Top-performing schools overcoming contextual constraints by means of leadership

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In a previous article published in this journal, in which an attempt was made to enumerate and encapsulate in one equation all factors determining quality of education taking place within a particular education system or school, leadership was identified as one significant factor. Moreover, this factor has the power to mediate, even obviate, many of the other factors (including the debilitating factors of the education system and the societal context). The aim of this article is to report on how, by means of innovative leadership, top-performing schools have succeeded in overcoming contextual obstacles to supply quality education.

Quality in education is a term defying a simple, one-line definition. It is more meaningful to enumerate the components of quality education. These components are input quality, process quality, output quality and product quality. Process quality, in turn, consists of a number of subcomponents, namely the administrative substructure, parental and home background factors, the curriculum, the teacher factor, the learner factor, organisational climate and leadership.

In this article, the following definition of educational leadership, developed by Griffiths University (Australia) educational leadership scholar Neil Dempster (2009:22), is used as a working definition: “School leaders, understanding and accommodating the contexts in which they operate, mobilise and work with others to articulate and achieve shared intentions to enhance learning and the lives of learners.”

This definition differs from many other definitions and conceptualisations of (school) leadership, in that it includes “context”. In this article the term context is analysed and found to include both a societal context and an education system context. The context in which South African schools find themselves is analysed as well and found to be very challenging, even debilitating in many respects. These include weather extremes — admittedly short in duration (a few weeks per year), the tendency of middle-class South Africans to live in single-unit dwellings (meaning many learners live further than walking distance from schools), widespread unemployment and poverty, cultural (including linguistic) diversity, an extant lack of social capital, and poor and wanting political leadership, creating a moral vacuum in the country.

One indicator of the overall quality of education is learner performance. A qualitative research design was employed. A sample of four top-performing schools, two in each of the provinces of the Western Cape and Gauteng, was selected for this study. A top-performing school was defined as a school with a 100% matric pass rate for at least the five years preceding the study. Unfortunately, this requirement meant that only ex-model C schools (i.e. historically white schools) were included in this study. Interviews were conducted with the principal and (individual interviews with each of) three teachers in each school, in which the interviewees were probed as to how they handled the following contextual factors that have an impact on their schools:

  • Physical climate (temperature, humidity, atmospheric circulation, cold winters, and summers with a high temperature-humidity index)
  • Population density; the distance the learners have to travel to school each day
  • Cultural diversity
  • Financial position of parents
  • Efficacy of local political authority
  • Religious beliefs of families (parents and learners)
  • National education policy and administration
  • Provincial education policy and administration.

It was found that these schools also had to contend with weather extremes (extreme mid-winter cold spells, and extreme hot and humid mid-summer spells), although each of these is of short duration. Interviewees told the researchers that proper and regular maintenance of school and classroom buildings minimises the effect of extreme weather conditions. The schools had a minority (though a significant number) of learners living further than walking distance from the school. This difficulty was handled by parents’ organising lift clubs, the school’s organising a school bus and the supply of school hostels.

The schools had to contend with the reality of cultural diversity in their learner composition. All of the interviewees reported that the intercultural group relations in their schools were good. As far as the handling of diversity was concerned, policy principles that were invariably mentioned in the interviews were an emphasis on respect, tolerance, listening to all, equal opportunities for all, and accommodation. One school used the Harvard Thinking in Teaching Programme (also called Project Zero). One of the schools used the school concert, drawing on the cultural music heritage of all cultures present in the learner corps, to foster an appreciation of other cultures among the learners.

Two of the schools had small but significant numbers of parents in financial need. To meet the needs of these parents, the schools (principal, teachers and parents) mobilised their own resources as well as those of the community to provide sponsorships to learners from such families and to offer support for families in need.

All four schools, being ex-model C schools (with the historical background of these schools), conduct their education mission openly from a Christian ground motive. The interviewees stated that the Christian ground motive puts in place a particular ethical framework and establishes a particular hierarchy of values. However, none of the schools forces learners in any way to accept the Christian religion.

The two Western Cape schools reported that their local political authorities were sensitive to the needs of the school and played a supportive role with respect to their schools. The two Gauteng schools reported that their local political authorities played no role (neither positive nor negative) with respect to their schools. Regarding their relations with national education policy and administration, the comments were singularly negative. Adverse comments revolved around insensitivity to teachers and schools, too much bureaucracy and too much change, and a lack of respect for and professional treatment of teachers.

What became clear from this research, first of all, is that what are often described as “privileged schools” are also confronted by the (often debilitating) contextual realities of South African education and society, but that the leadership (i.e. principals, parents, teachers and learners) stand up against these, putting particular strategies and policies in place. In handling and overcoming these contextual restraints, it is especially parental involvement and the mobilising of own resources that stand out. Furthermore, these schools capitalise on diversity and utilise religion in order to create social capital (of which there is such a dire shortage in South African society) and thus ensure moral stability.

Secondly, the importance of the role of the parents and the need to place the role of the parents supporting schools in their education effort on the research agenda of education scholarship in South Africa became clear from this research. The research findings are also a serious indictment of current attempts and proposals to curtail school autonomy in South Africa.

Valuable supplements to this research would be similar research on the interrelationship of contextual factors and school functioning from the following perspectives:

  • A learner perspective in top-performing schools
  • A parental perspective in top-performing schools
  • Research on how schools in lower socio-economic residential areas (roughly those schools in former homelands and historically black urban residential areas) that have succeeded in improving learner performance have managed to overcome debilitating contextual forces
  • Research on the exact impact of context in poorly performing schools.

If such research could be conducted, all the school categories could be compared in order to lay down concrete guidelines as to how contextual obstacles in the way of supplying quality education in South Africa could be overcome.

Keywords: Basic Education Amendment Act (South Africa); parenthood; school autonomy; school governing bodies; South Africa; South African education; South African schools

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die oorkoming van kontekstuele beperkinge deur leierskap aan toppresterende skole

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