Here’s how CEOs and school principals can fix SA education

JOHANNESBURG — Over the last few weeks, I’ve been interviewing business leaders and school principals involved in something called ‘Partners for Possibility’ (PfP). It’s a programme that is helping to empower schools by focusing on something that is often overlooked in this vital sector: leadership. By getting business owners and CEOs to engage with school principals, the PfP programme has made a huge difference in the quality of education being delivered in over 800 schools by helping to empower principals. The end-result is eye-opening. PfP is targeting all 20 000 public schools in South Africa and, in this interview, PfP founder Louise van Rhyn explains how the programme works and why it’s making such a huge impact. – Gareth van Zyl

Louise van Rhyn heads up Partners for Possibility (PfP), a programme that is helping to uplift schools across SA. Louise, we’ve previously interviewed a business owner and a school principal on this programme, but let’s take a step back. What is PfP and why did you start it?

PfP is an opportunity for business leaders – who already have knowledge, skills and experience (because they’ve been privileged enough to have a great education) – to pay back their privilege, and to help strengthen leadership capacity, which is our biggest issue in education around schools.

When you talk about leadership capacity what do you mean there exactly? Do we have weak leadership structures within our schools?

We have 20 000 schools and school principals, who have been teachers and who got promoted to be a principal without any knowledge, skills or experience training, to run one of the most complex and challenging organisations in SA. So, I think it’s a human rights issue. I think it is completely unacceptable that school principals are promoted into these roles – and I’m saying this with compassion. It’s not just being critical but our government doesn’t have the wherewithal to equip and support these people and make it possible for them to be successful.

How do business owners step in and help school principals then? It seems like the two are completely different universes colliding here.

Exactly, and that’s where the beauty is. So the first thing is that the school principals are, by enlarge (even the SADTU members, because everybody is always critical of SADTU) amazing people. They are people who care. They are the salt of the earth. But they’re being asked to do things that they haven’t done before… Many of them they have to do a budget but they’ve never done any financial management training. I wouldn’t be able to do a budget if it wasn’t for the fact that I did an MBA and I’ve had lots of experience and my husband is a CA.

The fact is that the principals in the well-resourced schools – such as Parktown Girl’s High, etc. – they don’t do their own budgets either because they have, on their school Governing Body, a group of parents who bring HR, IT, and finance skills. What we found is that these principals are firstly, not able to breathe, because they’re so overwhelmed with HR, IT, finance, facilities, security and all that stuff. So, what we’re asking business leaders to do , firstly, is to bring compassion and oxygen into the school. The way we do that is we’re just another human being who cares, and who says to the principal, ‘let’s think about this – how can we deal with this thing?’ So, that’s the one thing: the business leaders have care and compassion and all that.

Louise van Rhyn.
Louise van Rhyn.

Then they have a practical contribution, the wherewithal with all to do stuff. So, if the principal says, ‘it’s a budget and I haven’t got a clue,’ The person can either help with the budget or he can phone a friend at the office and say, ‘listen, we need someone who can help with finance.’ Or when the principal says ‘you know what, we’ve logged this call to get the IT sorted out ten times now, and we’re not getting any joy, and it’s been six-months now.’ The business leader makes one phone call to his IT person and says, ‘listen, we need to sort this out, please.’ Then two hours later the issue is resolved. But the principal didn’t know who to call – so that’s the first thing.

Then the second thing is that we are putting both the principals and business leaders through a very sophisticated development programme. It’s sophisticated in design, but it’s simple in execution. The sophistication comes from being careful of the traditional dynamics. So, what happened in the past (and Nick Binedell from GIBS really warned me about this), he said that there are all these well-meaning business people. But if we send them into the schools it’s going to take only a few minutes, then they’re going to default into trying to tell the principal what to do, how to run the school. So, we can’t do that because it’s not their job. They don’t have the right. They don’t have the authority. They’re not allowed to do that.

So, our job is to equip both of these people with the knowledge and skills to be equal thinking partners to each other. It starts off everybody thinking the business leaders will give and the principal will receive. Then, within three-months, we realised that’s not the case. The business leaders are receiving as much, if not more, because they’re learning about life in an under-resourced community. They’re learning about how to influence change when they have no direct authority or control. They learn how to get stuff done when you have absolutely no resources. There’s this amazing, beautiful co-learning process that’s happening. If one person gives, or each one gives what they have, and they’re in a relationship that’s designed to be reciprocal.  

And what has the take-up been like so far? How many schools have you rolled out this programme to?

So far, 320 organisations have become involved, and of those 320 organisations. We’re in 858 schools now, around the country. That’s a very small number because we need to get to 20 000. But even if we get to 2 000 that would be amazing but right now, it’s in 858 schools.

So talking to the one school principal and the one business owner, it was pretty clear to me that this programme has made a huge difference. The kids are better off. They’ve got a great support structure. Why has SA’s Government not thought about this before? It looks like quite an obvious thing that needed to be done but you guys are actually going out and doing it?

Yes, so there’s been lots of talk about developing leadership capacity. There’s another initiative being driven right now which is going to be called ‘The Diploma for Advanced School Leadership.’ It has been on the cards and in development for at least two years. But it’s not been rolled out yet. We have a tendency in SA to come up with great ideas. It’s part of the National Development Plan (NDP), ant the medium-term plan was that we need to strengthen leadership capacity in the schools. Three years later, we’re still talking about it. So, the difference here is, and this is why, internationally, there is a general acceptance that issues in difficult environments, like education, will not be resolved by the people in education because they come with a particular mindset, they’ve always done it this way. They have a way of thinking, etc., the only answer, and this is where our NDP was actually completely genius, it has had this idea of cross-sector collaboration between business, government, and civil society. The problem that we have in SA is that that’s not our history. We don’t have a history of working together, across boundaries. That’s the piece that we have been like a dog with a bone, we are just not letting up in this dream because we’ve seen that, internationally, where business, government and civil society starts to work together and they each bring what they have, and they do that in a spirit of collaboration and compassion and generosity – amazing things are possible. So, we’ve seen that.

There’s a beautiful story in one of our schools in Stellenbosch, at the moment, where a local, IT manager just opened his heart and he’s working with our principal and this is a principal that many people had written off in the past. And we are seeing the joy and how the school is benefiting and how the children are benefitting and how the communities are coming around the school – and it’s one person who said, ‘I’m going to step into this space – I have no idea how I’m going to do it. I’m going to just give it my shot as a human being. I’m not going to try and be smart or anything  

With our government, we’re getting all the words of support. There’s lots of ‘yes, this is fabulous.’ We haven’t actually received any funding (well, we got a little bit from Gauteng  but that was a long time ago). So, we would love to do this more in partnership with government but we know that the wheels turn very slowly. I’m hoping that someone will listen to this and give us some advice about how we can get those wheels to go a bit more, faster.

But in the meantime, I am committed to doing this because our future is at stake. If we don’t fix our schools, we will not have a country. For all the companies out there – we would just not have a country to do business in. At the heart of fixing our schools is fixing our leadership in the schools. There’s so much research now that shows we can tinker around the edges with lots of other things but if we don’t deal with the leadership issue in our schools, in the 20 000 schools, we will not be able to improve education.

So, leadership is really the crux of the issue. There are lots of complaints and research out there that points to how teachers are often ill-equipped within our schools. But you are saying that if there’s a strong leadership structure many other things can start to fall in place.

I love talking to business people because they get it. If there was suddenly, let’s say a bank, Nedbank, which has ten branches that are suddenly producing sub-optimal results. Firstly, what they’re not going to do is, we’re not going to sit in Johannesburg and say, ‘these ten-branches – let’s send them a cookie cutter approach – let’s train everybody.’ We won’t do that because what we know to do is to go to those ten branches and find out what’s going on. Inevitably, in one of the branches, there’s going to be a connectivity issue. And the other branch has an issue with leadership and another branch as an issue with some disruption between particular people.’ You will have to develop a unique solution for every one of those ten-branches. There is no solution that will cut across what the threshold is.

In education, we’ve been in that cookie-cutter approach so, we’ll send a new curriculum, some new answer or whatever it is to the schools, from the top down, and then we’ll have some expectation that miraculously everybody is going to take this one approach. So, if we believe and if we accept that. That’s all about what happens locally and Brian Levy recently had a number of articles in The Daily Maverick around this exact issue. That you can have a fantastic bureaucracy, but if you don’t have local leadership capacity and implementation capacity on the ground – nothing will happen.

What we found is if you work with the principal that principal will then mobilise the troops. So, he or she will get the teacher motivated and the school Governing Body and if they don’t know how to do that – they’ll ask for help. This is where the business leaders come in, because we know about motivation and engagement. But it’s about that local implementation capacity.

For businesses or schools that want to get involved with this programme how do they go about doing that?

It’s very easy. Our website is they can also write to [email protected]. We have a waiting list of principals who want to be part of the programme already. So, we’re inviting people to sign up but the constraint here is business. So, we need more business leaders just to do this and you know what we need more than anything, is we need CEOs and people at the top-end of the organisation, to get interested in what are we doing with regards to corporate and social investments. How are we developing our leaders? Are we actually creating an opportunity for our leaders to go into under-resourced communities because that’s where the future of our business is?

Or are we just doing what we’ve always done, send our leaders to the smartest business school down the road, because actually, they’re not learning about the real challenges in our country and we’re not improving the fabric of our country when we do that. So, we need CEOs. They may not personally be able to get involved but they can certainly shift the trajectory with regards to how their organisation engage with this most critical issue in our country, which is the quality of education.

Louise van Rhyn thank you so much for chatting to us today. It’s been fascinating finding out more about this brilliant programme.

Fantastic, thank you for the opportunity.