Learner agency in urban primary schools in disadvantaged contexts: Report to Society for Educational Studies

Hempel-Jorgensen, Amelia (2015). Learner agency in urban primary schools in disadvantaged contexts: Report to Society for Educational Studies. The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.


This project aimed to develop new theoretical understanding of the nature and extent of children’s learner agency in primary education. From a sociocultural perspective, having the capacity to exercise learner agency is essential for meaning-making and therefore deep and effective learning. Existing international research suggests that children attending schools with significant intakes of children from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds may develop ‘passive’ and disengaged orientations to learning in response to the strong pressure on many of these schools to raise attainment. Learner agency can be defined as volitional activity which has an effect on learners’ peers and teachers, for example in terms of their understanding of a concept or phenomena. Learner agency is both constrained and enabled by sociocultural practices, including, as in this research, the modes of pedagogy used by teachers. A multiple case study design (Yin 2009) was selected to enable collection of rich data using multiple methods within and compare across different schools. Four case study schools with above national average (26.7% in 2013) proportion of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (as a proxy for ‘disadvantage’) and located in urban settings in Greater London. Data was collected in the four schools through semi-structured interviews with Year Five teachers and children and Year Five lessons were observed by the researcher as a non-participant observer, across the curriculum. All four classrooms were characterised by a mixture of competence-based and performative pedagogy, although the dominant mode varied across schools. The higher the proportion of disadvantaged children at the school, the more performative the pedagogy was.

The project provides new empirical evidence about the nature and extent of children’s learner agency in disadvantaged urban primary schools; it has led to the development of theoretical understandings of learner agency in such contexts. The data suggests that learner agency is constrained and enabled in complex ways, which depend on teachers’ pedagogical practices. This extends existing research in such contexts, which has mainly focussed on children’s agency in constructing their social and learner identities and positioning as learners (e.g. Youdell 2006; Reay 2006). The study took a new theoretical approach to researching agency in disadvantaged schools, drawing on sociocultural theory to develop understandings of learner agency. The project also contributes significantly to developing sociocultural understandings of learner agency by identifying how it is constrained and enabled in relation to Bernstein’s (2000) modes of pedagogy.

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