7 Balancing monitoring and support: The role of HoDs in curriculum coverage

Nonhlanhla Mthiyane, Jaqueline Naidoo and Carol Bertram

Author and publication details

Nonhlanhla Mthiyane, School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal,; Jaqueline Naidoo, School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal,; Carol Bertram, School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal,

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.

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Jika iMfundo is an intervention for systemic education change, with a particular focus on curriculum coverage. It has been developed by the Project to Improve Learning Outcomes (PILO) working in partnership with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education (KZNDoE) and implemented as a pilot project in two education districts, one largely rural (King Cetshwayo) and one more urban (Pinetown). PILO’s model is informed by Elmore’s (1996) Theory of Change, which focuses on the “instructional core” and puts teaching and learning at the centre by improving curriculum coverage. Elmore (1996) advocates for change management that is associated with reciprocal accountability, enhanced leadership capacity and focused interventions. Reciprocal accountability is premised on the idea that an expectation that teachers be accountable for improved learner outcomes through improved practice must be accompanied by the necessary support and capacity building.

In its approach to training Principals, Deputy Principals and Heads of Departments (HoDs), Jika iMfundo adopts an “adaptive leadership framework”. This approach asks that they “enter an adaptive change space” (Leadership and Management Module 1, p. 3), taking a stance of problem solving, rather than a technical approach to change. This chapter presents findings of a study that focused on the extent to which HoDs are able to play an adaptive leadership role in supporting teachers to improve curriculum coverage through professional supportive conversations. The chapter aims to contribute to knowledge about the role HoDs in selected Jika iMfundo schools play in providing support to teachers to improve curriculum coverage, by identifying factors that support or impede this role.

In this chapter, we report on data from fifteen selected participating schools, highlighting that many HoDs found that Jika iMfundo tools and workshops were helpful in clarifying their roles. However, HoDs also reported that administrative requirements are burdensome and that Jika iMfundo adopts a “one size fits all” approach that overlooks the variations in learners’ readiness to learn at the level expected by the curriculum, as well as contextual factors which impact on HoDs’ ability to perform their supervisory and supportive roles. Using the adaptive leadership framework, we argue that, while PILO’s aim is to shift HoDs’ leadership practices from a technical, compliance approach to a more developmental and supportive role, our findings show that this is not the case for the majority of HoDs due to their heavy workloads and overwhelming administrative responsibilities. We argue that PILO’s Theory of Change has unrealistic expectations of HoDs as key levers of change for curriculum coverage which do not take into account the realities and variations of school contexts.

The chapter starts with a review of the role of the HoD and key concepts underpinning this study, namely, teacher leadership, professional conversations and the adaptive leadership framework. It then describes the methodological approach used, the research context and sampling. The chapter concludes with a presentation of results according to research questions and a discussion of key findings.

The role of Heads of Departments (HoDs)

The Personnel Administrative Measures (PAM) document issued by South Africa’s national Department of Basic Education stipulates the official aim of a HoD as “to engage in class teaching, be responsible for effective functioning of the department and to organise relevant/related extra-curricular activities so as to ensure that the subject, learning area or phase and the education of the learner is promoted in a proper manner” (DBE, 2016). While the document specifies that HoDs are expected to participate in general management of the school, their supervisory role is very closely linked to teaching and learning which is the key function of schools. HoDs’ academic and supportive roles as stipulated by policy include, among other roles:

The HoD is portrayed as a teacher, a subject specialist and expert, a mentor and a general school administrator working closely with the school Principal. It is this key curriculum supervisory role that Jika iMfundo aims to strengthen and support. However, the focus on this role tends to overlook the administrative roles that HoDs play, particularly in no-fee schools which often have limited administrative support. This administrative role impacts significantly on their ability to provide adequate curriculum support to teachers.

An analysis of Jika iMfundo’s training material shows their conception of the HoDs’ supervisory role as categorised into two dimensions, viz. the professional and personal dimensions. The professional dimension entails the HoDs’ administrative and operational duties and ensuring that systems are put in place for the smooth running of the department. The personal dimension entails human interactions related to being a supervisor and focuses on relationship building (Module 2 HoD, p. 7). Jika iMfundo’s work with HoDs is based on the premise that enhancing HoDs’ ability to perform their professional roles and their ability to relate to teachers will build teachers’ strengths and, in turn, improve teaching and learning. The HoDs are therefore seen as critical in building teachers’ capacity to improve learning outcomes. Jika iMfundo specifies “good practice behaviours” for HoDs as:

They use the following tools:

For every teacher, the HoD has to monitor and document the following:

HoDs have tools to document the above dimensions for each teacher as evidence for each of the above dimensions. The use of tools and attendance at workshops are meant to address both the professional and personal dimension of the HoDs’ supervisory roles. Entrenching routine behaviours of HoDs like planning, curriculum tracking of teachers and learners’ work, assessment, reflection, departmental and one-on-one meetings, and working collaboratively with teachers to find solutions to problems in their department, is considered key to improving learner outcomes.

The activities listed above reflect only some of the HoDs’ roles that are listed in the PAM (DBE, 2016) document and do not take into account the fact that HoDs are also class teachers, are responsible for the allocation of teaching loads and undertake general school administrative tasks such as monitoring book stocks, collecting of monies, managing staff welfare, secretarial and timetabling duties (DBE, 2016, p. 37). In short, the HoD roles gazetted by the DBE are much more comprehensive than those that Jika iMfundo focuses on. We suggest that HoDs occupy a fluid space that places them at the interface of teaching, management and leadership, and that they are expected to juggle all responsibilities associated with these roles. This may explain some of the tensions that emerge from the data in this study regarding the HoDs’ abilities to play successful, adaptive, transformative leadership roles in improving curriculum coverage as envisaged by Jika iMfundo. This tension is more evident in schools with weak organisational capacity characterised by, among other things, limited administrative support (i.e. schools that are classified “red” and “amber” in the Jika iMfundo monitoring system described below).

Teacher leadership

Teacher leaders are viewed as those teachers who assume the responsibility for facilitating professional learning for their colleagues (Nicholson, Capitelli, Richert, Bauer, & Bonetti, 2016). In this study, HoDs are viewed as teacher leaders. Contemporary views of teacher leadership no longer see it as a preserve of school Principals and administrators only. Instead, teachers at different levels in a school are viewed as having the potential to be leaders. Katzenmeyer and Moller (2009) maintain that teacher leadership is about influencing other teachers to improve their practices and adopt an attitude of lifelong learning. On the other hand, York-Barr and Duke (2004) define teacher leadership as a “process by which teachers, individually or collectively, influence their colleagues, Principals and other members of school communities to improve teaching and learning practices with the aim of increased student learning and achievement” (p. 287). Both these views point to teacher leadership as involving learning and participating in continued inquiry into practice and using student data to improve practice (Nicholson et al., 2016).

HoDs are key members of School Management Teams and have an important role to play in providing instructional leadership and as agents of change in their departments (Leithwood, 2016; Dinham, 2007). However, their potential has not been fully utilised and there is limited research on their role in curriculum management in South Africa. Ghavifekr and Ibrahim (2014) argue that the role of HoDs include mobilising teachers under their supervision and creating school-based communities of practice. This is line with Jika iMfundo’s view on the role of HoDs in providing school-based curriculum support by working with teachers, regularly checking their curriculum tracking and assisting them with problems related to curriculum coverage through professional supportive conversations.

Professional conversations

Irvine and Price (2014) argue that professional conversations play a crucial role in professional learning communities (PLCs) to promote critical and collaborative reflection and transformational learning that leads to changes in practice. Dialogue and reflection also involve conversations. It is therefore crucial that teacher leaders (HoDs) participate in professional development activities that equip them with knowledge and skills necessary for substantive professional conversations with their colleagues.

A crucial role of HoDs is engaging in professional teacher conversations. Senge (1990, p. 9) describes learning conversations as “exposing people’s thinking and making their thinking open to the influence of others.” Salleh (2016) argues that conversations put practice, pedagogy and student learning under scrutiny and enable teachers to negotiate their understanding of teaching.

Adaptive Leadership Framework

The Adaptive Leadership Framework (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009) was adopted as the analytical framework for this study. Heifetz et al. (2009, p. 2) contend that adaptive leadership is “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” They distinguish between authority and leadership and argue that leadership is a practice that draws on authority, power and influence, as tools that are critical, yet do not define leadership (p. 12). Authority, they argue, is about meeting the expectations of “authorisers”, while adaptive leadership is about challenging some of these expectations and being able to manage the resistance emanating from this successfully. Authority therefore, has little to do with mobilising people to tackle their toughest challenges.

This framework also distinguishes between technical and adaptive changes. Technical changes are described as simple or complex changes, often driven by external forces, which can be learned by following a series of steps. For example, learning how to use new tools such as the curriculum tracker, lesson plans and other resources may be regarded as technical change. However, adaptive change involves creating new knowledge that will be different in different contexts. Technical challenges can be resolved by applying authoritative expertise and drawing on known solutions, while adaptive changes are only addressed when individuals change their beliefs, habits and priorities, move beyond authoritative expertise, shed entrenched ways and generate a new capacity to succeed. Heifetz et al. (2009) caution that adaptive change is time consuming and that an adaptive leader values diversity of views and adopts an “experimental mind-set” to problem-solving (p. 3). Jika iMfundo requires HoDs to move into an adaptive change space to drive the change.

Adaptive leadership focuses on change that enhances an individual’s capacity to succeed and draws on previous wisdom and values. In order to practice adaptive leadership, HoDs need to assist teachers in their departments to navigate through a period of disequilibrium as they distinguish between essential and expendable knowledge and solutions. This disequilibrium space is characterised by panic, confusion, frustration and conflict. Thus, HoDs require distinct insights and skills to practice adaptive leadership and assist teachers to tolerate the discomfort. Heifetz et al. (2009) describe this space as the “productive zone of disequilibrium” where HoDs need to address the discomfort of teachers and encourage them to engage with the intervention.

Heifetz et al. (2009) contend that the adaptive leadership process involves three crucial activities, namely, observe, interpret and intervene. The observation stage entails the adaptive leader collecting as much data in as objectively a manner as possible. Heifetz et al. (2009) suggest that data collection is critical in any adaptive leadership process and that the leader must create some “distance” between him/herself and the rest of the team in order to identify patterns that would be otherwise hard to see. In interpreting what they see, HoDs, as adaptive leaders, must develop multiple hypotheses about what they are observing and must be open to the widest range of possible explanations of a single event. The intervention stage involves the leader designing interventions that respond to the adaptive challenges resulting from the observation and interpretation processes. We use these concepts to interrogate the data generated from HoDs to ascertain to what extent it is possible for them to engage in adaptive leadership.


This study seeks to address the following questions:

  1. Do HoDs think that Jika iMfundo training and tools enable them to better support their teachers to improve curriculum coverage or not? If so, in what ways?
  2. What challenges do HoDs participating in Jika iMfundo face when supporting their teachers to improve curriculum coverage?

The study draws on two sources of data gathered in the Pinetown district of KZN which has approximately 499 schools. Firstly, a secondary analysis was conducted on existing survey data that were gathered and administered by PILO coaches, using a targeted selection of 35 schools. A total of 53 HoDs completed this survey. The questionnaire included questions on changes in teaching, learning outcomes, the functioning of the department and whether curriculum coverage improved as a result of the use of Jika iMfundo tools.

The second source of data was semi-structured interviews conducted by the research team with HoDs from a purposive sample of 15 schools. Schools were selected using three different criteria, namely, 1) the Jika iMfundo “colour” classification (explained below); 2) primary or secondary schools; 3) fee-paying or no-fee schools. The selection comprised three primary schools, two combined schools and ten secondary schools. The rationale for selecting more secondary schools was based on the survey data that showed a lower uptake of Jika iMfundo among secondary schools. Four of the schools are fee paying and eleven are no-fee schools. Fee-paying schools are suburban, well-resourced schools, historically belonging to the House of Assembly (3) and House of Delegates (1). No-fee schools are generally located in rural areas or townships and are still poorly resourced.

PILO uses the following classification to code participating schools:

Of the 15 schools in this study, eight were coded “amber”, four were coded “green” and three were coded “red”. Schools were selected first and then a convenience sample of 29 HoDs were interviewed, depending on who was available at the time of the research visit. The sample comprised five primary school HoDs, five combined school HoDs and 19 secondary school HoDs. Ten of these HoDs were novices, meaning that they had been in the position of HoD between 3 months and 2 years.

Data collection instruments included a biographical questionnaire and semi-structured interviews conducted by a combination of the three authors. The interviews covered the following topics:

In some schools, group interviews were conducted with two or three HoDs and were audio-recorded and transcribed.

No Name of School Number of type of HoDs interviewed PILO Colour-code Fee paying or not*
1 School A (Primary) A1 - Foundation Phase Amber No fee
2 School B (Primary) B1 - Foundation Phase
B2 - Grade 2 Head
B3 - Grade 1 Head
Amber No fee
3 School C (Secondary) C1 - Science & maths
C2 - Accounting
C3 - Humanities (Languages)
C4 - Technology
Amber No fee
4 School D (Secondary) D1 - Science & maths
D2 - Language
Amber No fee
5 School E (Secondary) E1 - Science & maths
E2 - Languages
Amber No fee
6 School F (Secondary) F1 - Deputy Principal Amber Fee paying R1 500 pa
7 School G (Secondary) G1 - Maths Amber No fee
8 School H (Secondary) H1 - Maths & science
H2 - Languages
Green No fee
9 School I (Combined) I1 - Foundation
I2 - Intermediate
Green No fee
10 School J (Secondary) J1 - Science
J2 - Maths
Green Fee paying R33 000 pa
11 School K (Combined) K1 - Senior Primary maths
K2 - Maths & science (FET)
K3 - English FAL
Green Fee paying R19 300 pa
12 School L (Secondary) L1 - Maths
L2 - Science
Green Fee paying
R30 000 pa
13 School M (Secondary) M1 - Maths & science Red No fee
14 School N (Secondary) N1 - Maths & science
N2 - Languages
Red No fee
15 School O (Primary) O1 - Foundation and Intermediate Phase Red No fee

Summary of schools and HoDs in the sample (organised according to PILO classification)

Table 7.1 Summary of schools and HoDs in the sample (organised according to PILO classification)

*Fee paying schools are Quintile 4 and 5 schools (previously administered by the House of Assembly or House of Delegates) and no fee schools are Quintile 1–3 (previously administered by the Department of Education and Training).

Ethical considerations

The PILO coaches at the Pinetown district facilitated access to schools and negotiated with HoDs to participate in this study. All HoDs signed informed consent letters which outlined the purpose of the study and data collection instruments. HoDs were informed that their participation in this study was voluntary. To ensure anonymity, names of schools and HoDs were changed and pseudonyms were used instead. Participants were also assured of confidentiality.


The findings will be presented according to the two research questions. The first research question is: Do HoDs think that Jika iMfundo training and tools enable them to better support their teachers to improve curriculum coverage or not? If so, in what ways?

Overall, the findings show a range of different views on the extent to which Jika iMfundo enabled HoDs to support their teachers to achieve curriculum coverage. HoDs’ views could be categorised along lines of their experience, i.e. novice versus experienced HoDs, as well as the school context in which they teach, namely, primary versus secondary schools, fee or non-fee paying schools and the PILO colour-codes. HoDs mentioned four areas of work that Jika iMfundo assisted them with which were: clarifying their HoD roles, planning departmental activities, monitoring curriculum coverage and conducting professional supportive conversations. Findings show that HoDs from “amber” and “red” schools generally found Jika iMfundo training and tools more helpful than HoDs from “green” schools. Also, novice HoDs reported the clarification of roles as the most useful aspect of Jika iMfundo training and tools. However, HoDs also reported challenges with implementing some of Jika iMfundo’s expectations and these will be addressed later in this chapter.

Clarifying HoD roles

The majority of HoDs in “amber” and “red” schools across both primary and secondary schools reported finding Jika iMfundo training very useful in clarifying the role of a HoD. Of the 29 HoDs interviewed, 21 of them, all but one in “amber” and “red” schools, said they were not so sure of what they were expected to do as HoDs before Jika iMfundo. This was particularly the case for novice HoDs who had just been appointed to these positions. Ten of the 21 participants were new HoDs, whose experience ranged from two months to three years. One of the novice HoDs taught in a “green” school while the rest were in “red” and “amber” schools. However, even some experienced HoDs reported that the Supervision Tool gave “structure” to what they had been doing. HoD D1, with 4 years of experience said:

Yes, it has equipped us with skills of managing my department. There is no training from the DBE when you become a HoD. We should get a mentor to help us, but that is not happening. But Jika iMfundo gave me insight into how to do the monitoring, how to ask the teachers questions in the one-on-one … (Interviewee D1, Maths and Science HoD, “amber” secondary school).

Among novice HoDs were some who had occupied these positions for a few months, while others had occupied them for a few years. A HoD (L2) at a combined school explained:

So being a young HoD coming into management, you know … I didn’t have much experience. So I was very fortunate that, when I arrived, and hawu here is Jika iMfundo! Before, I was not clear in understanding really what my role of function is … you know not having the confidence you know … So, when Jika iMfundo started, it gave me the proper training. So now I really understand my role of function as the departmental head and I have confidence in performing my duties as a HoD. I now have a plan (Interviewee L2, Intermediate Phase HoD, “green” combined school).

This interviewee noted that, although she had been a HoD for three years at the time when Jika iMfundo was introduced, she still was not sure about her role and did not have a lot of confidence, particularly because she was also young. There was a complaint, even from experienced HoDs, that the Department of Education (DoE) did not provide any induction programs to newly appointed HoDs and this was seen as a big weakness:

One thing to compliment from Jika is emphasising the role of a HoD and the Role of the Deputy, etc. One of our big problems we have in our black schools is that we are promoted but we don’t know actually what is our role. But no one comes to induct you and say listen, this is what is happening and this is what is expected, how you go about. There is no support, you don’t know, no one comes and tells you. You are just promoted and you are happy that there is money coming and you are gonna learn by the way. So, I appreciate uJika iMfundo because they have come with their modules for HoDs, Module 1 and Module 6 and I appreciate that (Interviewee N1, Maths & Science HoD, “red” secondary school).

In school O, classified as “red”, there was one HoD responsible for both Intermediate and Foundation Phase in the whole school. She indicated that she was left to find her own feet and looked outside her school for support:

In the neighbouring school, there are two new HoDs. So we decided that we’ll ask our Principals to invite someone from Jika iMfundo and we’ll cluster. Then they can take us through and tell us what it’s all about (Interviewee O1, Foundation and Intermediate Phase HoD, “red” primary school).

In another “red” school N, a HoD who had just been appointed as a Languages HoD, while her specialisation was Life Sciences, commented:

I would like to get more workshops on new HoDs. I only attended one but I could see that these workshops are so useful. I really would like to attend others that are related to my job as a HoD (N2, Language HoD, “red” secondary school).

When asked what they would like Jika iMfundo to continue with or to change, the majority of novice HoDs asked for a systematic plan for training and inducting HoDs. While they recognised this to be the responsibility of the KZN Department of Education (KZNDoE), they recommended that Jika iMfundo work with the KZNDoE to fill this gap:

After appointed HoDs, we should be given proper training. There should be more training and workshops for HoDs (Interviewee M1, Maths & Science HoD, “red” secondary school).

Training was recommended, not just for HoDs, but for Deputy Principals and Principals. Some HoDs felt a lack of support from their Deputy Principals and Principals and attributed this to their lack of knowledge:

I would suggest that they check when the bulletin is published and when new Principals are employed, those Post level 1 comrades coming straight from the classrooms to being Principals. That Jika iMfundo must get them just when they start. Just so they can have an idea of what’s going on (Interviewee N1, Maths and Science HoD).

It appeared that, while the Department has paid a lot of attention to school Principals and SMTs together, not enough effort has been put into equipping HoDs with appropriate knowledge and skills relating to their roles as curriculum managers within their departments but Jika iMfundo seemed to be beginning to fill this gap.

As indicated earlier, almost all HoDs from “green” schools (ex-Model C schools) reported that they did not find Jika iMfundo training and Tools on Supervision helpful, as reflected in the comment below:

Question: What PILO training have you attended?

It was compulsory for HoDs to go, so I attended them all. To be honest, almost nothing was useful. The format of the training was we were given the booklets and the facilitator just read through these (Interviewee L1, Science HoD, “green” secondary school).

However, there is some evidence that a few teachers in these schools did find aspects of Tool 1 useful in their supervisory and monitoring roles. The science HoD from a different “green” school commented as follows:

Monitoring tool was useful – I have a table to show how often I’ve checked books etc. (Interviewee J1, Science HoD, “green” secondary school).

When asked how they learnt what their roles were, HoDs from “green” schools indicated that they worked very closely with experienced HoDs and that they engaged more in informal discussions than they did in formal meetings. Two of the more experienced HoDs in School K, a “green” school, said they attended training organised by their unions many years ago when they started as HoDs. It is clear from the data that the collaborative, supportive ways of working in “green” schools created a conducive environment for novice HoDs to learn about their roles. This kind of support was found to be lacking in “red” and “amber” schools and HoDs in these schools relied more on Jika iMfundo to fill this gap.

Planning departmental activities

One key tool that the majority of HoDs in “red” and “amber” schools reported finding useful was the Supervision Planner and Tracker Tool (Tool 1). They mentioned that this tool allowed them to do their planning and to share their year plans with teachers.

The most useful tool is the one for supervision and for class visits (N1 Maths HoD, “red” secondary school).

These HoDs reported that, although they did planning before Jika iMfundo, the Planning Calendar, which is part of Tool 1, brought structure to how they worked:

In terms of planning, this is new, although some of it we were doing. It was not as structured and organised … (C1 Maths HoD, “amber” secondary school).

The key advantage of the Supervision Planner and Tracker tool appeared to be the transparency it brought to the HoDs’ supervision practices. Where this was working, all teachers knew when the class visits for each one would take place and when the one-on-one visits would take place:

Because it makes you able to see teachers in different times, so it helps you to zoom in on certain teachers. So it is planning for the year, so you are able to see the teacher … The teacher can see that this date is departmental meeting and in this one I was monitoring all of their files, the departmental meetings. Then if I am zooming in on curriculum coverage, it would tell individual teachers that, on this day, we would have a one-on-one (Interviewee E1, HoD Science and Maths, “red” School).

HoDs in “green” schools reported not finding this particular tool useful and that Jika iMfundo was not meant for schools such as these:

They [Jika iMfundo] recently ‘dropped’ J High. I went to the first few trainings. Mr X [Principal] was worried about the time it was taking. It became clear that J High was not the target school – the coach said that and doesn’t come any more (Interviewee J2, Science HoD).

There was consensus among HoDs from “green” schools that they already had entrenched and successful planning practices and processes and did not need Jika iMfundo’s planning tools.

Monitoring/tracking curriculum coverage

Besides assisting with planning, HoDs in “amber” and “red” schools found Tool 1 useful because it assisted them to monitor curriculum coverage and they were always aware if teachers were on track or not:

JIKA has assisted us to see whether the teachers are on par with the curriculum to see how far, for assistance (Interviewee M1, Maths and Science HoD, “red” School).

The monitoring tool also assisted HoDs to compare what they had planned to what had actually been done and to adapt their plans if there was a need. They looked at the lessons planned against lessons conducted, as well as assessments planned against those conducted.

Trackers help us to know which work we have not done, are we up to date with our planning so that we modify the planning accordingly, maybe there are things that are disturbing the planning (Interviewee E1, Maths and Science HoD, “amber” School).

HoDs reported that Tool 1 also helped them identify teachers’ weaknesses and where they needed to provide support, as reflected below:

Question: How do you support teachers and identify teacher weaknesses?

It’s based on curriculum tracking, that’s why I appreciate this tool. Once you do curriculum tracking, you can see, using the annual teaching plan, and you look at the assessments. That tool helps us to identify if there is a loophole because that tool has green, [amber] and red parts, to say if the teacher is on the path to finish the syllabus or not. You ask questions and use your professional assessment to see how things go (Interviewee N1, Maths and Science HoD, “red” School).

The task of reflection was also another important aspect of the tracker that this HoD found useful:

There’s reflection where teachers reflect which learners have passed or failed. Some teachers write reflection. This good because it assists HoDs to identify where the teacher managed or found difficult to teach the topic. And, as such, you as a HoD, gets to know where to give assistance.

However, HoDs from the fee-paying (“green”) schools reported that they did not find trackers useful and therefore did not use them:

We don’t use the trackers. We have our own work schedule which is more flexible. The tracker is too rigid and provides no leeway. It only focuses on particular textbooks. It’s not suitable for our school (Interviewee L1, Maths HoD).

These HoDs reported that they designed their own notes to use and felt that trackers were not meant for schools like theirs, with well-qualified teachers, as reflected in the statement below:

They [trackers] are very good for schools operating at a very different level. We have qualified teachers who don’t need a support like that (Interviewee J2, Maths HoD).

This feeling was echoed by another HoD at a Combined School, also coded “green”, who said:

As far as curriculum coverage, I have my own structure in place which is more explicit. The tracker does not help me at all (Interviewee K1, Senior primary HoD).

Some felt strongly that supplying trackers to schools like theirs and expecting them to track curriculum coverage was a waste of resources:

Stop wasting money on trackers. We do not need them. You should take that money and use it for workshops. Improve education to teach in the classroom. Workshops should be based on subject knowledge, on how to teach a particular topic (Interviewee K2, Maths and Science HoD).

This was echoed by this statement from another “green” school:

A resource could be sent to everybody, but for training, it should focus on schools that need the help. You can’t compare (School L) with a non-fee paying school (Interviewee L2, Science HoD).

It was clear that the Jika iMfundo training and tools had a more positive impact in “amber” and “red” schools, while HoDs in “green” schools felt that they did not need support and that Jika iMfundo needed to focus on schools that needed more support.

Conducting professional supportive conversations

Another tool that HoDs in “amber” and “red” schools found useful was the “Structuring a Supervision Conversation Tool (2)”. They mentioned that they found training on relationships and how to engage teachers in a conversation about their work assisted them in improving relationships in their departments, as reflected in the statements below:

We also have this kind of a form [Structuring a supervision conversation Tool] which is for the meetings, it’s a guide on the one-on-one meeting. This helps … [so] the teacher doesn’t become defensive. It’s just an instrument to help teachers … because they were saying HoDs end up not having one-on-one meetings because, in those meetings, it becomes difficult meetings. So, for us to be able to hold those meetings, they gave us a guide in terms of how to approach the curriculum coverage, if the teacher is lagging behind (Interviewee E2, HoD Languages, “amber” secondary school).

The one-on-one meetings improved relationship with teachers and we work with them as a team (Interviewee B3, Foundation Phase HoD, “amber” primary school).

When asked how the teachers found these conversations, the majority of HoDs responded that their discussions were fruitful:

Most of the teachers find it a developmental process, [but] some have an attitude. The relationship between the HoD and teacher improves and the curriculum coverage has improved (Interviewee D1, Maths and Science HoD, “amber” secondary school).

The HoDs reported that the conversation tool enhanced relationships and improved professional conversations which was confirmed by the survey data where HoDs reported that the one-on-one sessions “allow teachers to open up when they need help”, assisted them to “conduct non-judgemental meetings … this removes feelings of shame and discomfort”, “eliminates fear and tensions, encourages co-operation and openness” and “improved conversations about what happens in the classroom.” This seems to indicate that the conversations enabled HoDs to address the personal dimension of their supervisory role and the importance of acknowledging teacher’s emotions in their practice (Hargreaves, 2001). A HoD noted that she learnt “how to get to know your teachers, love and nurture the teachers. You don’t just say ‘hey, I need a lesson plan’” (Interviewee I1 Foundation Phase HoD, “green” combined school).

However, one of the HoDs in an “amber” school reported finding one-on-one conversations difficult when dealing with a teacher who teaches a different subject than his:

I’m not the expert in all the subjects, I have to bring in a subject head and sometimes the subject head will collude with the teacher. So, the subject head comes to observe the lesson and then we have the PLC with the subject head. Sometimes it can be difficult as the one not the expert in the subject (Interviewee D1, Science and Maths HoD, “amber” secondary school).

This highlights that there are power dynamics and complexities in conducting one-on-one professional supportive conversations.

In line with their views on the other tools, HoDs in “green” schools, said they did not conduct one-on-one meetings, but engaged in regular informal departmental discussions, as reflected in the statement below:

We don’t have formal one-on-one meetings. I’m the youngest in the department, so I prefer to keep them informal. We have WhatsApp groups and an informal ethos, where we can discuss issues regularly (Interviewee L1 Maths HoD, “green” secondary school).

Thus, the data show that many HoDs report that there is increased frequency of conversations and discussions of staff within departments. It appears that these conversations were mostly about the problems that teachers encountered around curriculum coverage. “We discuss curriculum coverage, absenteeism of learners and slow learners” (Interviewee B3, FP HoD). Another HoD noted that if there are teachers who are teaching out-of-field, they support their content knowledge acquisition (Interviewee I2 Intermediate HoD).

However, it was difficult to get HoDs to talk about and describe the nature and content of these professional supportive conversations in detail. Methodologically, the only way to get robust data on this would be to record the conversations between HoDs and teachers.

The second research question is: What challenges do HoDs face when supporting their teachers to improve curriculum coverage?

There are three key challenges that HoDs said that they encounter when supporting their teachers to improve curriculum coverage. These are that:

Essentially, all of these issues are related to time.

Too much paperwork: “paperwork ahead, child is behind”

It is very clear from all the interview data, as well as from the survey data, that the HoDs say that there are simply too many monitoring tools that need to be completed. This is particularly true for HoDs who supervise a large number of teachers, sometimes across a range of subjects.

At School D (a high school with 1481 learners and 49 teachers), the Maths and Science HoD (D1) has 15 teachers in his department. He said: “It’s too much with IQMS, moderation of assessment, pre-moderation, post-moderation. I have 13 papers that I must moderate for these exams.” He is also the Grade 12 mathematics teacher. He noted that completing the Jika iMfundo monitoring tools was simply too burdensome. He felt that Jika iMfundo assumes that all departments are the same size and it is not true of big schools that the HoD to teachers ratio is about four or five teachers.

Similarly at School B, an “amber” primary school, there is only one HoD for the Foundation Phase with five teachers per grade. Thus the Principal had appointed a senior teacher in Grade 1 and 3 to help with the administrative monitoring work of Jika iMfundo. All three teachers whom we interviewed at this school said that there is simply too much paperwork and HoD B2 said there were too many files that needed to be kept (management file, supervision file, assessment file, staff development files). Participant B1 noted: “Paperwork ahead, child is behind.”

In School I, the Intermediate phase HoD was supervising 16 teachers without any help. Since the HoD is also teaching a class, this administrative task is simply too big for one person.

The Maths HoD at School J (a high school with 1 100 learners) feels the same:

The volume was unrealistic. They [Jika iMfundo] wanted me to meet with each teacher twice a term, take minutes, keep a file, talk about their strengths and weaknesses. I have 14 teachers who teach maths. It’s just impossible.

Some HoDs also noted that there were tensions between the requirements of the Department and Jika iMfundo which also led to more administrative work. A HoD at School C (secondary school, “amber”) noted:

We end up having more work and we end up being under pressure, having to use two tools, because we have the Jika tools, but the other is the real one, the one for work [that is, for the Department] … Although Jika wants it this way, sometimes the Subject Advisers want it in a different way.

Challenges with sequencing and pacing: “it is only for high fliers”

Another challenge raised by all the HoDs in the interviews and corroborated by the survey data was the concern that the trackers take a “one size fits all” approach. Participants raised two issues regarding the trackers: the first is that the pace is too fast and thus does not cater for learner differentiation and the second is the sequencing of the topics (particularly in mathematics).

Sequencing refers to the order in which the topics and tasks are set. Pacing refers to how quickly or slowly the topics in the curriculum need to be covered. In the CAPS, pacing is strongly framed which means that the teachers do not have much leeway to change the pacing (Pausigere, 2016). Since the Jika iMfundo trackers are based on CAPS, the prescribed pacing of lessons is also fast. The Jika iMfundo Planner and Trackers make it clear that teachers need to follow the prescribed sequencing and pacing. The following excerpt is from the Grade 12 mathematics tracker, but this issue is mentioned in all the trackers:

The content in each tracker has been carefully sequenced and it is therefore important that lessons are not skipped. Should you miss a mathematics lesson for any reason, or should you be going at a slower pace, you should continue the next day from where you last left off. Do not leave a lesson out to get back on track. You may need to speed up the pace of delivery to catch up to the lesson schedule – by covering the lesson concept content of two consecutive days in one day (p. 3).

HoDs have the task of supporting their teachers to achieve curriculum coverage, but many indicate that this task is not possible in the normal hours of the school day, given the fast pace of the curriculum. In order to achieve curriculum coverage, the trackers require teachers to move on despite not all learners understanding the concepts and it then becomes the teachers’ problem to help learners to catch up after school.

Participant B2 who teaches Grade 2 at primary School B noted a concern with both the pacing and the sequencing:

… especially in maths, you sometimes find that there are so many concepts in one lesson, such as addition, subtraction, sharing, meaning division. So the slow learners cannot catch up easily, they are always left behind. Furthermore, in each and every day, the teacher has to start a new lesson. For the slow learners they find it difficult to catch up. Ya. It tends to show that Jika iMfundo is only for the high fliers, not for slow learners. It’s no longer learner paced (Interviewee B2, Grade 2 Head).

In order to support the learners who “do not get it” in class, the teachers at many schools (Schools B, C D, F, J and L) noted that they run remedial classes before or after school a few times a week. The maths HoD at School D (“amber” secondary school) said:

If they don’t finish, you must catch up with extra classes every week. In the senior grades, you may have three extra lessons per week in the morning or afternoon. Some of the learners are slow to grasp the content. We are told to move with the Annual Teaching Plan (ATP). In maths, only 30% [of learners] are at the pace of the ATP, it is only for high fliers.

The Foundation Phase participants in School I and B were concerned that the lesson plans covered too many different maths concepts in one lesson and did not allow sufficient time for consolidation of learning. Many other participants also noted that there are too many activities in one lesson. These HoDs seemed to be unaware that they did not have to use all the listed activities, since the trackers note that teachers should make “the final professional choice about which examples and explanations to give, which activities to set for your class and how to manage your class on a daily basis” (Grade 12 Mathematics Tracker, p. 4). It appears that some Subject Advisers want to see if the Trackers are completed “properly” in a very technical way which can stifle some teachers’ capacity to use them flexibly.

Some schools seem to be more likely to question the tools and to adjust them to fit their context. For example, a primary school from the survey data has taken the tracker, adjusted it and made their own which enables them to move lessons around and complete it according to their specific context (survey data). All the HoDs from the so-called “green” schools in our sample (School J, K and L) engaged with the tools in a very flexible way, either changing them to suit the school context, or not using them at all. The science HoD from School L noted that they do not use the trackers at all as they find them too rigid and that they undermine teachers’ creativity. He finds that the CAPS document and assessment guidelines provide sufficient detail about what needs to be covered and they make their own notes for learners.

Many HoDs in the “amber” and “red” schools said that this pacing challenge is compounded by the departmental progression policy which stipulates that no learner can spend more than four years in one Phase. Thus, if a child has failed one grade in a phase, they cannot fail again and they will be automatically progressed to the next grade. The maths HoD in School C was clear that simply covering the curriculum did not lead to quality learning:

This focus on the curriculum coverage does not portray the actual situation or quality. Just covering the work only does not portray the quality of the work. At the end of the day, the ‘progressed’ learner moves to another class … The teachers follow the tracker and leave a lot of students behind (Interviewee C1, Maths HoD, “amber” secondary school).

Contextual challenges: “The tracker is designed for perfect schools”

Curriculum coverage is impacted by conditions in schools that are beyond the HoDs’ control. Many HoDs noted that the Jika iMfundo trackers do not take these contextual factors into account. These contextual challenges relate to the following:

A HoD from a secondary school noted “there are no textbooks in the GET phase, as the Principal seems to buy only for the FET phase. So the teacher must spend considerable time photocopying pages for the 70 learners in the Grade 8 and 9 classes” (Survey data). At school M, the material resource that was absent was water, which causes huge disruptions to the learning and teaching time, as the school day inevitably ends early.

An English FAL HoD from a secondary school noted that “the tracker is designed for perfect schools with no disruptions” (Survey data). This opinion was expressed by a number of participants in the survey and the interviews who noted that the trackers assume that teaching and learning is happening on every day of the school year, with no teacher absenteeism or other disruptions. This is obviously the goal of Jika iMfundo, since the issue of lost teaching time and minimal opportunity to learn has been raised by a number of studies (Hoadley, 2013; Taylor, 2009). However, it appears that the trackers hope to solve the problem by assuming that the problem does not exist, as the trackers do not allow for flexibility or any kind of “catch up time”. This puts huge pressure on teachers to make up teaching time lost due to disruptions. Some of these disruptions, such as teacher absenteeism and attendance at SADTU meetings, implicate teachers, but are still outside the control of the HoD. For example, on the day of our research visit to school N (red secondary school), teachers were all leaving early to attend a heritage day cultural celebration organised by SADTU.

A challenge outside of HoDs’ control relates to the departmental policies of Post Provisioning Norms (PPN) and of progression of learners. A HoD in School C noted that “learners are now leaving our black schools” which means that the number of teachers decreases as the PPN allocates teachers to schools according to the number of enrolled learners. “Before we were 35 teachers and now we are 32 and so now this load does not go to teachers, but it comes to us as HoDs.” The progression policy means that learners who have failed one grade in a phase will automatically progress. One HoD noted that “some of these progressed kids are not interested [in learning] … they tell us that we cannot fail them” (Interviewee C1, maths HoD).

This links to a further challenge raised by HoDs, namely, the learners’ capacity and motivation to learn. One HoD noted in the survey: “The tracker has an assumption that when you teach a learner s/he understands the content without challenges.” The reality is that 60% of South African children do not to learn to read for meaning by the end of Grade 3 (Van den Berg, 2015) and thus “never fully access the curriculum despite being promoted to higher grades” (Van den Berg, Spaull, Wills, Gustafsson, & Kotze, 2016, p. 6). Similarly, mathematics achievement is low, as shown in the TIMMS and the ANA results (Van den Berg, 2015). The HoDs point out that the pacing of the trackers does not seem to take this huge challenge into account, but seems to assume that all the learners are “high fliers”. However, for many learners, “the fundamentals are not in place” (Interviewee K3, English FAL HoD, “green” combined school), making it impossible to cover the curriculum at the required pace and still ensure that every learner has understood the concepts.

Many HoDs in the “red” and “amber” schools reported that they were expected to fulfil a huge range of administrative tasks that are not directly related to teaching and learning. HoDs have to monitor attendance of both teachers and learners, attend to learner discipline issues, enter learner marks on the SAMIS database, sit in a range of school committees, such as the bereavement committee, cultural committee, etc. In the fee-paying ex-Model C schools, additional staff were employed to fulfil some of these tasks. For example, School J employs a person whose sole job is to monitor learner attendance and discipline issues and also employs additional administrators to capture marks.

Given these contextual challenges that are outside the HoDs’ control, 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.

Concluding discussion

This section summarises the two main findings related to the research questions and then uses the concepts of adaptive leadership and reciprocal accountability to explain and interrogate these findings.

The first main finding is that many HoDs in the “amber” schools noted that their participation in Jika iMfundo has resulted in more regular (routine) meetings with the staff in their department, improved curriculum coverage, improved relationships within departments and enhanced confidence regarding their own role as a HoD. Irvine and Price (2014) argue that professional conversations play a crucial role in PLCs to promote critical and collaborative reflection and transformational learning that lead to changes in practice. Our study shows that HoDs engage in professional conversations with their staff and they reflected, to a greater extent, on curriculum coverage and, to a lesser extent, on student learning and their own practice. They believed that professional conversations also resulted in better relationships within the departments.

Many HoDs in the “amber” schools found the training and the tools very helpful in understanding what their task as a HoD entails and helping them to plan for the year ahead. This was particularly noted by the novice HoDs who grew in confidence and appreciated the new knowledge and skills on how to manage and lead their departments. They had not received this knowledge and skills from their school or the DBE. The HoDs in “green” schools all said that they did not need the training or the tools, as they already felt confident in performing their HoD roles, had the support from their colleagues and School Management Team and already had a range of functional planning tools and practices in place. These schools have greater organisational capacity and human and physical resources than many of the no-fee schools.

The second finding is that time and school context are major constraints in HoDs’ ability to track and support curriculum coverage in their departments. HoDs from all schools are unanimous that the monitoring tools and trackers are simply too burdensome to complete as Jika iMfundo envisages. The workload carried by HoDs is either heavy or very heavy, depending on the administrative challenges resulting from their school context and the numbers of teachers in their departments. Many HoDs mentioned that it was not possible to hold one-on-one conversations as frequently as Jika iMfundo recommends, as they have too many teachers in their departments. This impacted on the nature of the support that they could provide for individual teachers. Instead, they held more frequent departmental meetings.

Leadership from a position of technical vs adaptive authority

We used the Adaptive Leadership Framework (Heifetz et al., 2009) to discuss HoDs’ leadership practices. The study shows that HoDs have an understanding of their three roles as outlined by Jika iMfundo, namely, to monitor teachers’ curriculum coverage and learners’ work, to support teachers to improve curriculum coverage and to assist teachers with problems related to curriculum coverage. However, findings suggest that they predominantly focus on the first role of regularly checking teachers’ curriculum tracking and, to a lesser extent, on the other two roles. It appears that HoDs in “amber” and “red” schools tend to take a more technical approach which favours the monitoring rather than the support aspect of their role. When asked about how they understood their role as a HoD, most participants in the “amber” and “red” schools described their monitoring roles and not their supportive roles through professional supportive conversations.

We suggest that HoDs in the “amber” and “red” schools are leading their departments from a technical position of authority rather than an adaptive position of authority. At a technical level, it appears that HoDs are following steps and processes which are externally driven. They are following the requirements of the curriculum trackers, learner monitoring tools and supervision tools, as these are driven by external forces. The strong external regulation from the DBE Subject Advisers and from the Jika iMfundo coaches on the monitoring process is likely to make HoDs focus on how their teachers are completing the trackers and lesson plans in a technical way. However, the HoDs were aware that some teachers simply completed the forms to “cover their heads” but felt that there was not much that they could do about it, given the contextual constraints and huge administrative burdens they face.

Jika iMfundo hopes that HoDs would move to a level of adaptive change which means that HoDs would move from a compliance approach to a more developmental approach to supervision which is “characterized by reflection, learning, behavioural change and improved teaching practice” (Module 2, p. 11). However, the HoDs in the “amber” and “red” schools were simply trying to “keep their heads above water” and manage all the competing demands on their time. Taking a technical approach is the best that they can do under very trying circumstances. It is unlikely HoDs will move to a more adaptive level of leadership unless the heavy administrative workloads required of HoDs are addressed. Thus, they are less likely to be able to play a developmental role which is a necessary aspect of reciprocal accountability.

The HoDs in the “green” ex-Model C schools seemed more likely to practice adaptive leadership. This practice reflects their professional confidence, which is supported by a school context and has a “flatter” organisational ethos, where there is greater collaboration and support amongst teachers. These schools also have more human resources and a more complex division of labour (Harley, Mattson, Bertram, Barasa, & Pillay, 2000, p. 263), such as grade controllers who focus on discipline issues and administrative staff who capture marks. This allows HoDs to focus more on academic issues of teaching and learning and provide more support to novice HoDs. The resources in these schools enable the HoDs to exercise more personal agency and provide greater support to their teachers. There is more evidence of reciprocal accountability (Elmore, 1996) in “green” schools which implies that HoDs are playing a more developmental rather than only a compliance supervisory role.

In conclusion, the study shows that the training and tools provided by Jika iMfundo are helpful for many HoDs in the “amber” and “red” schools. However, their ability to play a supportive and developmental role is constrained by the lack of time and contextual challenges in their schools. “Green” schools already have the organisational and planning capacity and collegial, supportive practices that Jika iMfundo is aiming to develop.