Imagine leading a school made up of children speaking different mother tongues, or a multi-grade school, or a school where over 50 children are learning together in one classroom but who need extra teachers and textbooks. This is a hard but daily reality for most primary school leaders in South Africa. And the consequences are dire: international research from 2017 reveals that 8 out of 10 grade 4 learners (usually 9 years old) cannot read for meaning in any language. Yet school leaders can make a difference.
Indeed, the impact of school leadership on learning outcomes is only second to the quality of teaching and learning. VVOB, decentralised government representatives called circuit managers and other partners support primary school leaders to effectively tackle these and other challenges with tailormade solutions through professional learning communities and action research. With satisfying results according to those involved, who include circuit managers Morakabi Moletsane and Theko Mosea.
Circuit managers: first line of support
In South Africa, primary school leaders receive support through a decentralised support system set up by the national Department of Basic Education. An important component thereof is led by socalled circuit managers: they are the closest governmental point of contact for schools. As such, school leaders, and especially those in charge of disadvantaged and deprived schools, depend heavily on circuit managers for advice and support. But there are too many schools for too few circuit managers, which results in a heavy workload. Additionally, schools experience different needs and circuit managers have to travel far distances yet are limited in their mobility. As a logical result, circuit managers cannot meet school leaders’ need for support to manage the daunting challenges they are facing.
Since neither the number of circuit managers nor the number of schools they have to assist can be changed, VVOB looks for other ways to improve support: setting up innovative methods such as professional learning communities, and training circuit managers through action research.
Relieving pressure with PLCs
Ownership is crucial for professional development; it is proven to be more effective when it is owned by the participants rather than driven by an external expert. Moreover, we learn best from our peers. This is exactly what happens in the professional learning communities (PLCs) for school leaders that VVOB promotes and supports in partnership with the Department of Basic Education in South Africa. School leaders from a certain area determine their learning needs collectively based on certain challenges, and then organise activities that drive their professional development by learning from each other’s practices and experiences. An anonymous school leader said: “I am inspired to go and motivate my colleagues to form PLCs in all the different learning areas, especially in the foundation phase (i.e. the first years of primary school).”
The PLC approach has now been highlighted as a priority in the Department of Basic Education’s strategic plans. In the context of a vast country like South Africa, PLCs are indeed an efficient approach to addressing the professional development needs of a large pool of school leaders. Of the school leaders reached by VVOB in this particular professional development programme, 48 per cent is now a member of a PLC, either within their own school or with school leaders from neighbouring schools. Promisingly, school leaders have indicated their motivation to continue exchanging with their peers, because it gives them a sense of support. And, importantly, school leaders feel empowered and look for solutions from within rather than depending fully on support from circuit managers. While they are simply not able to address all school leaders’ needs, circuit managers do play an important role in supporting school leaders to establish PLCs.
Action research boosts self-reflection
To guide these important actors, VVOB set up an action research process for circuit managers in Free State province. Action research empowers participants to critically review their own professional practice and consciously address the challenges by improving their practice in a continuous cycle of planning, acting, collecting evidence, reflecting, learning and redesigning. Put into practice in South Africa, circuit managers identify a challenge in their work with school leaders, undertake small actions together with school leaders to drive the resolution in a desirable direction, and evaluate the change once the actions have been taken.
Mr Moletsane, circuit manager in Free State province (pictured below, right), aims to transform the schools under his jurisdiction into centres of excellence. He shares how he adapted his approach to meeting with school leaders after participating in the action research:
Voluntary participation is one of the critical factors for the success of action research. Officials from the Free State Department of Basic Education like Mr Moletsane engage in a one-year action, reflection, learning and planning cycle which also requires intensive documenting of their learnings. Commitment to this process is crucial to bringing about change. In 2018, only two participants of the 29 dropped out. The provincial education departments are even requesting VVOB to support more action research processes.
Shifts in attitude
Both PLCs and action research have provoked a paradigm shift in the way circuit managers approach school leaders. Instead of checking and instructing school leaders, their new approach is to empower people and to work collaboratively to address the many challenges they face. Through PLCs and action research, circuit managers learn to give constructive feedback, choose topics for professional development bottom-up, listen actively, express appreciation and the list goes on. By developing these powerful skills, circuit managers now have healthier working relationships with their school leaders.
School leaders are now encouraged to solve their challenges, rather than to divert their problems. This has led to an important shift in attitudes among school leaders too, from perceiving children as the duty bearers of their own success or failure, towards taking on the responsibility as a school to adapt to learners’ diverse needs. “Before, school leaders would mostly play the blame game, saying that learners are the cause of the challenges”, Circuit Manager Mr Mosea says. “They were not looking at themselves. But now, after I applied my new approach, school leaders are reflecting on what they can do better and how they can go the extra mile for their learners.” Mr Moletsane joins his colleague in this spirit of change: “We now have more a culture of helping each other. The school leaders feel more empowered. They feel they are leaders of their schools.”
Looking forward, VVOB and its partners identify and communicate the good practices of PLCs and action research. In response to the growing demand from the Department of Basic Education, a next step involves making PLCs and action research part and parcel of the South African education system. VVOB can then create and support a critical mass of circuit managers and school leaders to identify, enact and share solutions to their challenges, which will contribute to improving learning outcomes through effective school leadership.