic Justice in Education: For One and for All? PhD thesis, Victoria University.


The argument developed throughout this thesis is that student engagement is an important equity issue. The focus, from an equity perspective, is on students from low socioeconomic backgrounds because they are the most dependent on education to improve their future life circumstances, yet they are the ones whose engagement tends to be marginalised within the dominant culture of schooling. The impetus for this inquiry developed as a result of a young friend’s broken relationship with education that took my mind back to my junior secondary years. I argue, from a historical perspective, that young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be positioned as the “educational Other”. There are pockets of hope, however, within schools that work comprehensively to engage the full diversity of their student populations in inclusive, non-marginalising, socially just education. The theoretical framework for the inquiry draws on Nancy Fraser’s (2008) notion of democratic justice with its principles of equal cultural value and parity of participation. Specifically, this investigation was based on the conviction that schools do not need to do something different, on the margins, to engage students from low socio-economic backgrounds; rather, schools need to ensure that all students have equitable access to the opportunities of being engaged in their education, free from social divisions and hierarchies of worth. The aim of this investigation was to understand how one school, through its people, policies, processes and provision, operated to engage its junior secondary students from low socio-economic backgrounds in social and academic relationships with school and school learning. Student engagement in this study has been contextualised in relation to the interconnections between students’ everyday experiences of engagement and the macrolevel influences on those experiences. The investigation was operationalised through a case study approach involving Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) and ethnographic methods. Within the YPAR component, a team of five student volunteers from years 7 to 10 devised and conducted investigations into student engagement with their peers across the junior school. The ethnographic component of the inquiry afforded me the opportunity to participate overtly in the daily life of the school over an 18-month period and to investigate the first year of implementation of a whole-school engagement initiative. The inquiry found that students from low socio-economic backgrounds were interested in their engagement with school and school learning. The inquiry also revealed that the engagement and participation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds was more likely to be marginalised than that of their more advantaged peers. The findings suggest that the students’ engagement had been enhanced by democratic justice in the form of flexible learning spaces and personalised learning that had been responsive to the students’ wellbeing and learning needs, and that had prioritised the students’ participation in their learning, their school and their community. Overall, the findings of this inquiry have reinforced the need for schools to be both vigilant in relation to removing obstacles to the engagement of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and to be visionary with regard to instigating initiatives that promote a socially just educational model that engages all students.

Additional Information

This thesis includes 1 book chapter for which access is restricted due to copyright permissions (Chapter 5)

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 1303 Specialist Studies in Education
Current > Division/Research > College of Arts and Education
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities
Keywords thesis by publication; student engagement; equity; low socio-economic; secondary school; students; engagement; learning
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