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PhD Thesis 

Candidate: Gabrielle Wills
Supervisor: Professor Servaas van der Berg
Institution: Stellenbosch University, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, Department of Economics


This dissertation considers two factors that are considered critical to disrupting an existing culture of inefficiency in the production of learning in South Africa, namely school leadership and teachers’ unions.
This first part of the dissertation positions itself within a growing discourse in the economics literature, and in local policy circles, on the importance of harnessing the role of school principals as a route to educational progress. Using a unique dataset constructed by matching administrative datasets in education, the study aims to provide greater specificity to our understanding of the labour market for school principals in South Africa. Chapter two constructs a quantitative profile of this market with implications for policy reforms in raising the calibre of school leadership. It identifies existing inequalities in the distribution of qualified and experienced principals across poorer and wealthier schools, gender disparities in principal positions, low levels of principal mobility across the public education system and high tenure. Together, the evidence points to the need for policies aimed at improving the initial match of principals to schools while developing incumbent principals over their length of tenure. The findings highlight that improving the design and implementation of policies guiding the appointment process for principals is a matter of urgency. A substantial and increasing number of principal retirements are taking place across South African schools given a rising age profile of school principals. Selection criteria need to be amended to identify relevant expertise and skills, rather than relying on principal credentials as captured in payroll data which are shown to be poor signals of principal quality.

While the rising number of principal retirements presents an opportunity to replace weaker principals with better performing ones, this will be accompanied by various challenges including recruiting, selecting and hiring suitable candidates. Moreover, it takes time for school principals to have their full effect on school environments and initially, school performance may decline in response to a leadership succession. Using a fixed effects estimation approach, chapter three suggests that principal changes are indeed initially detrimental to school performance, especially in poorer schools. These results are robust to using an alternative estimation strategy following the work of Heckman, Ichimura and Todd (1997) to control for additional sources of estimation bias. The chapter also considers two mechanisms through which school leadership changes may impact on school performance, namely through rising promotion rates and teacher turnover.

After the discussion on school leadership, chapter four shifts its focus to measure teacher union impacts on educational outcomes by investigating a disruption hypothesis that student learning is lost as a direct consequence of teacher participation in strike action, particularly the intensive public sector strike of 2007. The study exploits heterogeneity that exists within schools in the level of teacher union militancy to control for confounding factors that may bias estimates of strike effects. An across-subject within-student analysis, following an approach by Kingdon and Teal (2010), suggests that teacher strike participation negatively affects learning for students in the poorest three quarters of schools in South Africa. However, the discussion reveals difficulties in isolating out, specifically, unobserved teacher characteristics that may bias the observed strike effect. There is suggestive evidence that the most marginalised students in rural areas, and those that are weaker academically, are most at risk of learning losses as a result of teacher strikes. In this respect, industrial action has implications for widening existing inequalities in student achievement across the South African education system.