It is now just 30 months since the first cohort of 22 principals and 2 deputy-principals, selected as part of this 3-year pilot project began the first of their 3 seven-day, full-time contact sessions and UCT’s Graduate School of Business (GSB). They, like those of us involved in the initiation of the project, were undoubtedly nervous about what awaited them. The individuals concerned had been selected from a group of just more than 50 applicants in a process that was largely based on recommendations from Education District Officials.


Disappointingly, but not unexpectedly given the nature of this kind of an initiative, some of the principals dropped out of the course and of the programme during the first year. What is perhaps surprising 30 months later, is that 22 of the original 24 remain part of the programme and continue to welcome their mentors to the schools on a regular basis. Interestingly, both of the deputy principals of the course were appointed as heads of their own schools where they are using the knowledge and skills that they have gained from the programme to good effect in some of Cape Town’s toughest communities.


Although the selection process for Cohort 2 and Cohort 3 was much the same as that used for Cohort 1 there were some subtle but significant difference in the manner in which we approached the process. The first was based on our view that we needed to recruit heads early in their careers before they had become set in their ways and who would be in a position to apply the benefits of the programme not only in their current schools but hopefully into the future as their careers progressed to take up positions in more prestigious schools or as senior managers in district and provincial offices.


The second was based on our recognition of the need for some sort of a recruiting campaign directed at identifying prospective candidates who were able to demonstrate sufficient commitment to their own personal growth, and to their professional growth as leaders of their schools, to justify the investment that the PAT would be making in them and their schools.


We attempted to address the first issue by identifying schools within the greater Cape Town metropolitan area with principals who had been appointed to the position within the previous 5-year period. These principals were then visited by one the PAT mentor-coaches and informed about the opportunities that the programme could provide. Those who showed interest were provided with further information about the programme and briefed about the nature of the GSB course and the mentoring-coaching component and invited to attend an information session to be presented at the GSB. The information sessions included brief presentations by the GSB course presenter and two principals from the Cohort 1 intake who reflected on their own experience of the programme and the benefits of their participation in it. One of the values of school visits that formed part of the selection process was the mentors-coaches were able to gain an impression of the level of functionality of the school and of the community within which it was located. These insights helped guide the selection process leading to a general consensus amongst the coaches that as a group, the principals of Cohort 2 and Cohort 3 are stronger than those of Cohort 1. Evidence from the baseline data on learner performance at the schools of the cohort 2 and 3 principals supports this conjecture.


The candidates from all 3 cohorts have found the qualification tough going for a number of reasons. The nature of the content of the GSB programmes as well as the methodology of presentation are both very different from that experienced by candidates when training and qualifying as teachers. Despite these challenges 12 of this first cohort managed to meet all the requirements for the qualification these 12 were awarded their PGDMP qualification at a UCT graduation in December 2014. At least 3 other members of the first cohort were given an opportunity to re-submit some assignments and these 3 expect to graduate at the end of 2015.


There are currently 64 principals actively involved in the programme, with 22 having completed their GSB course work but still being mentored, 20 due to complete their PGDMP studies in June 2015 (graduating December 2015) and a further 22 scheduled to complete their studies in June 2016 (graduating December 2016)


Mentoring and coaching

The mentoring and coaching of the principals is a vital element of the PAT principal’s development programme and we believe one of the great strengths of our model lies in the experience and expertise of our team of 5 mentor-coaches. Taken together the 5 former principals have more than 100 years of experience as heads of some of this country’s best performing and most highly regarded public and independent schools.


Through their expertise, these mentor-coaches are also able to provide the management teams and staff of the schools in which they operate with additional support in the form of workshops and seminars.


Additional forms of support

It became apparent quite soon after the initial launch of the Principals Academy Programme that the quality of teaching in the majority of the schools that we were working with left a lot to be desired and that if we were to achieve the improvements in learner performance that we had hoped for that we would need to look for ways to address some of the teacher-related problems that we had identified. The data that we have collected indicates that the teacher-related problems are mostly of 2 kinds:

  • Teacher content knowledge – the teachers do not have the subject content knowledge and expertise in the subject to teach it effectively. This applies particularly to subjects like Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences and Accounting.
  • Teacher pedagogical knowledge – the teachers do not have sufficient teaching competence in the subject in a way that promotes learning and subject mastery.

In an effort to address these problems, particularly at primary school level where the foundations of subjects like Mathematics are laid, specialists in Mathematics teaching have been contracted to work with Intermediate Phase teachers who teach Mathematics. These weekly programme are now running in 8 centres and are attended by approximately 64 teachers each week drawn from 20 PAT primary schools. Although attendance at the programmes is voluntary and take place in the afternoons after the end of the school day, attendance levels have been very good.


What we have learned

1             Schools located in communities fractured by gangsterism and substance abuse present particular challenges which are difficult to overcome without major socio-economic interventions from government and social-support agencies.

One example of this is a secondary school in Mannenberg which has as its head one of the two deputy-principal who formed part of our Cohort 1 intake and who was appointed to the position during her first year on the programme. The school has 15 armed police officers patrolling the school site each day as a deterrent to local gangsters and drug dealers and to ensure the safety of staff members and learners. The principal is a tough and resilient woman who is working hard to create the safe and secure environment that is the pre-requisite for quality teaching and learning and improved learner performance. Her coach has confidence in her ability to turn the school around and accepts that achieving sustained improvement in learner performance will take time.


2             There is a disjoint between the schools and the communities they serve

While some of the factors that contribute to the level of disengagement between schools and the communities they serve are socio-economic, many of the principals that the PAT work with are heads of schools which cater for children outside of the schools immediate neighbourhood. The drift of children from working-class suburbs to the long-established and better resources schools in the more affluent areas of the City has resulted in need for these neighbourhood schools to accept children from outside of their immediate communities. Many of these children travel long-distances each day to get to school, mostly by public transport. These distances together with cultural, social and language differences between the community in which the school is established, and the community which it serves to educate, create both real and perceived obstacles to meaningful parent – teacher engagement. Developing and implementing the kinds of strategies that are needed to overcome the barriers and which build meaningful parent – school relationships require strong focussed leadership and sustained effort.


3          The academic demands of the PGDMP qualification are problematic for principals who are not English mother tongue speakers and/or who are not in possession of a tertiary qualification from a university.

More than half of the principal on the programme have a language other than English as their mother tongue and a significant number were trained as teachers at training colleges where there is a greater focus on classroom practice rather than academic content and subject specialisation. For these individuals the content, concepts and academic demands of the PGDMP qualification are a challenge. The teaching staff at the GSB are aware of this problem and are making a concerted effort to address these weaknesses and to help those candidates who are struggling to master the content and academic demands of the course. Consideration has been given to either down grading the qualification and/or offering it at different levels but that decision has been postponed until the performance of the Cohort 2 and 3 intake has been more fully assessed. The GSB qualification is seen as a meaningful status symbol by most principals on the programme and the 12 who have passed are extremely proud of their achievements. This group also attribute their success to their own sustained hard work and diligence in completing and submitting their assignments on time, a requirement that is strictly enforced by the GSB.


4          Principals with a high level of commitment to both the goals of the programme and with a clear vision for their school as most successful.

As would be expected from a programme of this nature there are some participants who have flown while others have struggled to get out of the nest. Discussions amongst the mentor-coaches and with the staff at the GSB suggests that personal drive – the will to succeed and good work habits are the two factors that distinguish those who have done well from those who have struggled. Perhaps the one caveat to this is that there are a number of principals from all 3 cohorts who while working hard at bringing about change in schools and derive significant benefits from the construct relationship with their coaches, neglect their GSB course work and fall behind in their studies. What is interesting in this regard are the meaningful benefits that virtually all of the participants derive from the contact time during the 4 residential components of the GSB programme. The impact that these sessions have on the thinking of the principals, and the manner in which they approach their tasks as school leaders is considerable and is acknowledged by all of the coaches. The principals become more confident, are better able to handle conflict, and are able to think more strategically about their schools.


5          Conflict and power struggles within the school management team are a common problem and are a significant contributory factor to the dysfunctionality of many schools.

One of the most common problems that newly appointed principals’ face in their schools are challenges to their authority by one or more members of the School Management Team (SMT) and/or groups of teachers. In many instances the root of these problems has links to the appointment of the principal and/or the failure of a teacher to secure a promotion post. It was common in the past but less so now in the WCED for the principal to be appointed from within the school. Whoever was overlooked in the appointment process would then conspire with their group of supporters to undermine the newly appointed head. Helping our principals to manage these tensions and to build a united and loyal core of teachers committed to their vision for the school, has been one of the more common tasks of the mentor-coaches.


6          Teacher competence – the ability of teachers to teach the prescribe curriculum – has a significant impact on learner performance. Learners excel in schools which are functional and staffed with competent teachers.

There is a limit to which better leadership and improved functionality alone can contribute to improved learner performance. This is because the critical determinant of learner performance is what the teacher does in the classroom. This in turn is largely determined by the teacher’s knowledge of the subject he or she is teaching and their skill in transferring this knowledge to the learners in his or her class. Mathematics is the subject which suffers the most in this regard and this is largely a consequence of the poor basic Mathematical competence of those who are responsible for teaching Mathematics in the lower grades. It is important to acknowledge that this is not the fault of the individual teachers concerned – what is at fault is their training, or the lack of it. This country has too few qualified Mathematics teachers to meet the demand and this shortcoming is exacerbated by the fact that primary school teachers in the Foundation and Intermediate phases are not required to have a specialist subject qualification as part of their teacher training. In an effort to address this problem in the schools that we are working with, as mentioned above, PAT now funds the provision of weekly support for teachers who teach Mathematics in Grades 4 and 5. The two presenters who provide the training and support for the teachers who attend these weekly sessions are both highly qualified and experienced Mathematics teachers. A similar programme for Grade 8 and 9 Mathematics teachers was launched in May this year at one venue in Khayelitsha and we plan to extend the programme to other areas should this prove to be as well received as the Grade 4 and 5 programme.


7             Trust is essential

The meaningful work of a mentor-coach cannot begin before he or she has established a sufficient level of trust with the principal and this takes time. Principals are unlikely to articulate their deeper concerns and vulnerabilities until they are certain that these discussions will be treated as confidential. The same applies to issue associated with staff conflict particularly where the principal is part to that conflict. Yet solving these issues is often a key imperative for improved functionality and ultimately improved learner performance. The issue of trust is also something that cannot be hurried but once established quickly translates into an increased willingness to internal advice and to act with greater purpose.


8             Achieving sustained school improvement requires resilience, time, persistence and hard work.

Despite their years of experience in education and as heads of schools, each of the 5 coaches were startled by their early experience of working with the principals of the PAT schools. They were startled by the socio-economic and financial challenges of the communities in which the majority of the schools are located, they were startled by the levels of dysfunctionality of the schools and the high levels of conflict, stress and disillusionment with an education system which is both inert in terms of their needs but which expect them to deal with layer after layer of curricular reform. The thing that surprised them the most, however, and which kept them from despair, was the resilience and resolve of the principals whom they worked with and who, despite the challenges that they faced each day, were determined to make a difference, to take up the challenge and who hold the belief that with the help that we can provide can, in time, turn their schools into centres of excellence and beacons of hope for their communities.


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