Connecting school principals to business leaders in South Africa

In the fall of 2014, South African educational change initiative ‘Partners for Possibility’ received the coveted South African ‘IJR Reconciliation Award’. Why? Because the programme brings tangible change to an education system in dire need, by partnering school principals with business leaders.

“Statistics can be fuzzy. So too are statistics about South Africa’s education system”, says Louise van Rhyn, founder and CEO of Symphonia for South Africa, the social enterprise behind Partners for Possibility. “Before we founded Partners for Possibility in 2010, it became obvious that education in South Africa is at a much more desperate place than commonly thought. Out of the 550,000 learners that sat for their Matric exams (final high school exams, ed.) in 2012, 74 per cent passed. Which seems a laudable achievement. However, only 48 per cent of the 1,150,000 learners who start schooling every year reach Matric. That means 66 per cent of all South African learners drop out along the way!”

Strengthening leadership capacity

This conclusion led Louise to initiate Partners for Possibility, a leadership development and principal support programme that partners school principals with leaders from business. By virtue of their experience in HR, IT, Finance or general management, the business leader shares skills and knowledge about organisational change. The two are coupled on the basis of mutual trust and commitment, and spend at least 150 hours over the course of the first year of their partnership. They join a leadership circle with seven other partnerships and participate in a variety of different development processes – all designed to strengthen the leadership and management capacity at the school. The business leader supports the principal as he or she leads a school forward in a trajectory of organisational change that includes the voices of teachers, learners, parents and the wider community.

Real-world problems

Louise van Rhyn explains that most of the participating business leaders are white. Due to apartheid, they have been the recipients of very high quality education: “Business leaders participate for a wide range of reasons. But most importantly, they want to give back to society. In addition, we see that many participating business leaders get a better understanding of their own stakeholders, such as staff and customers. Because of their involvement in the local community, they see the needs of the market first-hand, and can tailor their products accordingly. Business leaders experience that their own leadership skills are improved as they grapple with real-world problems in an environment that is very different from their own.”

Fixing education

Since 2010, 210 principals and 210 business leaders have been partnered in Partnerships for Possibility. The results at some of these schools have been dramatic, ranging from improved facilities to radically improved academic outcomes. To date, the initiative impacted 6120 teachers, 103,000 parents and 163,000 learners. Bob Head, CFO at SARS, tells about his experience: “I am now more open to other points of view. My listening skills have grown because I was confronted by a very different set of circumstances, as well as I learned the very powerful lesson that I can effect change in a totally alien environment. If you want to help fix education and you want to fix yourself, stop talking about the problems – get stuck in, and help.”

Partners for Possibility is looking for business leaders to partner with principals in Paarl, Durban, Pretoria, Vanderbijlpark, Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Lephalale. New Leadership Circles will start in February 2015.

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