By Tambudzai Muzenda
As South Africa commemorates Women’s Day, I decided to scope for interests in my back yard: the importance of leadership development among our women principals.
When schools first closed due to Covid-19, I attempted home schooling with my daughter. I knew it wasn’t for me.
I could not imagine what teachers go through on a daily basis, coping with the pressures of lesson preparation while ensuring children learn. I developed a deeper appreciation for principals and teachers. I also wondered what it really took to have schools function in a pandemic with little to no resources.
This prompted me to search for studies on the impact of leadership in schools. I was struck by how the quality of leadership in schools is so critical, but also by how, in South Africa, literature reviews on school management and leadership, and how school leaders’ behaviours and actions contribute to a functional schooling system is scarce. This scarcity limits the policy efforts in embedding school leadership in the South African education system.
In contrast, six rigorous studies commissioned by the Wallace Foundation (2020) in the global north highlight how principals matter in running a functional, effective school, and how this positively affects the learner experience. In other words, teachers with strong teaching capabilities, if enabled through a functional and effective principal, create better learner outcomes.
Furthermore, the report provides evidence that principals and teachers serve in capacities that interlink for success ‘’because principals’ effects on students come largely through their effects on teachers, including how principals hire, retain, develop, and encourage teachers and create appropriate conditions for teaching and learning”. Considering the school as a community within this ecosystem, the effectiveness of the principal is more significant than the effectiveness of a single teacher.
This got me thinking about a particular tension: the overwhelming evidence on the importance of school leadership, and the dearth of women leadership in schools. In addition, this brought to the fore the complexities that surround women’s development and empowerment.
The gender complexities of race and identity hold black women back, as this study based on six South African principals by Nuraan Davids (2018) suggests. She states that women face challenges in ‘breaking the glass ceiling’, with at least a twenty-year delay in claiming their seats at the decision making table.
Most of the women in the study shared that despite having attained and fulfilled their career responsibilities, the climb up the ‘leadership ladder’ was harder, and often required male endorsements for appointment. Research has shown that, although women make up 71 percent of all South African teachers (including heads of department and deputy principals), they hold a mere 36 percent of school principal positions.
These complexities of inequality undermine women's contribution in education and the economy. Davids’ study shows how entrenched patriarchal norms delay socio-economic empowerment for women who stagnate and become demotivated in the same position.
Strikingly, Davids highlights that women leaders need both personal and professional support because some felt they did not give enough time to their families. The women principals expressed the need for support to improve their leadership.
De Bruyn and Mestry (2020) on female school principals and leadership posits that there is a need to embed leadership training within the role of principals, with an emphasis on various key factors that could lead to both a fulfilled career and strengthened resilience.
The key factors are theoretical, practical, or psychological and require continued support through mentoring and leadership training.
The home-grown Partners for Possibility (PfP) leadership development and principal support programme is leading the way on this front. For the last 10 years since its inception, participating principals have gained significantly in terms of their confidence and competence, and this has contributed to the cohesiveness and effectiveness of school management teams, and improved teacher morale. And from the 1401 school principals who have benefited from the PfP programme, 614 are female – a rate of 42%, which is higher than the national average of 36% as mentioned above.
The testimonies shared by participating principals also speak to the importance of leadership. Ronel Barker is a principal at Soneike High School in the Western Cape. She shared how she has had to prepare her school to observe Covid-19 protocols in a short time and ensure safety and continuation of classes. In so doing, she tapped into her leadership skills to motivate and influence her team for success during difficulty.
“As principal, I had to bridge the gap between the education department’s demands and what worked for my school and educators, pulling them along to work together. We ran timetables to accommodate all learners at different times. All educators taught across grade classes and different subjects to ensure social distancing, hence the smaller classes.”
Baker adds that, “Partners for Possibility has been the reason for my success. The support I have had - even during the pandemic - for school projects are all the benefits and opportunities of being part of the PfP community.”
Baker’s leadership is inspiring. Her school has set the benchmark with their 2020 Matric results. The Western Cape Government extended an invitation to Baker’s school to attend the Western Cape Education Department’s Matric Awards which took place in March this year.
From my exploration of this topic, two issues stand out. In order to improve our schooling system, we must invest in our school leadership towards realising the UN Sustainable Development Goal of inclusive, equitable and quality education. We must focus on our women principals - and we need not wait for male endorsement to do so.
As a nation, we can support women principals through encouraging leadership development through programmes such as Partners for Possibility. By making education great again, we can create #TheFutureWeWant. I am celebrating our women principals by raising my hand to support them.
Tambudzai Muzenda is a writer, researcher, advocate and creative with a passion and interest in human rights, gender equality and the SDGs.