Building firm foundations in mathematics 
5th March 2017
5th March 2017

Matric results: School leadership in focus

Principal Mlite of Lufhereng Secondary School in Soweto telling the parents who want to register their kids what is needed in order to process their applications. 11/01/17 Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Principals should focus more on facilitating the process of learning and teaching and less on administrative duties, writes Xolani Majola

Very often when the matric results are announced the focus is almost exclusively on the academic achievement of learners and less on the school leadership that influenced those outcomes.

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga had this to say about disadvantaged schools that achieved great matric results in 2016: “It is important to explain the significance of the poverty ranking of schools. Quintile one to three schools, also known as “no fee” schools, are schools that were previously faced with a multiplicity of challenges, ranging from resource inadequacies to socioeconomic challenges, including the environments in which these schools find themselves. Teachers and principals have to invest a lot of energy to do more with less; and for that, we want to express our most sincere gratitude and appreciation to our teachers and principals.”

Responsibilities of a principal

One of the key functions of a principal is creating a conducive learning environment. The principal is first and foremost the head teacher. He or she is expected to have full knowledge of the teaching process and the curriculum, and is expected to provide the intellectual leadership and scope that allows teachers the freedom to explore, research, develop and produce knowledge to help learners learn new information, at all times. Unfortunately, in South Africa and across the globe, the academic and intellectual role of principals has been eroded by significant shifts towards their administrative and compliance duties.


In disadvantaged school settings in South Africa, principals double as human resource managers, administration clerks, security personnel and psychologists, and have a host of other burdensome multitasking responsibilities that do not immediately relate to the curriculum. According to The Wallace Foundation (2013) there are five foundational responsibilities of the principal. These are:

  1. Shaping a vision of academic success for all students;
  2. Creating a climate hospitable to education;
  3. Cultivating leadership in others;
  4. Improving instruction; and
  5. Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.

Firm understanding

This kind of thinking places the responsibility of instructional leadership in the hands of the principal. In the same way that a banker’s prime focus is money, the school principal’s ultimate goal is to promote effective teaching and learning in the school. Therefore, anyone promoted to the position of principal should first and foremost have a firm understanding of the teaching and learning processes and their impact on learner performance and achievement. Principals are not administrative extensions of the department of education, nor are they policy and compliance officers — they are primarily promoters of positive learning experiences.

Exceptional leadership

While other management responsibilities are crucial, none are as important as the school’s ability to deliver effective instruction. The South African education space has many examples of disadvantaged schools achieving exceptional matric results due to superb school leadership. These leaders of learning are instrumental in developing a teaching corps in their schools capable of delivering effective instruction.

Effective learning and teaching

One hopes that in the new teaching dispensation the focus will be on improving teaching and learning and not be hindered by school politics, over-unionisation of the teaching force (unionism is a good thing, but too much of it under careless hands tends to progressively become negative), resource challenges and other limiting factors that deviate from the core function of schooling, which is teaching and learning.

In South Africa evidence has been steadily mounting that points to teachers’ inadequate content knowledge as one of the most significant barriers to effective teaching and learning, especially in the foundational levels of the schooling system. Spaull & Venkat’s (2015) paper entitled: What do we know about primary teachers’ mathematical content knowledge in South Africa? An analysis of SACMEQ 2007 provides a sober account of the challenges teachers face regarding content knowledge and its application in classroom teaching situations.

Dodgy recruitment process

Exacerbating this content knowledge challenge is that notorious, unreleased Jobs for Cash report highlighting corruption in the recruitment processes of public school principals and teachers, giving credence to the notion that the public school system may be on a self-inflicted downward spiral. If proven to be true, this would adversely affect how schools are led, how the curriculum is managed, and ultimately how learners perform throughout their schooling years. Curriculum leaders and implementers simply cannot promote unqualified and incompetent teachers and principals to the highest levels due to factional influences.

Conducive learning space

While we reflect on the educational challenges at hand, it is vital to utilise the success of those schools that under very strenuous teaching conditions managed to achieve superlative results. Embedded in the success DNA of these schools is strong leadership, knowledgeable and dedicated staff and parent bodies that create the best environment for effective teaching and learning.


These schools provide a glimmer of hope; combined with the department of basic education’s (DBE’s) consistent efforts, the learning conditions for South African children may eventually change. The current government inherited the seemingly insurmountable challenge of a broken education system, which over the past 20 years it has worked tirelessly to transform. The strides made are commendable; however, the biggest challenge faced by our government today is that of teacher attitudes. The legacy of apartheid education can be removed in two ways: through changes in infrastructure and changes in attitude. The DBE is vigorously fighting the physical resources war, but I’m afraid the psychological and professional warfare waged by the current teaching force has yet to be conquered.

Xolani Majola works for Global Teachers Institute

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