Greatest lesson of all: schools can triumph
Friday the 13th will remain one of the most unforgettable days of my life. In a large auditorium we had drawn together schools from each of the nine provinces that shared two characteristics: they were disadvantaged, but they produced the best academic results of all the under-resourced schools.
One of them was among the top 10 schools in its province, including the privileged schools.
Several schools had not had a Grade 12 failure for years in a row. Some of them boasted 100% passes in mathematics (not the literacy version) and physical science year after year.
We asked their principals and senior teachers one question: Why does your school succeed when almost every other school with your socioeconomic profile fails?
This is what we found.
They are led by single-minded principals.
For every school, one thing stood out: leadership matters. The principal drove change with his or her teachers. There was a strong and singular sense of mission - "the children come first", said one.
The principal was, in each case, a roaming, visible presence on the school grounds. Most importantly, they led by example. One rural school principal teaches life sciences and holds up his 97% pass rate as the standard he expects from his Grade 12 colleagues.
They do the simple things well.
None of the principals mentioned luxuries like computers or white boards or fancy new curricula. What they did was focus on the simple things, like good teaching and structured learning; like textbooks for every child in every subject; like ensuring the classrooms were fit for education to take place in. "We do what we are supposed to do," said one.
They establish non-negotiable rhythms and routines.
All these schools start on time. Teachers are in class. Pupils arrive on time. Uniforms are mandatory.
Feedback on tests and homework is returned quickly - one principal referred to "the 24-hour rule".
Discipline is firm and predictable when problems arise. Every school citizen knows why he or she comes to school, be they teacher, pupil or manager.
They make optimal use of instructional time.
This was the most striking finding. Not a single minute was wasted.
Schools start on time and finish long after other schools have closed for the day. Gates are closed to late-comers.
Some schools run from 6am to 6pm. Others believe, in the words of a commentator present, that "extra time means nothing if you do not use the time you already have".
They create motivational cultures within the school.
They have a vision for pupils beyond matric. One principal insists that every child hands in a university application form, and he stalks those who do not.
Speakers come to each school on a regular basis to lift the spirits of young people and to demonstrate lives that were changed through education.
Teachers constantly tell pupils to dream, to be ambitious, and not to settle for less.
They recruit parents' support.
Parents are recruited for two purposes, to assist in the disciplining of children, and to reinforce school learning at home. "The parents are the key," insisted one school leader.
They find ways of looking beyond familiar problems.
Even when coaxed, none of these schools started their story with the real problems they face. They find ways of resolving those problems. They send back teacher lists to the department, insisting on better candidates. They strike workable relations with district officers. Where there are no resources, they find their own. These school leaders are at once optimistic and pragmatic about the struggles they face.
They plan in advance.
Teaching schedules and timetables for the next year are planned in the previous year. "They do not plan to comply with official deadlines," noted one observer; they plan to achieve their own goals: productive teaching and learning.
They recognise success.
Often more than once a year, these schools find formal and informal ways to thank teachers and reward pupils. They recognise that rewarding success motivates school citizens who, in turn, try to do even better.
They organise and value teamwork.
There was no evidence of singular, heroic figures in the principal's office. They cultivate teams focused on simple objectives. There is a strong sense of buy-in from pupils and teachers alike.
I came from this day-long listening exercise convinced, more than ever, that changing our schools is possible after all.