SA – The School-University-Community Context In South Africa
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The School-University-Community Context In South Africa

Why and how does context matter? Our view is that leadership doesn’t reside solely inside of an institution, school, classroom or individual but extends into the community and in turn is attentive to and influenced by community members and events. In service of the community, leaders must importantly understand how history and politics, poverty and social exclusion, tradition and culture, shape our relationships with “the community” and also how leaders define and respond to its needs. We spent a lot of time in ELADIN considering “who” and what constituted “our community” and determining what the basis for meaningful and reciprocal relationships would look like under a values-based leadership approach.

The South African Context of Education and Leadership

Although a minority of schools in South Africa can favourably compare with the best in the world, education remains unequally distributed along social class, racial and spatial lines. While a range of post-apartheid policies on every conceivable aspect of education exists, the education system as a whole is not working and remains vastly unequal reflecting the wider inequalities in society[i]. These inequities are largely a result of history and context, but also a complex function of factors, among them poverty, social inequality, and the many choices made by policymakers and government officials without consultation from the education community. The majority of schools do not serve the communities they reside in, nor the students that attend them – they do not have functioning water or toilets, laboratories, or libraries.

South Africa has also not escaped global trends regarding the de-valuing and de-professionalising of educators and their work. Increasingly prescriptive standardised curriculum, a focus on standardised assessment, and a prevailing discourse of educators being framed as ‘unfit’ for their work, have all led to a loss of social status for the profession, along with a crisis of teacher supply and alienation amongst the education workforce. Over this vastly unequal landscape, educators work in schools heavily governed by an unresponsive bureaucracy, with numerous state rules and regulations. This form of top down accountability and managerialism create a bifurcated structure that makes teachers and school leaders responsible for addressing inequities across the system, while a largely absent or unresponsive government hold the the purse strings and power. Through ELADIN we explored the demands and requirements placed on educators, and also discovered the many ways leaders have resisted and even revolutionised their practices to address what their schools need. This document shares what Principal Sume’s leadership defines a “community school” and describes what it should be.

Our Multiple Leadership Contexts

Charles Duna Primary School, New Brighton, Gqeberha

Despite its location in a high-crime and high poverty township community, Charles Duna Primary is a hub of energy , activity and love. The children show up at school before 7am and wait at the gate for the teachers to arrive, they linger well after school officially ends, and graduates from years past float in and out of the school regularly. It’s a school-community where children (and their skills, capacities, needs and dreams) are front and center. There are dozens of parent volunteers at the school, each one recognized and included as a member of “the family”. For many adults it is the first time their skills and knowledge have been acknowledged, and several are for the first time in their lives paid, promoted, provided with additional training and skills. The above graphic pictures the schools vision, values, assets, along with its challenges. THis graphic is prominently placed throughout the school to focus and centre the school-community activities. In identifying assets and engaging with community needs, the school offers parent education programs and the “family” headed by Principal Sume identifies and develops the skills and abilities of the school’s teachers and also it’s parent volunteers, sometimes providing training opportunities for them to become leaders, teachers or other staff positions. Teacher Jarren “Mr. G” works closely learning the leadership ropes and also bringing his own skill sets to the school. It is strong and driving, but distributed, transparent and open. This leads to building trust, strong relationships and sharing vulnerability that are central to the culture of the school. Principal Sume shares her reflections on leadership at Charles Duna Primary over the last twenty years in this document. Leadership at Charles Duna provides a powerful story that can help motivate leaders and be an example to inspire other schools to meaningfully engage and include the community, face challenges, take risks and imagine about what is possible in their own school-communities.

University Context: Faculty of Education, Centre for Community Schools and Hubs of Convergence

Two ELADIN team members work at Nelson Mandela University – Dean Muki Moeng (Faculty of Education) and Professor Bruce Damons (Director, The Centre for the Community School (CCS) and Hubs of Convergence (HOC)). The CCS explores alternative approaches to school improvement and seeks to be responsive to the contextual realities in which schools are located. The Centre for the Community School forms part of the Faculty of Education and focuses on developing a knowledge and research base around the role of the school as an integral part of the community. Schools are regarded as community assets, and besides being attentive to their core functions of teaching and learning, can also have a broader impact on the community by engaging some of the challenges of the social context that affect their functions. The Eastern Cape has past and current examples of innovative school-community programmes. The Centre attempts to research and document these activities and develop a theoretical base around the concept of the community school. As the graphic shows, the CCS embraces a critical participatory approach in the co-construction of school improvement plans and engages with multiple stakeholder-communities to support these plans. While historically the space between the university is not an open or fluid one CCS, offered a different space in which ELADIN’s emerging VBF was developed and put into practice.

The following CCS report provides the background and context for how education leadership is integrated across the CCS. (There are also several additional articles and videos in the resources link written by our team members on Leadership and Community Schools.)

CCS Reimagining Our Schools (PDF)

Importantly, the very idea of “schools as community hubs,” however, are increasingly under threat from attempts to privatise and standardise education, as market-driven initiatives clash with the efforts to secure local sustainable communities, most particularly for poor, marginalised and frequently racialized populations in both rural and urban regions. This conflict over community-driven school leadership is the mirror of the struggle for local leadership decision-making and control over the use of funding, appointments, infrastructure needs, as well as, school curricula and pedagogy.


Also shared below is a brief field report on “ELADIN week”, which describes a series of activities we pulled together across ELADIN education pipeline during team member Carol Anne Spreen’s visit  (Charles Duna School, Centre for Community Schools/HOC, and Faculty of Education):

Click to read the entire report.

ELADIN seeks to develop leadership that is rooted in real-life, community experiences that are based on inquiry, understanding and action — in opposition to the managerial preoccupation with control and accountability. ELADIN was a distinct departure from traditional leadership as defined and promoted through top-down training of leadership skill sets focused on accountability and  high-stakes standardised testing.

One of the culminating events of the current ELADIN project was a university wide webinar, “The Future of Education: Leadership in Times of Change”(link to video ? I can’t find it sorry! Does Bruce have this?) by ELADIN team member Carol Anne Spreen. The webinar discussed the new learning needed to face the existential and very real local challenges the world currently faces and  what kind of leaders are needed to address these challenges. The presentation focused on the UNESCO “Futures of Education” Report, but also described how ELADIN leadership at the school, community and university sought to address these education needs.

Notwithstanding the different approaches to leadership development, we explored a range of capacities and responsibilities across our leadership roles, and for us, the purpose of leadership in ELADIN was viewed as building community, inspiring change and possibility, and being in service to society. ELADIN aimed to, ultimately and most importantly, show how these transversal roles are interdependent and lead to the kinds of outcomes that contribute to community betterment and social change.

Leading During the COVID Crisis and Challenges of Addressing Inequality

The ELADIN project began in 2021 during the height of the COVID pandemic which hit South Africa particularly hard, exacerbating inequalities and further decimating the economy. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed deep inequalities across the world along lines of race, class, gender and geography, as well as the digital divide. However, many of the policy responses and solutions proffered to mitigate the COVID crisis failed to address the generative structures that made public education institutions so vulnerable to shocks in the first place.

With the growth of the interest in initiatives such as environmental justice, responsible waste management, community food gardens, and green energy projects increasingly based in schools, a reciprocal relationship between community development and universal education is beginning to emerge at Charles Duna and the University, rooted in civil society instead of the market or state control. The implications for new leaders to powerfully shape the community, the university, school life and even public education policy, funding and governance, are considerable.