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One creative solution to SA’s education crisis

Partnering business leaders with school principals.

JOHANNESBURG – A Zimbabwean, Heathfield Primary’s grade 6 maths teacher did not feel welcomed at the Cape-based school and his class’s poor results – in the 40s – reflected his struggle to adapt. After the school’s principal became more nurturing and supportive of this teacher, by 2015 the maths results had shot up into the high 80s.

This is just one of dozens of stories illustrating the impact that Partners for Possibility (PfP) is having on South Africa’s under-resourced schools by establishing partnerships between business leaders and school principals.

Over the course of one year, the business leader and school principal complete a tailored leadership course together and receive professional coaching. The partners custom design a school improvement plan, while also sharing ideas with other similar partnerships, and engage the schools’ respective communities to become actively involved in executing the plan.

Founded in 2010, PfP is the flagship programme of Symphonia for South Africa, a non-profit organisation with a vision to achieve quality education for all children in South Africa by 2025.

According to Symphonia, just 5 000 of South Africa’s 25 000 government schools are “doing very well”.

Research conducted by Symphonia finds that these high-quality government schools have two things in common: a principal who is equipped for their task and a community that supports the school.

PfP thus brings together the country’s under-resourced schools – which often find themselves burdened by extremely difficult socio-economic circumstances, such as poverty and unemployment – with its world-class corporate sector.

Lasting impact

Some 345 partnerships have been formed since the project started in February 2011, with data available for 288 of these, as the rest were formed less than a year ago.

Dr Andrew Hartnack, projects director and senior researcher at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, routinely evaluates educational outcomes in disadvantaged communities and he recently completed an independent evaluation of PfP.

Hartnack did an in-depth evaluation of a representative sample of 20 schools that have completed the programme across nine different areas, such as leadership impact on the principal and school governing body or management team, as well as community/parent, education and infrastructure spin-offs.

Hartnack’s findings overwhelmingly suggest that PfP is having significantly positive impacts on the way schools are run and the outcomes they achieve.

Fifteen of the schools achieved an overall score of eight and above out of ten, while all 20 of the principals interviewed by Hartnack found PfP to be beneficial.

Principals reported becoming better listeners, improved organisers, able to delegate, more open to new ideas and more nurturing. Senior teachers said they benefitted greatly from the changes in the leadership styles of principals, which in turn translated into improved relationships with parents, community buy-in and better educational outcomes.

“Educational impacts don’t happen overnight, but even so, more than 70% said there were positive changes in the educational environment while 30% reported an improvement in results,” said Hartnack.

For example, Zonkizizwe Secondary School in Katlehong, Gauteng achieved a 93% matric pass rate in 2015 with 58 bachelor passes (i.e. university exemptions) out of 118.

More than half the schools evaluated completely reworked their vision and mission, drawing up strategic plans and forming committees to execute on these.

Schools also notably improved engagement with parents and the community, so much so that members of the community now guard Iphuteng Primary in Alexandra after hours and do not play loud music during school hours.

Yeoville Boys Primary in Johannesburg, which serves a large community of immigrants from the rest of Africa, has made arrangements with the Department of Home Affairs, banks and other agencies to come to the school regularly and assist parents with obtaining necessary documents.

Business leaders benefit

It is not only principals who gained from the PfP year, but business leaders too, mostly “because they got to see first-hand the challenges that under-resourced schools and principals faced, and to move out of their comfort zones and get involved”, the report finds.

One senior Vodacom executive, for example, was at first not comfortable travelling to Alexandra when her principal relocated to a new school. After some encouragement she visited the school and learnt to “break social boundaries”, facing the realities of township education and its challenges, the report finds.

Some business leaders even made changes in their own companies and management teams, following input from the principals they partnered with, particularly around racial and cultural issues.

The vast majority of these 20 partnerships have continued even after the programme was completed, with more than half of these partnerships considered “very active”.

Hartnack described the support of school principals as a “catalytic investment” for businesses to make in the education system.

“This is an example of the National Development Plan in action,” said Dr Louise van Rhyn, founder of Symphonia.

She said that scaling the programme is a challenge and called on more business leaders to become partners.


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A good place to start to resolving the Education crisis I would think is to actively prevent the burning of schools and to be seen to be punishing those that do. I have not read anywhere that anyone has been arrested or charged with the destruction of any of the 20 or so schools and one Johannesburg University auditorium at all. Until that happens, the ruling party remains fully responsible for the education crisis and its ramifications, and until then, the subject is not open to debate as to the rest of the country taking blame or part of the decisions. Look to the ANC for the answers and the cost thereto.

Burning and destroying the countries infrastructure is NOT one of the ‘good stories to tell’.

Agree, what use is a revamped system without schools. All these good intentions sound great but without an actual school it is a pipe dream.
We have gone backwards since 1976, lives were lost but 23 odd schools were not burnt to the ground.

those kids from that area will just add to the lost generation that are burning tires and destroying property for no apparent reason, other than boredom.

That is not only cynical, but misinformed. You cannot compare ’76 with what is happening now. SA spends more than just about any other country per capita on education, yet we have the among the world’s poorest results. Why is that? Corruption, mismanagement, incompetence on every level. These kids want to learn. They can now be taught in their mother tongue (not Afrikaans, as in ’76) but the books are not delivered, the teachers are truant and the principals are not in control, in some 80% of SA schools.

So no wonder they are frustrated and angry. The potential is there, but all the promises of the ‘older generation’ are being broken. And it’s been 22 years! Entire generations have lost out on a decent education and things aren’t getting any better.

If you are suggesting sending in the police to “prevent the burning of schools” than that is just treating the symptoms, and badly at that. The root cause needs to be addressed, and if government is not capable, then it’s up to civil society to step in. That’s where organisations like PfP come in, helping to create a leadership structure, albeit at a school level, drawing on the experience and expertise of business leaders.

We need to stop complaining about the government. Let’s accept they’re incompetent, and move on, to support organisations that actually do something for the situation.

Good schools are made so by a strong parent body – not really by the principal (although that is certainly the impression the principals like to create for their own advantage).

The principal is definitely a very important leader in this endeavor, but the defining difference ultimately comes down to the quality of the school governing body (the parents in other words).

It is they who will not tolerate an under-performing principal or teachers, and will ensure that a good principal is selected, and then enthusiastically supported.

Without the ACTIVE support of the parents, a good principal is wasting his time, and will quickly move on to another school where he/she will be more appreciated. Wouldn’t you?

Communities must be actively encouraged to provide financial support – themselves – for their particular school’s needs. Need a swimming pool, or another classroom, or a better playground? Then contribute! Even if just a few rand – it’s the principle that counts. The DoE can assist by matching these contributions.

This is how virtually all the good white schools got to be where they are now. It wasn’t instant success either. It was successive GENERATIONS of parents (and old-boys/girls) continuing to contribute over MANY years (decades in the case of my own schools) even though it was often not their children that benefited from the fund-raising, but the kids who came after.

That way the local community have skin in the game, and won’t idly stand by as their facilities are burnt down by community hotheads.

Too many non-whites think white-school success is all about the money. It’s not at all.

The determining factor has been – all along – sustained parental commitment. A feature which is sadly lacking at almost every under-performing school.

In short, my opinion is that PfP could greatly increase their undoubted good influence in this situation if they put MORE focus on improving and assisting the school governing bodies (as opposed to focusing mainly on the principal).

And that such effort would be more easily scaleable (a problem PfP admit to having) and also ultimately have a wider benefit for the greater local community (rather than just affecting mostly only the subset of the school).

What the article doesn’t mention is the fact that this is not some shallow ‘mentorship program’. There are many strategies that the business leaders are taught to implement at the schools, to empower the principals, who are essentially the leaders of the school.

One of these strategies is to get the involvement of the parents. It’s about getting people to accept the responsibility of raising their children, and not fobbing it off on a school. Yes, it’s hard when both parents work all day. But when they do, and they get to feed off each other’s energy, it’s amazing how it impacts the kids.

I interviewed a (PfP) principal in Athlone, and in a matter of two years they had gone from average failing grades to ‘Model C’ pass levels. Some kids jumped two levels in Maths. And a big part of it was getting parental buy-in, to get parents to understand that they are part of a team with the teachers and admin of the school: accountability all round leads to accountability on the part of the learners.

It’s a fantastic program.

It’s not merely “by the way, a big part of it is getting parental buy-in”.

In my opinion, this downplays the fundamental kernel of WHY these programs are able to attain any sort of success in the first place.

Parental buy-in is the MAIN factor driving educational success. School success may superficially seem to be due to the Principal, but this is not so.

The principal and the teachers are just co-opted along for the ride by the parents!

Good school governing bodies are the invisible and unsung heroes in this success story.

The principal and the teachers get all the publicity and limelight, bu the DRIVING power behind throne, as it were, is really the school governing body.

Parents and teachers are obviously BOTH important, but iff push comes to shove, good parents are MORE valuable than the teachers. I’m not trying to denigrate the role of teachers, so much as making the case that the role of the parent is CRUCIAL – and largely overlooked, and much more important than is being given due.

A LOT more attention, recognition – and respect – needs to be given to interested and enthusiastic parents – and this has to be acknowledged by the educational system – even by this PfP program.

Good parents can (and do!) make up for bad teachers, but not the other way round. Good teachers cannot compensate adequately for bad parents. And nor should they be expected to.

100% correct………………Jonnoxx; an excellent response. It is the quality of the parents and pupils that will determine a schools success. This program, though welcome given guvmunts total inability to do anything correct, is just a band aid solution.

Hope the bandaid works and its effectiveness will only be proved once the programs active involvement stops as it must do sooner rather than later.

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