Guest blogger Dr. Louise Van Rhyn describes the Partners for Possibility(PfP) program in South Africa which recently won the prestigious 2018 WISE Award.
The recently published results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study reveal that 78% of 10-year-olds in South Africa cannot read for meaning – in any language. Most fifteen-year-old learners are unable to reach the lowest international benchmark in mathematics. Despite increased government spending, the education system continues to face challenges of quality and effectiveness of learning and teaching at all levels.
South Africa’s post-Apartheid public education system is characterised by stark inequalities. The bimodal schooling system created under Apartheid remains largely unchanged with 20% of the country’s 25,000 government schools providing world-class education, while 80% very poor education outcomes.
Whilst the academic performance of South African students is undeniably affected by their socio-economic circumstances, other critical factors differentiate the country’s successful schools from those that are ‘failing’. Key among these are the degree to which parents and community members engage with and support the school and, crucially, the extent to which the principal has been equipped for the task of leading the school.
There is increasing recognition that the role of the school principal is highly speacialised and that leadership at the school level is the critical factor in turning around an education system that is in crisis.
Career educators are often promoted to the position of principal – and this naturally comes with the expectation that the school will be run in a sustainable and efficient way by the appointed leader. In South Africa however, while school principals are now recognised by the government as critical levers for improving education, there is no compulsory preparation for the role of principal other than teaching experience, and most principals receive no training in leadership or management.
To compound the situation, the contextual reality within which principals are expected to run their schools is often underplayed or completely overlooked. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and the majority of principals face formidable leadership challenges which arise from factors including poor school infrastructure, under-qualified and demotivated teachers, and students who are often hungry and ill, do not have proper clothing and lack parental support.
In stark contrast to the experience of school principals, who arguably lead the country’s most important institutions, the leaders in South Africa’s business community have typically been very well-equipped by their various organisations to assume leadership positions and manage change.
A South African solution to a South African challenge
As a South African education activist with over 25 years’ experience as a change practitioner, I realised that the abundant expertise available in the business sector could be tapped to help equip school principals with the skills they need to lead change in their schools and communities. In 2011, I launched the Partners for Possibility (PfP) programme which establishes co-learning, co-action partnerships between principals from under-resourced schools and leaders from the business community. The aim of these partnerships is to support and equip principals with the skills they need to lead change and to mobilise communities to engage with their schools.
The business leaders provide practical hands on support to principals, sharing their knowledge and skills with them as the two leaders tackle challenges together in the school. At the same time business leaders learn from principals about leading in under-resourced contexts and are exposed to the challenges within the education system. Both partners also attend formal leadership training.
Six to ten partnerships are grouped into a leadership circle which is supported by a professional coach-facilitator during a 12-month structured, process of formal and informal learning. The leadership circle forms a community of practice that meets regularly and creates an opportunity for socially constructed knowledge, insight and skills to emerge.
The programme focuses on respectful reciprocity where partners are viewed as equals, each possessing the ability to make an invaluable contribution to the partnership through the sharing of professional and personal experiences. As the partners reach out to parents and community members to engage them in the life of the school, they foster a sense of shared responsibility, active citizenship and community building which strengthens of the fabric of society.
Effecting tangible change
To date, 825 school principals, most of whom had no previous leadership or management training, have joined PfP together with their business leader partners.
In numerous internal and external programme evaluations conducted since 2014, principals have reported becoming more confident and better able to lead and manage change at their schools. This new-found confidence has enabled principals to rally their communities to become actively involved in school life. Positive ripple effects of this include happier and more engaged teachers, who feel supported and appreciated, and a more engaged set of parents who now see the benefit of working in tandem with teachers.
Business partners have become better equipped to confront complexity and ambiguity, to lead beyond authority and influence across boundaries – and most importantly- they have learned to lead with humanity. Business partners have also gained real insight into the challenges faced by under-resourced communities which drive some of the major dysfunction in South African society.
Learners, as primary beneficiaries of education, have benefitted from these enablers of improved education outcomes.
External evaluations by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation and Quest Research Services found improvements in academic outcomes in the PfP schools that were investigated in detail – even though the principals in these schools had only recently completed the programme. Academic performance in PfP secondary schools are better than national averages, with drop-out rates also lower than the national average.
As a driver of social cohesion in South Africa, PfP exposes participants to communities with whom they would not normally engage. Very few senior business leaders, represented mostly by white men, would ordinarily spend time in the poor communities where black men and women lead most of the country’s under-resourced schools.
As the PfP Theory of Change indicates, the impact of principals’ leadership growth on academic outcomes may take years to become evident. But it is clear that equipping school leaders with the requisite leadership skill set now is essential in realising the vision of an inclusive, quality education for all South Africa’s children in the future.
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For more information, please visit: www.PfP4SA.org