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partners-articleFrom left, Barabara Creecey, Gauteng MEC for education, with Symphonia for South Africa's Pete Laburn and Louise van Rhyn at the Partners for Possibility celebratory evening at Parktown Girls High School on 24 July.8 August 2013 – Partners for Possibility, an initiative that sees business leaders team up with school principals to improve the overall administration of schools, recently held its annual Johannesburg celebratory evening in an event attended by major players in education and the corporate world.

The initiative was founded in 2010 by Louise van Rhyn, director of the non-profit organisation Symphonia for South Africa, as a way to mobilise business, government, civil society and communities to work together to tackle problems in the country’s education system.

Over the past three years, over a hundred business leaders – including Bobby Godsell and James Motlasi – have joined up, giving 10 days a year to work with the principal of a local school. The partnership provides fresh insights and lends the skills of business to the running of the school, improving the quality of education. In return, the business leader gets to develop their own skills with hands-on experience in an environment they would not otherwise experience.

More than corporate social responsibility

Godsell was a keynote speaker at the celebratory event, held at Parktown Girls High School on 24 July. He said the project wasn’t only about improving education: it also helped build communities.

“It’s not just about doing good, it’s also about engaging with fellow South Africans. We won’t build a country by making each other feel guilty, we need to respect and learn to embrace each other.”

Partners for Possibility came out of the 2009 Dinokeng Scenarios’ call for active citizenship: “for government, business and civil society to work to together to build a united South Africa and to address the significant challenges facing the country”. The long-term goal is to achieve quality education for all South African children by 2022.

While corporate social investment is found in most business budgets, Partners for Possibility gives business people a chance to contribute in a hands-on way.

“It is a great feeling to do something that has nothing to do with money,” said Thomas Holtz, CEO of Multotech, “Instead of just cutting a cheque, I am actively part of something.”

Don’t forget the taxi drivers

Ashnie Muthusamy of Sun International, who has partnered with Bramley Primary School principal Noko Leso, agreed. “It is so easy in the corporate world to write a cheque as a CSI. However, going into uncharted territory and trying to build trust in a community, is a big and real challenge.”

Leso said her partnership with Muthusamy had given her new confidence. “One of the greatest benefits of having a Partner for Possibility is being able to share the challenges of my school without fear of being judged. Being able to do this has given me the confidence to involve others in the challenges I face as a principal. I have learned that solving problems at a school is not about the principal, it’s about involvement by all.”

Community involvement is central to the programme – particularly teachers and parents. “And the taxi drivers,” Muthusamy said with a laugh. “Never underestimate the power of the taxi drivers in a community.”

Muthusamy explained that because pupils depended on taxi drivers to get them to and from school, Leso the principal had to get the drivers to agree to change their routes and collect the children from school later in the afternoon, so they would be able to take part in new extramural activities.

“Noko already had all the solutions for the problems in her school,” Muthusamy said. “I just offered some structure to the already existing solutions.”

Support, not criticism

Pete Laburn, chairman of the Symphonia for South Africa board and a school partner, said that just as in the corporate world, many principals were put in leadership roles for their good technical skills, not necessarily for their leadership skills.

“This is a lonely and daunting position to be in, because they are always in the public eye and what they do can influence young minds. School principals need our support, not our criticism,” he said.

“We get to see gems that sit in our educational system, we see their commitment and we see the very difficult circumstances they endure. Being part of this programme is such a privilege. It is wonderful and exhilarating and I invite other business leaders to join.”

Gauteng MEC for Education, Barbara Creecy, agreed. “Anyone in a position of leadership needs support,” she said. “You need to be able to tell someone that you don’t know how to do things or, that you are scared.”

Co-learning

Symphonia’s Van Rhyn, who has partnered with Ridwan Samodien of Kannemeyer Primary School in Cape Town since 2010, stressed that Partners for Possibility is a two-way process.

“It is a co-learning initiative,” she said. “The business leaders are there to listen to what is needed and to support the principals in their daily challenges. And, that’s also where the co-learning starts. Business leaders suddenly find themselves out of their comfort zones – it is a very different experience to get people to respond or listen to you when they don’t see you as the boss.”

Nina Wellsted of Nedbank said her partnership with Richard Carelse, principal of Stoneridge Primary School, had given her valuable insights and skills that she could take back to her company.

“No corporate programme could ever be as good a leadership program as my Partners for Possibility experience has been,” she said.

The Cape Town celebratory evening, which will be addressed by Minister Trevor Manuel, will be held on 28 August at Bergvliet High School.

If you are a principal who wants to get involved in the programme, a business leader who wants to partner with a school, or if you want to support the project in some other way, contact Amanda Maree, Partners for Possibility operations manager, at amanda@symphonia.net or call 021 913 3507.

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