School leadership the biggest leverage point to improve basic education

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Published Jan 5, 2018


Today is a day of mixed emotions for South African Matrics. 

While we celebrate with the 401 435 students who have passed their national senior certificate, our hearts go out to the approximately 100 000 students who failed and the rest of the approximately 1.2 million students who started twelve years ago as bright-eyed grade 1s, and who did not make it this far.

The results, announced by minister Angie Motshekga, translates into an overall pass rate of 75.1%, which is an improvement from the 72.5% in 2016. Interestingly, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) noted that this pass rate was negatively influenced by the approximately 104 000 students who were automatically progressed to Matric, a figure which correlates closely with the number of students who failed the exams.

The results include 61 448 distinctions, 7 861 of which are in science and 6 726 in maths. Gauteng (85.1% pass rate), the Western Cape (82.7%) and the Free State (86.1%) are the top performing provinces, while the Eastern Cape recorded the lowest pass rate at 65%.

The improved results follow a year of negative news for the basic education sector. Recently, the international PIRLS (Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study) found that almost eight out of every ten children in Grade 4 (78% to be exact) in South Africa cannot read for meaning. This places South Africa in the last place of the 50 countries tested, and well below other countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Iran and Kazakhstan on the list.

Dr Louise van Rhyn is the CEO of Partners for Possibility, a social enterprise that pairs business leaders with school principals of under-resourced schools. 

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The results led to leading commentators, such as Professor Jonathan Jansen, call the government’s actions in the basic education sector an “unmitigated failure”. It also shone a light on the challenges of allowing students to study in their home language from Grade 1 to 3, then switching abruptly to English from Grade 4. This creates problems during the foundational phase that will hold the child back for the rest of his or her academic career.

Other statistics in the past two years further highlighted the challenges in basic education. The DBE estimates that approximately 20 000 out of 25 000 public schools in South Africa are under-resourced and under-performing 

One would be forgiven to think that the challenges in basic education is merely a problem of resources, but this is unfortunately not true. In this budget year, South Africa allocated R240 billion, at 17.5% the largest single portion of its budget, to basic education. 

Look rather at the complex problems created by our history. During Apartheid, 20% of South African schools received most of the resources. This created healthy, well-resourced eco systems around these schools, consisting of well-trained teachers and leaders, engaged parents, a community of people with a shared picture of what a “good school” looks like.  

This is not the case at the under-performing schools, where principals face a myriad of problems such as teenage pregnancies, child headed households and gangsters, all while facing pressure from the DBE to improve pass rates, manage complex budgets and increase teacher attendance. Meanwhile, these principals have not been equipped with skills and have very little, if any, leadership training and even less of the support from parents and teachers that well-performing schools rely on.

At Partners for Possibility, the social enterprise that I am part of, we have identified school leadership as a main area of concern and the greatest leverage point for systemic change.

Helping these principals creates fertile ground for other interventions, from funding, DBE directives, charitable donations and other social interventions to effectively make a change, rather than flounder in the uniquely complex challenges of daily survival faced by each of the 20 000 under-resourced schools.  

*Dr Louise van Rhyn is the CEO of Partners for Possibility, a social enterprise that pairs business leaders with school principals of under-resourced schools. She holds a Doctorate in complex social change.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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