Experiences and practices of school principals in creating, leading and governing democratic schools.
A predominantly authoritarian nature of schooling is still evident internationally and nationally (Maitles & Deuchar, 2007; Harber, 2004; Grant, 2006). In accordance with the Constitution of South Africa, schools in this country need to foster a democratic way of life and principals need to be instrumental in creating, leading and governing democratic schools. Dewey (1916) asserts that if individuals are to pursue and establish a democratic way of life, they must be afforded opportunities to learn the meaning of that way of life. Thus democratic schools play a pivotal role in their contribution to democratic societies (Beane & Apple, 1999; Gutmann, 1987) and to democracy at large. This empirical study explores the experiences and practices of school principals in creating, leading and governing democratic schools in an urban area, south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Situated within an interpretive paradigm, this study is embedded in qualitative research. For a deep understanding of the phenomenon a case study approach was appropriate. Two secondary schools whose principals were willing to participate and which had some characteristics of democratic schools as outlined in the literature review comprised the sample. Data were gathered through observations of the principals. In addition staff meetings, staff briefing sessions and school governing body (SGB) meetings were observed. Semi-structured interviews were conducted and various school documents were reviewed. Findings at both schools revealed that the principals associated democratic schools with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, and as such they claimed that democratic schools are linked to democratic principles. At both of the case study schools the respondents made reference to a range of democratic principles. These included shared decision-making, with emphasis on inclusion of all stakeholders, and the need for a shared purpose and shared vision. Both of the schools advanced the notion of democratic schools promoting critical thinking and respecting the rights and dignity of all individuals. Other democratic principles referred to were representation of various stakeholders, democratic schools embracing diversity, the notion of interconnectedness between the school and the community, individuals being accorded equal value, trust, transparency and openness. Thus there was a shared language with regard to the notion of a democratic school. The participants concurred that the principal plays a pivotal role in promoting and practising democracy in the school. At both schools the principals seemed to move away from stereotypical authoritarian behaviour. They viewed leadership as a collective endeavour and promoted participative leadership. This study revealed that at the case study schools, leadership was extended to others in the school community and there seemed to be a flattening of traditional leadership hierarchies. There was also evidence of servant leadership and distributed leadership. Although both principals believed in democratic school governance and were moving towards shared school governance, the learners’ voice in SGB meetings was minimal. However, the respondents concurred that more can be done with regard to inclusion of stakeholders in major decisions. The principals also referred to some challenges that retard the practice of democracy in schools. The embedded nature of democratic principles in shared leadership and democratic school governance is emphasized, and a model for creating a democratic school is presented. In this way, this study can contribute to the growing body of literature on democratic schools.