Research and Evaluation Reports

Research Report: Impact of the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) school principal programme on learner performance

This research into the impact of the ACE course in Leadership and Management on learner performance was funded by the Zenex Foundation and conducted by Prof. Tony Bush from 2008 to 2010.

The study, which was concluded in 2009, looked at the impact of the ACE qualification by examining performance factors such as curriculum delivery, learner and educator attendance, extra classes for Grade 12, classroom monitoring and the setting of teaching targets. The research reviews, inter alia, the impact on National Senior Certificate Results and whether the ACE training and qualification can help turn around dysfunctional schools.

Evaluation Report of the Advanced Certificate in Education: School Leadership and Management

Duration of Project: 2007-2009

Geographical base for project:  National

Evaluation conducted by: Tony Bush, Ntombozuko Duku, Derek Glover, Edith Kiggundu, Soraya Kola, Vuyisile Msila and Pontso Moorosi

Evaluation period: 2007-2009


The Advanced Certificate in Education: School Leadership and Management was designed for aspiring school principals as part of the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) wider strategy to improve educational standards.

The ACE is being delivered by universities, through a common framework agreed with the DBE and the National Management and Leadership Committee (NMLC). The programme has a strong focus on practice-based learning, supported by classroom-based content, and several leadership development processes, notably mentoring, networking and site-based assessment.

This evaluation of the certificate course between 2007 and 2009 assessed the suitability and sustainability of the qualification.

Key Findings

The evaluation revealed several strengths and areas for improvement within the ACE programme.

Key strengths included:

  • There was unanimous support for the principle that the national programme should become an entry-level qualification for new principals.
  • Most candidates had significantly increased their knowledge about school leadership, including relevant theory and South African educational policy.
  • The national ethos of the ACE had received positive feedback from principals and schools.
  • The combination of theory with high levels of practice was seen as a strong advantage of the programme.
  • The idea of mentoring in particular was viewed in high regard.
  • Some principals had shifted their focus of work to teaching and learning, which has resulted in a positive schooling environment.

Areas for improvement included:

  • Higher Education staff members provided the theory and practice-based aspirations of the ACE programme. These institutions had made some progress in adapting their programmes to meet the requirements of an audience of mid-career professionals. However, the 'new' aspects of the programme, notably mentoring, networking and site-based assessment, were still less well developed than the conventional classroom activities and assignments.
  • Mentoring was largely provided on a group basis, while individual mentoring was viewed as more effective if a trusting professional relationship was to develop. In some instances the mentoring model also tended to promote dependency, with mentors advising leaders what to do, rather than using effective techniques to help prospective principals to produce their own solutions.
  • The survey data suggested that principals were positive about assessment, with 71% saying that assignments were 'of great help'. In contrast, some case study candidates felt that the ACE was over-assessed and that feedback on assignments, and on portfolio tasks, was usually late and limited in scope. It is clear from the analysis of portfolios that many candidates found it difficult to go beyond description to adopt a reflective approach, leading to changes in leadership practice.
  • The heavy assessment requirements of the course seem to have diverted some candidates from their central management role. The impact study provided some evidence of improved practice, for example in respect of enhanced team work, classroom observations, and better relationships with stakeholders. However, these changes had not yet led to better student outcomes in all schools.
  • The shadowing of principals and other managers showed a modest shift away from office-bound practice but many candidates still gave too much emphasis on their paper work at the expense of professional leadership.


  • The national materials developed across institutions have been very useful. However, the materials are being used in very different ways by institutions. The NMLC, in partnership with the DBE, should agree on what level of diversity is acceptable for such an entry level programme.
  • Most of the participants on the pilot programme were and are current principals while the ACE was intended for aspiring principals. While there should be similar features for both client groups, the needs of current and prospective principals are not identical and perhaps some separate modules should be considered.
  • Specific training for mentors is required to make the process more effective and a more detailed description of the role of the mentor.
  • Networking has been ignited but is not fully established and tends to focus mainly on assignment preparation. More consideration should be given to notions of how collaboration and communities of practice are encouraged and maintained.


It was clear that the ACE had served to sensitise candidates to the importance of focusing on teaching and learning as their core business and on strategies with the intention of improving learner performance.

The evaluation of the ACE programme had been most useful in understanding what worked and what didn’t work in the schooling environment, and had helped shape both policy and practice in this regard. There were a number of matters that the evaluation raised which should be dealt with in a range of discussions with all key stakeholders lead by the Department of Basic Education.

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