Game-changing Leaders

Game-changing Leaders
Learning Brief


Understanding Learner Participation In School Governance

Category: Game-changing Leaders | Secure the environment for young people to lead | 11 May, 2013 - 13:07



RAPCAN conducted a study on the functioning of the Representative Council of Learners at three Western Cape schools in South Africa. The research aimed to better understand how these councils function, and how the elected learners are represented in discussions and decision-making processes in the School Governing Body. This Learning Brief summarises the findings of learners’ experiences serving on the Representative Council, and highlights how principals, lead teachers and School Governing Body members view learner participation in school governance.


In South Africa, children’s right to participate in decisions affecting their lives is highlighted in the Children’s Act (2010) and the South African Schools Act (SASA), (1996). The benefits of listening to and involving children in decision-making are far reaching, providing insights into children’s capabilities and perceptions of their own lives and experiences in terms of the needs and problems that affect them1.

We suggest that school services will benefit if they are informed by children’s opinions and concerns. Learner participation in school governance can assist in identifying problems and solutions because the learners have unique knowledge and perceptions of their schools, and about learning, teaching and schooling. Moreover, learner participation in decision-making processes yields positive effects for the child regarding: life skills, behaviour, self-esteem, developing democratic skills and concepts of citizenship, and tolerance for others2.


Children’s participation in the governance of schools is provided for in the South African Schools Act (SASA), (1996). The South African Schools Act is an extension of the commitment made in the country’s Constitution to a representative and participatory democracy3. The intention of the Schools Act is to create a form of democratic school governance at every public school based on decentralisation, citizen participation, shared responsibility and democratic decision-making through the election of a school governing body. Through this process, the decision-making power has theoretically been decentralised to the local level so that communities can contribute to how schools are governed – with a view to providing a better teaching and learning environment4.

The Schools Act provides for the election of a School Governing Body, comprised of the principal, elected representatives of parents, teachers, non-teaching staff, and learners in grade 8-12.

The Schools Act also provides for the election of a Representative Council of Learners to be established at every public school, composed of learners in grade 8-12, with two learners elected to serve on the School Governing Body. The Representative Council of Learners is the only recognised and legitimate representative learner body at public schools and has demanding responsibilities and duties. The elected Learners have full voting rights on the SGB, however, they may not vote on resolutions that impose liabilities on third parties or on the school because they are minors.


Despite the Schools Act’s progressive framework it is based on the assumption that learner representatives, once elected, will be able to participate fully in school decision-making processes. However, in practice their capacity to be part of a governing body, and to have their views legitimately heard, is often constrained.

A number of factors concerning the broader functioning of school governing bodies can undermine the nature and extent of learners’ participation and decision-making in practice. For example: a rigid implementation of the rules, roles and responsibilities stipulated in SASA may ignore the diverse cultures, gender relations, traditional values/customs, community dynamics, variations in socio-economic and historical contexts that impact school communities and prevent learners from freely voicing their opinions. Furthermore, there is a general lack of consensus on what democratic decision-making means. Schools suffer from incapacity to govern as a result of the stipulated specialised functions and lack of training in SASA. And finally, principals are often reluctant to create a space for debate and dialogue to ensure the participation of all stakeholders5.

Learners are also faced with barriers that undermine their abilities and hinder meaningful learner participation, such as: difficulty challenging traditional institutionalised procedures and power relations between adults and learners, lack of support and guidance in understanding the concepts of leadership and democracy, and their limited understanding of their participation roles6.

As such, these deep structural issues affect the functioning of School Governing Bodies and consequently of the participation of learners in these settings.


RAPCAN employed a qualitative interpretative methodology to capture the subjective viewpoints of all participants. This included focus groups, interviews, a four-day camp, and a two-day workshop. Participants were recruited from 3 senior secondary schools in the Western Cape province. RAPCAN had a prior established working relationship with one school principal who agreed to participate in this study who then suggested two other schools to also participate.

Focus group discussions were conducted with members of the Representative Council of Learners (RCL). These discussions with learners elicited information about experiences as RCL representatives, what they found meaningful or particularly important about being a RCL member, what they required help with, how they interacted with adults at the school and other learners, their experiences of serving on the School Governing Body, and positive experiences that may benefit RCLs at other schools.

Interviews were also conducted and school principals, School Governing Body members and RCL lead teachers. These interviews elicited information about how they interacted with the learner body and other adults at the school, and about how the RCL functions were perceived.

In addition, a four-day camp and two day workshop was held for RCL learners from the participating schools, which provided a further opportunity to reflect on the learners’ experiences in RCL structures.

The study observed the ethical considerations regarding voluntary participation, confidentiality and anonymity of human subjects, and the safe keeping of transcripts and audio recordings. Participation was dependent on signed parental/caregiver consent forms and learners assent forms.


A thematic analysis of the learners’ data revealed the following:

  • Learners do not understand their roles and functions as RCL members.
  • There is a lack of RCL support and recognition by adults at the school, which undermines learners’ right to authentic participation in school governance.

RCL learners highlighted the lack of support from adults at the school in assisting them to understand their roles and responsibilities and to provide training. Learners have a minimum knowledge of the legislative background to the RCL and School Governing Body structures and they noted that the lack of knowledge and skills impacts their ability to execute their functions leads to poor engagement with the learner body. This promotes apathy amongst RCL members and fragmented RCL structures.

Learners called for training on meeting protocols, writing proposals, navigating the school management system, liaising and consulting with adults at the school, and information on the protocol at School Governing Body meetings. Learners also identified the need to educate the learner constituency about the role of the RCL, as it reflected very little interest in RCL structures. Without the support of their constituency, the RCL structure cannot function.

A thematic analysis of the adults’ data revealed the following:

  • Adults recognise the importance of learner engagement, but have a limited understanding of learner participation in school governance, which undermines the capabilities of learners to participate.
  • RCL members’ ability to participate in school governance is hampered by adults’ traditional views on the place of children in society.
  • Learner participation at School Governing Bodies was also affected by internal conflicts between the adults on these Boards.
  • Governing Body parents also do not understand their role and function on the boards; and are sometimes excluded from the decision-processes of the school. This marginalisation of parents in School Governing Body meetings undermines the effectiveness of School Governing Body and does not promote the ideals of shared responsibility and democratic decision-making.

Adults undermined learners by criticising and blaming them for the lack of effectiveness in the RCL structures. RCL structures appeared to receive attention only when they were required for tokenistic participation. Adults felt that RCL member participation on School Governing Bodies should be limited to information sharing, occasional consultation on their opinion or views, but should not include the right to influence decisions. Although adults acknowledged their role in creating barriers to effective RCL learner participation, there was no critical reflection of their own views and attitudes of learner participation in school governance. This reflection is important as it has implications for how adult participants support or hinder learner participation and effective functioning of RCL structures.

Our core findings show that adults are not fully convinced that learners have the ability to participate in decision-making, and that adults are not ready to share the school space as equal decision-making partners with RCL learners.


For RCL structures to flourish they require:

  • An attitude change on the part of adults that will accommodate an acceptance of the role of learners in decision-making processes;
  • Adults must respect learners and take their views into account;
  • Adults at schools, School Governing Bodies, and School staff must take the role of the RCL seriously;
  • There is a need for more formal support by Department of Education in terms of training adults and RCL members about their roles and responsibilities on these committees. Adults and learners need guidance on how to interact collaboratively with various school stakeholders to accomplish school goals;
  • There is a need for more formal support in terms of training adults and RCL members at the school on how to convey the importance of the RCL structure to the broader learner body.


RAPCAN conducted this study in compliance with its mandate to build model development interventions based on evidence, such as that gathered by the “learner participation in school governance” research project. The findings revealed that adults do not want learners to participate in decision-making, and that children are often ill-equipped to effectively present their collective voice in School Governing Body platforms. Other organisations can use these research findings to design their own strategies to help create awareness for greater learner representation in school decision-making.

Going forward, RAPCAN has decided to heed lessons learnt from previously implemented intervention models – noting the value of an ecological (multi-levelled) approach to systems change. Therefore, RAPCAN will focus on breaching the intergenerational divide between adults and children as well as challenging the status of children in society by working on the concept and practise of child participation. RAPCAN will engage all role-players in a defined local space to communicate this message. This includes stakeholders such as local government, community leaders, principals and educators, parents, as well as children.




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(2.) Mager, U. & Nowak, P. (2012). Effects of student participation in decision making at school. A systematic review and synthesis of empirical research. Educational Research Review, 7, 38-61

(3.) Joubert, R. (2006). School governance in South Africa: Linking policy and praxis. Conference paper

(4.) Grant-Lewis S. & Naidoo J. (2006). School governance and the pursuit of democratic participation: Lessons from South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 26, 415-427

(5.) Brown, B. & Duka, N. (2008). Negotiated identities: dynamics in parents’ participation in school governance in rural Eastern Cape Schools and implications for school leadership. South African Journal of Education, 28, 431-450

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(6.) Naidoo, J.P. (20025). Educational decentralisation and school governance in South Africa. Unesco: Paris Mabovula, N. (2009). Giving voice to the voiceless through deliberative democratic school governance. South African Journal of Education, 29: 219-233

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In Short

This learning brief reveals the findings from the RAPCAN study on learner participation in school governance. Other organisations can use the research findings to design their own strategies to help create awareness for greater learner representation in school decision-making.

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