Legal literacy: Auckland secondary school principals' knowledge of educational law
This study is an examination of Auckland’s secondary school principals’ perceptions of education law and the implications of these perceptions on their leadership practice. The literature suggests that the number and nature of activities undertaken in secondary schools involves greater danger thereby increasing the likelihood of staff in that sector facing litigation. Accordingly, this research study was carried out with principals of Auckland secondary schools. The schooling environment in New Zealand is being impacted by an increase in the amount of legislation. This, together with the number of court decisions against Boards of Trustees and a willingness in stakeholders to challenge educational decisions and practices using legal mechanisms, means that schools are fast becoming legalised. This legalisation of schools has meant that schools are quickly becoming legal minefields requiring principals and educators to traverse with judicial awareness. This study attempts to uncover whether Auckland secondary school principals have this judicial awareness.
This research takes the form of a qualitative study that utilises two research methods: a questionnaire, and semi-structured interviews. This research is guided by four research questions: • What are New Zealand secondary principals’ perceptions of legal literacy?; • What do New Zealand secondary school principals perceive as their most influential source of education law?; • What are the implications of a possible lack of legal knowledge on secondary school principals’ practice?; • How can the understanding of legal literacy amongst secondary school principals be supported?
The findings identified a number of concerns for principals of secondary schools in Auckland. In the first instance, the findings showed that most participants exhibited only moderate levels of legal literacy. Secondly, participants relied heavily on other colleagues and mentors, along with their experience, when dealing with legal issues. Thirdly, participants were concerned by the emotional and financial implications for themselves and their practice due to a lack of legal knowledge. Finally, participants indicated a need for more training to enhance principals’ understanding of education law and so raise their levels of legal literacy. The implications from this study have particular significance for principals of secondary schools given that they are more likely than their primary school peers to face a legal challenge.
Recommendations from this study suggest that principals’ overall understanding of education law can be improved with adequate and mandatory training, which should be undertaken during aspiring principals’ programmes.