Leadership Identity in Ethnically Diverse Schools in South Africa and England Opening a dialogue about diversity



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Research methods
The research focused on the leaders of a primary school in an urban context in South Africa and in England. The schools were purposively selected as in both cases the learner profile had changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time, and now comprises a large majority of African or Asian heritage children. In both cases, a relatively stable majority of white teachers remains. The similarity in the micro level change was important in providing a comparative context. The senior team in both schools faces challenges which are not only similar to each other, but evident in many other schools internationally.
One school is located in the Western Cape province. The population is majority white, Afrikaans-speaking, with the largest number of Afrikaans-speaking ‘coloured’ people (as defined pre-1994 and still in use as a defining term1) of any province in South Africa. There are fewer black people than in any other province. The primary school is in a former white urban area, located near a former coloured township area. The community around the school can be classified as disadvantaged socio-economically, with 33 per cent of families depending on welfare money and a large percentage of single parents.
The school learners and educators were exclusively white until 1995. In 2007, when the research was undertaken, the learner population had increased by 43 per cent and now comprises approximately 75 per cent children coloured, approximately a tenth white and a tenth black, and one per cent Indian, using the classifications that would have been use in 1994 before majority rule was achieved. Figures are given approximately to protect anonymity. The main home language of coloured and white children is predominantly Afrikaans, while the black children speak Xhosa at home. Overall in Western Cape, formerly white schools ‘comprised 38% white, 41% ‘Other’, 3% African and 17% coloured’ (Chisholm and Sujee, 2006, p. 147). The case school is therefore not typical. The 10 per cent of white students is lower than in comparable schools, and the percentage of coloured and African students higher. It is therefore an example of dramatic change, as defined earlier, and its experience may be not necessarily typical of South African schools, but may be close to that of those schools in any nation which experience dramatic change. The school management team (SMT) consists of the principal, two deputy principals and four heads of departments (HoD). About a quarter of staff are coloured (as defined per 1994), but only one coloured member of staff has held a formal leadership role as head of department, when she acts as replacement for an absent HoD. All the members of the SA school management team (SMT) were interviewed and the additional staff member, as she has been an acting head of department for numerous periods.
Details about the school in England are given in general terms to protect its anonymity. It is in a city where over 90 per cent of the population is white. However the profile is changing rapidly with nearly 20 per cent of school entrants black or minority ethnic, reflecting among other groups a large influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. The city is in the top quartile of deprivation in England and the school is one of the most socially deprived districts in the city. It has experienced a considerable decrease in the proportion of white learners. The majority (over 90 per cent) is now of Asian heritage and there are also a number of students who are of African heritage and Europeans with a range of home languages. Within the school are children who speak eleven home languages. Only 15 per cent speak English as a home language. Exact percentages indicating the ethnic profile of learners who are not of Asian origin were not available in the school. In England, some cities have seen large immigrant populations from Central and Eastern European countries as part of the largest single inflow of immigration ever experienced (Office for National Statistics, 2007). The clustering of families of Asian heritage is also evident in a small number of cities. The case school is therefore not typical of the majority of schools, but reflects the challenges faced by a significant minority. The support staff, such as teaching assistants, language support staff, dinner supervisors and cleaners, are primarily minority ethnic. However, only one teacher is minority ethnic. The rest are white. The SMT consists of the principal and four heads of year, that is, responsible for a particular age group. However, other teachers hold leadership roles, such as responsibility for a particular curriculum area. The English school suggested that all teachers had a leadership role. Therefore those formally in the SMT and a purposive sample of further teachers were interviewed. The range of respondents is indicated in Table 1.

As the focus of interest was how leaders experience and perceive their identities and how this relates to their leadership in ethnically diverse schools, interviews were chosen as the means to probe people’s self perceptions and their perceptions of others. There is no assumption that a single reality could be discerned by such a method; rather, identity is conceived as a performance captured during its ongoing and fluid construction and perceived through the prism of language. Understanding is mutually created by the respondent and researcher. Scheurich (1995) argues that wresting unambiguous meaning from interviews ‘borders on a kind of violence’ (p. 242). The researchers therefore accept that there is an ambiguity at the heart of communication by language, both between interviewer and interviewee and between writer and reader. Nevertheless, we attempt to achieve some sense of the possible meaning and implications for leaders by a mutually constructed exploration of how people see their identity, their orientation to diversity and the implications for practice.


Individual interviews were conducted by one of two researchers. Both researchers carried out interviews in each of the two schools. The schedule which guided the semi structured interview consisted of questions to explore the respondents’ understanding of their own position as a leader in the school, their conception of their own identity and how they conceived diversity and its impact on the staff. Each interview lasted for about a half hour. English was used with the exception of four South African interviews which were conducted in Afrikaans and then translated into English. The interviews were recorded and transcribed.
In South Africa all but one respondent was white, with Afrikaans as their first language; one had English as a first language and indicated her identity as ‘coloured’. In England the respondents were all but one white, apart from a teacher who was not a member of the senior management team (SMT). English was the first language of all. The data was analysed to identify themes within the main foci of diversity and leadership in schools and the differences and similarities in concepts and experience drawn from the thematic analyses. The two researchers were a white English-speaking woman from the UK and a white Afrikaans-speaking man from South Africa. They therefore bring an insider and an outsider perspective to the data from each country. Both will be positioned by a particular history and identity and it is acknowledged that this will inevitably influence how they see and how they interpret.

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