Doing the rights thing: an ethnography of a dominant discourse of rights in a primary school in England

Webb, Rebecca (2014) Doing the rights thing: an ethnography of a dominant discourse of rights in a primary school in England. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

PDF - Published Version
Download (2MB) | Preview


This thesis is the product of qualitative ethnographic research conducted over ten months. It considers the implications of adopting a dominant discourse of ’Rights’ as a framework for guiding both the policy and practices of a large state primary school in England. More than this, it interrogates how ‘Rights’ (and ‘Respect’ with which it is conventionally coupled) link to, and inform, subordinate discourses of ‘Equality’ and ‘Diversity’. Guided by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ‘Rights Respecting Schools’ (RRS) initiative, these four values of rights; respect; equality; and diversity are highlighted as pivotal in shaping the lived experiences of everyday schooling amongst children, parents, teachers, support and ancillary staff.

My work involves applying theorizations of post-structuralism to problematize these values within this environment. I operationalize discourse analysis to make sense of my ethnographic data in a manner which I attribute to Laws (2011). I do this, in order to scrutinise some everyday occurrences of school life, acknowledging that they can be understood in many different ways, ‘all and none of which can be seen as ‘true’’ (Laws, 2011, p.15). Like Laws, I acknowledge that what I wish to achieve is a way of reading aspects of school life and what goes on there, in new and different ways in order to see things what may have been overlooked or taken-for-granted previously. The purpose of my research is ‘not to unravel and find a truth or even many truths’. It is ‘to trouble, to deconstruct the operations of dominant discourses’ (Laws, 2011, p.15) in order to generate new ways of seeing, being and understanding. Applying a range of theoretical lenses enables me to strike a note of caution concerning the all too appealing and apparently transparent quality of rights, respect, equality and diversity within the institution of the school.

My reading of these rights discourses suggests that the RRS policy text shapes school practices, in very particular ways. Some school subjects describe these as productive of an ‘ethos’ that is: ‘happy’, ‘carefree’ and ‘joyful’. Such positive accolades are attributable to a schooling genealogy that long pre-dates the introduction of the RRS. The rights discourses tend to promote a regulative, procedural rationale of a ‘consensus’ (Rancière, 2004) of schooling. This works to produce an idea of ‘common sense’ value (Hall and O’Shea, 2013). It cloaks difficulties and contradictions implicit within fundamental assertions of ‘rights’, especially foreclosing any claim of them as inherently ‘political’, despite protestations of their power to ‘transform’. Disjuncture, diversity and difference are difficult to deal with institutionally. The discourses produce particular regimes of truth which means that certain ways of doing and saying can be ruled in, and others out. Expectations of the enactment of a ‘Ubiquitous Rights Respecting’ school subject (as either adult or child) are demanding and contradictory, whilst, at the same time, the constitution of the ‘Rights Respecting Citizen’ is imagined as: either, ‘adult’ who is already ‘prefigured’; or, ‘child’ who is, ‘Yet-To-Be’.

However, the performative qualities of the rights, respect, equality and diversity discourses present moments of ‘dissensus’ (Rancière, ibid) which leave traces. I suggest that these generate the possibilities for a (re)imagining of ‘common sense’ refracted as ‘good sense’ (Hall and O’Shea, ibid) that offer, not (another) manifesto for democratic schooling, but sources of insight which may enrich attempts to use initiatives like RRS as schools’ guiding frameworks.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Education and Social Work > Education
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB1501 Primary education
L Education > LF Individual institutions (Europe) > LF0014 England
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 21 Nov 2014 09:16
Last Modified: 25 Sep 2015 13:52

View download statistics for this item

📧 Request an update