The place to begin solving South Africa’s education shortfalls is at the top, with school leadership.
“Successful schools understand what it takes to deliver outstanding results,” says Delani Mthembu, MD of Landelahni Leadership Development. “This demands a clear strategy, strong relationships and effective leaders who live the strategy and are capable of articulating it in ways that build real support and commitment from empowered staff.
“Effective governance and responsive leadership lies at the heart of a functional school. This provides the necessary foundation for other educational interventions.
“Education is of fundamental importance in preparing young people for the workplace, opening job opportunities, building our economy and underpinning social stability.
“It is the basis for the science, engineering and technology skills needed to support mining and other industries. We cannot increase university graduates in technical subjects unless we have an effective education system accountable to all its stakeholders.”
Landelahni’s leadership development and coaching programmes for principals and school management teams aim to improve stakeholder management and governance, boost leadership performance and team effectiveness and inculcate a culture of accountability and quality results.
The company has rolled out its school leadership activities in three provinces. More than 2000 principals and senior management team members of schools have been through its programmes to date.
“We have assisted with turning around under-performing schools, and improving matric pass rates from 40% to 70%,” says Mthembu. “However, too much focus is placed on this one metric. Improving school performance demands a broader view to address systematic issues.
“Principals face many – often conflicting – pressures. They are often promoted to management roles without sufficient training in the skills needed to run schools in challenging times. They may feel bombarded by different demands from various stakeholders, and lose their sense of purpose, self-esteem and authority. Constantly working under pressure takes a physical and emotional toll and limits the ability to perform optimally.
“It’s important that principals distinguish between areas of concern that cannot be easily changed and areas of influence. By focusing their energy on aspects within their sphere of influence, they can achieve outstanding results with minimal resistance.
“They then become empowered to develop new skills and attitudes so as to lead differently. With new energy and direction, the quality of their output improves dramatically. It’s about the principal as a lever for change, teamwork and quality output. The foundation of success begins as they regain purpose, clarity and authority. The greatest shift comes with the personal sense of assertiveness they gain through coaching support.”
Mthembu believes it is vital that each principal is empowered to take charge of his own team. “They must take on the responsibility to become change agents and leaders,” he says. “As part of the evaluation process, principals receive 360 degree feedback from all stakeholders regarding their leadership style, attitude, management skills, team-building and communication skills.”
“The principal remains the primary source of leadership in the school and is central to its success,” says Dr Zakhele Mbokazi, lecturer in the University of the Witwatersrand’s division of educational leadership and policy studies. “Sound leadership practices contribute significantly to student learning and achievement.”
Through Landelahni’s one-on-one sessions with principals and group coaching, school management teams have learned to work together as a team, rather than competing with each other. “Managing diversity, resolving conflict and creating tolerance of different views is part of the process,” says Mthembu.
“The key lies in becoming expert in managing a multiplicity of partners and relationships – donors, parents with different levels of education, children from diverse backgrounds. The school management team frequently comprises people who belong to different political parties or unions, and they may have to confront difficult issues together as professionals.
“Over time, they begin to understand that they are all professionals with the same purpose, and they learn to work as a team. They learn to achieve that difficult balance of calling for accountability and giving feedback without being judgmental.
“We have proved it is possible to create centres of excellence, even in the complex context of education, with all its structural and systemic pressures. We have shown how a school can become a success case study in the midst of mediocrity.”