Student perceptions of accessibility to leadership within the secondary school context

Emerson, Susan
Ferkins, Lesley
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Master of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

It is widely recognised that leadership development and opportunities are essential for youth to initiate positive change across peer groups, school, families, and communities (Bowman, 2013; Funk; 2002; Lizzio, Dempster & Neumann, 2011). Nonetheless, many schools and youth organisations provide leadership opportunities for some young people, and not others. Some schools present leadership opportunities through formal positions only and students do not realise there are other opportunities available to them that will contribute to their development (Lizzio et al., 2011; Mitra, 2005; Whitehead, 2009). Despite this, empirical work focusing on youth access to leadership is limited, as are studies that ‘make heard’ the student voice (Bowman, 2013; Funk; 2002; Lizzio et al., 2011).

This study is positioned within the body of knowledge that recognises leadership as both formal and informal influence. Jackson and Parry (2011) capture the elements of leadership in defining it as an influence relationship between leaders and followers, focusing on authentic changes and outcomes that reflect shared purpose. In drawing on this positioning of leadership, the aim of this study is to investigate student perceptions of accessibility to leadership within the secondary school context. This overall aim is supported by three sub-questions. How do students perceive and understand leadership? What do students say about access to leadership opportunities in the secondary school context? How can leadership opportunities be more accessible for more students in secondary schools?

The research paradigm chosen for this study is both constructivist and interpretivist (Bryman, 2008; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Thus, the study seeks to draw on the multiple realities of the participants by understanding how their perception of leadership may provide insight to increasing access to leadership for a broader group of students. In seeking to contribute to the emerging body of knowledge in the secondary school context, student perceptions of accessibility to leadership were sought through a case study approach in two secondary schools. Semi-structured group interviews (n=6 group; 12 in total), a questionnaire (n=100), and supporting documents (n=4) drew multiple points of view highlighting the importance of the student voice (Harris, 2008).

The study findings revealed that to increase accessibility to leadership for students requires a shift in thinking towards believing that everyone is capable of some form of leadership and that leadership opportunities may be offered both formally and informally. While formal leadership roles produce benefits, they have been criticised for not being inclusive of the whole student body (Lizzio et al., 2011; Mitra, 2005; Whitehead, 2009). With this in mind, there is a challenge for educators to find ways to help students to redefine leadership so that it is no longer the domain of a selected few.

According to the students in this study, leadership experiences are a unique way to develop young people for the future. To realise the value of leadership for all young people this study has identified some key levers for change: simplify, provide all students with at least one opportunity to experience leadership, and redefine leadership as helping others. Students suggested educators look to a broader group of students and offer both formal and informal leadership experiences based on the concept of helping others.

Students felt that the notion of leadership opportunities being more available and, coupled with the idea that leadership is about helping people, will provide an accessible way of approaching leadership. Furthermore, there are gains to be had in involving young people in the planning of their own leadership and, as a result, to engage and connect them in leadership (Hine, 2014; McNae, 2011). Leadership learning in secondary schools that is co-designed with the students has the potential to provide the ideal intervention to offer some answers to the critical themes that have arisen in this research study.

Student leadership , Youth leadership , Servant leadership , Accessibility to leadership
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