FULL LEARNING BRIEF:
Children participating in school governance - an ongoing investigation
RAPCAN and DG MURRAY TRUST entered into a partnership in October 2012 for a Children Participating in School Governance Project that would be implemented from January to December 2012. The location for project implementation is the Greater Lavender Hill area where RAPCAN has existing partner relationships. In 2012, project implementation was adversely affected by escalating gang violence that has reached epic proportions. This is a reflexive brief that traces the development of the project and highlights specifically the experiences of the project staff.
The project conceptualisation team consisted of the Executive Director, Executive Assistant and Advocacy coordinator. The implementation team consists of the Governance coordinator, Research Advisor, Research Intern, Governance Research Assistant. The Research Advisor was responsible for developing the protocol including the literature review, method and tools. She trained the data collection research team to implement the tools and collect data effectively using audio records, observation notes and transcripts.
The research process started with negotiating entry into the schools. RAPCAN only had a pre-existing relationship with one high school. We were even able to observe a School Governing Body (SGB) election process at this school. This principal was also instrumental in creating access to other principals and schools. Meetings with this pilot school for the governance research project started early in April and we secured a briefing meeting with four principals from Lavender Hill, Sebelius, Crestway and Steenberg High Schools on 25 April 2012 – as part of their regular principals forum meeting. The principals were generally eager to participate in the research but were also requesting further information and for RAPCAN to link with the Department of Education (DoE). They agreed to a focus group session on 6 June 2012. Meetings in May with the pilot school sought to understand the political dynamics between schools and the DOE as well as inter-relatedness of schools in the area.
The Protocol was developed in the first quarter of 2012 but was not submitted for ethical clearance for the following reasons: 1) the DoE research ethics clearance processes are not easy to understand; 2) a circular was disseminated in 2011 that limited the engagement of NGOs from working with schools during teaching hours; and 3) this research constitutes formative research for RAPCAN i.e. a pre-cursor to developing a support intervention and will not be published. RAPCAN will retain the protocol as an internal research guideline. RAPCAN is evolving our research practice therefore, ethics processes and protocols are relatively new for the organisation and we do not necessarily always understand or anticipate challenges within the process.
The data collection process commences with informed consent processes and then engages data collection by means of focus group or individual interviews with adults and children. Data will be collected from principals, educators, the SGB chairperson and learners. Due to the pre-existing relationship with LHH it made sense to pilot tools with this school.
The principals were advised of the study by means of a letter from RAPCAN Executive Director and a request to meet at their regular forum meeting for further information exchange. After the first briefing meeting, the principals were provided with the data collection tools and they agreed to participate in the project. They confirmed that the research process could commence with their interviews on 6 June. On 6 June, RAPCAN interviewed two principals in a focus group and conducted an individual interview with a third principal later that day at his school. The fourth principal was on sick leave however he did express willingness to be part of the research process.
Key experiences of the researchers that emerged from the interview with principals: 1) principals were willing and open to share their understanding/orientation/ philosophy about children’s participation rights in schools whereas others were not as clear about their orientation; 2) the researchers were surprised by the honesty / frankness from some principals about their reflections of the current status of child participation in school governance and found this to be refreshing whereas others preferred to focus on procedural matters; 3) the researchers did not expect the nature of the collegial solidarity and empathic supportive relationship amongst principals which seemed to underpin their ability to be honest; 4) researchers could sense the frustration when some principals were grappling with how to make child participation effective relative to contextual challenges within each school whereas other schools’ contexts seems to be influenced by less socio-economic challenges.
Data collection from children followed strict ethical procedures: 1) the Executive Director was able to engage with 6 learners of the pilot school in May in a preliminary discussion about their willingness to participate in the research process and allow them to decide who the learner key informants should be in a research process; 2) the Governance Coordinator further conducted a session to provide the briefing of the research protocol and the consent forms for learners and their parents in mid-June; 3) once forms were collected only those who had returned both consent forms and were willing to be part of the research process formed part of the pilot focus group.
Experiences of the researchers from the focus group with children: 1) the initial group of willing and informed participants consisted of 6 learners; 2) the leadership of the Representative Council of Learners (RCL) and prefect structures were not present neither the learner representatives on the SGB and researchers would need to conduct follow ups with these important key informants; 3) the researchers engaged the learners off the record and developed a good rapport but once the recorder (which they had consented to) was switched on, the learners seemed to become a bit nervous; 4) some learners were even too inhibited to raise individual opinions rather opting for adding to or agreeing with group responses; 5) when they become more comfortable, they were eager to share even seemed to forget they were being recorded; 6) the researchers were able to encourage learners to speak of personal experiences of their participation in school governance – about process and function of the RCL and their feeling about inclusion in this structure; 7) the researchers felt that the research space validated learner input.
The Governance Coordinator was also able to procure an interview with the educator who acts as the RCL School Liaison Officer at the pilot school. The researcher experienced: 1) that the educator understood the legal imperative of a RCL but did not understand how to make it real; 2) the educator was very sceptical about the children’s capacity to sustain the structure; 3) educators therefore believed that they would need to make consistent input into the process of RCL creation and maintenance; 4) educators resorted to an instructional engagement with learners where they believed they were acting in children’s “best interest”; 5) they then blamed the learners for not taking ownership of the process; 6) educators were very clear about the role and potential of the RCL in the apartheid struggle times; 7) educators did not understand the contemporary struggle for learner involvement in decision-making.
Next steps in the process: 1) in the final week of school in the second term, the research team disseminated a research programme to the remaining schools providing suggested dates and times for their interviews in the third school term; 2) interviews from the principals and pilot schools are being transcribed by the research team; 3) based on the research process at the pilot school, tools were modified by the Research Advisor, in order to collect data in a standardised manner; 4) the analysis of data as well as the participatory development of the support programme for learners will be finalised in the third school term; 5) reports to the SGB is scheduled for the fourth term.
This project heralds RAPCAN’s initiation of its strategic goal to support children’s right to participate in all decisions affecting their lives. Even though the context of the Lavender Hill community is very challenging, the research and project implementation teams are very excited about the value and potential of this project.
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In this learning brief RAPCAN discusses their investigation into children participating in school governance. They specifically share their initial experiences doing research at their pilot school and with the principals of the entire sample. Although we are still waiting to hear the final findings of the investigation, the intricacies and process of doing research at public schools might be of interest to other organisations.
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