Ongoing Success and Resolute Hope

Every five years, ISASA holds a combined conference composed of Governors, Heads and Bursars of member schools. This occasion is an opportunity for ISASA to undergo a five-year review.

The most recent five years at ISASA almost defy description. Encompassing as they do, the whirlwind that was the COVID-19 pandemic, and some substantial political, global and national economic shifts. The world now tottering from one climate crisis to the next. We experienced a costly insurrection in KwaZulu-Natal, combined with devastating floods.

And yet, before the tone of this piece is misconstrued as an exercise in pessimism, ISASA schools are exemplars of tenacity and resilience. When hit by closures and mass panic as the pandemic forced the world into hiding, it was our schools that found innovative ways to continue with teaching and learning. Below, I highlight the challenges and successes that ISASA underwent during the last half-decade.

Difficult times

During these exceptionally difficult years, ISASA remained nimble in adapting to a rapidly changing environment, characterised by regulatory uncertainty. There was a high degree of engagement with government over matters of policy, and ISASA acted as an important conduit of information to its member schools. Frequent and accurate communication became more important during this time than ever before.

ISASA and its constituent members, being SAHISA and SABISA, rapidly adapted their plans and policies to the constraints and realities of lockdown. Under conditions that were extremely testing for everyone, ISASA demonstrated its leadership.

Despite the difficulties, our sector continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace and with more consolidation to the low- and mid-fee schooling options. Semigration and emigration challenges remain and our schools are well aware of the refined marketing strategies that such times will require.

In 2018, our membership stood at 861 schools, educating around 190 560 pupils. Current figures are at 912 member schools with over 205 000 pupils receiving quality independent education. Similarly, the associate membership for large listed education groups continues to flourish, but full membership remains attractive and saw the Inspired Group of 35 schools becoming full members in 2021.

ISASA remains the largest and oldest membership organisation for independent schools in the region, with a Southern Africa footprint with schools in Botswana, eSwatini, Namibia, Angola, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique and Zambia.

Restructuring continued

ISASA Five Year Review 2019-2023A common theme in my mind, and one which I have spoken and written of often, is that of continuity and change. The historian’s compass. Once more, as much as things have changed, I am comforted by how much consistency there is in ISASA’s achievements. Five years ago on these pages, I spoke of staff restructuring, which remains a current feature.

A wholesale review of ISASA’s organisational structure was begun in June 2020 to assist in the delivery of the new ISASA Strategic Plan and was completed in the first quarter of 2021. The principal objective underlying a restructured ISASA was to ensure that it is an organisation that is interlinked and has increased capacity to deliver services to members.

A key feature of this restructuring was the creation of a new Directorate of Support Services, consisting of a hub of administrative and secretarial support staff overseen by the Director: Finance and Operations. In addition, ISASA made legal qualifications a requirement for our policy analysts, thereby increasing the level and accuracy of assistance offered by the now Legal, Policy and Government Relations Department.

The initial combination of training, research and communications into a single role has had a further consolidation of the publisher position under the Head: Communications and Professional Development. In addition, in light of the finite resources of the Publications Department it was decided that, like the other production roles of the magazine, the editorial function should be converted to a consultancy. In effect, the new ISASA staffing structure has seen fewer people doing more and skills being embedded across the organisation.

Thought leadership and professional development

A core part of our mission is to be a thought leader in the sector and also to provide services in a professional manner and to the highest standard, while remaining responsive to a dynamic and complex environment.

In keeping with this philosophy, the Professional Development Department inaugurated a new hybrid delivery model during the pandemic years. This has resulted in a substantial expansion of its workshop offerings, including bespoke content to address the needs of members during the pandemic.

The hybrid model increased access to training and now the department services the needs of thousands, rather than hundreds, of staff members in schools. This increased demand for workshops has necessitated increasing staffing to include a new Professional Development Manager and a Professional Development Administrator.

In August this year, we were pleased to publish the third edition of the perennially popular A Guide to Effective School Governance, a companion to the governance workshop offered by our Director: Membership and Programmes, which incorporate guidelines from the latest King IV report on corporate governance. An inexpensive paperback, it remains essential reading for Heads and all members of school boards.

Communication expansion

During the Covid years and beyond, ISASA actively engaged with members, government and the broader public to ensure circumstances in which the independent sector operated were as optimal as possible. Communication with members through memoranda and the online portal was clear and regular.

We saw a significant increase in the number of media interviews in the past five years, that a Media tab had to be added to the ISASA webpage to contain the various engagements in print, radio and television.

I am pleased that ISASA Publications continues to produce hard copies of all its publications, most notably, its excellent Independent Education magazine which is among only a handful of magazines in the world dedicated exclusively to the independent education sector and which continues to be our flagship publication, distributed free to all member schools.

Employee Wellness at ISASA schools

Employee wellness

Arguably, one of the byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic was the toll it took on people’s mental health. ISASA responded to the increasing calls for comprehensive wellness support when it engaged the services of Reality Wellness in 2021. The organisation provides all member school staff and their households, throughout Southern Africa, with a range of services, including telephonic counselling and wellness- themed online workshops.

Firm fiscal future

I have often spoke of the sound fiscal management that defines ISASA’s approach to the future. By carefully husbanding our financial resources, this enabled ISASA not to increase subscriptions in 2021. Nonetheless, due to stringent cost management, ISASA has worked hard to establish the ISASA Endowment NPC. It is hoped that with a sound investment strategy, these fund reserves will be able to contribute to the operating budget in the future.

Global quality and international links

The creation of a new independent quality assurance organisation, the Office of Independent School Evaluations Southern Africa (OISESA), is one of the biggest achievements of the period. OISESA is already delivering on its mandate to enhance quality assurance of our member schools and its director, Margot Long, is to be congratulated for the extensive work done on the assessment tools and for successfully negotiating the admission of OISESA as an introductory member of the International Council Advancing Independent School Accreditation (ICAISA).

ISASA has strong formal and informal links with sister organisations in other countries – both regionally and internationally. ISASA is a founding member of the International Alliance of Independent Schools’ Associations (INISA), made up of independent school associations from most of the English-speaking countries in the world.

Every year, INISA holds an International Data and Research Group Conference for data specialists from each of the member organisations. ISASA was extremely pleased to host the 2023 conference from 12 – 14 July at its offices in Johannesburg. A South African themed two intensive days of data-sharing were augmented with two school visits.

ISASA, because of a shared vision of excellence and inclusion, has partnered with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) since January 2017 on the MIT-Africa Collaborating for Impact initiative. Past seminars have included, ‘girls in science’, ‘natural and artificial intelligence’ and the ‘science of space’. The programme is open to Grade 11 and 12 pupils who take Mathematics, Physical Science and, ideally, also Advanced Programme Mathematics as subjects.

Sustainability and wellness

ISASA had great foresight in making operational sustainability a new strategic focus five years ago. With no end in sight with the energy crises, it is a relief that ISASA installed solar panels and battery backup at the offices. We are now, mostly, energy self-reliant.

Efforts are now turning to water supply. A single water tank also provides backup water storage for approximately one day. However, there are plans to address water sustainability more intensely now that the solar power project is complete.

ISASA schools exemplify ongoing success and resolute hope

Relief and hope

Due to the regulatory changes required to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, ISASA heavily relied on the assistance and guidance of the Department of Basic Education. The achievements of the past five years would not have been possible without our Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, and her Director General, Mathanzima Mweli. South Africa’s government contends that its purpose is to put people first – batho pele.

Minister Motshekga and her department certainly embody this sentiment. With a worldwide crisis having been thrust upon us, Minister Motshekga supported learners in independent schools. ISASA thanks her for this, especially during such a trying time and under much criticism.

As we look back on the successes of the past five years, one is suffused with relief to have so many good stories to convey, despite the enormous and myriad challenges that assailed our sector. ISASA remains resolute to lead the independent schooling sector in its pursuit to provide quality education.

We will continue to champion the sector in a spirit of irrepressible hope and to operate as a voluntary, values-based, public- spirited body dedicated to advancing quality independent education in Southern Africa. We are similarly committed to becoming increasingly inclusive and diverse in our membership whilst retaining high standards as a condition of membership.

We dream of a country where quality education is available to all learners and the value of independent education in contributing to this goal is fully recognised.