Start small to bring big change

How feasible are Communities of Practice (CoP) in poor functioning schools in KZN

“… getting good teaching for all learners require(s) teachers to be highly committed, thoroughly prepared, continuously developed, properly paid, well networked with each other to maximise their own improvement, and able to make effective judgements using all their capabilities and experience.”
Michael Fullan1

The Khanyisa Inanda Community Project (KICP) is a programme of the Inanda Seminary, the oldest black independent girls’ boarding schools in the country. Khanyisa’s aim and overall purpose is to work within the surrounding community public schools and ‘to improve access and equity in education’. Through a number of different interventions, KICP is attempting to ensure that ‘high quality education and professional development is available to disadvantaged students, teachers and leaders in these public schools in Inanda North and community schools in the greater Inanda area.’


One of Khanyisa’s areas of output is to provide ‘increased opportunities for principals and leaders of the public schools to enhance their leadership’. International research has shown that by increasing the professional learning and leadership opportunities available to school principals and leaders is the most effective way of affecting positive change at a school. There are various methods of achieving this, but reported2 to be the most successful is the establishment of professional learning communities (PLCs) and Communities of Practice (CoPs) for teachers and principals. By bringing together subject teachers, leaders, heads of departments and principals, educators share ideas, teaching and management practices, issues and successes. These PLCs and CoPs are exactly the kind of ‘professional collaboration’ that Michael Fullan talks about when discussing how to bring about change in schools and enable ‘good teaching’.

BRIDGE, an education NGO, based in Johannesburg was founded on the idea of collaboration and sharing practice and knowledge and they have had success in Gauteng and Limpopo in establishing CoPs with selected schools in these provinces. They define a community of practice as “an inclusive group of people, motivated by a shared learning vision, who support and work with each other, finding ways, inside and outside their immediate community, to enquire on their practice and together learn new and better approaches that will enhance all learners’ learning.”3 Their experience has shown them that for a CoP to be successful, a greater proportion of average to good functioning schools is required as members of the CoP.

Nic Spaull, an economist at the University of Stellenbosch, painted a grim picture of the state of public education in South Africa at a recent youth policy workshop. He states that about 96% of the 12 million learners in South Africa attend public schools, and within that sector, there are essentially two education systems – one performing well, the other ‘dysfunctional’4. Within KZN, and particularly the Pinetown Education District, within which the Khanyisa Inanda Community Project is working, this dichotomy between two very different education systems is highlighted clearly. Pinetown is known as a high-functioning education district; with a 78% matric pass rate in 2012 and ranked 36th amongst the country’s education districts.5 However, the Inanda North area has some of the poorest and most under-performing schools. Khamangwa Secondary School, one of the schools whose pupils attend the Khanyisa Saturday School programme had a 29% pass rate in 2012 and a 36% pass rate in 2015. Another of the schools, New River, had an 8.7% matric pass rate in 2015.

This divided landscape of the South African public education system brings challenges when trying to establish networks and professional partnerships. Within the well-functioning schools in South Africa, efforts at collaboration, collegial co-operation, sharing of information and resources have succeeded due to motivated and dedicated schools leaders and educators who have embraced the new policies since 1994 and who have been able to embed them within the policies and codes of conduct of their schools. One such collaboration is the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition (SAESC). The South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition is a Community of Practice that is run by BRIDGE and is made up of school leaders and teachers from schools around South Africa that define themselves as ‘impact schools’. Inanda Seminary is an example of one such school. These ‘high Impact, low fee-paying’ schools provide disadvantaged learners across South Africa with access to high-quality education. However, within the secondary ‘dysfunctional’ tier, there is very little ‘collective collaboration’.

Michael Fullan, in his book Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, highlights the difficulties faced in building networks and practices of co-operation in societies and communities which have historically been downtrodden and dis-empowered: “where it is difficult to establish cross-school networks or indeed any kind of professionally collaborative behaviour is in countries that have been, within the memory of one or two generations, forms of despotisms or dictatorships, where fear and corruption were (or still are) widespread and habits of suspicion and compliance are deeply ingrained; or in places where there is a deep-seated political culture of top-down control or competitive individualism.”6

The effects of the apartheid years on South Africa’s education system have been devastating and particularly in the schools found in the historically black townships and the outlying rural areas. As Nic Spaull states, “many of the inequalities in education overlap. School location, poverty and the language of learning and teaching all coincide to produce vast inequalities in public schooling…unequal education becomes a spiralling poverty trap, and matric is an ‘iceberg’. "7

Many of the schools within the Inanda North region can be categorised as poor-functioning schools. There is seldom any professional networking or collegial co-operation and most of the educational workshops are dictated by, and provided by the District Office. The schools are isolated both geographically and professionally. But at the same time, the experience of the Khanyisa programme has shown that the teachers and principals are desperate for input and mentoring at the coalface – at their schools.

So how do organisations involved in educational change engage with the teachers and the school leadership in the schools when according to Pam Christie, Professor in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town, there is such a “mismatch between the ideal and the actual”8?

The experience gained during the past few months in the Khanyisa Inanda Community Programme has suggested a three-pronged approach:

  • Start local: school leadership in South Africa is being shaped by two major forces: research and theory on school management and leadership from western educational literature and “a complex framework of post-apartheid policies introduced to reform the schooling system.”9 According to Pam Christie, this over-reliance on international research and an ever-increasingly tangled network of policies, regulations and rules is impeding any attempt to improve schools. Any reforms need to “engage seriously with local conditions and the day-to-day experiences of principals.”10
  • Start small: Khanyisa has begun by having monthly meetings with the principals whose students are attending the Khanyisa Saturday School Programme, building relationships with them and understanding the basic needs of their specific school. In addition, we have started Teacher-Time (TT) which is professional development sessions within the three community schools. Once every three weeks, during a school break, we provide a 15 minute PD session with teachers and leaders allowing time for questions and reflection. Both of these interventions involve concentrated time with the principals and teachers, at their schools, in their space and in a non-threatening manner.
  • Start talking – share stories: as we share stories and talk with one another, we can begin breaking down the years of fear and isolation.

Khanyisa means to ‘illuminate’. And we believe that by starting small in this way, we will “shine a light” on the “new story in education” which is “learner-focused, community and socially minded, collaborative and challenging”11. Potentially such small, local, community successes will ensure a good foundation upon which to build future communities of practice and collaboration. Through localised interventions, the teachers and school leadership are introduced to tools and resources with which to facilitate change within each of their own individual schools. It is only once collective responsibility has been taken for improving the learning within their own schools that the teachers and principals can aspire to external professional learning communities.


1 Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers’ College press; Toronto: Ontario Principals’ Council.
2 Hobden, P. A. & Hobden, S. D. (Oct, 2015). Models of support to improve Maths and Science : A Learning Journey. Presentation given at Zenex Foundation 20th Anniversary Symposium, Durban.
3 BRIDGE (2016). A Manual for Facilitators of Communities of Practice.
4 Green, P. (28th June 2016).The Forgotten Half: What about the students who didn’t make it to matric? Daily Maverick.
5 EduAction,(March 2013). Education Districts in South Africa: A review: District profiles, small schools and learner migration project for the national Department of Basic Education (DBE).
6 Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers’ College press; Toronto: Ontario Principals’ Council.
7 Green, P. (28th June 2016).The Forgotten Half: What about the students who didn’t make it to matric? Daily Maverick.
8 Christie, P. (2010). Landscapes of Leadership in South African Schools: Mapping the Changes. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 38(6).
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Richards, N. (22 July 2016), Challenging, collaborative and child-focused – young teachers reinvent teaching, Mail and Guardian.