Crisis or Opportunity? Wave of principal retirements looms

The embattled education system of South Africa faces another potentially devastating blow with the rate of retirement of school principals currently reaching 1400 per year.

This marks a 400% increase in retirements over the period between 2004 and 2008. The average age of current principals has also dramatically increased. Two thirds of the pool of ageing school leaders are now aged 55 or older – an increase from a mere 17% in this age-group 11 years ago.

New research identifying these trends argues that the looming crisis is a potential opportunity to remedy vast problems with school leadership in the country, however.

It is widely understood that principals play an enormous role in the performance of learners at a given school – second only to the role of a specific teacher in a learner’s performance in a particular subject. But the traits of an effective principal might not be what government has been funding, however.

The new research aiming to profile the labour market for principals in South Africa was authored by Gabrielle Wills, an economist at Stellenbosch University. Her research on school principals and the policy implications that follow was funded by the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development, a partnership between the South African Presidency and the European Union.

With schools already struggling to break the bonds of repressive Apartheid policies, Wills identifies various other rigidities impeding transformation in schools across various sectors.

Her findings indicate that there is an immensely uneven distribution of principals across schools in different socio-economic standings, and that current trends in the principal labour market build upon, and entrench these inequalities due to a number of factors.

Wills finds that there are exceptionally low levels of principal turnover at schools, and that the majority of that which does occur can be accounted for by attrition (i.e. moves out of the public education system). Furthermore, the average principal will hold their position for 10 years in South Africa, and will mostly have been promoted from within the same school they currently work at.

Principals in South Africa also tend to move only to other schools when their race does not match the majority of learners at their current school. Although these numbers have seen slight improvement for Black and Indian/Asian principals’ representation in ‘White’ schools, the case of other races moving to employment at ‘Black’ schools is not improving.

What Wills identifies as areas of opportunity to improve upon the rigid system of school leadership stems from her findings on the relationship between principals’ efficiency an both their qualifications and experience.

Wills identified the differences between principals of poor and wealthy schools, and determined whether the qualifications and experience captured on payroll data were a reliable indicator of the quality of principals.

Her findings clearly suggest that there is no significant relationship between a principal’s quality and their qualifications or experience. Current incentive structures measure and reward these two factors almost exclusively, either directly or indirectly, though, and could lead to further problems.

“[T]he system is at risk of what is termed ‘rent extraction’ where more value is taken out of the system than what is given. Principals access higher salaries with higher qualifications but fail to match their increased cost with added value, for example through engaging in behavioural change, increased responsibilities or raising their performance.”

Wills argues for an urgent change in the selection criteria of school principals that makes use of these findings, since so many new principals will both be required and hired in coming years. Failure to remedy identified empirical shortcomings in these processes now would see the problem persist for decades as the low mobility of principals in the labour market exacerbated these problems further.

Many of the recommended changes in principal selection are either fully, or in part, contained within the recommendations of the National Development Plan (NDP) and other policy documents already, but require retooling and/or reinvigorated approaches to better implementation.

One of the key challenges, however, will remain the involvement of the unions. With much historical resistance to the idea of overhauling the appointment procedures of educators, any attempt to impose new rules and or selection criteria that may require a form of competency test and performance evaluation on prospective principals will be met with resistance from, among others, SADTU.


The research conducted by Gabrielle Wills is available as a Working Paper by clicking here.