The public policy of numerous nations, including Australia, articulates a clear expectation that schools will develop young people s capacities to participate in civic society and its democratic structures and processes. A romantic policy rhetoric hides a reality that is both more complex and less well understood than is typically acknowledged. Young people s democratic participation is subject to varying interpretations and implementation, and is employed to serve varying agendas. The role of schools in developing this participation is particularly subject to tensions and contradictions that can work to undermine and constrain the participation of marginalised young people. There is an abundance of research and policy literature on this topic. Yet, within this plethora of prescription and commentary, the key threads that might make a difference are not always clear. Moreover, there is little in this supposedly inclusive agenda that considers its implications for marginalised groups. This article provides a meta-analysis of the current policy and research landscape, examining the dominant discourses and their implications for young people s participation. It focuses particular attention on the position of marginalised young people as it emerges from the literature and outlines an alternative agenda with the potential to challenge an overly complacent policy and practice context.