Wesley Chen, Year 12 Caulfield Grammar student and 2023 Victorian Student Representative Council (SRC) member, shared his perspective on ‘Defining Student Voice and Agency’ at the recent The Age Schools Summit.

The first English word I ever wrote down was my name. I still remember that day I became aware of it, Wesley. Before that, I was referred to only by my Chinese. As a small child, I would impress my parents by spelling out Wesley, on all my possessions. But the most memorable thing that summer afternoon was not just the discovery of my name, but also the discovery of a new feeling – a feeling which would become the source of all my motivation for the rest of my life: Ownership. Because although my big, clumsy letters were rarely in the right order, they were, nevertheless, mine.

Today I’d like to talk about student voice. What is means, why it’s so important, and how student voice defines our schools.

As a society, we’ve coined this phrase, and we’ve learned to use it in reference to anything related to students, speaking up for what they believe in, within the context of education. When we hear the term student voice, we associate it with leadership. We think about how students are involved within decision making. We think about student leaders. We think about how young people are shaping the education system, and how they aren’t. But whilst student voice might not be changing the world, it’s certainly changing individuals.

My brothers and I spent a great deal moving around in our younger years. I changed primary schools four times, and my eldest brother changed schools seven times across his primary and secondary education. Many people would think that my family chose to live this way, but we really didn’t. Growing up in Australia with an immigrant family background, was never cut out to be easy. Finding the right school was challenging. Being the timid, inarticulate young boy that I was, I lacked confidence in every aspect of my life, and school was one of them.

Then in the winter of 2014, I joined my fourth school. Just two weeks after my arrival, my year three teacher pulled me aside. He was planning the upcoming classroom elections for the following year, and he wanted me to run. Nine times he asked me, and I turned him down. On the tenth time, with much hesitation, I agreed. I ran. I gave a speech. And I was elected. Looking back on this experience, I’ve come to appreciate the confidence that my year three teacher cultivated within me. He showed me the power of my voice, in spite of the circumstances I had allowed to silence it. What I also came to realise is that I didn’t have much leadership qualities when I stood up and gave that year three class captaincy a shot. It was because I was greeted with warm, smiling faces, that I was able to develop these skills. All students deserve the same opportunity that I had to find my voice, and I believe any teacher is capable of facilitating that.

So today, what I really want to talk about is culture. When people talk about student voice, what they’re really referring to, is student culture. It’s a culture where young people are taking agency of their learning, and shaping their educational experiences. It’s a culture where students set the standard, rather than fighting to meet expectations. It’s a culture where students have ownership.

Student voice is not a criterion for measuring the success of a school, but rather, it’s a standard we choose to live by, every single day of the calendar. Yes, it’s about having an SRC, but it’s so much more than just students being given a title. The Victorian Student Representative Council envisions student voice to be a defining aspect of a safe and inclusive school environment, where all people, no matter their background or postcode, are recognised for their interests, opinions, and experiences.

Moving forward, if we want to take the Victorian education system to new levels, we must recognise how the climate within the student body is changing. And the first step is embracing these changes to promote a new student culture. I ask you, leaders of the Education Sector, what kind of leaders you are creating. Ask yourselves, not what you are doing to involve students. Ask yourselves, how are students involving themselves.