Improving Wellbeing through Student Participation at School


Children’s participation has been on the policy agenda in Australia since 1989 when the United Nations’ General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Since then, the realisation that children can, and indeed have the right to, express their views on matters affecting them has influenced public discourse and policy globally. Nevertheless, schools and school systems in Australia (where children spend much of their childhoods) have been slow in giving serious attention to participation in policy and practice, beyond passing reference to ‘student voice’ and initiatives such as Student Representative Councils – which are often seen as representative, tokenistic and adult/teacher-led. At the same time, the wellbeing of children and young people has become an urgent concern in Australia with schools increasingly being seen as appropriate sites for intervention.

Prior to this work there had been no large-scale studies in Australia or internationally that have examined how student participation is viewed and approached in schools nor whether there is a positive association between student participation and their wellbeing. A previous Australian Research Council funded study (LP110200656 2011-14), also by Graham and colleagues at SCU, examined the links between relationships and wellbeing at school, with a key finding being the central importance students place on being recognised (cared for, respected and valued). Considerable interest in the findings by both non-government and government school systems led to the NSW Department of Education, the Lismore Catholic Schools Office and the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People partnering on further ARC research ($575,000) (LP140100540 2014-18) to investigate the links between participation, recognition and wellbeing at school with the intent of informing policy directions in

  • Students
  • Teachers, Principals and other school staff (e.g., counsellors, support teachers)
  • NSW Department of Education
  • Catholic Schools Office, Lismore
  • NSW Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People
  • Primary and Secondary Schools across NSW
  • Master of Education students, SCU

The impact of this research can be seen through the formal adoption of research findings and recommendations into government and non-government education policy reforms, including:

  • informing new policy directions around student-centred schools for both systems
  • informing the revised mission and strategic directions framework for Lismore Catholic Schools
  • the development of web-based resources for schools, including a valid tool to measure participation which has had increased uptake over time;
  • system involvement in co-designing and trialling a series of 5 accredited professional development workshops for staff in schools based on the findings of the research;
  • increasing utilisation of the above resources by the Catholic Schools Office Lismore, the NSW Department of Education and other school systems.

Impact on policy change

The NSW Department of Education Strategic Plan 2018-2022 begins with:

“Children and young people are at the centre of all our decision-making”

The plan then outlines as Goal 2 that: “Every student is known, valued and cared for in our schools”

Policy priorities and related resources subsequently developed by the NSW Department of Education (Attendance, Behaviour and Engagement team) highlight the importance of student voice, including tools and case studies:

Drawing directly on the research findings, these include resources to support schools in progressing participation, framed around the study’s key elements associated with wellbeing - having voice, choice, influence and working together.

Findings informing the focus in Education Week 2019

The annual Education Week in 2019 adopted the theme of Every Student, Every Voice with this research cited at launch and mentioned in media release

Translating knowledge into professional workshops

A series of professional learning workshops recently accredited by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) are delivered as 5 workshops with accompanying work booklets. These were trialled and refined in 2019 (with the involvement of system leaders and staff from 10 government and non-government schools) and are being rolled out across NSW schools regions in 2020.

Resources having an impact

A number of resources were developed as a result of the research findings and subsequent interest for practical tools that could be easily accessed to inform policy and practice. These are:

  1. Good Practice Guide
  2. Quick Reference Guide
  3. Student Participation Survey – Information Pack (online distribution)
  4. Student Participation Survey – Information Pack (hard copy distribution)

Every school attending presentations and workshops across NSW and in other states has received a hard copy of these resources. Tracking statistics are currently being set up to enable a more accurate indication of the take up of the online resources.

Presentations and Workshops

The findings of the project have been the focus of over 30 presentations and workshops to date - regionally, nationally and internationally. These have involved regional Directors of Education across NSW, senior management, principals, school executive members and teachers; academics; audiences from other sectors interested in applying the findings in their services (out-of-home care, disability; youth services).

The mixed-method study explored whether and how student participation at school is linked to young people’s social and emotional well-being. Specifically, the research utilised recognition theory to investigate how participation is understood and practised in schools, including which elements are positively associated with wellbeing. 

The study found student wellbeing was most strongly linked to students having opportunities to work together with others (including adults and decision-makers) within school, as well as having influence, having choice and having voice with influential people (like teachers, peer leaders, Year Coordinators).

Further funding was secured in 2019 (totalling $80,000) to a) extend the scope of the professional development resources for schools including the co-design of a train-the-trainer package (funded by the NSW Department of Education); and b) to develop a repository of evidence-based resources used to support the participation of children and young people in schools and other sectors (funded by the Office of the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People). Further funding from the Catholic Schools Office has been approved for 2020 to apply the research in the development of the student domain in the system’s revised strategic plan.

Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP), Southern Cross University (Lead Institution)

  • Professor Anne Graham: Chief Investigator
  • Dr Catharine Simmons: Project Officer - qualitative methods, project management
  • Julia Truscott: Research Assistant

Australian National University

  • Associate Professor Sharon Bessell: Chief Investigator
  • Dr Elizabeth Adamson: Research Assistant, Policy

University of Sydney

  • Professor Judy Cashmore: Chief Investigator

University of Central Lancashire UK

  • Professor Nigel Thomas: Partner Investigator

Charles Sturt University

  • Dr Donnah Anderson: Project Officer - quantitative methods

NSW Department of Education and Communities

  • Dr Lyn Gardon: Partner Investigator

Catholic Schools Office, Lismore

  • Paul Thornton: Partner Investigator
  • Paul Milgate: Partner Investigator

NSW Advocate for Children & Young People

  • Andrew Johnson: Partner Investigator
  • Melissa Goldman: Research advisor

Expert advisory group

  • 4 representatives from the partner organisations (the NSW Department of Education, Lismore Catholic Schools’ Office and the Office of the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People);
  • 2 school principals;
  • 2 teachers;
  • 6 students from Years 7-9.