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Boardroom to classroom

What SA's school principals can learn from the country's tech CEOs - and teach them in return.

Read time 12min 30sec

Imagine running a company in a neglected building without the basic materials needed to offer your service. Imagine staff members who are routinely absent or on strike, but that you can't afford to offer a better deal, and customers who are desperate for your services but blocked by a lumbering and inefficient system. Imagine every little issue, from facility management to administrative details, being laid at your door, while trying to make major, high-level decisions. Then add the constant scrutiny of government, the media and the general public, while battling to find more funding. How would you manage this company? How would you manage at all?

It's a question facing principals in schools across SA, as they navigate the bureaucratic beast that is the local education system. It's no secret that education in SA is in appalling shape. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness report rates the country as 131 out of 142 nations for basic health and education - behind far more impoverished countries like Burundi and Malawi. There are between 19 000 and 25 000 failing schools in SA, with less than 20% of the roughly 14 million children in the school system receiving the quality of education needed to secure their future.

The 2011 report on the Annual National Assessments (ANA) reveals that many of the almost six million primary school learners throughout SA are not achieving basic literacy or numeracy levels. Nationally, learners in Grade Three obtained an average of 35% for literacy and 28% for numeracy. Even more sobering is the fact that scores don't seem to improve with age. According to the ANA report, the average score for a typical Grade Six learner in 2011 was 28% in language and 30% in mathematics. Both these scores were at the 'not achieved (0%-34%)' level.

It's a daunting list of statistics, but one Dr Louise van Rhyn, founder and director of non-profit organisation Symphonia for SA, believes can be overcome. She points to the fact that in the same World Economic Forum report, SA is rated number one out of 142 countries for its ability to implement corporate governance and number four in the world for its ability to develop financial markets.

“We have the knowledge and skills in the country but it is just not focused on and applied to the education sector. Most of the knowledge and skills to lead large-scale change is currently located in the business sector.”

In an effort to achieve her organisation's vision of a quality education for all by 2022, Van Rhyn started an initiative called School @ the Centre of Community (S@CC) in 2010, with the aim of more closely integrating schools, parents, and the broader community. Part of realising this goal is the Partners for Possibility (PfP) programme, which matches corporate leaders with heads of schools to facilitate the transfer of much-needed skills. The principal and the business leader sign an agreement to work together for a year, and undertake 100 hours of training, which focuses on leadership and change management.

Van Rhyn notes that principals are often expected to lead major turnarounds at their schools, which requires strategic thinking, but that very few are equipped to do this effectively.

Sparking change

See how the Partners for Possibility programme is changing things at CL Willmot Primary School in this video.

“I've learnt from experience that it's not enough to put people who need to lead change through training programmes. Change leaders need to be supported with extra resources and capacity. Everyone wants to look at systems and policies, however, large-scale change doesn't just happen through changing systems and policies, but rather through local projects where knowledge is shared and used to unlock possibility.”

The main objective of the Partners for Possibility programme is to equip principals to lead change and engage parents by providing skills, knowledge, and practical support, says Van Rhyn.

“Knowing that principals have extremely busy, challenging schedules and are often very unsupported and lonely leaders, I decided to test my theory and became the first business leader to partner with a school principal, Ridwan Samodien from Kannemeyer Primary School.”

Through this experience, and working with other school principals, Van Rhyn says she has found “they all have a story about the way things are that is based on the way they have always done things”. When business leaders are brought into a trusting partnership with these principals, says Van Rhyn, they can apply the knowledge and experience they have gained through leading change in the business world to an educational context.

“They have learned how to think innovatively about complex challenges where there are no easy answers. They challenge and support the principals to change their stories and to think differently.”

Conversely, when business leaders spend time in schools, they learn more about the communities they serve and create opportunities for other participants to join the process, notes Van Rhyn. “Cross-sector collaboration leads to significant change.”

“They all have a story about the way things are that is based on the way they have always done things.”

Louise van Rhyn, Symphonia

Kobus van Wyk, head of e-learning at Mustek, notes that the main difference between these two roles is that business leaders operate in the corporate environment, while school principals operate in a bureaucratic environment - the former being fast-moving; the latter, very slow.

“The education bureaucracy is one of the most conservative institutions you can imagine and is highly prescriptive ... leaving principals little latitude for decision-making and innovation,” says Van Wyk. Business leaders may find it difficult to understand the constraints under which school principals work, hence limiting the extent to which they can suggest management changes.

“However, principals have been blinkered by the education system, and exposure to the management styles of those from business and industry would certainly broaden their vision.”

Tech state of mind

Leaders of technology companies can often bring unique expertise to the table, given their ability to manage rapid change and constantly drive new ideas. A recent MarketWatch article reports that tech firms have rapidly been replacing CEOs, a sign of the fast pace of change in the industry in general. The report noted that leaders of tech firms need to be transformation experts - and if there's anything the local education system needs, it's transformation.

Van Wyk says principals are often unfamiliar with technology solutions, and struggle with related implementations. They may battle to choose appropriate technology for the school or to ensure continued operations of facilities. “CEOs of technology companies have a lot to offer principals in understanding technology, its use and its application. They would also be able to pass on other business skills, particularly with regards to financial matters, such as budgeting, which principals often lack.”

There's also the need to get the classroom itself up to speed with technology changes, something Van Wyk says is vital, but happening extremely slowly. “For centuries people have been talking about 'transforming education', but nothing changes. Somebody once said that if Plato had to come back to life now, he would feel comfortable in a classroom or university lecture theatre ... the way of teaching has not changed much over the past millennia.”

He adds that schools are trying to teach children 21st century skills using technology that is more than 200 years old. “No wonder the children are losing interest. Tech CEOs can do much to share their understanding of technology with principals ... but must expect that the adoption rate will be slow and innovation will be toned down by what the education departments allow principals to do.”

Andrew Cardoza, chief technical officer and founder of Cape-based mobile marketing company Mobilitrix, says many of the challenges facing principals are similar to the ones he had to deal with when starting up a company.

Over to you

If you are a principal or a business leader who is keen to know more about the School @ the Centre of Community Programme, you can attend the next community building workshop taking place on 22 and 23 August in Cape Town (at the Bellville Civic Centre), and on 20 and 21 September in Johannesburg (All Saints Anglican Church).

Cardoza partnered with Mornay Adams, principal of CL Willmot Primary School in the Western Cape, in March this year, and soon realised the similarities. “My formal background is in computer science and electronic engineering, and starting a business required completely different skills I hadn't been trained in. Similarly, principals' backgrounds are usually in teaching, and they are trained as such, not as managers. So when it comes to leading change at their schools and in their communities, they're not equipped with those skills.”

The programme was a good fit for Cardoza, who had been looking for a way to use his background in technology to get involved in education and give back to the community. “The concept at S@CC is if you want to bring the community around, the right place to start is the school, and at the head of that is the principal.”

Cardoza's experience at Mobilitrix enabled him to use the same technology the company uses to engage clients to get the community involved in CL Willmot's development. “Mobile has allowed us more frequency and lowered the cost associated with getting the message out there,” he says.

“Our objective is to start changing the type of conversation the school has with the parent body - and the rest of the community - to a more positive one. We want them to realise that there is a better future for these youngsters. We want to showcase to learners that there is another world out there.”

The programme has also made him appreciate how a school can become the positive, driving force for a community, says Cardoza. He points to CL Willmot's recent Mandela Day celebrations, noting that both parents and people from outside the community got involved. “The support from parents was amazing; it was phenomenal the way they took initiative in managing the activities. Things happened without me or the principal having to take the lead.”

The event also highlighted the need for 'softer' management skills, and how these can play out in an educational and community setting. “Principals often need to learn, as leaders, how to get people to rally around them,” says Cardoza. “They often try to take ownership of everything, which inhibits teachers and other individuals from getting involved. Delegation is vital.

“During Mandela Day, for example, we started a few activities but then gave the responsibility to the teaching staff and community members. Sometimes you need to step out so they can step up, and you need to create a space for them, even if it's to fail. Give people a safe environment and allow them to explore on their own, and learn from their mistakes.”

From the inside out

This active community interest in the school is one of the key elements of the S@CC and PfP programmes, which emphasise the need for South Africans to take local education into their own hands.

“People have to start believing in themselves and realising that it's not just the principal who has a role - everyone has something to offer.”

Andrew Cardoza, Mobilitrix

Van Rhyn says she was frustrated at a recent conference when several social entrepreneurs pegged SA as one of the countries where they felt they needed to intervene. “I agree that we need to deal with the education crisis in our country. But surely we can do this ourselves? Our future is inextricably linked to the future of the 14 million children currently in our education system. Choosing to make yourself available for 10 days a year to a school principal at a nearby school is all it takes to start the change.”

According to Van Rhyn, the number of PfP partnerships has grown to 71 countrywide, with the aim of rolling the programme out to 120 schools in provinces throughout SA by the end of 2012. There are also plans to increase the geographical footprint of the programme in 2013, with the goal of being active in 240 schools by the end of the year.

She adds that business leaders learn just as much from the exchange. “This experience is life-changing for business leaders as they too learn as much from principals and become more aware of challenges regarding education.”

Cardoza says the workshops and content offered as part of the programme opened up his horizons in terms of dealing with people in general, and provided an outlook he could not only apply to the school and community, but bring back to the office.

There are conditions to its success, however, and Van Wyk warns against assuming too much from such a mentorship programme. “The parties must be well matched ... a personality clash dooms the partnership to failure. Both parties must be willing and eager, and both parties must commit to the time that they will spend together - voluntary mentorship programmes often fail because one of the parties simply can't find time to spend with the other one.”

Making the initiative sustainable, according to Cardoza, is all about putting it in the community's hands. “They need to learn that they can do it themselves - that they don't need to be an expert or professional. People have to start believing in themselves and realising that it's not just the principal who has a role - everyone has something to offer.”

Van Wyk believes industry must be far more proactive in working with government to gain a better understanding of what the education system needs, and vice versa. “One of the reasons e-learning is not taking off as it should in SA is because education officials don't understand its educational value,” he says. “The education system could benefit from working much more closely with business and adopting some of its principles, while at the same time giving business insight into how the education system works.”

Van Rhyn says it comes down to individual will. “This country will not have a future if the education system does not improve. If we as citizens do not make a conscious decision to take responsibility for our children's education, it will not be possible for business to thrive.

“The consequence of a failing education system is a detriment for all. The right thing is to get involved, and to avail your skills knowledge and experience. We'll change the education system one school at a time.”

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