Sunday, July 4, 2010

ISER paper Dreyer



Theme: “Effective schools in effective systems”

Lorna M Dreyer

Faculty of Education

Department of Educational Psychology

Stellenbosch University

South Africa

Creating effective schools through collaborative support


If the goals for Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium goals are to be met, education systems need to respond to the diverse needs of all learners in schools. Effective schools recognise and address the diverse needs of the learners. Education systems across the globe are thus faced with the challenge to understand the complexity of the dynamic interactions and interrelationships between the systems and sub-systems in schools from an ecological systems theory perspective.

As the demands on teachers increase, collaboration among professionals can contribute to the development of effective schools. Institution level support teams (ILST) as envisioned in Education White Paper 6, proposes a collaborative support base for schools as a whole. This approach to the provision of support compels us to rethink and reconceptualise the way in which learning support is provided for and delivered in schools.

An Ecosystemic perspective

An ecosystemic perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1992) provides a valuable contribution for understanding the interconnectedness of the individual learner and the challenges of addressing social issues and barriers to learning. In agreement with the notion of interconnectedness of systems, the Education White Paper 6 on Special Needs Education (Department of Education, 2001:7) recognises that barriers to learning may arise from a range of factors from within the learner (internally). However, it is also acknowledge that a number of factors in the system (externally) may contribute to creating the barriers such as negative attitudes to and stereotyping of differences, an inflexible curriculum and inappropriate and inadequate support services.

In the provision of learning support, cognisance should therefore be taken of all factors as they relate within the school as a system. Addressing the provision of learning support from an ecosystemic perspective provides insight into understanding the development of learners – both holistically and in context. Secondly, it provides insight into understanding classrooms and schools by viewing them as systems in interaction with the broader social context. Thirdly, it provides an understanding of how the origins, maintenance, and solutions to social issues, as well as the barriers to learning caused by them, cannot be separated from the broader social context and the systems within it (Donald, Lazarus, & Lolwana. 2002: 57-58).

The constant dynamic interaction in and between systems brings about inevitable forces of change, which cannot necessarily be predicted. To understand the value of addressing learning support collaboratively it is imperative that the context set by socio-political developments in South Africa be taken into account. Its impact on the move towards inclusive education cannot go unrecognised.

In providing quality education for all learners it is furthermore important to consider the individual culture of each school and its capacity for change and development (Hopkins & Harris, 1997: 147). However, Ainscow (1998: 70) argues that debates on school improvement largely exclude the learners experiencing barriers to learning. Ainscow attributes this to the fact that the fields of special needs education and that of school improvement have, traditionally, been treated separately. However, if the provision of learning support is viewed from an ecosystemic approach, learning support becomes a whole-school and therefore a mainstream issue. The provision of learning support and ensuring quality education for all learners cannot remain the responsibility of a few individuals. It becomes the responsibility of the whole staff as they collaborate within the subsystems of the school system. According to Moran and Abbot (2002: 162) teamwork is the most critical strategy for creating successful learning experiences for all, regardless of barrier. Researchers generally agree about the potential of collaboration in group context regarding support in and for schools (Swart & Pettipher, 2005; Engelbrecht, 2004; Dyson, 2005; Gerschel, 2005; McLeskey & Waldron, 2000; Creese, Daniels & Norwich, 1997).

Fleisch (2002: 96) conceptualises the nature of this dynamic interconnectedness of the ecosystemic approach in the following words: “school improvement projects must be explained in their political context. Again political contexts vary from the micro politics of the school to district / local government politics to the national scene”. These three broad categories are not mutually exclusive. This conceptualisation correlates closely with the school as organisation as proposed by Sterling and Davidoff (2000: 46). They present the school as organisation situated within an external context. This context consists of the immediate community, the larger city, South Africa, and finally, the world.

The following graphic presentation (Fig. 1) is an adapted and expanded version of the “School as Organisation Framework” proposed by Sterling and Davidoff (2000: 42). This framework is proposed to view learning support in a whole-school context.

Figure 1: An ecosystemic model for the provision of learning support within a whole school approach

This diagram frames the school as micro system within the broader contexts of the macro and global systems. The school as micro system is further influenced by contextual factors encapsulated within the local community structures and organisations, as well as the family and peer groups that lie on the periphery of the school as a system. Within the school there are constant dynamic interactions between all the subsystems. The diagram (Fig. 1) displays this vibrant interaction between the classroom and the management, education policies, curriculum, institution level support team (ILST), assessment committee and the learning support teacher. These subsystems are constantly in interaction with each other. This dynamic interaction invariably necessitates collaboration. It is furthermore clear from the diagram that the school’s culture and norms are at the centre of the leadership and management of the school. This culture and values will be evident in the accepted ways of thinking about effective schools and the provision of learning support within a whole school approach. This value system permeates all subsystems and has a direct impact on the classroom and all the other systems in the school.

The development of effective school systems in South Africa enables us to ask crucial questions, such as whether this newly established ILST contributes to addressing the needs of all learners in a particular school.


According to Engelbrecht (2004: 248) the term “collaboration” is frequently used to describe “professional interactions or discussions about emerging ways to support schools, teachers, children and their families”. Wiggins and Damore (2006:49) define collaboration as “a system of planned cooperative activities where general educators and special educators share roles and responsibility for student learning”. The awareness of the importance of collaboration is clearly visible as schools increasingly develop and implement innovative support structures and collaborative teams (Gerschel, 2005: 75).

Strengthened Support structures

Establishing ILST’s in all educational institutions is the government’s way of strengthening support structures systemically (Department of Education, 2001). This ILST is responsible for co-ordinating learner and educator support services. They are to provide collaborative support by identifying and addressing learner, educator and institutional needs (Department of Education, 2001: 29). Provincial education departments provided schools with guidelines for the implementation of these support teams at school level (Landsberg, 2005: 67; Western Cape Education Department, 2003).

The ILST comprises teachers available, but should include a learning support teacher, referring teacher, principal, member of the school assessment team, etc. Each member has a specific responsibility towards the team (Landsberg, 2005: 67). The team is collectively responsible for suggestions to support the learner, while the referring (responsible) teacher has to implement strategies suggested (Landsberg, 2005: 67; Western Cape Education Department, 2003: 14).

Terminology regarding teams vary and include terms such as multidisciplinary teams (Dyson, 2005) collaborative teams (Gerschel, 2005), mainstream assistance teams (McLeskey & Waldron, 2000) and teacher support teams (Creese, Daniels & Norwich, 1997). They all, however, provide consultative support to teachers in addressing the needs of learners.

The proposed strengthened support system for the new South Africa is based on a systemic approach whereby district- and institution-based support teams focus on collaborative support to the personnel instead of face-to-face interventions with individual learners (Department of Education, 2001: 47; Engelbrecht, 2001: 80).

The ILST is to be supported by the district-level support team (DBST) established at district offices. According to Education White Paper 6, the “district support teams will provide the full range of education support services, such as professional development in curriculum and assessment, to these institutional-level support teams” (Department of Education, 2001: 29). The newly implemented ILST has a profound impact on the traditional role of the mainstream teacher.

Effective and functional ILST

In a recent evaluation research study it was established that a functioning ILST is prerequisite for a learning support model implemented in the Western Cape Province (SA). This model was introduced to systemically deal with barriers to learning in some primary schools in the province. One aspect responsible for efficacy of the learning support model is effective and functional ILST’s. The function of the ILST is to co-ordinate learning support services at an institutional (school) level. It requires collaboration between mainstream teachers and learning support staff within a whole school approach.

The study on which this paper is based evaluated the efficacy, constraints of a learning support model and implications for improved provision of learning support. A mixed methods research design was followed within a pragmatic philosophical framework. The evaluation was done sequentially, generating and integrating qualitative and quantitative data. The population included primary schools that had a learning support teacher in the Westcoast/Winelands area of the Western Cape province. Findings indicated that learning support provision is ineffective. Constraints were identified on all levels of the education system.

One such constraint was identified to be ineffective ILST’s. In schools as educational institutions established and functional ILST’s play a significant role regarding the reconceptualisation of learning support provision.

The role of the principal
Providing quality learning support can invariably contribute to the provision of quality education for all in the whole school. Swart and Pettipher (2001: 38) assert that principals have to be dynamic leaders with a vision to promote school reform that ultimately culminates in optimal outcomes for all learners. According to Salisbury and Mc Gregor (2002: 260) the importance of the school principal as a leader in “establishing and maintaining an ongoing focus on school improvement and support for change has been well established in theory and practice”. As the role of the ILST is to collaboratively support the teaching and learning process, it is imperative that the principal support its function. It is also the principal’s responsibility to ensure that the senior management team and school governing body take ownership and support changes towards the development of an inclusive ethos in the school.

Discussion / Findings

The analysis of both the questionnaires and the focus-group interviews made it clear that although schools have established ILST’s which works remarkably well on paper, they do not function effectively. While 95% of learning support teacher respondents reported that they withdraw learners from the mainstream class for additional support at level two of the learning support model, only 85% report that all the learners they support at level two are referred through the ILST. One of the impeding factors that prevent the ILST to meet regularly is that ILST members are ordinary mainstream teachers who are also expected to perform extra-curricular duties. In most cases it seems that the learning support teacher plays an important role. However, data analysis suggests that there are a few misconceptions about the role of the ILST. Instead of being a collaborative forum with teachers supporting one another other in order to support the teaching and learning process as proposed in Education White Paper 6, some learning support teachers feel that they are responsible for giving all the advice. Nonetheless, data from both focus-group interviews and the survey indicates that the majority of mainstream teacher respondents feel that they do get support from the ILST. However, according to the content analysis of the learning support teachers’ focus-group, the ILST has become a vehicle through which mainstream teachers can refer learners for automatic withdrawal. This might be linked to the fact that 38% of the mainstream teachers who took part in the survey do not consider themselves equipped to address barriers to learning in their classes. Data also reveals that 76% of mainstream respondents have no remedial or learning support qualifications. This finding has significant bearing on mainstream teachers’ self perceived levels of competence.

The importance of the role of the principal was reiterated in the data analysis. There was general consensus that the principal and senior management team play an essential role in the provision of learning support. One respondent aptly described the principal as the “driving force” behind the ILST. The majority of the respondents were of the opinion that the principal, as authoritative figure in the school, has a vital role to play in ensuring that effective learning support is provided to learners experiencing barriers to learning. If the principal is unconcerned about the functioning of the ILST and the support provided by the learning support teacher, the staff will follow suit. However, data shows some discrepancy in the opinions of learning support and mainstream teachers regarding the support provided by the principal. Mainstream teachers are more inclined to say that the principal supports the ILST. Learning support teachers, who are dependent on the effective functioning of the ILST for the provision of support on level two of the learning support model, are less inclined to hold this opinion. As one respondent said in the focus group interview, she cannot wait for the ILST to meet before she helps a learner, because it takes too long.


Effective collaboration among professionals to address the diverse needs of the learners in schools can contribute significantly to the development of effective school systems. Collaborating teams should represent the practical embodiment of a school’s commitment to provide education for all. However, although schools have established ILST’s the data revealed that it does not function effectively. It showed that meetings are held irregularly, and even when there is an ILST meeting, it is not a collaborative search for the best possible solutions to address learners’ needs. It is experienced as an advice-giving session, or merely a referral procedure for withdrawal (support by a specialist outside the mainstream classroom). Furthermore many contextual factors make effective functioning very difficult. It was also found that not all principals support the functions of the ILST.

Sustainable institution level support teams
To ensure sustainable ILST’s, provincial education departments has the responsibility to provide continued and regular support and training to schools. In this training cognisance should be taken of impeding contextual factors within schools and the education system in general. Therefore it might be necessary to provide individual schools with alternative ways of implementation that will contribute to the establishment of functional ILST’s. (E.g. allowing phase or grade groups to constitute as a collaborative team).

However, an effective and well functioning DBST at district level is a prerequisite if ILST’s is intended to be a team that collaboratively co-ordinates learner and educator support services in schools. The DBST has the direct responsibility to support and train the ILST at schools.

It is further essential that this function should not be relinquished to any one directorate, for this will perpetuate the belief that the ILST is another form of special needs provision, which is contrary to the aims of a systemic approach to collaboratively provide learning support in schools.


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