Author and publication details
Pam Christie, University of Cape Town, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in: Christie, P. & Monyokolo, M. (Eds). (2018). Learning about sustainable change in education in South Africa: the Jika iMfundo campaign 2015-2017. Saide: Johannesburg.Download PDF
The chapters of this edited collection present a rich and textured account of the early phase of Jika iMfundo, an education intervention undertaken by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education in partnership with the Programme for Improving Learning Outcomes (PILO) and with the support of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT). Jika iMfundo, which has curriculum management and coverage as its focus, is the largest school development initiative undertaken in post-apartheid South Africa. It began as a pilot project in two education districts from 2014 to 2017, with a commitment that it will be rolled out to scale across all districts and schools in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) from 2018 to 2021.
The rest of the chapters in Part One of the book, written by members of PILO, provide an insider picture of the design of Jika iMfundo. They set out PILO’s Theory of Change, a description of the operational design of the Jika iMfundo campaign and a case study of its unfolding in school leadership. Part Two comprises chapters based on independent research carried out by experienced South African educationists. These chapters were selected through an open call for proposals managed by Saide that were edited independently of PILO. The PILO team checked the research chapters for accuracy of descriptions of Jika iMfundo and PILO, suggesting corrections to factual details where appropriate, but the research findings and their presentation in these chapters are independent of Jika iMfundo or PILO views. What the chapters provide are snapshots of a large-scale intervention in its early stages of implementation; they are not intended to be evaluations of Jika iMfundo but presentations of research findings on specific aspects of a many-layered educational development intervention.
Jika iMfundo is unique in a number of significant ways, as will be evident to readers making their way through the different chapters of this book. One of the most significant features is that it builds on an explicit Theory of Change developed by PILO. This Theory of Change, explained in Chapter 2 by Mary Metcalfe, articulates the specific principles on which PILO interventions are based and the criteria by which they may be measured. The comprehensiveness of this Theory of Change points to a sophisticated understanding that educational change involves multiple activities and actors in different parts of the system. It also recognises that achieving coherence across the system is a continuous process that cannot be taken for granted or achieved straightforwardly through government policy mandates. Drawing on documented experience of international and local school change initiatives, as well as PILO participants’ own extensive experience in the South African education system, PILO’s explicit Theory of Change is remarkable in its comprehensive design and its articulate specifications.
One of the key features of PILO’s Theory of Change is that it aims to achieve change at scale by operating within formal education departments rather than from outside and to locate responsibility at the level at which it will remain for the changes to be sustainable. This principle of partnership with existing departmental policies, structures and institutions is both innovative and challenging in the South African context. It requires clarity of purpose and strong consistency on the part of PILO, particularly given the known difficulties of the South African education system and the very poor student learning outcomes that education departments themselves acknowledge as intractable problems (and that PILO is well aware of). The insistence that the project is owned by education departments, not PILO itself, is evident also in PILO’s determination to use existing departmental resources rather than relying on additional resources from outside and in its insistence that sustainability needs to be built into activities and indicators from the start. Even though it may be easy to conflate the two in reading the chapters of this book, it is important to recognise that PILO and Jika iMfundo are not the same thing. Jika iMfundo is an initiative run by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education with PILO as change partner while PILO also engages with other education departments in its work for education change at scale. As Metcalfe’s chapter shows, PILO is acutely aware of the complexities of working within the system and the inevitable tensions that arise from the partnership principle are elucidated in the research chapters presented later in the book.
Another key feature of PILO’s Theory of Change – and one of its most ambitious features – is its intention to foster professional agency and motivation among participants across the education system. Professionalism necessarily requires accountability and, in this regard, PILO draws heavily on Elmore’s concepts of “reciprocal accountability” (accountability that works in multiple directions) as well as “internal accountability” (which Elmore regards as a precondition for meeting the demands of “external accountability”) (Elmore, 2004). PILO supports monitoring at all levels as integral to the change process, while also recognising that monitoring runs the risk of fostering compliance rather than professionalism. PILO’s intention is to establish practices of monitoring that build professional relationships of accountability within schools and between schools and districts. In Jika iMfundo, the slogan “What I do matters” is coupled with the question “How can I help you?” to provide the basis for “supportive professional conversations based on evidence” in the cross-cutting theme of curriculum coverage. In its monitoring practices, Jika iMfundo uses consistent and transparent sets of tools that provide evidence to form the basis of “supportive professional conversations” at different levels of the system, within schools and between schools and districts. Self-report records, together with PILO participant surveys, provide extensive data on the theme of curriculum coverage at school and district levels. In working with concepts of professionalism and accountability, PILO intends to build forms of behavioural change on the assumption that changing practices through curriculum management will provide a basis for professional understanding to develop over time. It is clearly too soon to reach any judgements on Jika iMfundo’s effectiveness in meeting its goals of professional agency and accountability but the tensions inherent in these complex issues are discussed in a number of later research chapters.
Can education systems be changed at scale through marshalling key stakeholders around this particular Theory of Change? Is it possible to work for change within existing structures, given their obvious and acknowledged shortcomings? Is it possible to build professional capacity in schools and departments that lack resources and are often poorly functioning? Can professional accountability, as opposed to behavioural compliance, be built by changing monitoring practices? Can self-report data provide a sufficiently reliable basis for gauging the extent and nature of curriculum coverage? Can curriculum management lead to improved curriculum coverage of sufficient quality to enhance student learning and improve learning outcomes? These are key questions which are touched upon in the different chapters of this book. Positive answers would certainly be indicators of PILO’s success in its theory of education system change at scale; however, only time will tell if PILO’s model can be effectively implemented in the Jika iMfundo campaign. In the face of this, one of the strengths of PILO’s design is the recognition that educational change takes time – and Jika iMfundo is designed on a multi-year time frame. At the time of writing, Jika iMfundo is being taken to scale on the basis of a pilot project that has run over several years in two very different districts in KZN which means that the model has been put in place and PILO is already learning from experience.
Outline of chapters
Part One of this book comprises two chapters written by members of PILO, describing central features of the Jika iMfundo intervention from insider perspectives. Chapter 2, written by Metcalfe, provides a comprehensive account of the design principles of PILO’s Theory of Change and its expression in Jika iMfundo. It also provides examples of the multiple interlinking tools and activities that involve teachers, Heads of Department (HoDs), School Management Teams (SMTs) and Principals at school level, as well as district personnel such as Circuit Managers and Subject Advisers. This chapter is indispensable reading, providing, as it does, an accessible starting point for understanding the Jika iMfundo Campaign in principle and practice. This chapter is paired with Chapter 3, written by Witten and Makole which draws on a larger case study of systemic change in education in South Africa to illustrate issues of school leadership in Jika iMfundo. In particular, the chapter explores the challenges facing School Management Teams (SMTs) in the programme and the effects of training on SMT practices. The chapter provides a PILO-based picture of what the successful implementation of curriculum management might look like through the lens of school leadership and, as such, provides insights into PILO’s vision of building professionalism by changing practices.
Part Two contains six chapters written by independent education researchers. Each of these outlines its research framework and procedures, providing the warrant for claims made. Chapter 4 by Schollar provides an important overview of the context of educational development interventions in South Africa, of which PILO and Jika iMfundo are examples. The meta-analysis in this chapter provides a convincing (if depressing) empirically-based picture of the endemically poor outcomes of the South African education system over more than a decade by tracing performance in mathematics in national systemic and international tests. Schollar also provides a worrying analysis of declining performance in National Senior Certificate mathematics between 2008 and 2012 in a sample of well-functioning schools with processes in place for curriculum management and higher levels of teacher professionalism. Why is performance so endemically poor and not improving? Certainly, curriculum coverage is a factor and Schollar supports the premise that improvements in curriculum management are likely to lead to improved student performance. He thus supports what he describes as PILO’s “causative proposition”, namely, that “improving curriculum management and coverage in terms of both quantity and quality across whole districts through a collaborative and systemic approach will result in improvements in learner performance on an equally large scale.”
However, in Schollar’s view, incomplete curriculum coverage is not only attributable to inadequate curriculum management or the demands of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy (CAPS). Instead, he suggests, it is due to the progression requirements of national assessment policy, where students are advanced to the next grade regardless of actual competency levels. This he identifies as “a critical confounding variable” that is extrinsic to curriculum management interventions. This variable – the unintended outcome of national assessment policies – is that most classrooms in South African schools are, in effect, multi-grade, in that they include students at different levels of competency as a result of assessment and automatic promotion policies. The effect of having multiple levels of learner competency in a single grade is that it is almost impossible for teachers to teach and assess students in relation to the formal curriculum.1 In effect, Schollar warns of a ceiling effect to improvement in classrooms which includes students who have not reached the levels of conceptual mastery required for the grade, thus resulting in large variations in competency levels within the classroom. In such cases, problems of curriculum coverage are not necessarily due to curriculum management, but to the composition of classes – a complexity that arises through the unintended effects of another policy. In other words, the policy context itself throws up contradictions and unintended consequences where policies cut across each other.
The implication of this is that it is vitally important for any evaluation of educational development initiatives in South Africa to consider including evaluations of PILO and Jika iMfundo. In Schollar’s words,
programme evaluation designs that fail to take this variable into account when researching causative effects and models run the risk of generating a False Negative; a strategic change model that may, in fact, be inherently effective can still fail to obtain significant impacts because of this variable.
Schollar alerts us to “a tangled web of challenges” that is extrinsic to interventions and may impede their functioning. He sees no simple ways out of this tangle.
Schollar’s chapter thus highlights a particular challenge in relation to PILO’s determination to work within existing education departments and policy frameworks. The challenge is a sharp and clear one: department policies may produce contradictory effects, with the result that a particular strategy may be driven off course by factors beyond its design. One response to this tangled complexity may be to ensure that the intervention is sufficiently robust and focused to stay the course when departmental policies produce contradictory effects. Alternatively, it may be necessary for educational development interventions to heighten these contradictory effects towards advocacy for policy change. Of course, these and other responses need not be mutually exclusive and PILO is well aware of them and other possible responses.
Complementing Schollar’s big picture context for educational development interventions, Chapter 5 presents a case study of curriculum management in a sample of rural primary schools in the King Cetshwayo District, undertaken by a collective of authors from the University of Zululand – Maphalala, Khumalo, Buthelezi, Mabusela, Gamede, Sibaya and Nzima. The chapter provides a picture of the precarious and unsystematic nature of curriculum management prior to the interventions of Jika iMfundo, as recognised by the KZN Department of Education whose own investigations in 2012 revealed the urgent need to develop strategies for monitoring and standardising curriculum delivery. Setting out the key activities of curriculum management as planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, the authors report on focus group interviews conducted with a sample of teachers, HoDs and Principals in eight rural primary schools. These were designed to explore their understandings of curriculum management and their views on the Jika iMfundo intervention. While the information gathered in focus groups was intentionally conversational, opinion-based and not strongly triangulated, there can be no doubt that the research found clear enthusiasm for the structuring tools supplied by Jika iMfundo. For teachers, the tools provided assistance in planning and gathering evidence of coverage, while for HoDs and School Management Teams, the tools clarified their roles in curriculum monitoring and facilitated the possibility of structured, evidence-based conversations with teachers in curriculum monitoring. A number of participants expressed the view that relationships within schools had improved as a consequence of greater role clarity and a more transparent form of evidence-based monitoring. Indeed, the authors suggest that Jika iMfundo has reinstated accountability in at least some schools.
This is not to say that the implementation of Jika iMfundo was regarded by all as unproblematic. Complaints were voiced about the fast pace of CAPS, the challenges of “slow learners” (or, perhaps the multi-grade effect, to use Schollar’s analysis) and the difficulties faced by schools in poor socio-economic contexts with limited resources. While these are issues that are beyond the powers of the Jika iMfundo intervention to remedy, they are the very issues that teachers in these schools confront on a daily basis and with which they need support.
What is perhaps most striking about the findings of this chapter is the extent of the existing problems of curriculum management in schools such as these. Teachers in these schools reported being clear for the first time about the benefits of structured planning to cover the curriculum and HoDs reported being clear for the first time what their role entailed. The extent to which these basic requirements of curriculum management were not in place speaks to minimal organisational capacity in these schools and signals the absolute necessity of structured support if they are to prepare their students to meet the content and assessment requirements of a nationally standardised curriculum.
Moving from a focus on the complexities of curriculum management to a consideration of accountability in the relationship between HoDs and teachers, Chapter 6, by De Clercq, Shalem and Nkambule sets out to examine the way professional reciprocal accountability takes shape in a selection of rural primary schools in the King Cetshwayo District. The authors identify a “challenging tension” that lies at the heart of PILO’s Theory of Change: how to introduce monitoring processes that promote internal reciprocal accountability in contexts where expertise and resources are constrained, where HoDs themselves “have not yet mastered a certain degree of organisational and professional capacity” and where teachers may not have the experience of professional reflection. Can PILO’s aim to build internal accountability and take this to scale be realised under conditions where organisational capacity and resources are limited? This is the challenge identified and explored in this chapter.
To gather information to investigate the operation of internal accountability, the authors focus in detail on three main components of the Jika iMfundo campaign: curriculum planners and trackers; teachers’ weekly reflections on their lessons; and professional conversations between HoDs and teachers. Research data gathered from 100 participating schools in PILO surveys was supplemented by documentation gathered by Jika iMfundo tools from six differently coded schools. This documentation was then narrowed down to enable closer examination of complete sets of nine terms of planners and trackers filled in by eight teachers with a view to identifying possible changes in teachers’ reflections over time. The researchers also analysed four completed HoD forms from the six sampled schools for information about HoD monitoring and reflections on their conversations with teachers.
As in the research findings of earlier chapters, this study found generally positive attitudes towards PILO’s tools and, in this case, a reported high take-up of trackers and planners by teachers and more structured conversations between HoDs and teachers. Planners and trackers were found to “clarify, simplify and facilitate the sequencing and pacing of the CAPS content on a daily basis” and also to assist HoDs to monitor teachers’ curriculum coverage through a structured and transparent monitoring tool. It would appear that more supportive relationships between HoDs and teachers were indeed being built, not least because of the transparency of tools and practices. Again, findings were that teachers struggled with the pace and congestion of activities in the trackers which aligned with CAPS and, once again, difficulties were articulated with “slow learners”. Importantly, the authors report that perception data in the two surveys suggested an improvement in curriculum coverage and also reported clearer roles and relationships.
However, closer examination of completed documentation yielded a more complex picture, particularly in relation to the reflection sections of trackers. Detailed analysis of the eight sets of trackers over nine terms found that the reflection sections were, in the words of the authors, “rather thin”, “unspecific” and “vague”, seldom containing reflections about actual teaching and how it might be improved. This was particularly the case in schools coded “red” and also evident in “amber” schools. The authors argue that the practice of professional reflection requires teachers to have the capacity to focus on their own teaching and identify problems in their own practice and this, in turn, requires an existing level of professional knowledge and/or additional professional development. Instead of focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of their own practices, “thin” reflections may induce teachers to blame others for difficulties they encounter, such as “slow learners”, curriculum pace, or conditions in schools more broadly. Indeed, examination of HoDs’ documentation suggests that they perceived this to be happening. In the words of the authors:
With incomplete prompts on the reflection question and by not focusing directly on teachers’ competences and knowledge to make their reflections more informed and specific, PILO indirectly encourages struggling teachers (those in “red” and some “amber” schools) to export the blame onto ‘slow learners’, the overambitious curriculum and challenging school circumstances.
This judgement is perhaps an overstatement in that it attributes a causal relationship where a relationship of correlation and possibility might be more accurate. Nonetheless, it serves as valuable feedback to PILO as it adjusts its activities in response to circumstances on the ground. The point that the authors underline is that professional reflection requires teachers to have proficiency in content knowledge and pedagogy – their instructional practices – and, where this proficiency is limited, it cannot necessarily be developed through a focus on regulatory practices. What is required is deeper engagement with the instructional practices of teachers in relation to CAPS demands and how these may be improved to enhance student learning. An emphasis on coverage addresses the regulative mode but is not sufficient to address the requirements of the instructional mode – the content knowledge and knowledge of pedagogy and assessment that teachers require for reflection-based professional decisions about teaching and assessment for student learning.
Returning, then, to the “challenging tension” outlined at the start of the chapter, the research found that organisational capacity (as reflected in PILO’s coding system) brought differential engagement with Jika iMfundo tools, with schools classified as “red” experiencing greater difficulties in establishing the basis for internal reciprocal accountability. This suggests that a certain pre-existing level of functionality may be necessary for curriculum coverage to be achieved. It also suggests that teachers may need stronger and more differentiated support to meet the demands of CAPS and to improve their teaching practices to be effective for both curriculum coverage and improved student learning. In effect, what they suggest is that PILO needs to link its curriculum coverage measures to robust data on student performance to attest to the success of its efforts in building internal reciprocal accountability, curriculum coverage and improved student learning.
Chapter 7 by Mthiyane, Naidoo and Bertram narrows the focus from overall curriculum management to the role of HoDs. In particular, they explore the complexity of balancing the monitoring and support envisaged by Jika iMfundo in the work of HoDs. The research design brings together an analysis of survey data gathered by PILO with in-depth interviews of HoDs in a sample of schools in the Pinetown District that were designed to represent PILO’s classification of schools as green, amber and red (“green” = needing little support; “amber” = needing further support; and “red” = unable to move); to cover primary, combined and secondary schools; and to include fee-free and fee-paying schools. Indeed, all of these variables were found to influence the views of HoDs towards their work and towards the Jika iMfundo training and tools.
In many ways, this chapter echoes the positive sentiments towards Jika iMfundo expressed in earlier chapters. However, its close examination of the role expectations of the HoD and its disaggregation across different types of schools throw up a more complex picture of Jika iMfundo’s operations. The research found a range of views among HoDs about the helpfulness of Jika iMfundo tools and training. In summary, novice HoDs were more welcoming of Jika iMfundo support than experienced HoDs as were HoDs in “amber” and “red” schools, while those in “green” schools tended not to regard the tools as being designed for them or find them particularly useful. HoDs in secondary schools had greater role diversity to deal with than those in primary schools and often found the tools too administratively burdensome to use as envisaged.
While HoDs certainly made positive mention of the curriculum planning and coverage tools, including the guidance provided and the greater clarification of roles, they also raised concerns about the limitations of a “one size fits all” intervention that brings significant administrative requirements along with it. A problem articulated by participants is that, whereas Jika iMfundo focuses on the curriculum management aspects of HoDs’ responsibilities, the actual requirements of the position are much more extensive than this. They also include significant administrative and operational duties, particularly in fee-free schools with limited administrative support. In many cases, the research found that the evidence-based monitoring and regular meetings with teachers required by Jika iMfundo created an unrealistic burden for HoDs, particularly those in secondary schools with larger departments. In the words of the authors: “HoDs from all schools are unanimous that the monitoring tools and trackers are simply too burdensome to complete as Jika iMfundo envisages.”
Regarding CAPS itself, problems with pacing and the challenges of accommodating “slow learners” were mentioned by many HoDs. These problems were, at times, transferred to Jika iMfundo tools, as indicated by comments such as “CAPS is for high flyers” and “the tracker is designed for perfect schools.” The authors’ view is that “it appears that the trackers hope to solve the problem by assuming that the problem does not exist …”. HoDs also mentioned numerous problems that lay beyond their control, including disruptions to the school day for multiple reasons, post provisioning policies which led to staff changes and shortages and the progression policy which resulted in classes of mixed competency levels. These points highlight the challenges that inevitably arise from PILO’s commitment to working within departments with the limitations of existing policies. That said, researchers also found that a lack of support and training for HoDs from the Department of Education was an acute problem in schools where organisational capacity was lacking and HoDs were inexperienced. This, perhaps, vindicates PILO’s approach, enabling crucial gaps to be identified and filled.
Overall, the chapter posits a challenge for PILO and Jika iMfundo to consider:
Jika iMfundo seems to over-estimate the power that HoDs have as levers of change. They are middle managers who are held responsible and accountable to implement policy and ensure curriculum coverage, but have very little power to make staffing decisions and drive change.
Whereas the Jika iMfundo training and tools may help HoDs in “amber” and “red” schools to meet the technical requirements of monitoring and curriculum management, they do not necessarily help to build professional capacity, particularly given the contextual challenges and the multiple administrative burdens carried by HoDs.
Chapter 8 by Mkhwanazi, Ndlovu, Ngema and Bansilal begins its research on teacher and HoD perceptions from a different starting point, namely, the documented low take-up of Jika iMfundo trackers and planners by secondary mathematics teachers in both King Cetshwayo and Pinetown districts. Why is this so? To investigate this question, researchers explored the perspectives of teachers and HoDs themselves about what they regarded as challenges that hindered them from using Jika iMfundo tools and what might enhance tool usage. Given that South African students perform extremely poorly on Grade 9 mathematics in Annual National Assessments and that a number of local studies have linked this to low curriculum coverage, the researchers were keen to understand why it was that tools designed to support teachers in planning and tracking coverage were not being used. As well as looking for specific reasons why mathematics teachers were not adopting this particular intervention, the researchers also looked to broader literature to consider teacher responses to curriculum interventions, as well as the influence of organisational coherence and leadership focus on teaching and learning. PILO survey data were used to identify all schools teaching secondary mathematics in the two districts and then to select a sample to reflect schools with highest levels of survey completion. From this sample of 14 schools, researchers conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with teachers and HoDs and also examined classroom materials.
The researchers could straightforwardly confirm that curriculum coverage in these schools was generally inadequate and ANA results were varied but poor. In relation to Jika iMfundo tools, they found an issue of major concern: disparities between teachers’ and HoDs’ reports of tool usage and documentary evidence of this. In short, researchers found a number of instances where teachers and HoDs claimed to be using the tools, but documentary evidence showed they were not. This highlights the need for caution about the reliability of self-reported records for research purposes and the importance of moving beyond these methods to gain more reliable evidence on the implementation of Jika iMfundo. The chapter also shows that teachers and HoDs of Grade 9 mathematics are likely to be dealing with competing demands, including other monitoring processes, in these secondary school contexts where poor performance may reinforce defensive behaviour in the face of failure and a climate of blame.
While only three schools that reported routine use of trackers had documentary evidence to back this up, these were schools with the most extensive curriculum coverage and better ANA results. This enabled the researchers to endorse an important correlation found in other research they cite. In their words:
Although we cannot show a direct influence of the increased curriculum coverage on improved ANA results, what is evident is that the three schools that provided evidence of curriculum coverage and of a sufficient number of practice activities in the learners’ books, are the ones that also have higher averages in the ANA results, thus confirming a positive correlation between curriculum coverage and learner performance.
In exploring the hindrances and possibilities influencing teachers’ take-up of Jika iMfundo tools, the chapter considers a number of factors: features of the tracker itself; teacher knowledge and attitudes towards the intervention; organisational conditions within schools; and broader socio-economic contextual issues. In terms of the tracker itself, it is significant to note that participants in all of the sampled schools signalled challenges with the overload and pace of the CAPS curriculum which the tools highlighted but did not address. In some cases, by highlighting problems without remedying them, Jika iMfundo left teachers feeling demotivated, meaning that the intervention might well have been more of a burden than a support. Researchers also found that teachers did not regard the reflection exercises as helpful or were not completing them. In their words: “This points to the fact that without adequate training and suitable support, it is difficult for teachers to implement a new intervention such as this” – a finding in line with earlier chapters of this book. That said, teachers did find benefit in having access to the Jika iMfundo tools which they were able to use as a resource in a number of different ways.
As well as providing insights into the curriculum coverage problems of secondary mathematics, this chapter also provides brief insights into the complex organisational functioning of secondary schools, particularly at GET level which is less tightly regulated than FET. In these schools, the size of departments may work against supportive monitoring by HoDs; changes in staffing may leave areas without specialist teachers; induction of new teachers may be minimal; different interventions may be operating; and resources may be poorly deployed. A tentative finding of this research is that it is more straightforward for interventions such as Jika iMfundo to be adopted in schools with existing organisational capacity.
However, this chapter highlights that a crisis, as enormous as that of poor mathematics curriculum coverage and low student achievement, cannot be remedied with this form of intervention, particularly in schools that are not organisationally strong. The magnitude of the problem is beyond the reach of Jika iMfundo to remedy through generic tools and training. In Grade 9 mathematics, the cumulative problems of the “multi-grade effect” mean that the majority of the class are “slow learners”. By identifying with CAPS, the Jika iMfundo tools could not remedy teachers’ broader frustrations with CAPS pacing, inflexibility and mismatch with their own judgements about students’ conceptual mastery. To the extent that problems are due to CAPS itself, there are limits to what Jika iMfundo tools are able to achieve. And, to the extent that “slow learners” are a manifestation of assessment policies that have resulted in multi-grade classes, tools may be perceived as being of limited value.
The final research chapter, Chapter 9, switches the research focus from schools to districts which form another terrain of intervention in PILO’s interlocking Theory of Change. The chapter by Mc Lennan, Muller, Orkin and Robertson provides a compelling picture of the difficulties of working at district level where the legacy of apartheid continues to influence uneven resourcing; where poverty and socio-economic deprivation loom large, particularly in extensive rural areas; where post-apartheid restructuring has grouped together what were previously separate education departments into siloed bureaucracy; and where attitudes and behaviour have not necessarily shifted from past patterns of suspicion and resistance towards collaboration and trust. In theory, it should be possible for districts to be developmental and to operate as effective levers in improving educational outcomes, as the authors show in the literature review of this chapter. However, the literature review also highlights the difficulties of working at this “middle level” of the system, where work processes may be excessively bureaucratised, capacity may be weak and the task of policy implementation (for which they are accountable) may lead to an excessive focus on compliance.
These points bring to mind Metcalfe’s comment in Chapter 2:
The area of greatest learning in the 2015–2017 Jika iMfundo trial-at-scale has been the Teaching and Learning Support (TLS) within the District. We had to reconceptualise what support to teachers means and to operationalise this within the parameters of the available resources.
As both Chapters 2 and 9 show, PILO confronts major difficulties in working within the district system to focus on the goal of curriculum coverage. In the organisational structure of districts, there are separate reporting lines for Circuit Managers and Subject Advisers, which produce strong SILO effects and there are historical and ongoing bureaucratic divides that Jika iMfundo needs to work across in building a common focus on curriculum management. In addition, the large size of districts (both geographically and numerically), together with poor levels of resourcing and insufficient staffing, make it almost impossible for the kinds of professional interactions between district officials and schools that Jika iMfundo aims to build: regular school visits, clear monitoring practices and professional conversations based on evidence.
As with other sites of operation, Jika iMfundo’s aim at district level is to embed a different set of practices based on professionalism. The chapter by Mc Lennan et al. provides a snapshot of interventions at district level to reorient practices away from compliance checking towards professional conversations based on evidence about curriculum coverage. Their description of these interventions shows the scope of the task of changing behaviour in this middle level of the system: developing cross-silo and collaborative work practices to address a common core purpose, namely, curriculum coverage and to reorient their ways of working with schools to build professional accountability rather than compliance in monitoring and support practices.
Chapter 9 presents case study research, premised on “a conceptual assumption that institutionalised daily routines and interactions shape relationships” and that “evidence of developing relationships of trust and support … will provide a new perspective to the work linking effective districts and improved school performance.” Using data from PILO interviews and reviews, together with informal participant observation and school level assessments by Circuit Managers in two periods during 2016, the research explored three sources of evidence of changed routines:
- whether meeting discussions within districts and between districts and Principals provided space for issues of curriculum coverage;
- whether Principals perceived improved relationships with districts and assistance with curriculum management problems; and
- what the “heat map” tools for Circuit Managers reveal as a “dashboard” for identifying curriculum challenges.
In all cases, some evidence could be found of changes in these early stages of change implementation. In terms of meetings, the research found that shifting from compliance and “consequence management” towards professional conversations remains a challenge, though spaces were opening for curriculum matters to be discussed in agendas often dominated by resource concerns and compliance. In terms of Principals’ perceptions, results were also mixed, with differences emerging between and within districts. Though there was evidence that, at times, officials still visited schools in silo ways (thus duplicating contacts rather than collaborating), the research did find evidence of changes in the relationships between Circuit Managers and schools, as well as use of the tools which PILO had developed collaboratively with districts. As with other research chapters, there was evidence that using consistent tools assisted in clarifying roles and responsibilities in an often confusing and compliance-oriented policy framework. In terms of “heat maps”, the authors note their limitations as data sources, but their value as management tools. Heat maps, showing performance of schools coded “red”, “amber” and “green” on a number of management and curriculum coverage criteria, could be aggregated into district “dashboards” and these tools could be used to identify challenges, show emerging trends and give big picture information.
While, in some ways, this is a mixed picture that shows the difficulties of changing established behaviour, at this early stage there is some confirmatory evidence of the conceptual assumption investigated by the research. The changing of institutionalised daily routines, slow and difficult as it is, may bring changes to relationships in districts’ ways of working which itself would be an important contribution to the understanding of education system change. Alongside this, the authors argue that using tools does “allow new routines to be introduced and practiced”; that improving relationships between districts and schools provides a path “towards the building of professional accountability and collaborative commitment to change, despite the context”; and that “[t]he PILO approach, of building commitment, allows officials to see and understand what can be done despite the prevailing conditions.”
Taken together, the two chapters on PILO in Part One of this book and the seven research-based chapters in Part Two provide insights into the Theory of Change and early operations of Jika iMfundo, 2013–2017, as a contribution to learning about sustainable change in education in South Africa. Part Three of the book, Chapter 10, contains reflections by the editors on education curriculum and system change in South Africa.
- Elmore, R. (2004). School reform from the inside out. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that research findings in all of the other chapters in this book refer to teacher comments about “slow learners” as an impediment to CAPS coverage. ↩