Participation’ and ‘voice’ are, sometimes at least, used like coterminous terms referring to something broader, whose meaning is also contributed by other terms such as agency, involvement, engagement or empowerment.

Even when the focus is on a relatively bounded ‘whole’ (for instance, an organisation such as a school), participation covers a wide scope. On the one hand, the ‘parts’ are likely to be numerous and heterogeneous, including leaders, teachers, students, parents and other stakeholders. Moreover, they may participate on an individual, group or collective basis and directly or indirectly (through representatives). On the other hand, the contributions made by each part may range from simple ones through to more complex ones. Participation includes a) being informed; b) providing information, knowledge and even advice on the basis of own interests and views (i.e. being consulted); c) contributing funds and providing other material resources; d) carrying out tasks and other processes, and e) sharing decision-making and controlling capacity and (ultimately) power, which may run deep if there is a genuine and widespread democratisation and initiative-taking is encouraged. Setting aside what Heller, Pusic, Strauss and Wielpert (1998) have termed ‘requisite participation’ (i.e. that which is required to get a task or job done, as, for instance, attendance), formal and informal participation can also be differentiated. A number of significant number of typologies of participation are available (for instance, see Cornwall, 2008), some of which are specific to employees (e.g. Wilkinson, Dundon & Marchington, 2013), students (e.g. Hart, 1992) or parents (e.g. Joyce, ; Goodall & Montgomery, 2014).

Participation is often associated with decision-making, although it does not need to be limited to that (Anderson, 1999). Moreover, it has come to be defined as involvement in decision-making (e.g. Bifulco, 2013). However, it is importmat to distinguish between ‘involvement’ and ‘influence’  (Strauss, 2006). Involvement may be passive: anybody can be involved in something without influencing it (or whilst barely influencing it). Ryan (2005, p. 68) offers an example: teachers who sit on committees may not influence (and even not be able to do so) in any meaningful way the decisions that are eventually made. This example might also be extended to students, parents and other stakeholders. Accordingly, some forms of participation promote involvement but make inadequate provision for exercise of influence. Influence entails affecting and, thus, is active. In this vein, participation may be considered to be also associated with effective influence (also Eurofound, 2013).

Salient differences between ‘participation’ and ‘voice’ are not likely to emerge when these terms are used. Rather, both come to be used interchangeably. Their meanings overlap significantly. The term ‘voice’ has been connected to a variety of meanings (e.g. Dundon, Wilkinson, Marchington & Ackers, 2004) including participation in decision-making (e.g. Mitra, 2008), but, in this context, it may specifically refer to the free expression of authentic views to be acted upon once listened to (e.g. Lundy, 2007).

Questions for reflection on Participation and Voice:

1. Some members of a youth consultative committee defined participation in these terms (see p. 295):

  • Participation is when you are actively involved in something.
  • Not just saying you are going to do it, but doing it.
  • Presenting an idea and following through with it.
  • Being involved in things you choose to be involved in … having a choice.
  • Participation is about making a difference.
  • I think it’s about contributing to society.

What are the overlaps between them and the presentation of the concept included here? Do those definitions go beyond it and/or are missing something. What are the differences?

What definition/s (including yours) do you expect to find in your school?

2. In your view, who are those participating in leading your school, what are they doing as leaders and why are they doing that? What do you think that they are thinking about such a role?

If possible, develop an interview guide drawing on what you have thought and interview some of them. What did you find out about the members that you interviewed? Compare and contrast their views with yours.

Why is participation important?

In general, participation in organisations can be viewed as instrumental in two senses: as a means of enhancing organisational efficiency but also as a means of promoting justice and democracy (at least) within organisations (Heller, Pusic, Strauss & Wilpert, 1998; Wood, 2010). These views are not necessarily at odds with each other: for instance, participation is considered to improve satisfaction, which, in turn, is considered to increase performance but also to enhance dignity. Particularly when participation contributes to moral and political ends, it also comes to be considered as an end in itself.

Teachers, students and parents have critical roles in schools and, thus, attention has been drawn to their potential in contributing to decision-making. In a similar vein to employee participation in general (e.g. Budd, Gollan & Wilkinson, 2010), teacher participation in decision-making is believed to lead to better organisational performance because these professionals have the most relevant knowledge for making locally relevant decisions regarding education. Arguably, better decisions  can be made., whilst their commitment and satisfaction are likely to increase. Alternatively, such a participation has been justified on the basis of the right to have a say and participate and, thus, emerges as a sort of ethical imperative (e.g. Keith, 1996).

The importance of inclusion of students and parents in the decision-making processes determining their educational provision has also been increasingly recognised on a similar basis. Students may be considered to be in possession of invaluable knowledge and perspectives on education and schools that can be used in improving these, and their participation is considered to impact on their commitment and engagement. Nevertheless, they have the right to participation: as driven by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, they have the right and (corresponding opportunities) to express a view in all matters affecting them (including education), and the right (and corresponding opportunities) to have the view given due weight in the decision-making process (Mager & Nowak, 2012; Lundy, 2007; Rudduck and Flutter, 2004). Parental involvement has been pursued as a means to improve student achievement (Wilder, 2014; Castro et al., 2015) but it is also being recognised as a right itself -in contrast to the right to choose schools- by parents themselves and even teachers, whilst education is increasingly viewed as a responsibility to be shared equitably with schools (e.g. Edwards & Kutaka, 2015).

Role of leadership

Participative leadership has been considered to be a ‘leadership style’ (i.e. a behavioural pattern), whose effectiveness has come to be associated with to certain situations and conditions and, then, considered to be appropriate to them (e.g. Sagie & Koslowsky, 2000). For instance, the path-goal approach to leadership holds that, to be effective, leaders have to adjust their behaviour to the needs of followers, which will vary depending on the characteristics of the work to be done. The leader initiates the structuring of work and should help followers to clarify their goals and the paths leading to these in this context. ‘Participative leadership’ (that is, providing involvement) is a style that a) has a positive impact when followers are autonomous and have a strong need for control because this kind of follower responds favourably to being involved in decision making and in the structuring of work; b) is considered best when a task is ambiguous because participation gives greater clarity to how certain paths lead to certain goals, and helps followers learn what leads to what (see also Northouse, 2015). Turning to a more recent example in the education realm, a research project on school leadership across a number of European countries, has identified clusters of practices, actions, and behaviors and termed them ‘styles’ too, including a ‘participative style’ (Pashiardis, 2014).

This view on participative leadership is potentially helpful although it may be limited. Note that leadership is an ongoing relational event in which organisation members (and even other external stakeholders) are involved through complex webs of interaction and which is generated and constructed from these (e.g. Uhl-Bien, 2006). In these contexts, certain decision-making capacities and influences are shared (e.g. Northouse, 2014, p. 6) and, thus, leadership might be understood to be a process entailing participation.

This process often involves groups as key components, not only individuals interacting with one another. Shared leadership, another approach to leadership, has been specifically defined as “a dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both” (Pearce & Conger, 2003, p. 1). ‘Participative leadership’ was included among the six models of school leadership identified by Leithwood and Duke (1999) in their influential review and was defined as stressing the decision making processes of the group (p. 51). Interestingly, they also asserted: “One school of thought within this category of leadership argues for such participation on the grounds that it will enhance organizational effectiveness. A second school rests its case for participation on democratic principles” (p. 51).

Moreover, leadership may require participation in leadership itself – at least in an organisation seeking to be genuinely participative. In such a case, participation would be extended to leadership. According to Leithwood, Mascall and Strauss (2009), distributed leadership is a form of participative leadership that, as indicated by the expression itself, characteristically ‘distributes’ leadership, which ‘stretches over’ a number of members and, thus, it would lie “at the extreme end of what is typically thought of as a continuum of degrees of participatory leadership” (p. 7).

So participation is likely to enhance leadership. But, in addition, it is likely to make a crucial contribution to enhancement of participation itself. In particular, authentic participative leadership can promote the commitment to fear-reaching pursuits such as democratic and just participation in schools but also beyond schools (Ryan, 2005). Some views on democratic leadership meet these criteria. For instance, Woods highlights that the distributed nature of leadership does not necessarily result in democratic leadership, which needs to promote social justice and democratic values (2016, p. 140). He alternatively proposes a notion of democratic leadership as grounded in what he calls ‘holistic democracy’ (previously called ‘developmental democracy’) (summarised in Woods and Woods, 2013), which involves both participation (inclusive involvement in dialogue and decision-making and opportunities to exercise creativity and initiative) and meaning (growing as whole people by combining intellectual, spiritual, ethical, emotional, aesthetic and physical development), and thus enhances capabilities for democratic practice itself. In this view, participation is an inherently educational process promoting a larger educational purpose based on the potential of people and is intrinsically valuable.

But genuine and rich participation is not likely to simply occur because a leader or even a leadership team has decided to adopt it for the organisation (for instance, Woods and Gronn, 2009). Diverse groups of diverse people interacting and working together are more likely to have greater significant influence in education and schools than any single individual (even if he or she has a set of special qualities and acts in exclusive ways, in addition to holding a strong authority position in the organisation). Therefore, leadership needs to be an “inclusive, collective process” (Ryan, 2005, p. 14). Participation as been foregrounded as essential in the so-called collegial models of school leadership, which emphasise that voice, decision-making and power should be shared among the professionals as all of them possess authority arising from their expertise (Bush, 2011). In addition, teacher leadership is also closely aligned with participative leadership, although it is not restricted to it (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Muijs and Harris (2007) have equated teacher leadership to “increased teacher participation in decision-making, and opportunities for teachers to take initiative and lead school improvement” (p. 113). Nevertheless, student leadership and parent leadership are also coming to increasing prominence (see, for instance, Frost & Roberts, 2011 and Auerbach, 2012, respectively).


Suggestions and examples

  • Danielson, C. (2006). Teacher leadership that strengthens professional practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Epstein, J. L. (2012). School, family, and community partnerships: preparing educators and improving schools, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  • Fielding, M. & Moss, P. (2011). Radical education and the common school. London: Routledge.
  • Leslie, K. & Taccogna, J. (2015). The politics of authentic engagement: perspectives, strategies, and tools for student success. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Pretty, J. N., Guijt, I., Scoones, I. & Thompson, J. (1995). A trainer’s guide to participatory learning and action. London: International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Available at:
  • Mackenzie, S. V. (2005). Who should make decisions? A high school wrestles with tracking. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership8(2), 17-33.
  • Mayrowetz, D. & Price, J. (2005). Contested territory: parents and teachers wrestle for power in an urban neighbourhood school located within a gentrifying community. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership8(3), 72-87.


  • Anderson, G. L. (1999). The politics of participatory reforms in education. Theory Into Practice38(4), 191-195.
  • Auerbach, S. (Ed.) (2012). School leadership for authentic family and community partnerships: research perspectives for transforming practice. New York: Routledge.
  • Bufulco, L. (2013). Citizen participation, agency and voice. European Journal of Social Theory16(2), 174–187.
  • Bush, T. (2011). Theories of educational leadership and management, 4th ed. London: Sage.
  • Budd, J. W., Gollan, P. J., &  Wilkinson, A. (2010). New approaches to employee voice and participation in organizations. Human Relations, 63(3) 303–310.
  • Castro, M., Expósito-Casas, E., López-Martín, E., Lizasoain, L., Navarro-Asencio, E., & Gaviria, J. L. (2015). Parental involvement on student academic achievement: a meta-analysis. Educational Research Review14, 33–46.
  • Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking ‘Participation’: models, meanings and practices. Community Development Journal43(3), 269–283.
  • Dundon, T., Wilkinson, A., Marchington, M., & Ackers, P. (2004). The meanings and purpose of employee voice. The International Journal of Human Resource Management15(6), 1149-1170.
  • Edwards, C. P. & Kutaka, T. S. (2015). Diverse perspectives of parents, diverse concepts of parent involvement and participation: What can they suggest to researchers? In S. M. Sheridan & E. M. Kim (Eds.), Foundational aspects of family-school partnership research (pp. 35-53). New York: Springer.
  • Eurofound (2013). Work organisation and employee involvement in Europe. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
  • Fitzgerald, R., Graham, A., Smith, A., & Taylor, N. (2011). Children’s participation as a struggle over recognition: exploring the promise of dialogue. In B. Percy-Smith & N. Thomas (Eds.), A handbook of children and young people’s participation: perspectives from theory and practice (pp. 293-305). London: Routledge.
  • Frost, D. & Roberts, A. (2011). Student leadership, participation and democracy. Leading and Managing17(2), 66-84.
  • Goodall, J. & Montgomery, C. (2014). Parental involvement to parental engagement: a continuum. Educational Review66(4), 399-410.
  • Heller, F., Pusic, E., Strauss, G., & Wilpert, B. (1998). Organizational participation:
  • myth and reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Keith, N. Z. (1996). A critical perspective on teacher participation in urban schools. Educational Administration Quarterly32(1), 45-79.
  • Leithwood, K. & Duke, D. (1999). A century’s quest to understand school leadership. In J. Murphy & K. S. Louis (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational administration, 2nd ed. (pp 45–72). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Leithwood, K., Mascall, B., & Strauss, T. (2009). New perspectives on an old idea: a short history of the old idea. In K. Leithwood, B. Mascall, & T. Strauss (Eds.), Distributed leadership according to the evidence (pp. ). New York: Routledge.
  • Lundy L. (2007). ‘Voice’ is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention. British Educational Research Journal33(6), 927–942.
  • Mager, U. & Nowak, P. (2012). Effects of student participation in decision making at school. A systematic review and synthesis of empirical research. Educational Research Review7, 38–61.
  • Mitra, D. (2008). Student voice in school reform: building youth-adult partnerships that strengthen schools and empower youth. New York: SUNY Press.
  • Muijs, D. & Harris, A. (2007). Teacher leadership in (in)action: three case sudies of contrasting schools. Educational Management Administration and Leadership35(1) 111–134.
  • Pashiardis, P. (Ed.) (2014). Modeling school leadership across Europe in search of new frontiers. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Pearce, C. L. & Conger, J. A. (2003). All those years ago: the historical underpinnings of shared leadership. In C. L. Pearce & Conger, J. A. (Eds.), Shared leadership: reframing the hows and whys of leadership (pp. 1-18). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Rudduck, J. & Flutter, J. (2004). How to improve your school: giving pupils a voice. London: Continuum.
  • Ryan, J. (2006). Inclusive leadership. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.
  • Uhl-Bien, M. (2006). Relational leadership theory: exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing. Leadership Quarterly17(6), 654-676.
  • Wilder, S. (2014) Effects of parental involvement on academic achievement: a
  • meta-synthesis. Educational Review66(3), 377-397.
  • Wilkinson, A., Dundon, T., & Marchington, M. (2013). Employee involvement and voice. In S. Bach & M. R. Edwards (Eds.), Managing human resources: human resource management in transition, 5th ed. (pp. 268-288). Chichester: Wiley.
  • Strauss, G. (2006). Worker participation—Some under-considered issues. Industrial Relations45(4), 778-803.
  • Wood, G. (2010). Employee participation in developing and emerging countries. In A. Wilkinson, P. J. Gollan, M. Marchington & D. Lewin (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of participation in organizations (pp. 552-569). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Woods, P. A. & Gronn, P. (2009). Nurturing democracy: the contribution of distributed leadership to a democratic organizational landscape. Educational Management Administration and Leadership37(4), 430–451.
  • Woods, P. A. & Roberts, A. (2016): Distributed leadership and social justice: images and meanings from across the school landscape, International Journal of Leadership in Education19(2), 138-156.
  • Woods, P. A. & Woods, G. J. (2013). Poglabljanje distribuiranega vodenja: demokratična perspektiva moči, namena in ideje jaza [Deepening distributed leadership: a democratic perspective on power, purpose and the concept of the self]. Vodenje v vzgoji in izobraževanju [Leadership in Education]25(2), 17–39. Version in English available at:
  • York-Barr, J. & Duke, K. (2004). What do we know about teacher leadership? Findings from two decades of scholarship. Review of Educational Research74(3), 255–316.