The many pressures on principals can distract their attention from schooling's core purpose – teaching and learning. Teacher and learner absenteeism, bullying, the recent spate of attacks on teachers by learners and the destruction of school property are all too common challenges facing principals in South Africa today.
It does not end there, though. The additional challenges posed by pupils' home or community environments, and those of South Africa's accountability-oriented policy context, make for a tricky range of issues for principals to balance.
Yet the principal remains the primary source of leadership in the school and is central to its success. Two weeks ago, at the University of Johannesburg, the latest Teachers Upfront seminar focused on how an environment conducive to teaching and learning can and should be created by leaders both in the school and, more broadly, in the district.
"The principal's values are key components in the success of the school" and "sound leadership practices contribute significantly to student learning and achievement", said Dr Zakhele Mbokazi, lecturer in the University of the Witwatersrand's division of educational leadership and policy studies.
However, he also acknowledged that "a lot of pressure on principals to implement policies" resulted in "a lot of managerialism". Alarmingly few of South Africa's schools have excellent principals, he said.
What makes an excellent principal, though? Asserting that the core business of any school is managing teaching and learning, Mbokazi highlighted the role of the principal in setting the climate of the school, ensuring a shared vision among all members of a school's community, distributing leadership and creating the context for productive teaching and learning.
He described the key dimensions of successful leadership, some of which are task-oriented and some relationship-oriented, and stressed that their ongoing interplay is central. Thus, creating a safe and enabling environment is as vital as creating a climate of high expectations, while it is as important that a principal negotiate and strengthen home-school relations as it is that he or she monitors learner progress.
"A successful school follows every child," Mbokazi said, "and it is key that we know what is happening to each child, as every learner deserves the same opportunities."
Linda Vilakazi, visiting associate in Wits's school of education, agreed that school leadership is not merely about being an excellent manager. "School principals and their teams should make choices each day to support teaching and learning," she said.
The instructional core is the framework that links the learner, the teacher and the curriculum content – the focal point around which they must maintain their relationships. "Some schools overemphasise helping the socioeconomic conditions of learners, but you also need to focus on the teachers and on making the curriculum relevant," Vilakazi said.
"Just the task of delivering on the core is huge, and the pressure of both delivering on the core and simultaneously responding to the environment takes its toll: something must give, and sadly it is often the core that does." Vilakazi called on district offices to co-ordinate support for schools that principals can draw on. This would "create districts that are in touch with what the needs of schools are".
Dr Lloyd Conley, director of the Education Leadership Institute in the University of Johannesburg's education faculty, described a project of the institute that offers exactly this kind of support by facilitating the alignment between schools and districts in support of teaching and learning. In the district chosen for the project, Johannesburg Central, Conley said that "principals were behaving like managers and not understanding their role", "officials were only ensuring compliance and throwing the book at principals" and there was "a lack of both district-wide planning and effective system-wide communication channels".
The institute's intervention involved designing and implementing a leadership development programme for school leaders and district officials and a district-wide action plan that would result in the building of bridges between schools and the district.
"We wanted to create a culture of collaboration in the district – the district is there to support the school and the teacher at the chalk-face as well as to encourage communication, which is key to building trust," Conley said.
Education consultant Pat Sullivan described a project she has undertaken with the Bridge network to run "communities of practice" for school principals in Gauteng's Ekudibeng region. These communities are made up of "groups of practitioners who get together and talk – but it's not the talk of meetings; it's facilitated talk and a way of engaging", she said.
"Mass training is not the answer and the follow-up to training by district officials is patchy. Instead, an innovative focus on the principal should be encouraged because a key lever for school improvement is the principal," Sullivan said.
A "community of practice" for principals entails "a voluntary group of principals who are guided by a process facilitator, who are from the same geographic area, whose schools are the same type and face the same economic challenges and where action is taken within a framework of whole-school improvement".
As communities of practice develop, trust grows, resources are shared and collaboration with the district intensifies. These communities see principals' developmental needs emerge organically and sometimes unpredictably. Their main purpose, however, is to support principals to work together to become empowered and central agents of change in education – a vital way of ensuring that teaching and learning are effectively led.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief executive officer of the Bridge education network. Teachers Upfront is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education and the University of Johannesburg's faculty of education