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Start small to bring big change: how feasible are communities of practice (CoPs) in poorfunctioning schools in KwaZulu-Natal?

| November 14, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Catherine Bean

The Khanyisa Inanda Community Project (KICP) is a programme of the Inanda Seminary, the oldest black independent girls’ boarding school in the country.

Through a number of different interventions, KICP is attempting to ensure that high-quality education and professional development is available to disadvantaged students, teachers and leaders in public schools in Inanda North and community schools in the greater Inanda area.

One of KICP’s objectives is to provide increased opportunities for principals and leaders of public schools to enhance their leadership. International research has shown that increasing the professional learning and leadership opportunities available to school principals and leaders is the most effective way of effecting positive change at a school. There are various methods of achieving this, but reported1 to be the most successful is the establishment of professional learning communities (PLCs) and communities of practice (CoPs) for teachers and principals. By bringing together subject teachers, leaders, heads of departments and principals, educators share ideas, teaching and management practices, issues and successes. These PLCs and CoPs are exactly the kind of “professional collaboration” that author Michael Fullan talks about when discussing how to bring about change in schools and enable “good teaching”:
…getting good teaching for all learners require(s) teachers to be highly committed, thoroughly prepared, continuously developed, properly paid, well networked with each other to maximise their own improvement, and able to make effective judgements using all their capabilities and experience.2

BRIDGE a stellar example

BRIDGE, an education NGO based in Johannesburg, was founded on the idea of collaboration and sharing practice and knowledge, and it has had success in Gauteng and Limpopo in establishing CoPs with selected schools in these provinces. BRIDGE defines a CoP as “an inclusive group of people, motivated by a shared learning vision, who support and work with each other, finding ways, inside and outside their immediate community, to enquire on their practice and together learn new and better approaches that will enhance all learners’ learning.”3 Its experience has shown for a CoP to be successful, a greater proportion of average- to good-functioning schools are required as members of the CoP.

Two different systems

Within KwaZulu-Natal, and particularly the Pinetown Education District within which the KICP is working, the dichotomy between two very different education systems is clearly highlighted. Pinetown is known as a high functioning education district, with a 78% matric pass rate in 2012 and ranked 36th among the country’s education districts.4 However, the Inanda North area has some of the poorest and most underperforming schools.

Within the well-functioning schools in South Africa, efforts at collaboration, collegial cooperation, sharing of information and resources have succeeded due to motivated and dedicated schools leaders and educators. One such collaboration is the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition (SAESC),5 a CoP run by BRIDGE and made up of school leaders and teachers from schools around South Africa. They are creating dramatic positive change in school families and communities by placing each student at the centre of the learning and teaching processes, and committing to work collaboratively to enable them to reach their full potential, regardless of their background. Inanda Seminary is an example of one such school. These high impact, low feepaying schools provide formerly and currently disadvantaged learners across South Africa with access to high-quality education. However, within the secondary “dysfunctional” tier, there is very little collective collaboration. In his book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Michael Fullan points to crucial causal factors:
Where it is difficult to establish cross-school networks or indeed any kind of professionally collaborative behaviour is in countries that have been, within the memory of one or two generations, forms of despotisms or dictatorships, where fear and corruption were (or still are) widespread and habits of suspicion and compliance are deeply ingrained; or in places where there is a deep-seated political culture of top-down control or competitive individualism.6

Many of the schools within the Inanda North region can be categorised as poor-functioning schools. There is seldom any professional networking or collegial cooperation and any educational workshops are dictated by, and provided by, the education department district office. One such intervention is Jika IMfundo,7 established in 2014 and targeting the uThungulu and Pinetown districts. Jika IMfundo is a partnership between government, business and civil society, focusing on improving curriculum coverage in the schools. According to Mary Metcalfe, change and stakeholder director at the Programme for the Improvement of Learning Outcomes (PILO), the uniqueness of this programme is that it works from within the system and supports government to lead the change.8 However, the schools within which KICP is working are still isolated both geographically and professionally. The experience of the KICP has shown that teachers and principals are desperate for input and mentoring at the coalface – at their schools.

KICP shares top tips

So how do organisations involved in educational change engage with the teachers and the school leadership in the schools when, according to Pam Christie, professor in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town, there is such a “mismatch between the ideal and the actual”9?.

The experience gained during the past few months in the KICP has suggested a three-pronged approach:
• Start local: School leadership in South Africa is being shaped by two major forces: research and theory on school management and leadership from Western educational literature, and “a complex framework of post-apartheid policies introduced to reform the schooling system”.10 According to Christie, this over-reliance on international research and an ever-increasingly tangled network of policies, regulations and rules are impeding any attempt to improve schools. Any reforms need to “engage seriously with local conditions and the day-to-day experiences of principals”.11
• Start small KICP has begun by having monthly meetings with the principals whose students are attending the Khanyisa Saturday School Programme, building relationships with them and understanding the basic needs of their specific schools. In addition, we have started Teacher-Time (TT), which is professional development sessions within the three community schools. Once every three weeks, during a school break, we provide a 20-minute professional development session with teachers and leaders, also allowing time for questions and reflection.
• Start talking – share stories As we share stories and talk with one another, we can begin breaking down the years of fear and isolation.

Collaboration the only way

Khanyisa means “to illuminate”. And we believe that by starting small in this way, we will “shine a light” on the “new story in education”, which is “learner-focused, community and socially minded, collaborative and challenging”.12 It is only once collective responsibility has been taken for improving the learning within their own schools that teachers and principals can aspire to external professional learning communities.


1. Hobden, PA. and Hobden, SD. (2015) Models of Support to Improve Maths and Science: A Learning Journey. Presentation given at Zenex Foundation 20th Anniversary Symposium, Durban.
2. Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers’ College Press.
3. BRIDGE (2016) A Manual for Facilitators of Communities of Practice. See:
4. See: http://gissolutions. _sample_pages.pdf
5. See:
6. Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) op cit.
7. See:
8. See: kzn-teachers-1744819.
9. See: images/104/landscapes.pdf.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. See:

Category: Summer 2016

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