Problem solving for SA’s education system

Posted on April 21, 2015

South Africa faces a crisis in the education sector, where the demand for good teachers exceeds the availability of qualified professionals.

Researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP) have found unique solutions to the country’s education woes. These solutions could affect the relevant policy and impact on the country’s future.

Research conducted by PhD candidates who graduated at UP’s autumn graduation ceremony produced valuable results, for example suggestions on how the knowledge and experiential skills of retired educators can be harnessed to benefit current teachers; a clear indication of the leadership practices that set principals of successful schools apart; guidelines for lawful, reasonable and fair decision-making in disciplinary matters, and for understanding due processes and their implementation in such cases; and school leadership programmes for principals.                                                                             

The studies touch on the core of some of the most pressing concerns facing the education sector. Prof Irma Eloff, Dean of the Faculty of Education at UP, commented as follows: ‘The excellent research conducted by our PhD students is often commended by international external examiners for its theoretical depth and fluent methodological design, and for the pragmatic insights it offers for the education profession and the successful functioning of schools.’

Ever-increasing numbers of teachers are leaving the profession, yet retired teachers can make a significant contribution in terms of their many years of experience and understanding. It is believed that their experiences can inform career-development programmes in schools. According to Dr Hildah Mokgolodi, retired teachers ‘placed high values on soft skills like self-awareness, leadership and mentoring. It was found that mentoring and the careful mapping of the exit interviews of retired teachers could result in harnessing their competencies for the benefit of learners and other educators’.

When ranked according to the Annual National Assessments report, South African schools show dire deficiencies in the areas of basic communication skills, problem solving and analytical thinking. These are skills that need to be developed in primary schools. However, it was found that in schools that successfully produce learners with these skills, there was a link between the principal’s leadership practices and the learners’ outputs. These principals led with daunting accountability in standards-driven environments. Principals were focused on aligning and motivating their staff to pursue a common vision that strongly correlated with the principal’s personal aspirations, in other words, the inside-out approach that links personal performance to organisational performance.

‘These principals meaningfully engaged the staff in quality professional development and were particular about the working environment of teachers, which translates to the learning environment of learners,’ said Dr Bishum Parag. Their innovative leadership practices, which focused strongly on the core business of learning and teaching (instruction), were characterised by open communication, collaboration, trust, integrity and democratic decision- making, with close consultation between principals and their management teams.

According to Dr Ephraim Kgwete, ‘leadership programmes for principals were also investigated and a model for an effective leadership programme was suggested’. It was found that principals who were suitably qualified for their roles after having completed the Department of Education’s Advanced Certificate in Education for School Leadership, which is seen as a professional qualification for principalship, showed higher rates of compliance and management skill. The study, which distinguished between leadership and management, found that the qualification tended to focus on management rather than on leadership.

Discipline in schools is a strong point of contention because of a range of social and legislative issues. A critical aspect related to discipline was the way in which education managers conceptualised what was meant by the due processes to be followed. ‘There were misunderstandings regarding the meaning and implementation of due process, which includes the correct steps to follow to ensure fair disciplinary hearings. Common misunderstandings that came to light included aspects of the learners’ right to information, who should serve on disciplinary committees, the involvement of witnesses and learner representation,’ said Dr Nicholus Mollo. There was a clear lack of understanding of the fact that the decision to initiate a disciplinary process must be based on evidence presented during the hearing. The keeping of minutes was often neglected and in certain cases the responsible individuals did not know which act/law/policy was applicable to the disciplinary outcome. However, studies were devoted to ensuring a balanced view on disciplinary issues that would provide schools, teachers and principals with the legal knowledge and understanding needed to implement fair disciplinary processes. Dr Lodewikus Herselman explained: ‘The Constitution, the SA Schools Act and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act were all looked at to see how they could positively influence disciplinary decisions in South African schools. Lawfulness, reasonableness and fairness were the legal hallmarks used to ensure that disciplinary outcomes are more effective for school improvement.’

By focusing on where the basic structures of the education system are lacking, research conducted at UP has produced workable solutions by using existing knowledge, skills and people to provide a shift towards making better policy choices at the school leadership level, which could possibly impact on state policy. The research has shown that South Africa can improve its education system by tackling problems like discipline, leadership attitude and commitment, and by valuing the wisdom of experienced educators.

The University of Pretoria (UP) and its business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), will award more than 10 400 degrees to successful candidates at this year’s autumn graduation ceremonies, which will commence on 14 April 2015.

A total of 134 doctoral, 1 187 master’s  and
2 957 honours degrees will be awarded. Honorary doctorates will be awarded to five individuals in recognition of the notable contributions they have made in their respective fields of expertise.

- Author Department of University Relations

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