Music to our ears: Symphonia for South Africa

By Winslow Schalkwyk

Inspired by the ‘Walk Together’ Dinokeng Scenario,1 Symphonia for South Africa (a national non-governmental organisation based in Bellville, Cape Town) established a vision to mobilise business, government and civil society to work collaboratively towards meeting the educational challenges facing South Africa.

Our goal is to ensure quality education for all learners in South Africa by 2022 through our Partnerships for Possibility (PfP) programme. The programme was founded in 2010 when Dr Louise van Rhyn, director and founder of Symphonia2 for South Africa, became the first business leader to partner with a principal in an effort to improve a school’s education outcomes. It resulted in positive impacts on those directly involved and the community at large. Van Rhyn holds a doctorate in organisational change and has more than 23 years of experience in the field of largescale change in complex social systems.

Co-learning and co-action

The programme incorporates a simple idea of partnering business leaders with school principals in a ‘Partnership for Possibility’. This innovative leadership development programme, the first of its kind in the world and a Proudly South African3 initiative, engages business leaders and school principals and develops their leadership skills in a co-learning and co-action partnership. The initiative speaks to the idea that enhancing the quality of education, improving the school environment and encouraging engagement between parents and teachers are meaningful and attainable goals that would provide an upward spiral of real change in society.

The duration of the programme is one year. By giving 10 days a year to a local school – less than a day a month – a business leader’s support and the PfP training provides the principal with fresh leadership insights to transform a school and hence an entire community. In return, the business leader gets to develop their leadership ability by getting hands-on experience in a different environment from their day-to-day life.

Leadership Circles and Communities of Practice

In February 2011, a pilot Leadership Circle of nine partnerships was launched in Cape Town. Since then, Leadership Circles have been set up across the country in Bloemfontein, Durban, Johannesburg and Tshwane. The PfP programme currently has 113 partnerships nationally.

Leadership Circles were initiated so that participants in the programme could interact with each other on a regular basis. Community of Practice sessions take place every six weeks, in which partners and principals in a circle actively contribute to mutual sharing, learning and problem-solving, fostering a sense of community among schools in a region.

Happiness at Heathfield High

Mark Engelbrecht, principal at Heathfield High School in Cape Town, partnered with Valda Clarke from Prudential Portfolio Managers, and had the following to say about the PfP programme: “To date, I have made important and valuable contacts with other principals. With the help of Valda and our learning process facilitator, Veronica Wantenaar, the school has benefited on a number of levels: we have established a vision and mission, a staff wellness programme and a career day with other schools in our Leadership Circle.”

Diepsloot Primary: a sight for sore eyes

Diepsloot Primary School opened its doors in Soweto, Johannesburg, in January 2011. With no water or electricity, principal Joe Makhafula had his hands full trying to prepare the school for the 750 learners who had enrolled. Feeling alone and somewhat demoralised, Makhafula saw merit in being part of the PfP programme and committed himself to a year-long journey with Pete Laburn, CEO of Pete Laburn International CC.

“At our initial meeting, Joe expressed huge frustration in not being able to gain the support and commitment of both parents and community,” Laburn said.

“Our discussions focused on how to change the tide and to enlist the whole community to take ownership of the school, so that he and the staff could focus on being true educators as opposed to fire fighters and site project managers,” said Laburn. In the short space of a year, Makhafula and Laburn established a lasting relationship that would transform the once-bland and isolated school into one that is truly at the centre of the community. Municipal water, sewerage and electricity are now in place. In addition, the school has been approved for participation in the Gauteng Primary Literacy Strategy4 pilot project, aimed at accelerating mathematics and English education. The premises now serve as a base for information and communications technology training for educators from neighbouring schools in the community.

“When I started at Diepsloot, there was no structure in place,” Makhafula said. “I had no permanent teaching staff, no heads of departments and no management team to help me. The load weighed heavy on my shoulders. If it wasn’t for the guidance and support I received from Pete, I would not have been where I am today. All the advice he freely gave made a great impact on the way I was able to run the school.” Laburn says that although galvanising the support of parents and the community took some time, they are now enjoying the fruits of their labour.

“Joe and I have built a partnership that is characterised by open discussion and mutual respect. This is a relationship that will continue long past the one-year initial programme. My role has been one of listening, helping prioritise Jo’s demanding agenda, and hopefully provided him with a degree of confidence in his abilities to be a leader for change. I have continuously been amazed at the passion and commitment of educators such as Joe and his team. What they have achieved over the past 18 months is nothing short of astonishing, despite some serious obstacles. It has made a very significant impact on me – most notably that within an apparently suboptimal education system, there are many very talented educators and leaders who really do make a difference to the lives of the learners they touch.”

Laburn was so inspired by his involvement in the PfP programme that he has subsequently become the chairman of the Symphonia for South Africa board.

Conviction at Thabo Senior Secondary

Thabo Senior Secondary School in Naledi, Soweto, has moved from being the worst-performing school in Gauteng to achieving an 85.4% matric pass rate. Principal Jane Dintoe and her Partner for Possibility, Kamini Maharaj from Hollard Insurance, are over the moon with the success the school has achieved in its first year of being part of PfP initiative. Dintoe has been principal of Thabo Senior Secondary since the beginning of 2011 (after teaching at the school for about 20 years) and had inherited a vast number of problems: the school was in a poor state of repair; learners attending school impoverished and hungry; staff members were demotivated; but worst of all, the matric pass rate for 2010 was 42%. When we asked how the school achieved its 85.4% matric pass rate in 2012, Dintoe remarked, “We had extra classes in the mornings and afternoons before school and on Saturdays. “My Partner for Possibility assisted us by providing tutors to help our learners with accounting, and the pass rate rose from 16% to 54%. Our mathematics pass rate improved from 22% to 49% as well.”

Dintoe is thankful for Maharaj and her learning process facilitator Ray Sher, who supported her, listened to her and provided her with a safe space to air her frustrations, goals and aspirations. She feels more empowered and wiser as the leader of her school. Sher reflects on this achievement: “Kamini organised a three-way meeting with Jane and I and we had creative discussions.” During the course of this session, he asked Dintoe what her dream for the school was, and she answered, “I want 80% pass rate for my matrics this year.” Sher suggested that Dintoe take an A4 sheet, write a big 80% and place it above her computer, and write an even bigger 80% on a flipchart and place it in a prominent spot in the staffroom, call her staff in and inspire them to focus on 80%.

Maharaj is extremely humbled by the work that Dintoe and her team are doing, given the daily challenges they face, and their relentless commitment to the learners. She goes on to say: “Jane has been focused in her approach towards achieving an 80% pass rate, and this has paid off. She has not allowed herself to be distracted by the challenges she faces, and she has chosen to focus on those things she can influence and control.” Dintoe added that the goal at Thabo Senior Secondary for 2013 is a 90% pass rate.

One school at a time

The South African education system is in crisis: of the 21 000 schools in South Africa, only 2 000 are delivering acceptable educational outcomes. In other words, just over 90% of South African schools can be classified as ‘underperforming’. Studies released in January 2012 revealed that of the 1 035 193 children who began their school career in 2000, only half registered for their final year of high school in 2011. Half the children had failed at least one year and therefore had not reached Grade 12.5 The aim of ensuring quality education for all learners in South Africa by 2022 may seem daunting. Symphonia for South Africa therefore aims to do this one school at a time. “We know for certain that no sector can do this alone,” says Van Rhyn. “We need to work together, agree on shared goals and objectives, and then each one of us must do what we can to achieve these goals.”

References:

1. In response to post-1994 national challenges, a group of 35 South Africans from a wide spectrum of our society gathered together to probe our country’s present, and to consider possible futures. The purpose was to engage citizen-leaders from all corners of South Africa in a series of discussions about our future. The ensuing discussions and plans became known as the Dinokeng Scenarios. (Source: http://www.dinokengscenarios.co.za/over_purpose.php.)

2. Symphonia for South Africa’s vision is to strengthen the fabric of South African society. (Source: http://www.symphonia.net/symphonia_ for_south_africa.htm.)

3. The Proudly South African campaign is a South African ‘support local’ marketing campaign and logo. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Proudly_South_African.)

4. See, for example, http://www.joburg.org.za/index.php?option= com_content&view=article&id=6129&catid=88&Itemid=266.

5. The statistics in this paragraph were provided by Symphonia for South Africa. See, for example, http://www.hotspotsmovement.com/uploads/ newsletters/corporate-citizenship-hosted.pdf.

Category: Winter 2013

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