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A matter of principals — South African education’s critical leadership challenge


Jonathan Molver is the founding Director of Proteus, which works with government, the private sector and civil society to build stronger, equitable education systems. He was previously the South Africa Country Director of the nonprofit Education Partnerships Group. He began his career as a teacher in Emalahleni and was later principal of King Solomon Academy in London, one of the UK’s highest-performing schools.

Most of our kids can’t read, write or do maths. We don’t have enough teachers who can teach. There is little to no accountability within the system. Our governance model has major flaws. Should this come as a surprise, when the system doesn’t have enough leaders?

The big policy discussion in South African education right now, is how we address the looming teacher shortage crisis. The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers. If our 13.4 million learners are to learn, we need enough teachers who can teach.

Getting there also requires that our teachers have enough leaders who can lead. Sixty per cent of student impact is due to combined principal and teacher effectiveness, with principals accounting for 25%.

Most of us intuitively know that the leader is responsible for whether any organisation succeeds or fails. Management expert Peter Drucker supports this theory in his book, The Effective Executive, with a law of organised performance: the ratio of a leader’s performance to those in his or her team remains constant. In other words — the performance of a team is dependent on the performance of the leader.

The severe shortage of quality principals is thus a critical component of our teacher shortage and education quality crisis.

Back in 2015, Dr Gabrielle Wills of Stellenbosch University published data on principal retirement statistics. In 2012, the average age of our principals was 51. Over two-thirds of principals were 55 or older. Ten years later, most if not all of those principals have retired. This raises at least two questions: first — have those vacancies been filled? Second — if so, by whom?

There is data available that begins to answer the first. In his paper “The race between Teacher Wages and the Budget”, Nic Spaull, Associate Professor at Stellenbosch University outlines the impact that national collective bargaining agreements have had on provincial education budgets.  Spaull demonstrates that the real decline in purchasing power is largely down to the rise in wages, and that subsequently class sizes have increased and hiring freezes have been implemented. Between 2012 and 2016, when we should have been hiring principals, there was a 9% decline in the number of principals employed across the country.

If our education system were a ship, it is on the brink of sinking, with many onboard straining to plug a different crack in the hull. Most of our kids can’t read, write or do maths. We don’t have enough teachers who can teach. There is little to no accountability within the system. Our governance model has major flaws. You name the challenge: our system faces it. Should this come as a surprise, when the system doesn’t have enough leaders?

In addressing the teacher shortage crisis, we must also ensure that every school has a qualified and competent school leader in place.

The number of leadership vacancies across the system represents not only a challenge, but an enormous opportunity. Together with government, policymakers and influencers should consider implementing a clear, concise and comprehensive three-step plan that addresses the systemic root causes, and ultimately strengthens school leadership across the system.

Step One: Implement professional qualification standards for school leadership

The first step in developing a pipeline of quality leaders is defining quality — beginning with clear role qualification criteria and expectations. Currently, the minimum qualification requirements for the job are a matric pass; a four-year teaching qualification; a police clearance certificate; a drivers’ licence; and seven years’ teaching experience.

Personnel and Salary System (Persal) data on principal appointments in 2012 indicates that only 70% of all incoming principals met these minimum criteria for school leadership. Only 15% were “extremely well qualified” with a post-graduate degree or equivalent. These are the principals currently responsible for running our schools. As is typical of our bi-modal education system, the divide between richer and poorer schools is damning. In wealthy schools, 38% of principals are well qualified, as opposed to 14% in poorer schools.

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The current minimum qualifications are inadequate. Seven years of teaching doesn’t qualify anybody to lead a school. Higher standards must be set and applied to drive the demand for better-qualified leaders.

We need to introduce and mandate a specific qualification for school leadership. National government agrees in principle and has developed the South African Standards for School Principalship (Sasp). Adoption of these standards has been mixed across provinces — largely due to a shortage of qualified candidates, limited accountability, undue union influence, and a lack of sufficient incentivisation. To make the improved standards stick, we need to tackle these issues.

Step Two: Provide our principals with rigorous training and support

Not only are the current qualifying criteria inadequate, but there also aren’t enough principals who meet them. Setting clear and improved qualification criteria is a good start. It has the potential to drive demand for better-qualified and more able leaders. But we can’t drive demand without improving supply. If we are serious about improving standards, then qualifications and training programmes need to reflect this, and we need better processes for talent identification.

South Africa tried to mandate a qualification programme for the principal role in 2007 with the introduction of the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE). An external evaluation indicated that ACE had potential but required some adaptation if it was to deliver conclusive improvements in school leadership and management practices.

Sadly, ACE was all but abandoned, with suggestions that undue union influence played a role in thwarting attempts to professionalise the school leadership qualification process.

To give the Sasp teeth, and drive real demand for rigorous and accredited qualifications, we need bold policy reform. Principals should be required — and supported — to undertake a professional qualification to get the job.

This policy reform should be adopted with a detailed and rigorous plan for implementation that includes engagement and mitigation strategies for invested stakeholders (universities and training partners) and disruptive detractors.

High-quality professional development ought to be part of a standard offering to all principals once qualified and appointed. We should consider utilising accreditation facilities like the South African Council of Educators (Sace) to regulate leadership development service providers more closely, ensuring that their training materials and delivery meet the requisite standards.

Step Three: Reform principal recruitment policies and processes

Setting standards and insisting on accredited qualifications may improve the supply of school leaders. But to ensure every school has a competent and qualified leader in place, we need to review our recruitment policies and processes.

Our recruitment process rests largely in the hands of school governing bodies (SGBs), has been subject to corruption, and in many cases lacks sufficient departmental oversight. Let’s begin by reforming SGB policy and powers and placing the appointment process in the hands of people with the requisite technical capacity. We wouldn’t want community representatives appointing hospital CEOs — why do we condone this in education in the name of democracy?

Then, let’s build the process on revised principal standards and role criteria, enforce minimum qualification requirements as outlined above, and insist on standardised competency-based assessments, conducted by impartial third-party service providers where necessary, with the entire process subject to increased oversight and engagement throughout by the state.

The national debate regarding teacher shortages and teacher quality is a good one — the right one, even. But if we are serious about improving outcomes, we have to start thinking about the whole system — all of its components and their interrelated dependencies. Our failing system doesn’t just need teachers, it needs leaders.

And leaders aren’t born, they’re made. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Stucke says:

    “We wouldn’t want community representatives appointing hospital CEOs”
    This erroneous whataboutism completely ignores the capacity (= skills, training, competence and intelligence) all to often lacking in public servants, where the ANC government has systematically appointed cadres irrespective of their skills or honesty.

    What is the alternate that the author actually proposes?

  • Gordon Pascoe says:

    It’s a great pity that the shocking truths and all the analysis identifying issues falls on deaf ears. Our government and ministers not only overrate their abilities massively, but very few, if any, are equipped with the knowledge and experience to handle the portfolios over which they reside. Self-serving cadre deployment and rampant corruption rules the roost at the expense of our children. Where else on earth are children at risk of dying in pit toilets at school?

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