Leadership for inclusive education: The ‘dark side’ of principal practice

Year: 2021

Author: Anderson, Joanna, Boyle, Christopher

Type of paper: Individual Paper

The ‘dark side’ of educational leadership is a phenomenon that has been examined in the research literature in recent times, and there is evidence to suggest this style of leadership is on the rise. The term refers to practices described as being far from laudable, destructive or counter-productive behaviours that are directed towards specific groups of people and engender a level of control. A qualitative study sought to better understand leadership for inclusive education from the perspective of primary school principals, in acknowledgement of the crucial part they play as leaders of schools. The study adopted the Ecology of Inclusive Education as its conceptual framework, which afforded leadership for inclusive education to be studied within the complex and messy contexts of schools, and the broader environments in which they operate. Ten cases were investigated, and thematic analysis was used to analyse data from twenty semi-structured in-depth interviews and forty school documents. The results yielded some unexpected and troubling findings.Practices that align with this notion of ‘dark’ leadership were described and justified by the majority of principals who participated in this study. Teachers, students and parents were all recipients of practices used to coerce them into actions to which they had expressed resistance, at the behest of the principal. Principals’ justified these practices on the basis they resulted in what was best for those involved; teachers came to be grateful for the support they received, students complied with behaviour expectations, and parents had their children diagnosed and medicated. Research indicates that these practices are not isolated to participants in this study, particularly when interrogating the notion of leadership for inclusive education. A small number of studies across the last decade have noted similar principal practices, yet they continue to be enacted. Questions must be asked about the role of the current socio-political zeitgeist on education systems, and the work of the school principal as a leader of inclusive education within these structures.  Where should responsibility for these practices be positioned, and what must happen to ensure ‘dark’ practices are not used under the guise of leadership for inclusive education?