Understanding Government and Catholic School Leaders’ Efforts to Support Social Cohesion and Respond to Racism in NSW Secondary Schools

Year: 2019

Author: Sattin-Bajaj, Carolyn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The Australian public has been largely welcoming to refugees and migrants. In the latest annual survey of social cohesion,, more than half of respondents indicated that the number of immigrants accepted into Australia each year is “about right” and a large majority (63%) affirmed that accepting immigrants from many countries makes Australia stronger (Markus, 2017). At the same time, a large share of the population (41%) expressed negative attitudes toward Muslims and 20% of Australians reported being targets of discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion in the past year.

Researchers have begun to capture empirically the ways in which discrimination extends to schools, including through studies of Australian students’ direct experiences of racism and discrimination in schools. Work on intercultural and anti-racist education also touches on a number of important related issues. While the literature base on the role of schools in promoting social cohesion is expanding (Keddie, et al., 2018), many unanswered questions remain about how school leaders respond to threats to social cohesion in their school communities and how prepared they feel to address these issues. This qualitative study seeks to fill this gap through research with school leaders across government and Catholic school sectors in urban, remote and regional parts of New South Wales.

Drawing on in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted with 25 principals and deputy principals in New South Wales, this paper examines school leaders’ efforts to foster social cohesion and respond to issues of racism and bias in their schools. Using purposeful sampling techniques, interview participants were recruited from schools with both high and low proportions of students with a language background other than English, and ICSEA values above and below 1000 in urban, regional and rural parts of the state.

Preliminary findings indicate that school leaders vary widely in their perceptions of the degree of racism in their schools and in their behaviors to promote intercultural understanding and combat discrimination. Leaders’ attitudes and patterns of behavior do not consistently align with the characteristics of the students served in their schools; rather, principals’ actions are strongly associated with their own beliefs about the appropriate role of schools in responding to racist acts and rhetoric both inside and outside of school and the potential for schools to impact students’ beliefs. Additionally, policy and human capital constraints, along with diverse views about the best way to address student differences influence school-based practices around social cohesion.