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Blog post Part of special issue: Action research: Research into action

Include, inspire, improve: The power of learner-led research

Islean Gibson, Headteacher at Dounby Community School Rhona Black, Class Teacher at Dounby Community School

Learners are paramount as agents of change in education. They are the core reason educational experiences exist. Without empowerment and ownership of change, learners will not and cannot be beneficiaries of any developments and improvements. Offering learner-led change is daunting; no one knows where it will truly take their school (Gibson et al., 2021). But that in its very nature is why involvement, engagement and inspiration will thrive and drive any learning community towards creative and lasting advances where learner-led leadership practice is nurtured (Kutnick et al., 2022).

This is the model of transformative improvement that our school is embarking upon. And no one so wholly involved in the life of our learning community would describe it as other than: scary, exciting, affirming, powerful and respectively transparent. We describe it here as looking at a labelled tin; once you open any of the tins, a hundred mini colourful snakes pop out, and it is our collective responsibility to catch, nurture and create with all that each mini snake bestows us with.

As staff, professionals, parents, agencies and stakeholders, this is overwhelming as we face this agency of direction with all the additional pressures of the part we play. By handing this over for primary pupils to digest, to bounce ideas, to deliver on solutions, we see their ingenuity, passion and child’s eye perspective that completely lifts away the barriers each of the afore-mentioned stakeholders bring to the very same situation (Macuch & Vaz, 2015). Learners’ agency, knowledge and drive to truly make their environment and team work for a primary school community is unparalleled, and as educators, we must embrace this way of working into our daily norm so we do not lose that voice, that creativity and that will to progress which children bring to every aspect of their educational experiences.

‘As educators, we must embrace this way of working into our daily norm so we do not lose that voice, that creativity and that will to progress which children bring to every aspect of their educational experiences.’

So, our school is changing, driven by the visualisation of what our school needs to be, what it needs to become. And our learners are leading this: identifying what works and where opportunities for improvement are concealed, and by very clearly vocalising what needs to be discarded. We are listening to everyone involved in the life of our school. We are making opportunities for this shared conversation and creating visualisations of our story – we really do wish we could spend many blogs introducing everyone to Bob (see image) and how his creation is the embodiment of our new school ethos! You can meet him on our YouTube channel and on Twitter if you like!

Bob is grounded by our open voice for all. He has allowed our learners to think rationally and candidly about their wants and needs, and start to identify ways that their leadership can bring their ideas to fruition. He has appointed the way to practical change, to more ideas that need investigation, and to our whole learning community to be part of this openness of agency that now drives our school in the three key areas of people, place, environment.

This freedom of leadership, of the right person stepping forward to lead and direct has brought about learner-driven focus groups with families so that everyone hears the voice of the children we are all here for. It has sparked learner-led change in practice through pupils leading reflective auditing and learning rounds alongside agency staff and pupils finding out about how we communicate together (Ergler, 2017). It has seen year groups lead change in engagement and positive behaviours, starting from a researcher angle but quickly discovering that data-driven responses did not give the perspective they needed to develop consistency of structure and routines in their own class and subsequently across the school. It has seen staff, families, agencies – in fact all adults – hear some very hard-hitting evidence and opinion alongside engaging solutions, in turn encouraging their reflections around our educational practice and continuing professional development.

And this is child-led, real-time change over an eight-month period … to date! Yes, there have been bumps in the road; but there are moments of true elation when learners have noticed how their attitude to school and learning has changed because of their buy-in and agency underpinned by knowing their voice will bring change and respect across the learning community (Kellett, 2010). One learner said that if we can bring calm and ownership of what we want to learn in just a couple of terms, imagine what we can do by the time they are 12 – and they are 7!

So, what can be achieved by truly embracing this way of working as the norm? The answer, truly, is anything!


Ergler, C. R. (2017). Advocating for a more relational and dynamic model of participation for child researchers. Social Inclusion, 5(3), 240–250.  

Gibson, I., Clark, A., Dunnigan, H., & Cantali, D. (2021). Enabling positive change in primary school: Learner-led research in a Scottish context. Support for Learning, 36(2), 278–295.

Kellett, M. (2010). Small shoes, big steps! Empowering children as active researchers. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 195–203.  

Kutnick, P., Blatchford, P., & Baines, E. (2002). Pupil groupings in primary school classrooms: Sites for learning and social pedagogy? British Educational Research Journal, 28(2), 187–206. 

Macuch, R. da S., & Vaz, H. M. (2015). The development of relational competences in high school students by means of sociometric methods. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 40(2), 225–242.