How the concept of good performance at school is understood can vary from person to person, but is generally defined in terms of academic progress or the achievement of desired outcomes. Overall, South African learners perform poorly in especially mathematics and sciences. In addition, the reading literacy of learners is not up to standard in comparison with that of the rest of the world. It is not an easy task to measure good performance, and a variety of determinants are usually considered to affect performance. Factors such as socio-economic status, language, infrastructure, leadership style and school climate are a few examples. In the conceptual theoretical foundation, effective and academically performing schools are discussed in the social capital theory, followed by a discussion of leadership style, school climate and the relationship between academically performing schools, leadership style and school climate.
Social capital is defined as the aggregated real or potential resources available to humans, linked to the existence of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships that are characterised by recognition and mutual recognition. For this reason, social capital is usually seen as the relationships among people living in a particular society (in the school context principals and educators) and working so that the society can function effectively. The underlying assumption in the research reported in this article is that it is the principal who should fulfil a key role. He or she has been called to build all the necessary bridges that could lead to all the participants’ moving in the same direction in order to achieve their collective purpose, based on the social capital thus formed. Principal must be able to bridge large gaps between generations, ages, social status, religions and ethnicity through their conduct. By using a particular leadership style, school principals try to establish good relationships and a positive school climate. An ethical leadership style has a positive influence on the academic performance of the learners and the behaviour of the educators, as well as contributing to job satisfaction.
Authors differ on which school leadership style best contributes to good academic achievement in a school. For academic activities, programmes and achievements to be effective, it is possible only if principals have the ability to demonstrate a suitable leadership style. Context plays an important role in the choice of leadership style by the principal. Some authors are of the opinion that the instructional leadership style may be the appropriate style through which to enhance the performance of learners. At the same time, the transformational leadership style may bring about change in especially poor performing schools and establish a positive school climate. With regard to the democratic and autocratic leadership styles, some authors point out that the democratic leadership style has a greater influence on academic performance and a positive school climate than the autocratic leadership style. School climate cannot be restricted, although specific or definite attributes are ascribed to it. However, it is often said that climate refers to the "atmosphere" in a school. To enhance a positive school climate, it is important that clear communication channels between the principal and the educators should be established in order to maintain the same perception of their school climate. Studies on the relationship between leadership style, school climate and good performance indicate that there is sometimes a connection between the three variables. A positive school climate leads to educators’ applying more effective teaching and learning for the benefit of the learners.
The purpose of this investigation was to determine which leadership styles are followed or applied by different heads of schools and how their leadership styles influence the school climate. Based on continued excellent grade 12 performance over the past eight years, four schools were identified as academically well-performing schools. Interviews were conducted with the four principals and with 12 educators of these schools to learn more about the leadership styles of the school leaders and about the school climate. At the same time, the interviews examined the relationship between school performance, the leadership style of the principal and the relevant school climate. It appears that the autocratic, democratic and participative leadership styles are followed most by the principals in the well-performing schools and that these three styles have a positive influence on the school climate.
The investigation revealed that school climate and leadership style play an important role at the meso level. Because the principal stands in relationship to both the educators and the learners (and thus contributes to the building of social capital), the leadership style of the principal has an influence on these relationships. The leadership style determines the attitude of the educators and learners, which, in turn, affects the climate of the school. As the social capital theory suggests, the role of the principal in creating a positive school climate is of the utmost importance. As a positive school climate plays such an important role in the success of a school, it is important that the principal's leadership style should be adjusted accordingly to maintain a positive school climate. In this study, the democratic and the participative leadership styles were the styles identified by the principals and the educators as the most appropriate leadership styles to create and maintain a positive school climate. The study also revealed that the autocratic leadership style is used only when attention is immediately needed for particular situations. For this reason, the autocratic leadership style is not experienced as a negative style but rather a style needed to enhance performance and the school climate.
Principals and educators should familiarise themselves with the latest leadership styles so that the heads' actions (as informed by their leadership styles) can be transparent to the educators. In addition, school principals should make a concerted effort to accommodate and support the school as a safe haven for each role player.
Keywords: academic achievement; academically performing schools; effective schools; leadership style; school climate; school management