Dian Cockcroft on Inspiring Action

Dian Cockcroft on Inspiring Action


Vital Stats

  • Player: Dian Cockcroft
  • Institution: St Francis College
  • Est: 1989

Lessons in leadership

Changing a community starts with one person and the patience to focus on long-term goals.

Ask yourself : Are your beliefs so strong that you inspire others to your cause?

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Dian Cockcroft isn’t a business owner. She’s the principal of St Francis College in Benoni, a school she started in the 1980s because she rejected the notion that her career path was to be a secretary earning R165 a month, and she particularly rejected the apartheid government’s unequal educational policies for black students.

She had no funding, no state support, there were those who made finding suitable premises very difficult, and her school was serving the average black families in the area. And yet she managed to get other white teachers to buy in and work alongside black teachers, parents to pay school fees, achieved a miracle move to new premises, and was able to grow the school to what it is today on the tightest of budgets.

Dian Cockcroft might not be an entrepreneur in the traditional sense of the word, but she’s one hell of a leader, with something to teach about company culture, buy-in, and sustainable growth.

The Makings of Change

“I started out in the 70s by volunteering Saturday school to local students because I was appalled by the quality of their education. I started with 30 students and a week later we had 100 being taught from 7am to 5pm. It was free until I couldn’t cope anymore and then parents paid a small fee for materials and student teachers while I didn’t get a salary for a year.

“They kept asking me to start a school but I had no idea how to go about it and how on earth was a white woman in the 70s going to do that! In fact the department of education and training laughed in my face. But the more they said no, the more determined I became to teach black learners the TED syllabus white learners got.”

By 1989 Cockcroft had 65 students at her Saturday school, her husband had made desks, but they couldn’t find premises due to petitions, threats and opposition. “We especially had a problem finding premises with suitable toilets because of the infamous ‘slegs blanke’ rules.”

Breaking the Resistance

For 14 years Cockcroft doggedly taught her students in an abandoned school flanked by a taxi rank, and shared by motor mechanics and printers, with shared toilets. She also endured a racist landlord who resisted her cause. Cockcroft even found another school on the eve of democracy, but her applications to use it were rejected.

“We put a lot of heart into supporting the students. There were no fences and yet no one bunked and I believe it’s because we provided a safe space where they felt supported as they coped with township violence and other turmoil. Come democracy, we expected many of the students to leave and go to any school of their choosing; as it turned out many of them returned because they felt recognised and valued here.”

Taking St Francis to New Heights

In 2003 Cockcroft’s application to occupy their present school was finally approved. They had a long weekend in April 2003 in which to move an entire school of books, chairs and tables to the new location, but no money to afford movers. “We appealed to parents to help us, and agreed to meet at 7am to begin the move.

When we arrived there were rows of bakkies and small trucks, senior students, parents and anyone willing to help. Then in a true miracle a huge truck arrived and we were able to move the entire school within a day. We were ready for action on Monday.

St Francis has grown to 775 pupils, achieved a 100% matric pass rate for the last five years and an 85% university entrance.

Q&A with Dian Cockroft Dian-Cockcroft

Where do you get your leadership strength?

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.’ I believed all learners should receive the same quality education and parents could see that.

They saw the effort I was putting in as a teacher and principal and so they did everything they could to support us. Seeing children reach for their dreams and being able to facilitate that gives me strength. There’s not one week that I’m not contacted by a past pupil who is succeeding and that motivates me.

How were you able to overcome hurdles?

Because I believed so strongly in my cause, every ‘No’ fuelled me to find a way. You can’t save the world, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I started with a free Saturday school, then needed small fees, then looked for premises and so on. You climb the mountain one step at a time.

How were you able to get buy-in from poor parents to pay their fees?

Co-operation is the name of the game. We made it very clear that we were not opposing teams, but working together to help their children achieve their dreams. We were also very transparent about fees and what was needed to keep the school going – it went to small teacher salaries, for utility bills, rent, and school supplies.

How did you get buy-in from teachers in a difficult point in history?

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 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 spouses to come and watch classes and see the school in action. Witnessing well-behaved students learning often swayed them.

As a school with a small budget, how do you prevent poaching by private schools?

It’s a problem faced by many schools, not just ours. We can’t compete financially with private schools 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 started her own choir, while another senior teaches juniors soccer. 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 to stay.

Discipline must be an ongoing battle.

Yes and no, you have to be strict about enforcing rules and explaining why they exist. When students understand rules they often enforce them themselves. We’ve also implemented a system of class reps so that we’re alerted to any wrong behaviour, or if a student it falling behind, so we can intervene.

We foster a culture of knowing our students names and speaking to them one-on-one. When they feel heard, respected and valued, they respond with discipline and enthusiasm.

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You’re essentially a CEO and your teachers, managers. How do you support them?

There are some decisions that have to be made by me alone, 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.

I also ensure there is lots of communication and that teachers feel special on birthdays or are publicly acknowledged for their achievements. They know how important their job is in changing lives, and acknowledgement goes a long way.

How have you grown with a tiny budget?

Mind the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. We rely entirely on fees to operate and even though 90% of students come from poor families I’ve been used to working on a tight budget since day one!

This school has never had a huge profit margin as a goal – the goal was to break even and to benefit the students as much as we could. So every year we look at our commitments and work out what is needed divided across all students.

For extras we appeal to parents, local businesses, and host fund raisers. Only recently have we started receiving a government subsidy which has allowed us to purchase our premises – but we treat that exclusively as a gift and operate frugally so that should it disappear we won’t collapse.

Do you have intentions to grow further?

I don’t think I’ll take it much larger. I’ve been questioned about my motives but more children, more fees and being more selective about who comes to the school has never been part of my vision. Other schools can do that. We’re here to support the average and single parent and those who need it most.

Tracy Lee Nicol
Tracy-Lee Nicol is an experienced business writer and magazine editor. She was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Rhodes university in 2010, and in the time since has honed her business acumen and writing skills profiling some of South Africa's most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, franchisees and franchisors.Find her on Google+.