Principal Perspectives on the Impact of COVID-19: Pathways Toward Equity in Australian Schools

Year: 2021

Author: Flack, Clare, Bickerstaff, Amanda

Type of paper: Individual Paper

School leaders across Australia are engaged in response, recovery and rebuilding efforts as they cope with a changing educational landscape. Our November 2020, cross-sectoral survey of over 450 P-12 Australian school principals sought to understand their experience guiding schools through the pandemic and priorities moving forward. We asked principals about: their schools’ response to the pandemic; the challenges facing their school community; the impact of the pandemic on various stakeholders; concerns and priorities for 2021; and what types of support would be most valuable.  This research applied a critical lens to emphasise the need for both immediate and future interventions to advance equity in Australian schools. We used the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage ( ICSEA) to investigate socioeconomic disparities in the impact of the pandemic on schools. In addition, we highlighted the experience of the Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander principals in our sample. The research team used Chi-square tests of independence, Fisher’s Exact tests and generalized Cochran-Mantel-Haenszel stratified tests of association to analyse the statistical significance of relationships between ICSEA and other ordinal categorical variables that could plausibly influence responses. In addition, the research team used iterative coding to analyse qualitative data from four open-response items. Although the overall sample was not representative, findings point to trends that warrant further investigation and to the need for concrete policy changes. Analysis provided insights into challenges faced by school communities and illuminated disparities rooted in structural inequalities predating COVID-19. Students at higher-ICSEA schools experienced significant advantages over those in less affluent schools, particularly around access to technology. Perceptions about students’ academic progress were largely negative, particularly among lower-ICSEA principals. Leaders at lower-ICSEA schools indicated they needed significantly more resources for teaching and learning than schools in more advantaged communities. About a quarter of qualitative responses about priorities for 2021 described plans for wellbeing initiatives. The paper recommends policies to advance equitable educational opportunities for all students across Australia. These include: prioritisation of teacher wellbeing; expansion of digital inclusion; mitigation of learning loss among vulnerable students; care for student wellbeing; and the design and implementation of reimagined infrastructure. The recommendations have relevance for state governments, peak bodies and school networks aiming to further the inseparable goals of academic achievement and wellbeing in the coming years. This research expanded emerging literature on the impact of the pandemic on Australian schools by contributing school leader voices to scholarly dialogue about response and recovery.