Confident: Kannemeyer Primary School principal Ridwan Samodien, whose year-long partnership with Partners for Possibility led to a strategy to increase parental involvement in the school. The strategy gave Samodien the confidence to approach businesses and NGOs to assist the school with resources. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Confident: Kannemeyer Primary School principal Ridwan Samodien, whose year-long partnership with Partners for Possibility led to a strategy to increase parental involvement in the school. The strategy gave Samodien the confidence to approach businesses and NGOs to assist the school with resources. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

Eight years ago, Kannemeyer Primary School principal Ridwan Samodien was floundering. Trained as a fine arts teacher, he had never been taught to be a manager, yet he had been steadily promoted until he found himself in a role he was ill-equipped to handle.

"We were bleeding kids. We lost teaching posts, we lost the deputy principal. People said I didn’t know what I was doing," he says.

Nowadays Samodien exudes confidence and energy, thanks to the nongovernmental organisation Partners for Possibility (PfP), which pairs business leaders with principals of schools in previously disadvantaged areas to boost their managerial and leadership capacity.

It was founded by leadership development consultant Louise van Rhyn, who upon returning to SA after a stint overseas was struck by the chasm between the education on offer to her own middle-class children and those from poorer families.

"We have 25,000 government schools. Five thousand of them are doing very well, but they are built on white privilege and have an ecosystem that allows them to so: their principals have been equipped for the task; they have teachers who know how to teach; functioning school governing bodies and parents; and are surrounded by people who bring their knowledge, resources and skills to the school. Everything is setting them up for success," says Van Rhyn, who is also the director and founder of Symphonia for SA, which focuses on nation-building projects.

Samodien was running a school that was the opposite of all she describes: it is in Grassy Park, a community in which unemployment runs high, substance abuse is rife and many children arrive at school in the morning with an empty stomach. Unlike principals in more affluent suburbs who can draw on a wealth of community resources — be it fund-raising talent, volunteers to run the library or book-keeping know-how — Samodien had little support from parents.

To make matters worse, the school is categorised a quintile-five school — it is classed as serving a community among the most affluent 20% and it therefore receives less government money than a quintile-one school serving the poorest of communities. It is expected to charge school fees to supplement its revenue, but that is a tall order when the community it serves has many families who struggle to make ends meet.

That need is reflected in the school kitchen, which provides 300-400 meals a day that is supported by the Peninsula School Feeding programme.

Van Rhyn approached the Western Cape education department, looking for a school principal to work with, and ended up partnering Samodien.

"I had much more impact with him than in any large corporate: my previous clients [which included the likes of Marks & Spencer and the BBC] would say they had seen it all before," she says.

Their year-long partnership led them to devise a strategy to increase parental involvement in the school and gave Samodien the confidence to approach businesses and NGOs to assist the school with resources ranging from library books to playground equipment. The partnership also helped him manage the school better, reflected in improved grade 3 maths and English marks.

PfP has assisted 1,630 principals and business leaders across SA and has reached more than 625,000 children. Business leaders pay a fee to work with a principal for 12 months in a process facilitated by a coach, and they work with a small group of other participants to devise innovative ways to deal with challenges. They draw up a school improvement plan and figure out how to get the local community involved in implementing it. "It was an incredible co-learning experience," says Nedbank head of sustainability for retail banking Nina Wellsted, who partnered with the principal of Stoneridge Primary School in Alberton.

"It opened my eyes to the extent of the social ills we face as a country and was the start of my own journey into socioeconomic development," she says.

People’s attitudes to education is not what it should be

Nedbank is PfP’s largest corporate investor, and has sent 50 of its staff on the programme.

"As the school principals become more energised, the teachers become more involved and learner performance improves. You see the principals become more skilled and confident, able to pursue support from benefactors and the school becomes a beacon of hope for the community," she says.

Samodien and Van Rhyn remain in regular contact.

"People’s attitudes to education is not what it should be. There are still some parents who don’t even collect their kids’ report cards," Samodien says. "But we have gone from a gutter school to one that provides a much more holistic education," he says.

• Kahn is Business Day and Financial Mail’s science and health writer.

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