Address by the Minister of Education of South Africa, Naledi Pandor MP, at the South African principals' association conference, Pretoria.
4 September 2008
The President of the South African Principals Association, Ms Eddie Jacobs,
Vice President, Dr Willie Chabalala,
Secretary General, Mr. Clive Nel,
Members of the National and Provincial Executive Committees present,
All SAPA members present,
Honoured guests and delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen
Thank you for inviting me to address this conference.
The education sector in South Africa has many organizations that meet periodically to deliberate on key issues in policy and practice in education. These organizations create spaces in which we can discuss what South Africa should do to reverse decades of under-performance and inequality in education.
The theme of this conference suggests you have resolved to do just that. In recognizing principals as leaders who must learn and as stewards of learners who require learning, new skills, new ethics, individual and community morality; you have captured the essence of what education leadership should mean.
In contributing to the debates and the discussions that will be part of your conference I table a few areas that require your attention.
As leaders of schools in South Africa much is expected of you. All of you are aware of the salient features of the sector you lead. We have 26 000 public schools in this country, with around 12 million learners, employing 36 000 educators and located in 79 districts throughout the country.
It's clear, therefore, that we don't lack schools and that while class sizes may be too big in some schools in general terms we have the basics for schooling in South Africa.
This framework is supported by legislation that guarantees the right to education and that provides for nine years of compulsory education.
Beyond this, we are unusual in that we allow access beyond compulsory education and provide this freely in thousands of schools across the country.
Given these foundations, it is clear that leaders need to look beyond the basics to identify the issues that require leadership attention. This assumption is made on the basis that all of us recognize that we lead for a purpose and not merely to occupy an office.
One of the ways in which the association could play a useful role is to begin to insist that all its members become rigorous and scientific in their engagement with education. We have recognized school and education leadership as vital parts of our system and intend to ensure we provide development opportunities, fair and adequate remuneration and accountability mechanisms that accord with the status of principalship.
As the conference proceeds I hope you will have an opportunity to focus on some of the fundamental issues I wish to table today.
Various researchers have written widely on our 26 000 schools. International organizations have come into our schools and tested our learners; we have even carried out our own national evaluations. Each of these processes has indicated there are very serious problems in our sector and that if we are to address them we have to do so honestly and very decisively.
The education sector is underperforming at all levels in a wide range of institutions.
I believe we can do much better.
I believe that within the sector there is clear evidence of what works and what does not work.
The first aspect of underperformance is that learners are not acquiring key skills for learning in our schools, the foundations for learning. This is evident in primary school and in secondary school. Most important among these is the ability to read, write, and calculate. A key study by the Jet Education Trust produced some startling data on learning and teaching. It indicated that just around 20% of our schools succeed in teaching science and mathematics. It suggested that if you use success in these subjects and matric endorsement achievement as proxies for good performance, we would have to conclude that 80% of our secondary schools are underperforming. 
The report went further; it examined the teaching of writing skills through extended writing tasks. It indicated that in many schools learners write one piece of extended writing in a term; in the most demanding schools at least eight pieces a term was the demand.
All of you are fully alert to the outcomes of recent primary school literacy and numeracy tests. Our learners performed very poorly in all the key tasks.
These matters are not raised here to demoralize the conference and the delegates.
They are tabled as indicators of the tasks on which your leadership is desperately sought. I would suggest that, given the urgent necessity to turn around our learning performance, we should all be devising strategies for improved performance and expanding success.
The education department has expressed great faith in principals in recent years. All of you are aware of the policy pronouncements on principals that are elaborated in the recently amended Schools Act. The Act now clearly defines the functions and responsibilities of principals.
Principals are required to assume responsibility for the academic progress of their school. The Act also recognizes that principals are the key to ensuring the effectiveness and success of the SGB by engendering sound links with parents and all stakeholders.
We have also committed to addressing the professional status of principals through the OSD. One of its features is the creation of an Education Management Service for school principals, deputies and office-based educators. The introduction of performance agreements from 2009 further cements the leadership status given to principals.
All of this confirms our recognition that the demands of school management have changed in the last decade. There is growing emphasis on managing the school as a learning environment that is safe, diverse, and appropriately responsive to the wide range of needs of a rapidly transforming society and world.
A widely read American book by Alan Blankenstein, Failure Is Not an Option ,  focuses on the diversity of leadership demands. The author introduces the book by saying its over-arching purpose for schools is "sustaining success for all students so that failure is not an option".
The introduction states:
Leaders of every variety can produce short term gains in student achievement. A courageous leadership imperative, however, is necessary to sustain significant gains. This is especially true under challenging circumstances. Leaders who adopt the six principles that comprise this imperative are more likely than others to adapt to shifts in educational spending, priorities, personnel, and policies. Ultimately it is the internal strength of the leader and the school community that will act as the ballast, rudder, and engine for the ship during stormy weather.
Five of the six principles are as follows:
- Begin with your core – clarify the driving internal core of the leadership and the school community.
- Create organizational meaning- Concentration and focus on that which is meaningful for the school and which goes beyond just striving for test scores. That which makes you wish you were back at school during holidays.
- Maintain consistency and clarity of purpose - clarify the purpose and devise consistent strategies to achieve it. The book cites a principal who said he was retiring early due to constantly shifting demands from the district. He needed clarity of purpose.
- Confront the data and your fears - Assess current performance with an eye toward improvement.
- Build sustainable relationships – Quality relationships are more powerful than moral purpose.
I suggest you read the book if you wish to know more and I wish you well with your conference.
 Nic Taylor, " Fixing schools will take huge effort ", Business Day 18 August 2006
 Alan M. Blankstein , Failure Is Not an Option(TM): Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools (Sage, 2004)