It is not alarmist to suggest that the public school system in South Africa is dysfunctional. The last year for which comprehensive statistics are available is 2007. In that year 278,000 black learners did emerge clutching their matriculation certificates proudly in their hands. Unfortunately, on being tested for their functional literacy, it emerged that only 42,000 of them are capable of functioning at the level of an eighth grader who has had eight years of successful education in the language of choice and is able to read, write and reason in a manner that suffices for the world beyond school. These figures are a serious indictment of the schooling system and its norms and standards, especially when it is borne in mind that 1,2 million black learners started out at our public schools in 1996. If only 42,000 of these are worthy matriculants, it seems the public school system as it operates for black learners is actually little more than a massive baby sitting service in which a tiny fraction of the learners succeed.
What then makes a good principal, one capable of leading his or her school to success in examinations, on the playing fields and in the preparation of learners for the hard knocks of life? There is no short answer to this question. There are however issues that point to the answer, most of which relate to the principles of accountability. If one accepts as a working definition of the concept, that accountability entails a culture of justification in which those in authority are required to explain their policies and justify their decisions, actions and omissions, rationally and responsively to the needs of those they serve, then the first question to be asked is to whom and for what are principals accountable?
In the first place public school principals are accountable to the Constitution, the supreme law of the land. Many may be surprised by this. But the Bill of Rights guarantees to all the right to basic education. No proper definition of basic education would exclude functional literacy as a part of it. So, those principals whose learners have emerged from their schools functionally illiterate, through no fault of the learners, are in breach of the constitutional admonition to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
The principles and values governing the public service are also set out in the Constitution. They guide the way in which the public administration should be run and afford a good basis for measuring the performance of school principals. Is there openness, transparency and responsiveness to the needs of the learners? Is a high standard of professional ethics maintained with efficient, economic and effective use of resources being promoted? Are good human resource management and career development practices cultivated in the school? Are the personnel management practices in place based on ability, objectivity, fairness and the need to redress the imbalances of the past? Expect to find a good principal, if these questions are answered in the affirmative.
One of the complicating factors affecting the accountability of school principals is that they have so many different constituencies to answer to in the daily, weekly, monthly and annual round of activities for which they are responsible. The learners are their primary concern, but teachers, parents, the provincial and national departments of education, the school governors, the PTA, the broader community, donors and the unions involved in the teaching profession are all in the mix and making demands on the time and talents of principals. Other principals, politicians, community activists and a host of do-gooders may also pose challenges to the school principals in our public schools. Then there are the alumni of the school, and the parents who would like to place their children in the school in the future. Sports bodies and sports-minded folk will expect much from school principals as will those interested in the extra-mural activities of the school, anything from astronomy to a visit to the zoo. Religion can present challenges in our secular state. Time management is a skill no good principal can do without, in larger schools with diverse interests this skill turns itself into a juggling act and an ability to delegate where appropriate. Sometimes the basic purpose of the endeavour involved in schooling is forgotten in the welter of activities that are available to chew into the time of the principal, the staff and the learners under her or his authority.
In human resource management terminology the school principal is a person whose “sapiential authority” (“clout”) is of the highest order. Those principals who are regarded as “good” and lead successful schools have a great deal of “sapiential authority” deriving not only from the position they occupy but also from the wealth of experience and expertise they bring to bear upon the system in which they function. A lack of authority and an inability to command respect from those with whom the principal is obliged to interact is a sure indicator of a principal who is not good.
While there is no “quick fix” for all that ails our public education system, it must surely be obvious that equipping principals and potential principals with suitable leadership skills is a necessary precursor to the success of the schools in which they ply their professions. Some are natural leaders, others learn leadership through experience but very little is done to inculcate an awareness of what it is to lead among our educators. If leadership is nothing more than the ability to energize others, then learning how to do so ought to be a prescribed skill for acquisition by all in positions of responsibility and authority in the public education system. One of the main insights that is gained in well organized leadership training is that being properly accountable for what occurs as regards decisions and actions minute by minute and day by day in the task of leading a school is what makes one a good principal.
A major factor keeping those with the potential for equipping themselves with the necessary sapiential authority out of the school system is the skewed system of remuneration that has been implemented in the occupation specific dispensation in place at present. If the National Ministers of Education earn R1,6 million a year and entry level educators earn R 116,000 a year, one would fairly expect to find the level of good school principals somewhere in the middle between these two disparate numbers. In fact good school principals are paid at a level uncomfortably close to that of their most junior colleagues and vastly less than that of the Ministers. This imbalance in the remuneration system has turned good school principals into an endangered species. Only those with a true sense of vocation remain in the system. Others, driven by economic necessity and the promise of much more pay for much less taxing work in the private sector or in education management, are lost to schools and are replaced by less qualified and more junior colleagues. The education sector is not a popular choice of career among our youth, who can see at first hand what is happening in the dysfunctional system in place. Urgent intervention is needed to save the country from an era of ill educated young workers and students.
Paul Hoffman SC
27 March 2009.