The Ladder Of Pupil Participation

When it comes to pupil participation in school life and life beyond school, just how involved are they?

There can be nothing worse than seeing how children are manipulated by parents when, for example, they are made to attend a demonstration that they have no understanding of.

We often see this in the news where toddlers and young children hold political placards as part of a march they really don’t have a clue about. This is manipulation and exploitative and it is certainly an abuse of children’s rights.

It reminds me of the ladder of participation outlined by Roger A. Hart (1992) based on Sherry Arnstein’s (1969) “ladder of citizen participation” showing participation ranging from high to low. Let’s take a look.

1. Manipulation

This is the lowest rung of the ladder. Children have no understanding of the issues and hence do not understand their actions. Hart gives the example of pre-school children carrying placards and says that that this is manipulation under the guise of participation and “is hardly an appropriate way to introduce children into democratic political processes.”

Hart gives another interesting example in relation to school and children designing their ideal playground (see page 9).

2. Decoration

Children are entertained through performances, or simply providing evidence of their involvement, e.g. photographs of children at events dancing or singing. This second rung of the ladder is basically where the children are present “but have little idea of what it is all about and no say in the organising of the occasion.”

3. Tokenism

Children appear to have a voice; they are invited to sit as representatives of children but provided no opportunity to formulate ideas, e.g. children being asked to represent school at youth council where there are no structures in place to ensure participation.

Hart says that regardless of what the children say or how unrepresentative their comments might be, “one can be sure of a lot of applause and photography, and some cute stories in the newspapers the following day. Because children are not as naïve as usually assumed, they learn from such experiences that participation can be a sham.”

4. Assigned but informed

Children understand the intentions of the project; they know who made the decision concerning their involvement and why; they volunteer for the project (rather than ‘decorative’) and have a meaningful role, e.g. school council that makes few decisions.

5. Consulted and informed

Projects are designed and run by adults but youth understand the project and their opinions are treated seriously, e.g. they  work as consultants for adults in a manner which has great integrity such as local planning projects for playgrounds, youth clubs etc.

Hart gives an example from the world of TV programme production citing Nickelodeon who pitch ideas in consultation with  children: “Low cost versions of the programme are created and critiqued by the children. The programmes are then redesigned and again shown to the same expert panel of children.”

6. Adult initiated shared decisions with children

“The sixth rung of the ladder is true participation” because although adults initiated the project, decision making is shared with children, e.g. democratically run school councils.

7. Child initiated and directed

Children initiate and direct their own projects and adults leave them alone, e.g. youth club committees that are run by young people.

8. Child initiated shared decisions with adults

Children incorporate adults into projects they have designed and managed, e.g. fair trade campaigns started by children in schools.

“Regrettably, projects like these, on the highest rung of the ladder of participation, are all too rare. The reason, I believe, is not
the absence of a desire to be useful on the part of teenagers. It is rather the absence of caring adults attuned to the particular interests of young people. We need people who are able to respond to the subtle indicators of energy and compassion in teenagers.”

And finally….

The 8 rungs of the ladder represent show a continuum of power that ascends from nonparticipation (no agency) to degrees of participation (increasing levels of agency).

Although arranged in steps, Hart cautions against viewing the ladder as a developmental model with sequential stages or levels of participation:

“I think of the upper rungs of the ladder as expressions of different ‘degrees’ of agency or participatory engagement by young people.”

The rungs from 4-8 in the ladder are examples of genuine participation and hopefully schools can locate themselves somewhere in these areas.

Although children do participate in their communities and beyond more broadly, this schema serves as a useful tool to think about how participative children really are.

Hart (2008) asks us to think carefully about the ladder as he doesn’t want us to think of children as being repressed “who needed to be liberated through a series of steps whereby all adult engagement was removed.”

My concern was rather to argue that children’s potentials as citizens needs to be recognised to the fullest and, to that end, children ought to be able to participate at times at their highest possible level.

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