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Lessons for principals and parents in a time of Covid

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Recalibrating our schools post-pandemic: Some pointers on the future for principals and parents

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Anne Schlebusch taught high school English and Maths until she joined the Western Cape Education Department in 1996. After holding portfolios in English, Literacy, Curriculum Management, Assessment, HR, Language Policy and Social Capital initiatives, she became Director of Business Strategy for 10 years from 2007. It is in this time that she developed a specialist interest in data, in systems and in school and education planning, monitoring and evaluation. She has an MPhil from UCT and is an award-winning author of teen novels.

Schools right now are simply running on willpower. Staff, families and learning have been decimated. Curriculums have been sliced and diced into bite-sized bits and ‘education’ is full of compromise. What follows is a selection of steps for radical innovations for schools that are there for the picking.

I have read plenty of articles about schooling in the last year or so. They ask excellent questions. I nod my head and settle down for a promising read. The terrain is nicely sketched. I’m scrolling along, not knowing what the word count is, head still nodding. And then, there it abruptly is: that last weakish paragraph slinks into place. And once again the ball is put into the policy court of the Department of Basic Education, for attention at an unspecified time but basically “when it’s all over”.

This piece might well reference the national department because that is indeed where pay cheques and policies emanate from, but in fundamental ways schools can take their own significant steps to change the game for schooling. For one thing, the South African Schools’ Act is sitting there right now, for schools to dig into and use to flourish in ways they are maybe not doing. For another: isn’t this THE time for schools to take a radical look at themselves – their competitiveness, their role in curating the best possible learning experiences for the children in their care.

In many ways schools right now are simply running on willpower. Staff, families and learning have been decimated. Education departments are stocked with personnel that maybe can’t do what they were employed to do and probably understaffed in other ways. Curriculums have been sliced and diced into bite-sized bits and “education” is full of compromise. Admin has got extra layers of reporting, teacher appraisal is likely whimsical or imaginary at best and suddenly the mere act of school/classroom management has morphed into a place where “courage” sits at the top of needed skills and “breathing” itself is an actual topic. Assessment is a limiting tyranny for all parties.

What follows is a selection of steps for radical innovations for schools that are there for the picking. I would love it if this gave parents and schools a revitalising energy and optimism.

Build your communities

We have commuter schools where all the kids are transported in from elsewhere. Because of apartheid mapping there are lots of schools that have some kids being transported in. We have schools with affluent neighbours, with less affluent neighbours, with poverty-stricken neighbours. There are schools where the parents have stopped paying fees and SGB posts are under threat.

All schools have neighbours, older schools have past pupils, all schools have teachers who no longer teach there but who gave that school their “all”; there are local traders with an interest in the school. There are potential donors or volunteers looking for ways to contribute. Rural areas have a real need to keep young blood from moving away.

Leaders will frequently ask, via the media, for neighbours to step up and guard schools from vandals etc.

Let’s think about that a bit. Real relationships are two-way streets. I was a pupil at a particular school and still carry, along with my classmates, an interest in its doings. I later taught there for about 10 years. Still later I lived across the road from it (my upstairs bedroom view was literally that school and its grounds) for another 10 years. But I didn’t hear personally from that school once I’d left it (apart from a couple of invitations from the music staff), nor EVER as a direct neighbour.

Gone are the days when postage was costly and filling envelopes a nightmare. e-Comms are your friend. Why not make sure your past pupils are in the loop about your doings? I don’t mean just crassly lean on them for money. You can of course do things like that subtly, but don’t make it as if all you want from them is their money. Hang onto the goodwill of your ex-teachers. They will love to come back, take it from me.

Here’s the biggie though. Plan to build a relationship with those who live around your school. Develop a document to introduce your school and what it cares about. Arrange a maildrop into their letter boxes or under their doors. Give them actual emergency numbers to call if there is a problem. Try it before saying it won’t work.

Then you can let them know the choir will be singing at the school fence on Friday, that there will be rotis on sale on Thursday late afternoon, that orders can be placed for x or y, that the marching band will be parading. By such simple measures you build amazing relations.

And your community definitely includes the people sleeping next to your school fence. When the WCED challenged schools to undertake Community Schools’ Initiatives in the early 2000s, several schools reported very positive results. One school, for example, reported that they had had a fractious relationship with a nearby informal settlement. They decided to conduct a needs survey in the settlement and consequently provided a supply of blankets and buckets. It was a smallish step but led to some small employment opportunities and a markedly happy relationship. They became buddies.

I know schools are tired and drained and need to keep everyone at arm’s length now, but paradoxically those allies you might win for your school could bring about less exhaustion, growth opportunities, the pleasure of warmth in a whole new set of relationships. And lots of material for your learners to try out communication and outreach ideas.

Carpe Diem and embrace ambition

It is time to take a deep look at who you are on a wide front.

What are all your indicators showing you: Staff morale? Learner attendance/dropout? Discipline and learner morale? Funding? Academic performance? Extra-curricular opportunity? What is your brand?

It’s a fair bet you have been gunning for values, inclusion, anti-bullying, staying alive.

But, high schools, what about your actual educational offerings? How are you fostering an educational climate? What subjects are you offering? And the schools down the road? In a post-pandemic economy do you need different subjects, different relations with the schools nearby? How do schools individually and collectively contribute to a thriving education sector and produce school graduates that are best equipped for their futures?

School governing bodies are major power players in all this, but at the same time impacted by the short termism brought about by the mandatory elections every three years. It is up to the principal and team to provide educational leadership so the school moves forward with unanimity of purpose.

Point 21(1) of the SASA says: “A governing body may apply to the Head of Department in writing to be allocated any of the following functions… 21(1)b) to determine the extra-mural curriculum of the school and the choice of subject options in terms of provincial curriculum policy.” Point 21(2) goes on to say that such a request can only be refused if the governing body “does not have the capacity to perform such a function effectively”.

The question posed here is: when last, if ever, did you look with an open mind at the subjects your school offers? Do you track past learners and how they feel about the value-add of their schooling? T(VET) Colleges do such follow-up to ensure that their programmes are fit for purpose. Do you poll your matric classes to reflect on the subject choices they have made, or were forced to make, because of timetabling etc? Are you informed about gaps in the local economy?

This is not a case of vendettas against certain teachers or a damnation of the scope presently provided by the school. It’s not about fees and old habits and affordability. Are you presiding over a set-up that was forced on you through circumstances and now outdated norms? Is your school a distinguished “learning and life” incubator? Are you ready for new subjects? Can you reposition your school’s learning programme and brand inside the current rules of the game? How do you adjust your recruitment plan to look, for example, at the first and second majors of your staff so you can handle subject changes within your post allocation?

If you pool ideas/data with neighbouring schools, these are some things you might discover/ask:

  • The schools might offer between eight and 11 subjects for matric (in addition to the languages and Life Orientation). Some schools go up to 16 subjects. What’s your own best/practicable option in this regard?
  • You and your neighbours will very likely all be offering pretty much identical subjects: how does this impact your viability and your brand; your job satisfaction for teachers and your study efficacy for learners? Is this really the best way to go?
  • How many of you are running subjects with fewer than 20 learners taking them? Or fewer than 30? What effect is this having on your timetabling? Are a few benefiting at the expense of many, i.e. hugely overcrowded classes to compensate for the tiny groups? And, if so, is this a calculated risk, covered by key principles and sophisticated planning?
  • Could you serve your own learners better and could you as a cluster or hub of schools work together in new ways? For example, could afternoon classes and/or blended learning options include learners from other schools too to boost subject interest and provide stimulated learners?
  • Once you have analysed the risks and downsides you are individually or collectively facing with your undersubscribed subjects, ask how/if these can become your strengths and pulling points. Basically, what’s the best set of subject combinations to offer and how can we get there?
  • Could joint extra-mural (cultural, remedial and sport) programmes and competitions change the rules of the game for your school or schools in a hub? Small scale at first but with a plan in place; and
  • If you are facing thinning quality from your feeder schools, could you start Maths Phase Booster groups with local Grade 7s?

Here’s a little teaser about the realities of sustaining so-called gateway subjects. This is National Senior Certificate data from five schools all within walking distance of one another. There were 700 taking Maths Literacy in that year and 115 taking Maths. Look at the small Maths classes. These schools are clearly hanging on to their Maths, but it’s not easy. All four at school D failed. School C had 96 in their Physics classes but only managed an 18% pass rate!

School D (above), which had no Maths passes from its four candidates, didn’t offer Physical Science but had 112 learners enrolled for Religious Studies. How are you dealing with this kind of conundrum: subjects for the future vs subjects for the pass rate? Is getting “any” matric better than no matric? These are particularly hard questions to ask, but school management needs to ask them. Your answer to the last question could very well be “yes”, but you can still take a serious look at the journeys and options you are offering.

Systemically, one can argue that in a better education paradigm it’s about school A becoming the “go to” school for “this” selection of subjects, and school B down the road for “that” selection of subjects. That way you get class size optimisation, maybe a better shot at teacher continuity, and learners can take on subjects that they have an appetite for.

In such an environment, with stable uptake of subjects by interested learners, the focus can be on keeping your learners coping adequately so they don’t drop out of school. Salvaging borderline learners is a massive battle in some cases and significantly exacerbated by the pandemic. Schools need to keep learners fired up because they have found a niche and are developing well, buoyed by hope and confidence. If you manage to build neighbourhood or focus hubs providing schools that are “fit for purpose” and are schools of hope, then you will have done wonders to build society.

There is nothing in law that prevents schools in an area forming such notional education hubs. So the learners who live around there have a school within a reasonable radius that offers the subjects that will meet their needs. If there is no school nearby that offers e.g. French or German, then is that not an excellent route to take to establish your school on a new path? Introduction of African languages is an obvious way forward.

Linked point to the above extract from the South African Schools’ Act is, does your province indeed HAVE a provincial curriculum policy? Here is where a grassroots movement is an obvious way forward. Having a provincial curriculum policy in place is a requirement. It’s not an ad hoc business. If there is no such policy in place, then your contacts and your own energies and skills could help push for one. Unions and school governing body associations can assist.

Obviously a smartly run province will be interested in developing economic opportunities within the province. So then a mobilised and forward-thinking community of schools, armed with facts, figures, ambitions and plans should be a godsend. Progressive partnering with provincial authorities, businesses, support programmes etc would be the ideal. Well thought-through comprehensive school development/improvement plans, backed by data, targets and timelines, has to be a winning formula for a school.

Ambition and being competitive are the forces that drive big brands. You can definitely also be kind and inclusive. But let’s be clear-headed about this: while policies provide enabling frameworks, the real forces in education are the school units. You are all there, dotted around the country. It’s symbolic that you actually become voting stations during elections. You have generative powers. You host our precious children. You provide their vehicles to the future. You have a great deal more power than you have embraced.

Strategise, combine, equip yourselves, magnify your voices. Get your websites better, by the way. Get a website in the first place. But don’t have it so fancy that you can’t update it. Build your relations. Build your skills. Sound your own trumpets. You will find a grateful nation and build us all a better future. MC/DM

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  • Thanks, Anne. What I appreciate is your focus on what schools can do for themselves. While understanding the pressures schools are under, you show that there are many important ways for schools to take control of their own destinies. Well done – let’s hope educators are inspired to act now.

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