by Zenhrea Damon

Education in SA

Principal ‘experts’ key to SA education landslide

Developing school leaders is the key to turning the situation around
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In the most recent World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index, out of 144 economies the country ranks 133rd for quality of education and 115th for primary education enrolment . And in 2012, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization reported that, in an attempt to overcome obvious shortfalls, South Africans have to pay dearly to send their children to private schools. 

Motivated educator, freelance consultant and change agent, Mandy Lebides, believes that developing school leaders is the key to turning the situation around.

“We all know education is in trouble; it’s in the newspapers every day,” said Lebides.

A paradox exists: “Strangely, while on the whole we’re doing very poorly, more people than ever are receiving an education and the teachers in the system are better qualified in general than in the past.”

The South African Survey 2012 report showed there was a 3.5% increase in the number of learners registering for school between 2000 and 2011. In 2011, 98% of teachers were suitably qualified as opposed to only 53% a decade before.

However, the standard of education is lower than that of poorer countries in Africa and, the SA survey showed that between 2009 and 2011 there was a 12% decrease in full-time attendance at school.

“The problem, obviously, is far more complex than what we perceive it to be at first glance. And every time a solution seems to emerge, it comes back to bite us,” said Lebides.

She thinks targeting leadership is critical because it is the breakdown in leadership that precedes the breakdown in schools.

Having worked in large organisations for 20 years as a change agent and consultant, she’s found that the biggest challenge is being able to change to remain relevant. And to help school leaders make this transition to being better, more relevant leaders – leaders whom the failing school system requires if it is to be saved – Lebides has helped to develop an executive education programme at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.

The Executive Management Programme for School Leaders is an action-based leadership programme that aims to improve the management, leadership skills and business acumen of school principals. With funding from Capitec Bank Limited and The Principals Academy, the programme seeks to sustain an environment in and around schools whereby school management, governing bodies, parents and local communities can interact to create the ideal schools of Africa’s future.

“The first programme is already under way and delegates have been asked to think about what they think will be the school of the future and then to use the programme as an incubator for their ideas,” said Lebides. “This is an action learning approach in the true sense of the word. The programme will help principals manage and unravel the complexity within the system.”

It will, according to Lebides, ensure these principals become their own experts – independent theorists who know how to put their theories into action.

A few things are needed for principals to become better leaders, said Lebides: a deeper understanding of their individual situations and a more informed worldview; independence of thought; and the ability to think holistically rather than in a reductionist manner.

“Becoming an expert means improving the ability to solve problems through critical reflection, theorising, independent inquiry, and implementation,” she said. “Principals need to start building knowledge and understanding and developing theories that lead to effective action within their school systems.”

“In that way, these principals, working within their own realms of influence, could formulate solutions, test them over and over again, making incremental changes until they find something that works,” she added.

The plan for the programme is to eventually grow to include the entire school management team, creating an ecosystem of reflective, critical support within each school. 

“The problems plaguing the school system in the country are very complex, ‘wicked’ problems by all respects – but by targeting the leaders and developing them enough, they are empowered to be able to make sense of the complexity,” said Lebides. 

“We’d effectively be replacing the one-size-fits-all approach with one that works to find the unique fit for each case across the system.”

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