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“What makes a school really great? Those first impressions that count”

– Dr Gabi Wills


Curriculum coverage? Teacher motivation? Print-rich environments? Learning goals and targets? These are a few of the things that I see as important as I have looked through mounds of literature on what makes an effective school. Together with a team of education experts we are preparing to engage in research in schools in South Africa in township and rural areas that exceed despite the odds. In preparation we are having to think hard and fast about questionnaires to capture what it is that separates these schools from the rest. Most of the time this can be a surprisingly difficult task. In post-Apartheid South Africa there have been numerous studies on schools where data is captured on indicators of school functionality. Using our fanciest modelling, we then try and see which of the many indicators of observed factors explain why certain schools do better than others. But most of the time we simply can’t explain the variation in learner performance that we observe across schools, particularly in the majority of poorer schools in the system. I am however starting to wonder if we simply have not measured effectively the things that really count.

As academics we tend to limit ourselves to our peer-reviewed readings, to our computer screens and the occasional conference. But we miss too many opportunities for the ‘aha’ moment when it all comes together. Increased burdens of work limit time to experiment and explore. Well at least for me. After feeling unusually disimpassioned and just wearied by just too much information, today I did something different but obvious. Rather than running off to the office and opening my computer, I started my day in the reception of a great preparatory school in Durban. I sat and observed. I started reading the display books on the reception table, observed the honour boards proudly displayed, watched teachers coming in and out and hearing in the background the sound of children vocalising their prose for the next drama production. After 60 minutes of this, and particularly reading an inspiring 2010 prize-giving speech of the headmaster in one of the coffee table books, things were becoming clearer. Before I even got to the classroom, I realised that great schools do this:

  • They celebrate their history – no matter how small or great. Equally they dream about the future. As read in one of the headmasters prize-giving speeches (also documented) there is “a deep affectionate respect for folk who have gone before”. When history has not been particularly becoming, they consider how they learn from this and how obstacles were overcome.
  • They celebrate excellence. Even the smallest achievement of present and past students is meticulously documented and preserved that all who visit can see. The annual prize-giving is a revered and celebrated event. Photographs of awards and those awarded take centre stage.

But you are probably wondering why these two features (past history, past achievement) matters for the now? The importance of this extends beyond school pride, it legitimises the worth of the institution beyond one individual. Great people create great institutions with a reason for existence beyond their founders. Moving on, great schools….

  • Are intentional about cultivating school pride. In just this reception area, school pride emanates from every intentionally displayed item on the walls, in the greeting of the security guard to the glow from the weekly polished floors. School logos, obviously displayed school songs and mottos are evident. Children don’t just come here to learn. They find a sense of a belonging in an organisation with its own unique character which parents have strategically worked at crafting with the school staff over decades.
  • They treat discipline and manners among children as non-negotiable inputs and outputs of the schooling process. I was greeted with respect by even the littlest grade Rs who politely stood aside and smiled as they did. Where the banter of naughty children is heard, the voice of disciplinary teacher towers louder. It’s clear who is in control.

These are just four observations before I have even spoken to a single person. Moving on to meeting two principals in the school…

  • Respect for teachers, visitors, cleaning staff and the security guard is evident from leaders in this institution. Despite the hassle I present, I am given a tour of classrooms, cupboards, facilities and libraries as two principals enthusiastically express why and how they do things around here. The cleaner is introduced as a fellow colleague.
  • Leaders have intentionally hired the right people (of course in this case they have the privileged control over hiring with lots of SGB paid teachers they can afford). The principal talks about each teacher as a “leader”, “striving relentlessly”, “passionate” and “dedicated.”
  • The economist in me can’t help but ask a few monetary related questions and it’s obvious that there are well-proven financial structures in place. This school doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to the financial operations it requires to keep this ship moving. This is where parents with financial skills come in and are drawn upon for their expertise. The principals I speak to are exactly aware of how much this ship requires, where it requires resources and if anything is ever left over.
  • Teachers have a sense of mastery of the curriculum and are acutely aware of where it can be altered or adapted to better the learning opportunities for their students without stepping beyond CAPS learning requirements. Official workbooks are only used if a more suitable option for their students is not available (and positively at times the workbooks are often considered the best option).

After just 2 hours, I think I have got clearer what my next questionnaire needs to be about and probably saved myself two day of agonising thinking. For all our studies after just bumbling along as a regular person I come that much closer to realising what matters, what separates out the average school from the great. I suspect I have just observed what every interested parent or teacher has known all along.