Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Student Leadership: Necessary Research

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Student Leadership: Necessary Research

Article excerpt

Interest in student leadership or leadership by young people has always existed in school and community settings and while there are many programs devoted to leadership development and training, we believe that there is a need for focused research into what young people conceive leadership to be and in what circumstances they would see it being important. This article is speculative in nature. We ask and discuss questions about why there seems to be an upsurge in interest in student leadership and what some of the available literature is saying about student leadership before putting forward suggestions for the kind of research we feel is necessary if our understanding of student leadership, particularly in secondary schools, is to be enhanced.

A renewed interest in student leadership

Why are we seeing renewed interest in student leadership? Is it because interest in aspects of schooling waxes and wanes? This could be so. After all, there was a period not so long ago when the topic of 'student voice' was prominent in scholarly writing about education; and when student activism was an everyday occurrence. We refer to the 1960s and 70s when at secondary and tertiary levels of education, student voices were raised strongly in forums of various kinds, when 'sit ins' in university chancelleries were common, and when adolescent protesters marched for one cause after another. We also refer to research such as that led by Jean Rudduck and others in the 70s into the involvement of students in decision making about their schools, the curriculum, their learning, its assessment and their communities.

Is interest in student leadership being heightened by a perceived shortage of people willing to take on leadership roles in their adult lives? Is it because the leadership literature is replete with studies of adults in leadership roles and student leadership offers a new point of entry for researchers interested in new insights? There is some evidence to suggest that the answer to these questions is in the affirmative. There seems to be a growing shortage of people willing to take on leadership roles in their careers. In fact, so short is the pool of leaders in the corporate world that a report by McKinsey and Company (as cited in Michaels, Kartford-Jones, & Axelrod, 2001) has suggested that there is a 'war' being waged for leadership talent. In the education sector, the pool of potential leaders is known to have declined from that available even a few years ago (Gronn, 2007; MacBeath, 2006).

There also seems to be a decline in general civic participation that may contribute to a declining interest in community leadership. If the picture painted at the turn of this century in the United States of America is anything to go by, there is a problem for democracies such as ours, which rely on voluntary activity across a whole range of social institutions. The work of Gannon (2001, pp. 112-113) for example has shown the following:

* between the early 1960s and 1990, voter turnout had declined by nearly a quarter;

* the number of Americans who reported that 'in the past year' they had 'attended a public meeting on town or school affairs' had fallen by more than a third--from 22% in 1973 to 13% in 1993;

* every year during the decade of the 1990s 'millions more have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities';

* the proportion of Americans who reply that they 'trust the government in Washington' only 'some of the time' or 'almost never' has risen steadily from 30% in 1966 to 75% in 1992; and

* 'participation in parent-teacher organisations has dropped drastically over the last generation, from more than 12 million in 1964 to barely five million in 1982 before recovering to approximately seven million now'.

Gannon (2001, pp. 116-117) has summarised his concerns thus:

   More Americans than ever before are in social circumstances that
   foster associational involvement (higher education, middle age and
   so on), but nevertheless aggregate associational membership appears
   to be stagnant or declining . … 
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