Improving the school principal appointment process is a national priority

The education sector is in the spotlight this week with the release of an interim investigation report into corruption in the appointment process for educators and principals in South African schools. The investigation, headed up by Professor John Volmink, was initiated after allegations of high levels of nepotism in the appointment process, as well as the sale of posts for cash – with ensuing violent crimes – that have been linked to principal appointments in the past year.

The interim report confirms that there has been widespread manipulation and corruption and arrests are imminent. The gravity of the findings have been acknowledged by the National Department of Education as they note weaknesses in the system and the need to freeze new appointments  until improvements to the process have been implemented (see media report).

While extremely sobering, the investigation’s findings are a move in the right direction to eliminating corruption in education. But the findings are also very timeous as the country faces a rising and increasing number of principal replacements, as identified in new research by Gabrielle Wills.

With a rapid increase in the average age of school principals and around 24 000 public schools, South Africa is likely to require at least 1 000 principal replacements per year for the next decade just to replace retiring principals. The opening of these large numbers of vacant school leadership posts raises the urgency to eliminate corruption in appointments and to improve weak national policy leading to bad appointments, while the opportunity exists.

This is particularly important in a context where the average tenure of principals is long (almost ten years) and they face little threat to job-security, especially in provinces with strong SADTU representation. Wills identifies that, on average, less than 1 in a 1 000 principals were dismissed in South Africa in 2011.

Nationally, processes and short-listing criteria governing appointments require that to apply for a principal post, a candidate must possess at least 7 years of teaching experience and a Relative Educational Qualifications Value (REQV) of 14. But rough calculations suggest that about 87% of all educators (excluding principals) meet these requirements, as is. The existing national criteria, therefore, provide little to no value in sifting out weaker candidates.

Even in the absence of corruption, highly unsuitable principals may be appointed despite following ‘due process’. Yet raising qualification criteria is not the answer to improving the appointment process.  Consistent with international research, Wills finds that in the majority of South African schools, principals’ years of service and REQV level ranking have little observable relationship with student performance in the school’s they lead, but are correlated with remuneration scales.

The National Development Plan does address this issue, recommending the introduction of competency-based testing in the appointment process for principals in efforts to improve the calibre of school leadership. It also recommends the introduction of performance contracts which, if implemented successfully, would require higher levels of effort from school leaders and provide substantiation for dismissing under-performers.

Wills’ research finds strong support for both recommendations. Competency-based testing may assist in identifying better quality candidates and where managed by an independent third party may limit the influence that union members and corrupt stakeholders have on the appointment process.


A published version of Wills’ research on the principal labour market can be accessed through the South African Journal of Childhood Education, here.