IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy puts a spotlight on children’s agency and the curriculum

6 December 2021

Conference and ground-breaking research on learner agency bring together leading experts to connect research and practice.

Children playing with toys, sat at a table with a teacher

The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0-11 years) (HHCP), a research centre at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) have been working to raise the profile of children’s agency in education throughout 2021. Agency means a person’s capacity to act: agency requires a sense of agency and the opportunity to enact it.

The centre hosted their June 2021 biennial conference ‘Children’s Agency and the Curriculum’ in collaboration with the Education Learning Trust (ELT) and the Association for the Study of Primary Education (ASPE). The virtual conference included talks from leading experts and practical workshops that brought together researchers, practitioners, and policy professionals to explore the concept of agency in primary education and the early years. The conference aimed to impact on children’s agency by highlighting the importance of enabling children to express their own views and make independent choices within their education.

The conference reached an international audience of over 250 people, with attendees joining from the UK and all around the world. This included about 80 researchers; 60 practitioners and headteachers; and a combined 100 attendees from government departments, museums, the third sector and education consultancies as well as other audiences. The wide range of education professionals provided a real chance to connect research with practice, highlighting the importance of agency, and created opportunities for future impact on young children’s education.

Keynote speakers included Dame Professor Alison Peacock, the Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching who spoke on pupil voice and agency; Professor Sue Rogers, the former Interim Director of the IOE who highlighted the nature of play during the pandemic; Rachel C Boyle, Head of Interdisciplinary Studies at Leeds Beckett University who discussed the experience of mixed race children in primary school; and Dr Lorenzo Manera, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Reggio Children Foundation and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia who highlighted the importance of agency in early years settings.

Workshop sessions also included:

  • Agency and dynamic relationships in learning – Dr Penny Hay, Bath Spa University, and Jayne Rochford Smith, St. Andrew’s Church School, Bath
  • Re-imagining pupil voice: children conducting research to lead on improvement – Michelle Murray, Education Learning Trust, Vanessa McManus and Gemma Norman, Gatley Primary School
  • Practical strategies to enhance learning through play and children’s agency – Professor Sara Baker and Soizic Le Courtois, PEDAL, University of Cambridge
  • Implementing Children’s Rights in Schools – Professor Hugh Starkey, IOE, and Dr Lee Jerome, Middlesex University
  • How citizenship and active citizenship support and develop children’s agency – Liz Moorse, Association for Citizenship Teaching and Nic Smallshaw, First News

To ensure that children themselves featured in the conference the HHCP also worked with the Penn Green Centre for Children and Families to produce a video for the conference showing real examples of how three-year-old children’s agency is enacted every day in their early years practice.

Vimeo Widget Placeholderhttps://vimeo.com/556145390/f216aa5a8b


Researching children’s agency

Children’s agency is a key research theme at the HHCP, with major research projects examining its place within the curriculum. HHCP Director Professor Dominic Wyse and HHCP Senior Researcher Dr Yana Manyukhina were commissioned to review the place of knowledge in curricula in a selection of high performing countries as part of Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) review of Ireland’s national curriculum for primary schools. The outcomes of the review will impact on hundreds of thousands of young children’s education. Findings were published by the Curriculum Journal in the article ‘Learner agency and the curriculum: a critical realist perspective.’ Professor Wyse and Dr Manyukhina were also commissioned by the Chartered College of Teaching to produce a research summary on children’s agency, for the Education Exchange, a web resource for teachers who want to improve their practice using research.

The centre has begun its ground-breaking research project Children’s Agency and the National Curriculum (CHANT) led by Professor Wyse and Dr Manyukhina, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is critically examining children’s agency in relation to England’s National Curriculum. In particular the project is looking at children’s views of their agency and teachers’ role in mediating children’s agency in primary education.

With the success of the conference and its research agenda on children’s agency the HHCP is working to make an impact on children’s education and life chances through its research and activities. 



Children playing with toys, sat at a table with a teacher. Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels.