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How young people can exercise agency in Schools – Remembering the Youth of 1976

Trevor Noah Foundation - The Khulani Schools Programme - Leadership Development

In recent years, teachers and education policymakers have been increasingly focusing on autonomy and agency amongst students. While there are many definitions of student agency, the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 Conceptual Learning Framework on Student Agency describes it as:

The capacity to set a goal, reflect and act responsibly to effect change. It is about acting rather than being acted upon; shaping rather than being shaped; and making responsible decisions and choices rather than accepting those determined by others.

South African history shows us some of the earliest examples of student agency which changed the country’s socio-political landscape. On 16 June 1976, school learners fought for quality education under the apartheid government. They made sure their voices were heard and wouldn’t accept anything less than what they regarded as justice. Their brave actions ended an era of subservience to Bantu education. 

In today’s times, we’ve seen South African youth continue to exercise agency through the #FeesMustFall movement, which began in late 2015. The movement released social and political force, challenging the country’s established political order. It brought university management to heel and altered the social fabric of universities and segments of society. 

Our youth have been appealing for the right to equal education for decades, and the struggle continues. This brings us to the question, “How are young people exercising agency in their schools today?”. Access to quality education is not only one of the United Nations’ Global Sustainable Development Goals; it is a human right. 

In recent weeks, learners from one of our Khulani high schools – Eqinisweni Secondary School – demonstrated to raise the issue of not having adequate learning infrastructure in their classrooms, despite repeated requests. Shortly after, the Gauteng Department of Education conceded to the learners’ demands, and the school received the much-needed learning infrastructure.

Does this mean that for learners to get what they want, they need to resort to demonstrating? It depends on how you view the argument. Some may view it as condoning protests. But better yet, it can be considered as the action that can spark robust discussions on how education plays a role in fostering young people’s citizen participation.

At the Trevor Noah Foundation, one of our primary goals is to provide youth with the support structure and tools to be emotionally healthy, empowered, resilient, and confident. These outcomes cannot be achieved when barriers to learning exist. As such, we provide our Khulani Schools’ RCLs with leadership training workshops throughout the year, to ensure they are empowered to effect change in their schools. Through these workshops, learners have started developing their own code of conduct to be accountable for their actions.

“We want to change the culture and educate learners on the value of education. Many learners come into the classroom and leave without learning anything, forgetting that education is for them and not the teacher.” – Gift, Grade 10 RCL at Siyabonga Secondary School.

Learners can achieve positive outcomes when empowered to have a voice. They are more likely to exercise agency when they are active stakeholders in their education journey. According to section 23 (2)(d) of the South African Schools Act (SASA),  two representatives from the RCL should form part of SGB; however, in our Khulani Schools, only a few, are invited to attend SGB meetings.  

Giving learners a voice makes them contributors to the change they want to see. It can also make it easier for educators to identify improvements that need to be implemented at schools and in learning systems. In this way, SMTs can develop solutions to ensure that classrooms are conducive spaces to encourage teaching and learning. 

Over 500 learners lost their lives in the 1976 school protests, a tragic yet significant turning point in our country’s history. May their sacrifice always serve as a reminder that an empowered voice can restore hope, change lives, and impact societies for generations to come. 



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