A critical realist analysis of COVID-19 pandemic policy enactment in English secondary schools

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools had diverse and often contradictory policy demands placed upon them. Despite much recent research into the impacts of the pandemic on learning, attainment and well-being, few studies exist that explore policy enactment in schools during this period. This study adopts a critical realist perspective to understand the process of policy enactment during a period of profound, indeed, unprecedented disruption and uncertainty for schools and their leaders.

The study utilises a context-mechanism-outcome approach to analyse interview data collected from ten senior leaders in two contrasting local secondary schools in Southern England: an independent secondary day school located on the outskirts of a city and a larger-than-average rural secondary academy school. ‘Theory-gleaning’ interviews with the headteacher of each school, followed by ‘theory-refining’ interviews with other members of each Senior Leadership Team, developed an understanding of how policy relating to COVID-19 was experienced, interpreted and enacted. Retroduction then cumulated the ‘actual’ and ‘empirical’ layers of data presented in these case studies, along with results from other forms of empirical research. It identified three underlying generative mechanisms affecting pandemic policy enactment in the ‘real’ domain: (i) policy rhetoric and school reality, (ii) neoliberalism and anti-neoliberal tendencies, and (iii) social fissures in society.

The study provides new understandings of the complex and nuanced way policy is enacted in different institutional settings with differing outcomes under crisis conditions. It is recommended that in events of national crisis where the everyday running of schools is compromised, school leaders are given licence to interpret and implement government policy in ways that best serve the specific needs of their school communities.
Date of Award18 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorGeorge B Leckie (Supervisor) & Richard P Watermeyer (Supervisor)


  • policy enactment
  • pandemic
  • Critical Realism
  • secondary schools
  • COVID-19
  • England

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