Fellow South Africans
It is my singular honour and a privilege to host the 2nd Education District Excellence Awards. As the Minister of Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula is wont on saying, “You guys are a bunch of winners”. However, we must be mindful that excellence should not be exception but a norm. The Greek philosopher Aristotle summed it up perfectly when he said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Overview on Districts’ Support
Today’s event is purely focused on Districts’ performance. It is a deliberate decision to focus on districts since it has become one of the ten non-negotiables in this current term of office. We have come to a determination that districts are indeed a vital cog in the overall management of the schooling system. When we look at what really affects learner outcomes, it is clear that an improved school environment is essential, and that improvement on a provincial or national scale will in turn allow systematic and sustainable improvements to the school environment. Equally important, however, is the critical role that the districts play as integrators and mediators between schools and the provincial and national levels. Indeed, research shows that while teacher - and learner-focused initiatives can shift an education system from underperforming to performing, district - and provincial-level initiatives can drive it to excellence.
In South Africa, districts (and circuits) are ideally placed to play a central role in improving learner outcomes. They are often the only source of external assistance and support received by schools making them therefore a key vehicle for initiating, testing, driving and sustaining systemic reforms. They are also close enough to both the schools and the national education agenda and strategy to facilitate communication across all layers.
A look to other states across the world who undertook to improve their education systems reveals how the world over the importance of districts is recognised. In several countries where the districts or a mediating layer already existed, priority was given to strengthening its role. In other states where there was no such intermediary, the role was created. Examples include how the mediating layer was strengthened in the local education authorities in England, the municipalities in Poland, the school boards in Ontario, the regional and school-based support services to schools in Hong Kong, and the provincial offices in South Korea. In other systems where no such level existed, such as in Singapore and Boston, a mediating layer (school clusters) was created to meet the need for strengthening coordination and support across schools.
South Africa has similar processes in some provincial departments as well but sadly, this is not uniform across the country.
Districts can play three critical roles:
Provide Targeted Support to Schools
Exactly what support is provided and how each district layer achieves this support varies between systems. In South Korea, district offices offer training for teachers based on the needs of the schools in the district. In Canada, the district level has set up professional learning communities to empower principals and facilitate knowledge-sharing. In the Western Cape, districts were given a framework of provincial priorities and asked to identify specific local issues and develop tailored local solutions, such as lobbying wine farmer associations to allow farm workers leave to visit their children’s schools. A Western Cape Literacy Coordinator describes how this works: “If I hear about something good going on in a school, I will visit it. After I see it, I may tell the Provincial Deputy Director General about it and I will share it with the Provincial Coordinating Committee. That way it gets to the top and to others who can use it.”
Act as a Buffer
The districts also play an important buffer role between the schools and the provinces, disseminating messages that are important while countering resistance. As a mediating layer, they can enhance constructive communication by ensuring that each school receives and understands guidance from the provinces, and that the provincial level receives and heeds feedback, requests and ideas from the schools.
They can also deal with resistance to change, resolving the issues that can be tackled locally and highlighting those that the provinces need to understand and deal with, while filtering out much of the negative noise that accompanies challenging change. For example, in 1999 Poland was faced with the daunting task of opening 4,000 new lower secondary schools. Each of its municipalities was tasked with implementing the restructuring and given the flexibility to tailor its approach to each community. Rather than having the Ministry intervene, the municipalities were empowered to resolve communities’ concerns directly, thereby allowing the system to engage much more deeply with each community. The municipalities worked with their communities to build understanding about both the quality and affordability of the potential changes. In consequence, each municipality developed different solutions and was allowed to implement them. In this way, Poland dampened resistance while developing solutions that made the changes more palatable to both schools and communities. This resonates with the challenge the country faces currently of having to merge or rationalize small schools to enable the State to use available resources to improve quality of service. This is best handled by districts and their circuits who will always be more attuned to the sentiments of their communities.
Enhance Collaborative Exchange between Schools
A third way in which the districts reinforce system improvement efforts is by opening up channels between schools to share learning, standardise practices and support each other. This practice is emerging within some districts in SA but can be strengthened – learning from best practices locally and internationally. Singapore established its school clusters in 1997 as forums for principals to share experiences and best practices, and do some local-level resource allocation. Boston Public Schools created nine geographic clusters to provide a forum for peer-to-peer support and sharing for principals. The cluster leaders were selected from a group of highly effective principals who could mentor the others. With the formal connection at the school principal level, the clusters also became a network for inter-school collaboration between teachers and students.
The Department of Education is confident that implementing change in the districts is essential to great and sustainable improvement in learner outcomes. To this end, the DBE is focusing on initiatives that drive this change – looking at crucial issues, such as:
- structuring Key Performance Indicators around the core issues that drive learning and teaching;
- adequate resourcing of all districts so they can perform their core functions which relate to providing target support to schools;
- filling critical vacancies and
- Strengthening performance management and focusing on capability-building.
The influence of the district layer can be fundamental but any initiatives undertaken will also require the full support of all levels of the system: the national, provincial, circuit and school levels. In the next five years there has to be a visible difference to the functioning of districts. This is the only way South Africa can realise a rapid and radical transformation to the quality of educational provisioning for all learners in our schools.
In its inaugural year in 2014, the Education District Excellence Awards recognised excellence in the following categories:
· Top performing districts;
· Most improved district;
· Improved Bachelor passes over 4 years rolling period;
· Improved Mathematics passes over 4 years rolling period; and
· Improved Physical Science passes over 4 years rolling period.
In 2015, we have extended the scope to include two main categories of performance, i.e.
· Excellence; and
In our schooling system, I want to emphasise this point, districts are a vital cog in the overall management of education. To this end, we congratulate all the winning districts. We are certain that other districts will learn the winning formula from today’s winners. In conclusion, we acknowledge with gratitude the generous sponsors, namely, the Chinese Embassy and Telecommunications giant Vodacom.