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Updated 29 Sep 2020

The best lessons in leadership - from school principal Dian Cockcroft

How lessons from a veteran school principal, Dian Cockcroft of St Francis College can be applied to your business.

Tracy-Lee Nicol, Entrepreneur, 07 June 2015  Share  0 comments  Print

All the answers to your unique business lifestage questions

Dian Cockcroft isn’t a business owner. She’s the principal of St Francis College in Benoni. What sets her apart and lands her a spot in an article about business leadership, is that she founded this school in 1989 with no funding, no state support and even less community support.

Why? Because it was her mission to give black students the same quality education that white students were receiving at a time when South Africa was in the harsh grip of apartheid.

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Flash forward to 2015, the school now owns the property it operates from, hosts 775 students, has achieved a 100% Matric pass rate for the last five years with an 85% university entrance, parents pay school fees, teachers stick around, students respect and empower each other and their teachers, and a lot is done on a comparatively small budget.

Sound like the kind of culture you’d like at your organisation? I thought so. Here’s a Q&A with Dian Cockcroft that unpacks how she’s achieved what she has in the past 26 years.

It takes a lot of strength to be a leader in difficult times. Where do you get your strength from?

I live by the mantra, “do not go where the path may lead, but go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Back in 1989 I had a vision for myself and for black students. I didn’t want to follow the status quo of becoming a secretary earning R165 a month, I wanted to teach and I wanted to make a difference in students’ lives.

I believe that all learners should receive the same quality education, so when I began my Saturday school to bolster students’ studies and help them through their exams, parents could see that and encouraged me to open a school.

They saw the effort I was putting in as a teacher to help their children achieve better, and so they did everything they could to support me and later my small school. Seeing children reach for their dreams and being able to facilitate that is where my driving force comes from.

There’s not one week that goes by that I’m not contacted by a past pupil who is succeeding, and that motivates me deeply.

You initially had no funding or government support. How were you able to overcome these big obstacles?

I am very passionate about my cause and believed in it wholeheartedly. So every ‘no’ that I got fuelled me to find a way. You can’t save the world, but you’ve got to start somewhere. So rather than going straight in with a school, I started a free Saturday school.

As more pupils came, I needed help, so we started charging a small fee, then as space became limited we looked for bigger premises. When faced with obstacles, you have to climb the mountain one step at a time. Eventually you’ll get to the top.

With no funding, you were heavily reliant on school fees to pay your bills. How did you get buy-in from parents to pay their school fees on time?

Co-operation is absolutely essential. We have always made it very clear that we’re not opposing teams, but working together to help their children achieve their dreams. We were very transparent about our fees too – explaining that it was needed for books, for paying teachers, lights and water bills, rent and anything else that was needed to keep the school going. We weren’t and aren’t about making profit for the sake of profit, so having parents understand that every cent was accounted for helped in ensuring fees were paid, or plans were made for payment.

The 80s and 90s were a particularly difficult period in SA’s history. How did you get buy-in from teachers to come work for the school?

We couldn’t afford to pay our student teachers very much, so those who came to help weren’t there for the salary, but the bigger reward of making a difference in the lives of average South African children and contributing to the future of this country.

It was harder getting full-time teachers particularly because of grumpy spouses, but I’d always invite the spouse to come and see the school in action. Nine times out of ten they’d see how well-behaved and eager the children were to learn, and it often swayed them.

How do you compete with private schools with big budgets when retaining your teachers?

It’s a problem faced by many schools, not just ours. We know we can’t compete financially with private school and their fees, so we work to create a positive, fulfilling and disciplined environment. The students are empowered and encouraged to become leaders – one matric girl started her own choir, while another senior boy coaches soccer to the juniors.

Children need good role models, so when we’re able to provide that and encourage them to lead themselves, it’s very fulfilling and motivating for teachers and the work they do on a daily basis. And when teachers are fulfilled, they like to stay.

Discipline must be an on-going challenge in a school of 775 teenagers…

Yes and no. You have to be strict about enforcing rules and explaining why they exist. When students understand why the rules are in place and how it impacts them for good, they often enforce it themselves. We’ve also implemented a system of class reps so that we’re alerted to any wrong-doing, or if a student is facing difficulty and falling behind.

That way we’re able to intervene before it’s too late. We foster a culture of knowing our students by name and speaking to them one-on-one and with respect. When they feel heard, respected and valued, they respond with discipline, motivation and enthusiasm.

If you were to think of yourself as a CEO and your teachers as managers, how do you support them in delivering their best to your students?

There are some decisions that I have to make alone, as any CEO will know. But I include teachers in decisions as much as possible. They in turn pass this on to their students who are enabled to make decisions that will benefit their peers and foster pride and unity.

In other words, empowerment starts at the top and trickles down with the effect of lessening the need to control every little thing yourself – freeing you to focus on what needs to be done.

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I also ensure there’s lots of communication and that teachers are made to feel appreciated and special. They’re publically acknowledged for their good work and achievements. They know how important their job is in changing lives, and acknowledgement goes a long way.

You’ve recently gained government funding. How has that changed your budget?

We’ve always had a philosophy of ‘mind the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’ Because we come from a history of very tight budgets and needing to make do with what we’ve got, we’ve learnt to run a very lean operation and aim for break-even rather than profit.

Our fees are derived from dividing the running costs of the school across the number of students in the school, and anything extra we raise funds for or seek sponsorship from local businesses.

Only recently did we start receiving a government subsidy which has allowed us to purchase our premises rather than renting it, but we treat the subsidy exclusively as a gift and operate frugally so that should it disappear (it’s not a guaranteed thing) we won’t collapse.

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About the author

Tracy-Lee Nicol, Entrepreneur

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