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Improving education, one school at a time: How SA’s PfP programme is making a difference

JOHANNESBURG — Everybody knows that the state of South Africa’s education system is pretty appalling. But one programme dubbed Partners for Possibility (PfP) wants to help ensure quality education for all school children in the country by the year 2025. PfP targets doing this by establishing co-learning partnerships between School Principals and Business Leaders. In turn, PfP aims to ensure that schools are placed at the centre of their communities. It’s an interesting initiative. And in this interview, businesswoman Gillian Cox tells about a partnership she entered and the difference it made. – Gareth van Zyl

It’s a pleasure to welcome Gillian Cox on the line. Gillian, you’re a business owner and you’ve got involved with something called ‘Partners for Possibility’ (PfP). Can you first tell us what your business does?

Hi Gareth and hello to all the listeners. I’m involved in a business that does industrial automation, called Numatich. My husband owns the business and together we run the sales and admin section. It’s basically a mining-based business. It’s a small business with 20 people and multifaceted from all backgrounds. So, it’s very challenging in many respects, especially with all the new legislation and BEE codes etc.

What is Partners for Possibility (PfP)? This is something that you and your business have got involved with as well?

Partners for Possibility sources business leaders who can work with school principals to change what is happening with education in SA. There’s a major problem with the education in government schools in SA, which is well documented. It’s a multifaceted and very complex problem. The lack of education has to be addressed for any effective social change to happen. So, where does one begin? Basically, one has to begin with the school principal, in this case, Bizie Magwaza, and as a business partner I just felt I wanted to have an effective change more far reaching than one-on-one teacher development, and one-on-one pupil development. I wanted to try and impact a whole school. So, it’s been wonderful to work with such a highly principled person, the principal, Mrs Bizie Magwaza. She’s enthusiastic and embraces every opportunity to improve her school. Through her natural leadership skills and an appetite for risk and change, the school has improved beyond anyone’s expectations. The reason I got involved with this is I just had this inner voice whispering to me. I just simply cannot accept what I see when visiting many of the schools in the Ehlanzeni District. The voice has now become a loud shout so, I just keep saying to myself, ‘one school at a time,’ just one-by-one.

Can you just tell us what the name of the school is that you’re helping and where its situated exactly?

The school is called uMshwathi Memorial Primary. It is 30km into the sugarcane area of the Tongaat area. So, from Ballito or from Umhlanga in Durban, it’s probably a 45-minute drive. You go along a small road and then onto a dirt road and then there’s sand, and you wonder up a hill and eventually you come across uMshwathi. The parents and guardians are 90% non-English speaking so, they’re basically from a Zulu background. Most of them are farmworkers with very poor resources. It’s a non-paying school, but it’s graded at Quentile 3 so, it should be receiving funds from the parents but they get nothing.

How do you then get involved through the PfP partnership? What type of tangible things do you help them with?

For me, the PfP program is about change. Change in life is something that will happen naturally. When I look at what is going on in the education for the learners – we have got to have change. So, it’s basically being about embracing that change. A lot of change in this one-year leadership development programme started in January 2017 and ended in January 2018. Most notably, I’ve noted that the resources have changed. Virtually every person and organisation I approached has been able to help. There’s been help with the community garden, a brand-new library, mops, buckets and brooms. A new stove, weekly cycling lessons for two grades for the entire year and the person who provided them now, brings breakfast for the whole school.

One asks the question, why has it changed? It’s changed because people are prepared to help when there’s transparent accountability that comes with a structured program. It’s incredible how the support has grown and spread among the PfP schools. Sometimes a year later I’ll get an email and it pops up offering unexpected help. The one was for say, school shoes and suddenly you’d spread it around all our schools and we just had a thousand Toughees school shoes donated to three of our schools. I’ve noticed a huge change in the teaching body and the overall community. With this programme, one is as inclusive as possible with the teachers. It’s meant that they’ve understood change is essential.

There’s a two-day community workshop where some of the teachers were invited to attend, which has been a huge instrument of change. The community workshop taught all of us how easy it is to change the mood from ‘I can do nothing. The problem is too big. I’ve got no power to change’ to a positive mood, one of ‘what if.’ What if money was no problem and what could we do then? The possibilities have become endless and it just creates a ripple effect. By involving the teachers, the community and the principal – the changes are happening so much faster. So, it’s been very exciting.

Do you think that more businesses around the country should look to get involved with this programme because it looks like it’s having a really, great end-effect on these schools?

I just think, Gareth, that businesses that send their staff on MBAs and overseas MBAs, and all those sorts of programmes have got huge value. But to actually interact one-on-one with these schools, you will learn so many management tools that are effective and applied within your business. From collaboration to negotiating effectively – I think my single, most important lesson has been to learn to listen attentively, without interrupting. I listen until the other person has finished, and in listening I’ve just learnt not to be a parent telling everyone what to do. It’s allowed the principal and teachers to become a motivated team, sharing ideas, as well as Mrs Bizie Magwaza becoming a true leader of this school and the community, and collaborating with everyone.

I’ve now been on the sidelines. I just trust that they will make the right decisions. But if we hadn’t had had that vehicle, it wouldn’t have enabled us to have made changes that will continue once I have finished working with the school. I think if I hadn’t have done that course, the principal and teachers would just not have listened to me. They would have thought, here’s a business leader, let’s listen, they’ve got all the answers, and we’ll just do what she says. In fact, they’ve made the decisions. They’ve changed the school, they involved the community, the learners listened. So, it’s just been a very empowering programme.

Gillian Cox, thanks so much for chatting to me today. It’s been fascinating learning more about this program.

It’s a pleasure, Gareth. I wish more people would get involved. I just think that it’s a journey that I’m so grateful for and I’d like to thank Louise and all of her team for their vision and determination to create this program. It’s been winning incredible awards. Looking back on our troubled history, it’s often been the principals and teachers who’ve led the communities through tough times. With the PfP program they are able to do this with added confidence, energy, and determination. Thank you, Gareth, for this opportunity.

Great, thank you, Gillian.

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