(Published - 16 April 2019)
It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged - that South Africa is not performing very well in the international arena when it comes to school educational achievement. But where others may throw up their hands in despair, Dr Lolita Winnaar has made it her mission to shed some light on the crisis - and to find a way forward.
Dr Winnaar was recently awarded a PhD from the University of the Western Cape. Her thesis, Developing a model of school climate unique to secondary schools in South Africa: A multilevel analysis approach, investigated the relationship between school climate and academic achievement - and ultimately developed a school climate model for South African secondary schools.
“School climate - the culture and environment experienced by the school community - is much more important than people seem to think,” she notes. “A healthy climate contributes towards an effective school with positive relationships between learners, teachers, school management and the community. The results show that school climate explains considerable proportions of the variations in achievement between schools.”
School climate is often referred to as the heart and soul of a school, and an important process dimension within the school effectiveness framework. Bullying and school-based violence predominantly occur in schools with an unhealthy school climate.
“Looking at the increased levels of violence occurring in schools in South Africa recently; it seems our schools have lost their way,” Lolita laments. But contrary to popular belief, she notes, there is hope for South African schooling after all.
“The achievement gap between schools in South Africa has reduced over time, which is indicative of a more equitable education system. Education happens in a particular context - and thus we need to find holistic ways of improving education quality and consequently improving academic achievement.”
Statistically Speaking - Living Life By The Numbers
Lolita has been all over the country - born and raised in East London in the Eastern Cape, obtaining her tertiary education in Cape Town, and currently living and working in Pretoria. She’s seen firsthand how important statistics can be - and thanks to UWC, she has the academic credentials to match her passion.
“I am left-brained and numbers have always made sense to me - and as much as I liked mathematics, statistics made more sense to me because I could apply it to so many real-life situations,” Lolita notes. “One is able to use statistics and apply it to a number of fields like social science, economics, humanities, etc. If you know what you’re doing, statistics can shine a light on so much.”
As fate would have it, she was soon employed at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) as a Junior Researcher in Education and Skills Development, responsible for data-management-related work and basic statistical analysis.
“I like to say that education found me,” Lolita laughs. “My first introduction to research at the HSRC was working in a unit that looked at educational assessment as their core business. And since joining the company I have grown and furthered my practical knowledge in leaps and bounds.”
As a Senior Research Manager in the Education and Skills Development research programme at the HSRC, she manages large-scale projects and analyses educational data using complex analytical methods like Multilevel Modelling.
Having worked at the HSRC and engaged with interns and others for so many years, Lolita has observed firsthand the gap between the theory taught at university and the skills practiced in real-life situations, working with real-world data.
“I would like to assist in bridging that gap by working with or supervising students. I hope to use my knowledge, skills and experience to bring about positive changes in the education sector.”
Ultimately, she says, investing in education is investing in the future.
“I have children whom I want the best for, and providing them with a solid educational foundation is one way we could do that. Making the best decisions means providing them with a climate conducive to their growth - both at school and beyond. Fixing education fixes the future.”