The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.
The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Succeeding against the odds: understanding resilience and exceptionalism in high-functioning township and rural primary schools in South Africa

Research Partners:

Photo: Vukani Primary School, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit: Konrad Glogowski/flickr under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Show map

Principal Investigator: Servaas Van Der Berg. Lead Organisation: Stellenbosch University

Co-investigators: Nicholas Andrew Spaull; Ursula Kate Hoadley; Jaamia Galant; Nicholas Christopher Taylor

The aim of the study is to understand resilience and exceptionalism in high-functioning township and rural primary schools in South Africa. Previous research has shown that a large part of the explanation behind these schools' success is the leadership and management practices of teachers and particularly principals. Despite this near universal acceptance of the pivotal role of school leadership and management (SLM) for student achievement, accurate quantitative indicators of these practices remain elusive. Put simply, we do not currently have appropriate questionnaires that can accurately capture the school leadership and management practices among schools in challenging contexts in developing countries. One of the reasons for this is that these instruments are designed primarily with a developed-country-context in mind and do not account for possibilities that are prevalent in developing countries and typical in challenging contexts.

Our previous research on schools in poor contexts in South Africa showed that deeper insights were obtained by a comparison between paired sets of schools with similar demographic and locational features, one performing poorly and the other performing strongly. This matched-pair approach is discussed briefly below. The proposed inter-disciplinary matched-pair analysis is, to the best of our knowledge, the first of its kind in either developing or developed countries.

The current research uses 30 matched-pairs (matching 30 exceptional schools and 30 typical schools) because this provides the stark relief needed to identify which practices are driving the difference between the high performing schools and the average/low-performing schools in rural areas and townships in South Africa. The research will involve five stages: (1) Use population-wide assessment data to identify 30 exceptional primary schools (and their 30 matched pairs) in townships and rural areas in South Africa, (2) Conduct an in-depth study of 12 of the schools (6 exceptional and 6 matched typical) (3) Using the insights gained from Stage 2 develop new, more accurate and more context-specific measures of school leadership and management and pilot these in a different set of 18 schools (9 matched-pairs); (4) After finalising the new questionnaire this will be administered to all 60 schools to capture the SLM practices and behaviours of all matched pairs. In addition the team will administer background questionnaires to staff and students and monitor the Annual National Assessments in each of the 60 schools, (5) The final stage will involve validating the SLM measures identified in Stage 2, developed in Stage 3 and captured in Stage 4. The aim here is to use rigorous quantitative analysis to determine whether or not these new measures of SLM practices and behaviours are systematically related and specifically their predictive or explanatory power.

 Further Resoources:


Who will benefit from this research?
The ultimate beneficiaries of this research are millions of primary school children in South African rural areas and townships, and those in similar contexts across Africa. The insights and understandings generated from this research will help researchers and policy makers to understand which elements of school leadership and management are most central to success in challenging contexts. This research will also systematically engage with the public and civil society, as public perceptions and civil society groups frequently pressurise government to select certain policy issues to pursue, but also because an explicit aim of the research is to highlight to the public that exceptional schools do exist even in challenging contexts. Although the primary beneficiary of a new, more contextually relevant School Leadership and Management (SLM) instrument would be researchers and government officials, some in civil society have also expressed interest. The Dept of Basic Education regularly conducts sample-based surveys of educational achievement and administers traditional SLM questionnaires. Similarly, those in civil society engaged in school improvement projects often request existing survey instruments to assess possible schools for interventions. The new SLM instrument would be made publicly available to all.
Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Fund Start Date: 
May 1st, 2016
Fund End Date: 
November 30th, 2018
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: