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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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STEYN, Trudie  and  HEYSTEK, Jan. Can the leadership in a once underperforming South African primary school within a challenging school context manage to turn the school around? A case study. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2018, vol.58, n.2, pp.361-375. ISSN 2224-7912.

This article describes the findings of a case study that explored how the leadership of a South African primary school succeeded in bringing about a turnaround at the school under the leadership of the same principal and against the background of a challenging school context. Despite efforts to get struggling schools to alter their course, and suggestions from researchers on how to go about performing these processes, this phenomenon still requires extensive attention. Research aimed at improving school performance in deprived communities has shown that such institutions have difficulty functioning successfully as they are handicapped byfactors that are normally absent in schools that perform well. Since the end of "apartheid", the majority of South African schools are regarded as dysfunctional. However, very little information is available regarding how the leadership of similar schools managed to steer their schools in a new direction by transforming the school from an underperforming school to a highly performing entity under the leadership of the same principal. In addition to that, successful leadership in underperforming schools is regarded as an extremely important motive behind scholastic success and learner performance. The current study was governed by the following research question: How has the leadership of a previously underperforming South African primary school managed to transform the school into a highly performing entity, despite numerous challenges? Transformational leadership in Education is a fairly new research area and greater insight into effective leadership, in spite of challenging contexts, can shed light on transformational leadership processes and the effects thereof. For purposes of this study, theory of action is used to develop the research question. According to Duke (2014:81), there are five imperative components of theory of action that promote school turnaround: (1) An awareness of existing problems that require attention; (2) A perception of why such problems and challenges occur; (3) Thorough planning that determines focus and indicates direction; (4) The necessary skills to guide educators in handling the identifiedproblems; and (5) A commitment to guide educators in tackling the identified problems and removing obstacles. The ability of leaders to "read" their schools properly and to adjust their leadership to context-specific needs, will, to a large extent, determine their success. This explains why their leadership strategies must be in line with specific school contexts. A qualitative approach was employed in order to explore the experiences of the principal, school management team and educators in their quest to improve the school's academic performance. With the assistance of an Ekurhuleni district official, a primary school that underperformed in 2009 but thereafter showed significant sustained improvement in learner performance was deliberately selected. This urban primary school in Ekurhuleni is surrounded by slums and informal settlements. Data was collected through one-on-one semi-structured interviews with the principal and two Ekurhuleni district officials, as well as two focus group interviews with school management team members and six educators. The themes that were developed relate to actions concerning transformational leadership in schools as it emerged from the study: A turnaround strategy with the aid of a new vision, mission and convictions: "I have stopped the bus, everything has to change."; A systems approach to the creation of a school culture: "There is an eagerness, a burning desire"; and Collaborative practices and internal accountability: "Collaboration is the key" and Monitoring and accountability "one of the school's key weapons". It was an ah-ha moment for the principal when she realised that firm leadership was an imperative to turn a school around. Researchers have nonetheless found that a school principal cannot create a climate that promotes quality teaching and learning all on his or her own. This principal had committed herself to the process completely and through her example, influenced both educators and learners. This also resulted in her being absolutely "merciless" in her zeal to bring about the school's turnaround. It was important for the principal and management team to be on the same page concerning the school's underperformance as it helped them to work together to bring about the much needed turnaround. The school had realised the importance of a clear vision and mission and the leadership used these two elements to accelerate the turnaround process. The staff reconsidered and amended the school's policies as part of the turnaround process. The school believed in its ability to make a difference in the lives of its learners and did not view the school's challenges as insurmountable. Thanks to the assistance and cooperation of the principal's management team, the educators and parents could buy into the agreed objectives. The participants all agreed that cooperation and team work were essential in their quest for improvement of quality. The principal played a crucial role in the structuring of team activities. Various forms of monitoring took place at the school. Instead of six-weekly monitoring as prescribed by policy, the school decided to be "pro-active" and monitored every two weeks. In this way, problems could be identified and addressed earlier. Educators were invited to personally identify "intervention strategies" if there were shortcomings in their own or their learners 'performance. Apart from monitoring, educators also had to accountfor learners 'performance. During these sessions, educators had to explain why learners 'performance was "weak" or "good". It was then incumbent upon educators to "turn things around" and identify new targets in order to improve learner performance. The primary school in this study could bring about a successful turnaround and optimise learner performance under the leadership of the same principal, irrespective of their underprivileged and challenging school context. It is commendable that the turnaround was achieved without extraordinary funding or the dismissal of a number of educators. An individual principal turned the tide. It might be that she received a "clarion call" to take responsibility and be accountable for the performance of her school. Suffice it to say, the article concludes that, even though challenges within the school context still play a significant role, the leadership and staff can bring about a turnaround in a school's performance by coming up with creative and innovative contextualised efforts.

Keywords : leadership; turnaround model; underperforming South African school; learner performance; challenging school context; monitoring; accountability; collective approach.

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