21st century schools have great expectations of generating individuals with refined knowledge, skills and values to make a positive impact on human existence. Paradoxically, the report of the Annual National Assessments paints a bleak picture of the quality of learner attainment in South African primary schools where basic skills in communication, problem solving and analytical thinking should take root. Fortunately, however, sporadic pockets of successful schools do exist. There appears to be an inextricable link between leadership and learner outputs, and learner attainment seems to fall squarely on the shoulders of the school principal. The purpose of this study was to investigate and unravel the leadership practices of principals of successful public primary school as they led in accountability- and standards-driven environments. The framework that guided this study was the four core leadership practices: setting direction; developing people; aligning the organisation for success; and leading and managing the instructional programme.
Valuable insights and a rich understanding of how successful primary school principals create, nurture and sustain the conditions and processes necessary for high levels of learner attainment and instructional improvement were generated via an inductive, qualitative study. Three successful schools in the Uthukela district of KwaZulu-Natal formed the purposive sample and data was gathered from each principal via direct interviews. Two focus group interviews and participant observation triangulated the data.
The findings revealed that in setting the direction for their school, principals focused on aligning and motivating their people towards a common vision that strongly correlated to personal aspirations. Principals engaged their staff in continuous professional development and were particular about the working milieus of teachers. They ensured that relationships were characterised by open communication, collaboration, democratic decision making and trust. Leadership was distributed and instruction was effectively led by principals working in close consultation with their management team. Due to extensive monitoring and evaluation, the status quo was often challenged and the curriculum adapted. The successful school principals adopted an inside-out approach to their leadership practices, and they resorted to match-fit and hierarchical breakdown.
The study recommends that all principals should align their personal vision with the organisational vision, teach human resource management to all line managers, and establish and foster professional learning communities.