School Improvement and Governance Network


Student participation - a great practices guide

Student participation builds opportunities for all students to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens (as per the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians). This practical guide brings together two key areas which, when combined, build participation and improve learning outcomes for all students. These areas are:

  1. Talk. The work of schools in building students’ capacity for talk that propels powerful learning
  2. Action. Students’ participation in school and community problem solving through action teams.


The guide has been developed by Nicholas Abbey and Deborah Robinson. Nicholas was a co-creator of the student action teams program and Deborah has led public speaking programs in schools. The guide also draws upon the pioneering work of schools and Roger Holdsworth (a decades-long leader of student participation strategies) and others in developing student action teams.

Combined power of 'talk' and 'action'

The success of all educational experiences - in creating powerful learning - obviously depends on the quality of teachers’ and students’ talk. As Professor Robin Alexander suggests:

“We need to move from a view of talk as about ‘communication skills’ ... to a recognition of the neuroscientific and psychological evidence of its unique status as a sine qua non for all learning, especially during the first 10-12 years of life” (2004).

Likewise, when students feel responsible for important matters and can be actively involved in their school and community to make a difference, their learning and motivation are strengthened.

For many young people, deferred outcomes (e.g., distant goals of work, citizenship and acknowledged community roles) are not sufficient to sustain their motivation and commitment to learning.

With implications for their motivation and school 'success', students are unsettled by their deep-felt sense that their 'only value' is what they will become, not what they can do today. (For an excellent discussion of this, see Roger Holdsworth's Engaging students in purposeful learning through community action paper).

But when students' talk and school and community actions are combined, the educational results and consequences for student behaviour and motivation can be phenomenal.

This happens when students select specific topics that are the focus of both a public speaking program in the classroom and their problem solving work in the school or wider community.

Talk and action in practice

Over several sessions (each of one to two hours duration), participants learn how to prepare and present a speech, how to conduct meetings and effective speaking and listening skills.

Alongside this is the option of forming student action teams with a practical, problem-solving focus.

These teams consist of groups of students, teachers and, where appropriate, other adults, including parents and community based workers. These teams tackle school and community issues.

Public speaking is a key part of their work. Team members need to present information about their plans in many different forums and speak in support of their recommendations, including reasons.

They thus need training and practice in public speaking, including the use of notes, voice projection and body language - as well as opportunities to develop confidence by speaking within the school.

Combining public speaking and practical actions in the school and community can provide all students with opportunities to:

  • Communicate the depth of their knowledge, clearly articulate their ideas and have their views and suggestions heard
  • Develop effective communication skills and public speaking
  • Develop roles as change makers in the school and community
  • Increase their power as decision makers to ‘make a difference’
  • Develop leadership skills and a stronger sense of responsibility.

Public speaking

What is talk? The form of a student’s oral intervention (clearly audible, well-articulated and grammatically correct) together with intonation, changes of speed, and even facial expression and body language are no less important than its substance.

As discussed in The Power of Talk on this website, when talk is working well and consistently in classrooms, students routinely talk to the class as a whole, read aloud, come out to the whiteboard, write on it and explain in detail and in depth what they are doing.

Reinforcing this work, participants in public speaking programs in schools can acquire the knowledge and skills to:

  • Overcome the nervousness everyone feels when asked to speak before an audience or in a meeting
  • Organise and present their ideas logically, coherently and convincingly (in classroom and community settings)
  • Prepare and employ presentation aids for speeches (e.g., drawings, graphs, maps, photos, PowerPoints and posters)
  • Use humour, personal stories and conversational language
  • Listen carefully to, and learn from, others' ideas
  • Participate in, as well as lead, group discussions or meetings.

The program is conducted by a coordinator for a group of students via sessions of one to two hours each.

Over the course of these sessions, participants learn about effective public speaking and have opportunities to practice.

Classroom public speaking

The coordinator or teacher outlines the program and what is required for the on-going development of effective public speaking.

The philosophy and rationale of public speaking are also discussed, i.e., if students' voices are not adequately valued, they may learn passivity. Schools that aspire to cultivate every student's voice support students to contribute to the collective vision of how a school, community and society ought to be.

In starting a public speaking program, warm-up exercises involving all participants may comprise:

  • Asking each participant to choose a partner, preferably someone he or she doesn’t know particularly well
  • Participants then interview each other, with each having three minutes in which to ask questions of his/her partner
  • After partners have interviewed each other, each person introduces his or her partner to the whole group, using the information obtained form the interview.

Students also begin to talk about each of the following:

  1. Organising the content. Students write down three or four main points to keep their thoughts focused. They look at how best to research the topic - which may be a school or community issue as part of a student action team project
  2. Opening, body and conclusion. Students discuss parts of a speech (e.g., an interesting opening sentence, what needs to be developed in the 'middle' and how to conclude well)
  3. Connecting to an audience. Ways to connect, use of presentation aids, good eye contact and body language and knowing how to think and speak quickly on one's feet
  4. Voice and vocabulary. How best to be heard, clear enough to be understood and expressive enough to be interesting, how to 'write for the ear' and selecting clear, accurate and colourful words and using language economically
  5. How to evaluate speeches. Participants learn how to evaluate and improve their own speeches as well as provide specific suggestions to others for improvement via evaluations that are positive, precise, friendly and personalised.

With a student action team topic, the participants (individually or collectively as team members) may prepare a speech that:

  • States what the school or community problem or issue is
  • Describes what the immediate and longer-term impacts are
  • Shows how the problem can be fixed
  • Informs the audience about what they can do.

More information

For further information and advice about public speaking in schools, please contact Deborah Robinson at VICCSO.

Student action teams in schools

Since 1999, schools in Victoria have been developing student action teams. Co-developed by Nicholas Abbey and Anne-Marie Ryan, the program began as a joint initiative of the Department of Justice and the (then) Department of Education.

A student action team consists of a group of students, their support teacher or teachers, and, where appropriate, other adults, including parents and community based workers.

A team enables and supports students to:

  • Decide what are important community or school issues
  • Research a community or school issue
  • Make plans and proposals and take actions to address the issue
  • Achieve valuable outcomes for the community or school
  • Learn deeply through school and community contexts.

The choice of team members will be influenced by the school’s intent for initiating the program. Schools consider:

  • Where and how the action teams will be located in the school’s curriculum program
  • The number and year levels of students to be involved (whether mixed year levels or a targeted age group or year level)
  • The particular issue or issues that the teams will tackle.

Which issues do we work on?

Teams look for issues or problems that they can work on. These might be obvious, with relevant issues at that time emerging from discussions and being generally known.

Schools also survey the students at the school or the wider community to find out what the important issues are.

Many agencies and organisations other than schools have also been involved in action team projects. Examples include local councils, youth agencies, environmental groups, police and emergency services, local media, state government and federal government departments and members of parliament.

There is value in working with the community around issues such as safety, environmental sustainability, health, etc. in that this can assist teams in deciding what is worthwhile to act upon.

Once teams decide on topics and projects, they develop a plan of how to achieve goals. These plans foster a shared understanding of the topic and what is required to bring about change.

Examples of student action teams

Student action teams examples (Holdsworth, 2009) include:

  • Altona Secondary College. The team investigates and recommends on truancy
  • Taylors Lakes Primary School. The team investigates student concerns about transition, finds answers and publishes a booklet for all families
  • Preston/Reservoir primary and secondary schools cluster. Teams of students from many schools worked together to investigate road safety
  • Doncaster Secondary College. The team investigates bullying and leads school initiatives
  • Wanganui Park Secondary College. The team investigates the ‘image’ of the suburb and takes action to improve it
  • Primary school in Geelong. The team investigates the location of a school crossing and approaches the local council to change it.

A 'how-to' manual

Further 'how-to' information can be found in the Student Action Teams Manual written by the Australian Youth Research Centre. It discusses and provides practical examples in relation to:

  • Why have a student action team?
  • Establishing a team
  • Training and team building
  • Decision-making in the team
  • Choosing a topic
  • Community liaison
  • Developing a project plan
  • Doing community based research
  • Presenting and publicising
  • Where in the curriculum?


When schools provide opportunities for all students to combine classroom talk and public speaking and school and community problem solving, learning outcomes can be improved significantly.

School communities and school councils may thus want to develop their own student participation policy and action plan. The Department has an example of a student participation policy.