For school-aged children, schools comprise a major space of participation. Formally, it is a participatory space constituted and regulated by the laws and policies that govern schooling; informally, it is a participatory space whose affordances and patterns of inclusion/exclusion are shaped by children’s diverse lives and experiences. This article examines modes of participation in relation to conceptions of children in the South African Schools Act of 1996 and South African curriculum policy, with particular attention to the images of children, their participatory opportunities and their implied participatory agency in the domains of school governance and pedagogy. Policy and related discourse in both domains, it is argued, implicitly homogenise children by portraying them as “learners”. At the same time, there is an inconsistency between the images of children and their participatory agency at the level of school governance and at the levels of curriculum and pedagogy. Drawing on empirical data that indicates the significant impact of social conditions on children’s participation in pedagogical spaces and their schooling more generally, the article makes a case for recognising difference. Furthermore, the article contributes to a growing critical literature on children’s participation by examining connections and disconnections between official constructions of participatory space and the diverse life-worlds of children in South Africa.