Inclusionary leadership: a qualitative study of principals’ experiences, practices and perceptions of leading autism classes in Irish primary schools

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Dennehy, Linda
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University College Cork
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This study explores the experiences, practices and perceptions of primary school principals currently leading autism classes in Ireland. Autism classes in mainstream primary schools are becoming increasingly common in the Irish education system. The prevalence of autism classes highlights the importance of their role in enabling autistic children to attend mainstream schools. It reflects the increasing number of autistic pupils who require these specialised placements. Primary schools serve all children. It is essential that autistic children are supported in the best way possible so they can reach their full potential. The principal has a pivotal role in all aspects of his or her school, including leading the autism classes. Given the centrality of their role, it is imperative that the principal is supported by the best practices and theory available. This study sought to give the principals time to reflect on their inclusive leadership and decipher what it meant for them in their lived experience and context. Theories of leadership through a socio-cultural lens frame the overall study. A qualitative research design was adopted using semi-structured interviews with 15 primary school principals. Analysis of the data was conducted using a reflective thematic analysis approach. Findings of the research reveal that there are particular leadership styles that align with an inclusive leadership approach. These styles are distributed leadership, transformational leadership and instructional leadership. A positive disposition towards inclusion is an important factor in the principal’s perceptions of their leadership. The idea of inclusionary leadership is borne out of the study. This term indicates that leaders striving for inclusion in their schools do not view it as a destination to be reached but rather a long-term journey they travel. Reciprocal leadership within the whole school community has an influence on the sustainability of the principal’s role. The autism class as a model of a professional learning community emerges from the research and has potential to enhance the professional life of the stakeholders in the school. This research is a pathway for further study in the field. It has implications for pupils, principals, school communities and policy makers regarding the value of the work of inclusionary leaders.
Leadership , Inclusion , Autism , Special classes , Primary school , Principal
Dennehy, L. 2023. Inclusionary leadership: a qualitative study of principals’ experiences, practices and perceptions of leading autism classes in Irish primary schools. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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