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Senior leaders’ approaches to transition to primary school: A discourse analysis

For most children in New Zealand, starting school is a significant life event. The move from early childhood education (ECE) to primary school has been well documented and researched internationally and locally. The current body of literature draws on the voices of children, families, ECE teachers, and primary school teachers. However, the experiences of school leaders, who frequently direct a school's approach to transitioning students in their first year, are rarely addressed in the literature. My research addresses this gap by investigating the practices and underpinning beliefs of five primary school senior leaders (team leaders, syndicate leaders, and associate or deputy principals) with responsibility for the transition to school at large primary schools in Auckland, New Zealand. Underpinned by a post-structural conceptual framework, my research draws on interviews with school leaders to examine discourses that constructed these leaders' approaches to the transition from ECE to primary school. Three post-structural concepts were critical to the conceptual framework: identities (understood to be fluid and continuously renegotiated), contexts (situated, professional, material and external), and discourse (language in use). The main research question asked "How do school senior leaders discursively construct approaches to transition to school and their own and others’ identities within their contexts?" Semi-structured interviews yielded rich data on how participants build their own identities and those of others, including children and whānau, in the transition to school process. Four localised discourses were identified in the interview data: structural, relational, pedagogical and achievement discourses. Leaders drew upon these and other broader, big “D” Discourses including those of school readiness, neoliberal policies, and conceptualisations of senior leadership roles in New Zealand primary schools, in interplay with many others. The interview data showed evidence of school leaders both resisting and submitting to discourses. School-specific contexts shaped participants' (conscious or unconscious) reproduction of discourses in their decisions and practices. Participants used many common transition-to-school practices. However, how those transition practices and relationships with stakeholders were discursively constructed and enacted in their school-specific contexts varied. The range of discourses drawn upon and reproduced by school leaders demonstrates the complex and deeply contextualised nature of constructing transition to school approaches. This study privileges the voices of school leaders to add a fresh perspective to the body of literature about children's transition from early childhood education to primary school. The findings reveal opportunities for leaders to critically examine the discourses that shape their constructions of reality within their schools, both in their leadership in general and, more specifically, in their leadership of the crucial first moments of children's school lives.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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