Effective school management — getting it right?

2012-03-12 00:00

THE matric results have come and gone, and the pass rate has been examined, poked and prodded from every conceivable angle. Public comment has ranged from the euphoric statements by the Minister of the Department Basic Education (DBE) to the scepticism of academics who make comparisons between current and past levels­ of achievement and hint at smoke and mirrors obscuring some less-than-exciting realities. However, the results also mean that school principals, whose pass rates fall below the threshold of what the Department of Education deems acceptable, will be summoned to explain themselves before their seniors. The new national assessment programme, known (hardly affectionately) as ANA, is also beginning to shake the security of some primary school principals who have hitherto been able to evade public scrutiny because there has been no external measure of the success, or otherwise of their schools.

It’s a pretty obvious place to start looking if you need scapegoats to answer for the widely held accusation that schooling in South Africa is nowhere near where it should be, but is it the right place to look?

Worldwide, school principals are held accountable for what goes on in their schools and the results they achieve, and rightly so. Leaders in all organisations face the music when things go wrong and also receive the accolades for successes. The one rider we should add to this principle is that a person in a leadership position should have been assessed to have the appropriate personal attributes, professional qualifications and experience to be appointed in the first place. And here’s the rub. It’s widely acknowledged that the vast majority of school principals in South Africa have not been adequately prepared for the demands of the job (if at all) and the only frame of reference they have is what they see around them. Perhaps while we point fingers at the principals whose schools are failing, we should also question what has been done, or is being done, to train and develop their skills for the complex task of leading and managing schools.

 

TRAINING PRINCIPALS

 

The importance of leadership and management in running effective schools is common sense and the government recognised this in its 2010-2013 Strategic Plan for Basic Education. It’s also common sense and simple observation that tells us very little has been done to train and develop school leadership until very recently. The most visible attempt to address the skill and knowledge deficit of school leaders has been the introduction of the Advanced Certificate in Education in School Leadership ACE (SL), piloted in 2007 with current school principals and more recently aimed at those aspiring to be principals. This target group suggests that it is a long-term strategy aimed at ensuring that future applicants for posts as principals will already have had the benefit of at least two years of preparation for the job, before they are appointed. The jury is still out on whether this ACE is achieving what it sets out to do. The comprehensive evaluation research report on the ACE programme, presented to the DBE by Professor Tony Bush and colleagues (November­ 2009), makes the point that in schools where principals have done the ACE, matric and test scores have sometimes declined or remain unchanged, while there are improvements at some schools. Whichever way we choose to interpret these and other findings, they don’t suggest an immediate turnaround in this commonly used, if incomplete, measure of improved management of schools.

There is another intervention, however, that is currently under way in KwaZulu-Natal schools and preliminary tracking of the participants in this programme seems to suggest that it has great potential to make meaningful and sustainable change in the way schools are managed, and at the same time improve results. Called the Principals Management Development Programme (PMDP), it’s considered to be an innovation in education, being modelled on corporate sector development training of basic management competencies. It is an applied, rapid skills development training course consisting of six modules covered in eight months. There are 24 specific outputs that participants must submit in a Portfolio of Evidence­ to achieve a Certificate of Competence which is awarded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The partners in the consortium which runs the PMDP are Professional Solutions Africa (PSA), PricewaterhouseCooper (PWC), The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education (KZN DoE) — a great example of a strong multiple-partner initiative.

It’s aimed at principals of both secondary and primary schools, and the ward-circuit managers (SEMs) who are directly responsible for them within their districts. The programme requires the principals to consult widely with school management teams (SMTs) and governing bodies (SGBs) to complete their outputs. The innovative inclusion of the SEMs in the programme is designed to facilitate the establishment of professional learning communities (or networks), which improve the chances of ongoing and sustainable change.

Perhaps the most unique feature of this programme is the way it’s delivered. The teaching and learning are facilitated through monthly weekend residential workshops, which are followed by mentoring and coaching sessions, in the principal’s office at his or her school, aimed at making sure that learning is applied and formalised through the outputs.

 

POSITIVE RESULTS

 

So, the big question is, does it work and how do we know this?

Let’s start with the hard facts, the empirical, quantitative data that scientists and funders seem to like so much. In the group of 50 schools selected for the pilot phase in 2009, those offering Grade 12 showed an average 12% improvement on their previous year’s results, against a decline in the national average. These same schools were monitored the following year and on average they achieved a further nine percent improvement. During the first year of full implementation (2010), 78% of the 573 schools, the principals of which participated showed improved results and 197 schools offering Grade 12 achieved an average of 15,8% increase in their pass rates. It’s easy to look at this data and make claims that no other intervention has achieved this level of success, but it’s more difficult, and no less important to understand why it’s happening, or what can be done to improve on and sustain the improvement. One attempt to do this is a large-scale survey which is being conducted by the author of this article, which has so far gathered data from about 550 participating schools. A preliminary analysis has shown some strong trends emerging and it’s worth taking note of some of them.

Firstly, more than 70% of the participants support the idea that the PMDP is not a duplication of other training they have received, in other words it is offering something new. Secondly, 90% of respondents claim that pupil attendance and punctuality have improved since applying what was learnt in the PMDP. Alongside this, 95% of participants agreed that the PMDP has made teachers more conscious of regular and improved punctuality and attendance, including their own.

When asked if the weekend workshops were different from other workshops they had attended, 76% affirmed this view. In reaction to questions about the role and effectiveness of the on-site mentoring and coaching, 87% felt that positive changes to management practices were strongly influenced by this process. These very significant findings must inevitably be linked to the effectiveness of the facilitators-coaches-mentors. (Incidentally, the same people who facilitate the workshops run the coaching and mentoring sessions.) The consortium responsible for implementing the PMDP has spent significant time and resources in training the facilitators and it’s clearly been critical to the success of the programme, because 95% of the participants felt the facilitators had sufficient skill and knowledge to meet the principals’ needs. It’s also worth noting that 88% of the ward managers (SEMs) are considered to be supportive of the management practices learnt in the PMDP, and 78% are reported to be working in similar ways to the PMDP coaches.

I want to come back to why it might have made a difference to results in such quick time. Firstly, 95% of the participants stress the point that the PMDP has given them skills to run a good school. Secondly, the same percentage maintained that having to complete the required outputs (with the coaches-mentors support) helped make changes in actual school practices. Perhaps the most telling indicator that helps us understand why there is an immediate impact on results, is the more than 95% confirmation that the module on curriculum management has made significant changes to the way the curriculum is implemented in the participating schools.

In summary, the programme seems to have brought about: more pupils and teachers in class and on time, learning for principals that is new, innovative and personalised, support of and by the ward managers and good management skills, particularly those needed to implement the curriculum. Hence, better results.

On a final note, this survey, conducted at the end of 2011, should have collected data from about 1 000 participating schools; however, the 2011 roll-out of the PMDP was suspended in September because the primary funder, the KZN DoE, failed to make the agreed payments to the implementers. Despite some progress, the 2011 cohort of participants are still unable to complete the three remaining modules. How’s that for the DoE shooting itself in the foot?

• Neil Avery is a lecturer in the School of Education, UKZN.

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