/ 5 July 2019

Leadership can fix poor schooling

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)


The Fezile Dabi district has consistently been one of the best-performing districts contributing to the Free State department of education’s recent dominance of the top spot in the national senior certificate pass rates. In the 2018 national matric examinations, the province recorded an 87.5% pass rate and Fezile Dabi district outperformed all districts nationally, attaining an impressive 92.3% pass rate.

School districts are a critical component of the country’s education system. They serve as delivery hubs for the department of basic education to provide quality teaching and learning at schools across the country. Given their strategic role and proximity to schools, in recent years the department has consolidated and streamlined their functions with a view to improving their capacity to service and support schools.

The department has also noted that most schools’ academic performances are closely linked to the level of support and involvement of the districts under which they fall. Thus, schools that produce better results are those served by well-functioning and better-run district offices. Similarly, poor academic outcomes are a reflection of inadequate support and service the schools receive from their districts.

As a district director myself, I can attest to this reality. Districts that provide better services to schools are those that promote and support instructional leadership driven by school principals. The instructional leadership approach was developed in the 19th century in countries such as England and Australia, with the primary aim of improving learning outcomes through an inspection system. The focus was on how people in leadership positions can influence or improve pupils’ scholastic performance. South Africa was not excluded from this trend.

In the early years, leadership aimed at improving pupils’ performance by focusing on school principals. But, as the concept of school leadership evolved, the focus shifted to the way leaders at district offices support instructional leadership to improve learning outcomes. This has become even more necessary for South Africa as a result of poor learning outcomes that persist despite ongoing supervision of schools by districts.

This article seeks to highlight some of the basic district practices and the importance of the support afforded by the district office to the school principal through instructional leadership.

The findings also show that some districts do not perform as well as they should in their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their schools. According to these studies, the various intervention measures introduced often focus on district directors and the duties they are expected to discharge to support school principals.

It is vital to empower district officials, but more effort should also be made to improve pupils’ performance by supporting instructional leadership at school level. To date, most schools continue to receive poor service and support from their districts, and the kind of instructional leadership practices they are expected to employ to support school principals have not been fully understood by all at the district level.

This is the challenge the education system faces despite a plethora of guiding tools and policies available for supporting schools. Experts argue that the absence of specific practices that districts should adopt to provide targeted, quality and sustained support to school principals compromises the standard of learning outcomes.

It is important to understand who the major players are to ensure effective implementation of instructional leadership that will improve learning outcomes. These are: district directors, chief education specialists and circuit managers who directly supervise school principals.

The following are some of the key elements of instructional leadership.

l Consistent collaborative work between district officials and school principals, and effective implementation of instructional leadership practices can provide good support for better learning outcomes.

l Teaching and learning must occupy the top agenda of every educational institution. While there is acknowledgement that there are other duties those in leadership are expected to perform, teaching and learning cannot be relegated to a lower level. In fact, this should be an area where most of the leaders’ time is allocated.

l Personal development is one of the strategic elements that assist instructional leaders with the proper selection of relevant materials and enable them to monitor the effective implementation of teaching and learning strategies.

l Aligning the curriculum, instruction and assessment standards is a fundamental practice to support instructional leadership. It is important to understand that if these instructional leadership elements operate in isolation, learner performance will not be realised.

l Any meaningful decision-making process can be easily understood and managed if it is informed and backed by reliable data. Therefore, effective data analysis plays a pivotal role in guiding instructional leaders to use multiple sources of information to assess performance and to improve learning. Monitoring is a crucial element of all leaders’ responsibilities. After the analysis of data and decision-making processes, it is critical for instructional leaders to begin the process of monitoring the implementing decisions arrived at, informed by proper reading of data.

l Effective use of resources and decentralised accountability mechanisms are important elements that are instrumental in improving learning. It is necessary to indicate that for districts to support schools there is a need for a shift from what districts currently focus on, especially in curriculum and instruction. They should rather use resources to anchor teaching and learning.

Research by two education experts, Loyiso Jita, from the school of mathematics, natural sciences and technology education, University of the Free State, and Matseliso Mokhele, from the department of curriculum and instructional studies, Unisa, in 2014 highlighted the importance and value of support they viewed as the reason for the accrual of content knowledge and improved skills by school leaders. District leadership, therefore, is examined not only in relation to its support of schools, but also in relation to its ability to formulate relevant policies.

How did we, at the Fezile Dabi district, successfully implement our instructional leadership initiative?

District-level support for instructional leadership by school principals is crucial for enabling principals to deal with organisational issues. This is so that an environment conducive to learning and achieving improved pupil performance can be fostered. In this regard, our district organised capacity-building programmes, particularly for district officials.

Through the collaboration between the Kagiso Shanduka Trust (KST) educational partnership and the Free State department of education, the Fezile Dabi district was assisted by the programme for the improvement learner outcomes. The KST’s primary function is to support instructional leadership across the sector, especially for district officials.

This was also boosted by the first-ever professional learning groups’ initiative, which benefited both district officials and school principals. It is through these platforms that we are able to initiate and further align our programmes to improve learning.

These are but some of the activities the district employed in establishing a safe and orderly environment and creating a climate of expectation conducive to improving learning.

The provision of direction and support was found to be important in improving learning, and the department of basic education has acknowledged and given this a stamp of approval. It is on this basis that the district guided school principals through continuous and well-planned sessions with district officials.

The research by Jita and Mokhele illustrates this point further: they viewed this as the reason for the accumulation of content knowledge and improved skills by school leaders.

District leadership was, therefore, examined, not only in relation to its support for schools, but with regard to its ability to formulate policies and set up structures that would form a support base for instructional leadership by school principals.

Finally, the focused programmes and capacity-building activities for district officials and school principals ignited love and passion among the officials. Today, they continue to provide support to school principals in the implementation of curriculum activities.

The collaboration between the provincial department of education and KST has been, and continues to be, a strong catalyst in the Fezile Dabi district becoming the beacon of hope for effective teaching and learning that it is today.

The communication of goals, as a core instructional leadership practice, needs to be improved. Many school principals confirmed this need, especially during one-on-one sessions.

The principals unanimously agreed that the failure by district staff members to communicate school goals effectively to school principals perpetuates misunderstandings, and that the lack of support and partnership between schools and districts tends to affect pupil performance negatively.

Dr Vusumzi Chuta is the district director of the Fezile Dabi district at the Free State department of education