What is wrong with South African schools? A comprehensive picture of, and the lacuna in the research on, school leadership as a pivotal factor

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The aim of the research that resulted in this article was, firstly, to clarify the concepts good schools and poor schools, and secondly, to draft a theoretical framework for a comprehensive assessment of the current South African education system. To answer the question as to what constitutes a “good school” and what causes a school to be regarded as a “poor school”, a theoretical framework was built, based on Wolhuter’s (2004) explication of the term quality of education.

Good and poor with respect to schools and regarding a national education system in general can be seen as evaluations pertaining to quality. Quality, particularly quality with respect to schools or education in general, is a term that defies a simple, one-line definition. Bergmann (1996) suggests that, rather than attempting to define the concept quality of education, it might be more meaningful to identify the various components that constitute quality. In his elaboration on Bergmann’s (1996) model, Wolhuter (2014) consequently identified the following four components of quality with respect to education: input, process, output, and product quality. Analysis of these four basic components yields several subcomponents, as reflected in the following table:

Table 1. Components of education quality of a school/education system

Education quality of a school/education system
Input quality → Process quality → Output quality → Product quality
Financial input Administrative substructure Examination results Individual returns: - Income-generating potential - Intellectual/cognitive skills - Character cultivation - Hierarchy of values
Infrastructure Teacher-related factors - Training of teachers - Experience of teachers - Input - Teaching methods
  School-related factors: - Leadership - School climate - Organisation culture Social returns: - Increasing economic productivity - Political return (e.g. entrenching a culture of democracy) - Social return (such as social capital or strengthening of a culture of respect for human rights)
Family-related factors: - Family home environment - Parental involvement in schools
Learner-related factors: - Initial situation - Input


While this diagram could be utilized as a framework for evaluating the current South African education system and schools, it has to be kept in mind that the quality of education can vary considerably from school to school, depending on local conditions. The Grade 12 pass rate (one of the indicators of quality), for instance, can vary from 0 to 100 per cent. The uniqueness of the factors that determine school quality and the variety of schools make it difficult to specify exactly what could be the causes of the weakness of a large percentage of South African schools, and of the efficiency of those that could be regarded as “good” schools. It is also difficult to measure most of the variables involved with any degree of accuracy. As a result, there is no dependable data basis that could be consulted about such variables. To give an example of this difficulty: in an attempt to circumscribe the term variety analysts have been relying on a categorisation of schools into quintiles based on the income levels of the parents involved. This is not a very dependable circumscription of this variable given the fact that the geographical locations of schools vary enormously.

A school, and education in general, does not exist in a vacuum; it is always embedded in a particular social and societal context. Contextual forces (geography, demography, social system, economy, politics, religion, and life and world view) flowing from a school or the localisation of a system are powerful forces that either facilitate or present difficulties in the process of attempting to realise quality in a school, and education in general.

Several factors in the South African context, such as widespread poverty, the lack of social capital, and the moral vacuum in society, also render the achievement of quality education difficult. While the financial input into the education system in South Africa could be regarded as relatively high, the quality of the input (physical infrastructure and learners per teacher ratio), the throughput (quality of teaching and learning), and also of the output is not according to expectations. Administrative inexperience, the teacher factor (e.g. teacher input and levels of professionalism), the learner factor (input by learners) and the language of teaching and learning have been recorded as (supposedly) weak links in the quality chain. As mentioned, the quality of education is also determined by detrimental contextual factors of which a number are conspicuously present in the South African situation. Some of these factors impact to a far greater extent on some schools (the “weaker” schools) than on others (the “good” schools), and other factors, such as a lack of social capital in society, a moral vacuum in society and the culture of human rights, affect the performance of all schools in the system. In addition, one has to keep in mind that some schools have been succeeding in overcoming detrimental factors (judged by their Grade 12 pass rates) such as poverty and could therefore be regarded as schools that provide education of acceptable or good quality.

The fact that some schools manage to overcome such debilitating obstacles seems to suggest that leadership might be a pivotal factor in ensuring quality education at school level. Good school leadership could be one of the key factors in the process of a school attempting to overcome all its obstacles, ameliorate or neutralize the effect of those that cannot be avoided or overcome, or use them to the school’s advantage if and wherever possible. School leadership is, however, an under-researched factor in relation to the quality of schools and of education in general.

Keywords: administration; education; education quality; grade 12 results; language of learning and teaching; leadership; learner discipline; South African education; South African society


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Wat is fout met Suid-Afrikaanse skole? Geheelbeeld van, en leemte in die navorsing oor skoolleierskap as sleutelfaktor


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