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Leadership the problem

Image: iStock

It is a common perception that “if only there was more money” we could solve the problems of education in South Africa.

Forget government allocations – the total corporate social investment (CSI) expenditure last year was a staggering R9.1-billion (an increase of 6% over 2016 spend), of which half went to education distributed between higher education (30%), further and adult education (28%), basic education (25%) and early childhood education (17%).

Money is not our problem. Consider the case of two poor primary schools I visited in a township in Kwazulu-Natal last week.

In School A the principal’s office looks like a bomb hit it. Large boxes block walking spaces. The walls are bare and loose books lie all over the place. Two desks are squeezed into the small space.

Two staff members are relaxing outside, legs stretched out, and slowly making ticks in the books they read.

Water from recent rains has formed deep puddles all over the place and a self-built wall is dangerously skew even to the untrained eye.

In School B, literally around the corner, the principal’s office is the most organised physical space to be seen anywhere. The walls are washed clean. Books are neatly piled up in one part of the room.

On the walls are essential facts about the schools.

Trophies in neat rows speak of individual and institutional achievements.

There are inspiring motivational messages in strategic places on the walls. The principal’s desk is spotless. The staff around the office are on the move; there is energy and laughter.

Not a single teacher is outside and a buzz emanates from each classroom as one walks by.

Asbestos roofs are being replaced and construction workers are busy.

The difference between the two schools is leadership.

They both lack abundance of resources, but in School B the principal organises the limited resources to make the school an enjoyable and productive space for living and learning.

Instead of complaining about the lack of teachers, the principal takes over a class and teaches herself, thereby solving a large part of the problem.

The school development team accompanying me had to wait for the principal to return from class.

It would be tempting to conclude that the problem in School A can be solved simply by giving the principal more training.
This is not a training problem; it is an imagination problem.

It is about the way you make sense of the world in front of you.

You either look at your situation and blame the legacies of the past or the “lack of” things in the present; or you take what is available and turn limited resources into measurable results.

It is an orientation towards the world around you that needs to be fixed and the truth is, you cannot fix this the way you turn a light switch on or off. The same is true in universities. The fastest growth in capital expenditure on campuses in recent times has been spent on the building of brand new residences (more than R2-billion since last year and more than R16-billion over the past 13 years as well as two new universities).

A top rated scholar-turned-politician visited two universities, one in the Eastern Cape (in Mthatha) and one in Gauteng (in Pretoria).

Of the Mthatha campus she and her colleagues came upon this situation in one residence: “There we found filthy, cockroach-infested rooms occupied by people who were very likely not students. “Some were simply squatting there. “Other occupants were clearly running businesses – spaza shops and others – from their rooms. And this was before the term had even started.”

The Pretoria campus was exactly the opposite – well-managed, meticulously maintained, and conducive for living and learning.

The primary problem is not money, it is managerial leadership.

To change the Mthatha campus a new leadership would need to root out acts of alleged corruption, including bribery that sells off the residence facilities to crooks.

It would require political courage to take a stand against thugs who occupy residences illegally invoking the language of struggle.

And by the way, it would also demand that students take care of their own physical space and not add to its degradation by trashing the place and sub-letting to other occupiers (not always students) to boost their own income.

Needless to say, disadvantaged schools and universities need new injections of money if face equality (sameness in infrastructure and facilities) is ever to be achieved.

But what these stories teach us is that putting new public monies into dysfunctional institutions would be mean throwing limited resources down the drain.

There must be new modes of accountability and new types of leaders appointed into schools and universities to ensure resources become results.

But the money is not our main problem.

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