/ 19 November 2012

Citizens’ help turns schools around

Citizens' Help Turns Schools Around

Louise van Rhyn is the founder and director of Symphonia — a group of organisations committed to sustainable transformation in people, teams, organisations and communities throughout the world. With a doctoral degree in organisational change and more than 20 years of experience as a change management practitioner, she has committed herself to mobilising citizens to become actively involved in addressing the education crisis facing South Africa. In 2010 she initiated the ground-breaking School @ the Centre of Community project, incorporating the innovative Partner for Possibility programme, which teams up school principals with business leaders.
Seventy-one business leaders and principals are involved in partnerships across the country. Among the project’s achievements was winning the Global Corporate Social Responsibility award in India and the Ogunte WSLA award in the United Kingdom earlier this year. Some of the country’s most influential educational thought leaders, including Dr Mamphela Ramphele, Professor Brian O’Connell, Professor Jonathan Jansen and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, support their work.
<strong>What motivated you to come up with such an initiative?</strong>
I lived in the UK for six years and returned to South Africa in 2004 for two reasons: I wanted my daughters to grow up in South Africa and I wanted to see whether I could help make democracy work. I noticed that most people were living under the illusion that the wounds of the past would heal miraculously, without any need to do the work that leads to healing. My dream was to create opportunities for South Africans to be in conversation together, across all the traditional boundaries. When I realised that the country’s education system was in crisis I saw it as an opportunity to bring my experience of large-scale social change to this critical national issue. Our initiative aims to create thriving schools at the centre of the communities they serve.

<strong>What are some of its key elements or features?</strong>
The Partner for Possibility programme pairs school principals with business executives in a two-way learning relationship. Business leaders and school principals develop their leadership skills in a co-learning and co-action partnership. The project engages students, teachers, parents and the broader community and has resulted in schools experiencing an upward spiral of real change and a sense of possibility.

<strong>Why do you target school principals in particular?</strong>
Because we believe principals should be leading change at their schools. However, they are often overburdened and unsupported and not equipped to lead social change at their schools. Knowing that principals have extremely busy, challenging schedules and are often not supported, I decided to test my theory and became the first business leader to partner with a school principal, Ridwan Samodien, from Kannemeyer Primary School.

<strong>Since you launched the initiative have you seen tangible benefits or changes and if so, what are they?</strong>
There are 71 partnerships in operation, located in Cape Town (46), Durban (four) and Johannesburg (21). Business leaders have partnered with school principals across South Africa through the programme and both feel inspired to innovate and lead change in the respective schools and communities where they work. Improvements include increased parental involvement and the levels of staff engagement. There are also community wide initiatives, parent-led literacy programmes, parent support classes, library upgrades, career fairs and student internships.

<strong>What value does it add to the overall education system?</strong>
The World Economic Forum global competitiveness report has rated South Africa 131 out of 142 countries for basic health and education. This means there are only eleven countries in the world with education worse than ours. The current and future cost of the failure of the education system is enormous for all sectors of society. The national planning commission has identified three critical enablers for the 2030 plan: an active citizenry, leadership and a capable state. Our initiative’s collective approach of bringing together principals and business leaders offers a new response to these challenges in education.

<strong>What is your message to teachers?</strong>
The most common misconception about South African schools is that teachers do not care. My experience is that the majority of teachers care deeply and the challenges and lack of resources and social ills make them feel completely overwhelmed. Parents have been expecting educators to produce great results in the 20% of the time they spend with their children while they abdicate responsibility for the other 80%. “It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb that holds the key to fixing a broken system. We have found that parents and community members are thrilled about being invited into a partnership with teachers at a school. To achieve this we had to work with teachers to help them to overcome their fears and concerns about having parents more involved at schools and we had to mobilise parents to ensure that the teachers experienced the partnership as mutually beneficial.
<em>Principals who want to join the programme can contact James Eckley on 021 913 3507 or send an email to [email protected]</em>