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‘Oh my God. The Principal came in today and chose a child to read. I knew what I had to do: I knew I had to remind the child to say “p. 35 chapter 4”; I had to remind the child to hold the book in her right hand with her toes pointing at a perfect angle of forty-five degrees, to remind the child to hold her head straight and high, to remind the child to have her eyes looking directly ahead, and to remind the child to lift up her voice and struggle in loud and unnatural tones…’

Curriculum theorist Michael Apple presented this diary entry from 1899 of a Boston school teacher, named Emma, to highlight the plight of teachers struggling within the rigid confines of the mainstream education system (CEPS Ljubljana, 2016). Yet what should strike anyone interpreting this account is the denial of children’s individual agency and autonomy. Emma’s diary dates back to the 19th century, but how far have 21st century education systems moved towards acknowledging and accommodating children’s agency?

What is children’s agency?

Agency is commonly defined as ‘the capacity to act’, but this definition does not fully account for three important elements. The first is the personal sense of agency: individuals’ belief in their ability to act independently and exercise choices. However, having a sense of agency is not enough for the exercise of agency. The second essential element is for learners to have real opportunities to exercise their agency. However, such opportunities will not be realised if individuals do not feel capable of acting upon them. When opportunities are genuinely offered and consciously recognised by learners they become affordances, the third element. It is affordances, not just opportunities, that are crucial prerequisites for the exercise of agency. The importance of these three elements means that agency is best defined as asocially situated capacity to act’.

This definition of agency has far-reaching implications for understanding the curriculum in schools. Curriculum represents one of the critical contextual factors affecting both whether children have a sense of agency and whether they can exercise agency. Curriculum is a domain in which affordances for agency are created – or not. A rigid curriculum that leaves no room for creativity and innovation is unlikely to instil in children positive perceptions of their capacity to act.

What should be done?

Although there is a considerable amount of research about teacher agency (see for example Priestly, 2015), there appears to be very little research about children’s agency in the curriculum. To date research has not integrated:

  1. an analysis of the intended curriculum’s implicit and explicit assumptions about the role and place of students as active agents in learning, with
  2. an exploration of students’ perceptions and experiences of their agency enacted in the classroom.

Building on our previous work on agency and the curriculum (Manyukhina & Wyse, 2019) we have started work on a new research project, Children’s Agency in the National Curriculum (CHANT), funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The first phase is a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of the national curriculum for England and related policy documents to reveal whether and to what extent England’s curriculum texts are conducive to creating affordances for children’s agency. The CDA will be contextualised in the context of curriculum policy and theory internationally. In the main phase (September 2021–July 2023) the fieldwork will generate ethnographies of three different types of schools situated in different parts of England. We will generate accounts grounded in the realities of primary education, exploring agency as it is perceived and experienced by the children themselves.

We would be really interested to read about research you have conducted and know about to inform our thinking about agency, critical realism, curriculum and ethnography. Please do send us your relevant publications.

Our research centre’s next biennial conference in June 2021 is the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0–11 years)’s Conference on Children’s Agency in the Curriculum. Please do join us.


Centre for Educational Policy Studies [CEPS], Ljubljana. (2016, October 12). Michael W. Apple: Power, policy, and the realities of curriculum and teaching [Video].

Manyukhina, Y., & Wyse, D. (2019). Learner agency and the curriculum: A critical realist perspective. Curriculum Journal, 30(3), 223–243.

Priestly, M. (2015, September 3). Teacher agency: What is it and why does it matter? [Blog post.]