University of Tasmania

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Education law, schools, and school principals: A mixed methods study of the impact of law on Tasmanian school principals

posted on 2023-05-26, 15:00 authored by Trimble, AJ

This study reports research conducted in Tasmania concerning the impact of legal issues on school principals across the government, Catholic and Independent school sectors. The research focused on the areas of principals’ legal literacy (encompassing the legal areas they deal with, the accuracy of their legal knowledge and their legal confidence, and sources of legal support) and legal consciousness; the legal context faced by principals; negative impacts of their legal dealings, and ways principals consider their legal support might be improved. While some findings accorded with previous Australian studies (McCann, 2006; Stewart, 1996), several identified new perspectives on school principals’ dealings with legal issues.

The research design was a concurrent triangulation, quan + QUAL, mixed methods design, based on an on-line survey of Tasmanian principals and a series of semi-structured interviews with a range of people working in Tasmanian education, including principals, principal supervisors, senior system leaders, administrators and a government education lawyer. This study was the first of its kind in Australia to begin to address the experiences of Independent school principals together with their colleagues from other systems, as well as providing a more complete and rounded picture by including the views of practising principals and other informed perspectives.

In terms of principals’ legal literacy, the findings largely reflected the previous Australian research. Data revealed that principals deal with a broad range of legal areas, but their legal involvement primarily focusses on matters involving the safety and security of students and their families, and staff. Based on discrimination law questions posed in the survey, participants’ legal knowledge was assessed to be limited (mean accuracy of 53%). However, that provided only part of the picture. It was concluded that participants’ legal knowledge should be considered in light of their legal support network, legal confidence (which may affect a willingness to seek advice), and legal consciousness. The data revealed considerable reliance by principals on their own legal understandings, as well as that of colleagues, which may be appropriate for routine issues within a stable legal environment, but possibly problematic for non-routine matters within a dynamic legal context. Further, the data revealed considerable reliance by many school leaders on decision support from experienced specialist advisers, and lawyers. It was found that principals from less well-resourced schools within the Independent sector may not have access to such support.

Legal consciousness is a concept adapted from Law and Society, involving beliefs about law, held by non-lawyers. The interview data revealed a series of such general ideas held by participants, especially concerning defences or shields to prosecution: If I do A, because of B, then that’s OK legally. In several instances these beliefs were not legally accurate. The study also made findings regarding the internal and external legal environments of school organisations, from which legal claims, requirements and pressures arise, and with which principals must deal. The study proposed some extension of the previously accepted organisation theory model of school and the law (Lunenburg, 2010; Lunenburg & Ornstein, 1991; Stewart, 1996).

The issue of negative impacts of dealing with legal issues has previously been addressed in education law research in terms of principals’ stress, and the time demands of legal matters. This study also examined time costs and legal stress, but recognised other negative impacts, including the cost of legal advice and the impact of skewed risk management. When the focus turned to suggestions for improving legal support for principals not all participants felt change was needed. Many of the findings involved ways to improve principals’ preparation and development. Interestingly, some participants also raised the legal training of pre-service teachers as ultimately affecting the principal’s responsibilities to students and staff.





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