Execs Back to School 2021: business-education partnerships key to creating #TheFutureWeWant

Business executives who participated in the third annual Execs Back to School initiative have gained a deeper understanding of what is required to the education system in an effective and sustainable manner, as South Africans continue to grapple with the challenges of the pandemic, social unrest, poverty and inequality.

This is according to Symphonia for South Africa’s (SSA) CEO, Komala Pillay, adding: “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many fractures in our society. As a nation, we knew these challenges existed, but they came to a head when we experienced unprecedented social unrest earlier this year. It is becoming increasingly clear that in order to tackle these underlying challenges, we must focus our attention on enhancing local leadership in our schools, promoting active citizenship and forming partnerships that transcend the barriers of culture, race and gender.’’

On 14 and 15 September, business executives took part in the 2021 edition of Execs Back to School hosted by Symphonia for South Africa’s flagship programme Partners for Possibility (PfP), and proudly sponsored by investment holding company Sphere Holdings. In order to accommodate Covid-19 protocols, business executives participated in an in-person or a virtual school visit with a principal from an under-resourced community in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Durban.

Commentating on her Execs Back to School experience, Development Practitioner, SSA Board Chair and PfP alumnus, Melanie Burke, remarked: ‘’It is amazing what is possible when conscious leaders, who are also active citizens, partner with schools to impact their educational outcomes.’’

Echoing Burke’s sentiment, former CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Bandile Mkhize, touched on the need for producing ethical leaders. ‘’We have a dearth of good, ethical leaders at the moment. We can’t talk about our learners becoming our future leaders when we haven’t created a model of leadership that young people can aspire to. This is how we will create a better future.’’

Mike Donaldson, CEO of RMB Corvest, acknowledged that the success of the public education sector was critical to the success of the business sector, explaining, ‘’I participated today because I wanted to know more about the challenges in our schools, and what role government and business can play.’’

A common point of discussion for participating principals was the successful rollout of remote learning programmes at their schools.

Principal Vuyo Mwakanzi of Emadwaleni Secondary in Soweto, raised the issue of access to data to facilitate remote learning. “Business has successfully migrated to remote working since the pandemic began. Rotational timetables at school is a challenge for us. Working together, how can we best assist learners so that they have access to data to do their schoolwork at home?’’

In a raw account of what principals in under-resourced communities encounter on a daily basis, Richard Masemola, principal of Emshukantambo Secondary, Pimville, said: ‘’We are dealing with psycho-social issues in our schools, issues that perpetuate violence, bullying and vandalism. Our efforts as leaders are often undermined by the communities we serve. We deal with child-headed households, extreme poverty and uninvolved parents. We need to address those issues first before we can teach, but we are not equipped with skills or monetary backing to do this. How do we help no-fee schools, especially, to combat these issues?

Although a lack of funds was cited as an immediate challenge, principals stressed that partnerships between business and education should not be limited to monetary transactions.

Principal of Midrand High, Conrad Purchase, said that there was a disconnect between perceptions of how schools are run and the reality on the ground, adding that, ‘’business leaders have an important role in sharing thought processes on how we can manage schools better.’’

Principal Thabo Dolo of Brixton Primary, Johannesburg, spoke about how schools can use business models to improve the education system. ‘’At Brixton Primary, we have been borrowing ideas from the business world to implement at the school. We want our children to be market ready for employment.’’

Nkateko Eddie Manzini, a former learner from PfP school, Zonkizizwe High in Katlehong, gave an account of how of PfP has positively impacted his journey from a high school learner unsure about the future to a confident, capable adult. He closed off the event with this thought: ‘’The future we want starts with all of us building better communities. How can we inspire before we expire?’’

Following the school visits, participants attended an online debrief event the next day to share their insights and reflect on their experience.

CEO of Sphere Holdings and avid supporter of Execs Back to School, Itumeleng Kgaboesele, called on the audience to think about the impact that could be created if more business leaders partnered with school principals. ‘’There is no doubt that our communities are in stress due to the pandemic and recent social unrest. The reality is that our schools have lost up to half the academic year and teaching time. There are more child-headed households and teenage pregnancy is on the rise. Schools play a role in alleviating this stress, and good principals are able to positively impact the school stakeholders and the broader community. PfP gives business leaders the tools to make a contribution while also improving their own ability to lead.’’

Highlighting the importance of collaboration across different sectors, Collaboration Convener of Kaleidoscope Lights and SSA Board Member, Robyn Whittaker, said: ‘’When we collaborate, we see networks open up, and the possibility for creating and accessing solutions to our seemingly intractable problems. The challenges facing our schools are complex, and differ in each school even though superficially they seem similar. Therefore, one of the greatest skills our principal and educators require is the ability to navigate this complexity. The emotional support and engagement with another leader is very helpful.’’

Transformational Coach and Speaker, experienced business executive and Founder of the Summits with a Purpose initiative, Saray Khumalo, featured as the main speaker of the event.

Khumalo, sharing her inspirational story of personal triumph, put the following to the audience: ‘’Can we afford to leave our children and their education behind? Can we afford to let our children go through life as second-class citizens? Can we keep the future we need alive by daring to push further? Education is indeed the great equaliser, but it is only possible with the right partnerships. Our power lies not as individuals, but as a collective.’’

If you are a socially conscious business leader who would like the opportunity to contribute to education through a partnership with a principal from an under-resourced school please contact Dorcas@Symphonia.net or visit www.PfP4SA.org for more information