SAERA Best Doctoral Thesis Award 2017

This year’s award was won by Dr Bruce Damons from Nelson Mandela University. He was nominated by his colleague Dr Deidre Geduld for his thesis entitled “A COLLABORATIVELY CONSTRUCTED PROCESS MODEL FOR UNDERSTANDING AND SUPPORTING THE WORK OF THE COMMUNITY VOLUNTEER IN A COMMUNITY SCHOOL”. He was promoted by Prof Lesley Wood, with Dr A Witten as his co-promoter. This thesis was judged by all three examiners as making an important international contribution to the field of school leadership and community-based research and was accepted by all without any required changes (not even technical ones!). The thesis explored how community volunteers could be recruited, supported and sustained to assist a community school operating in difficult socio-economic conditions in achieving basic school functionality. Following a Participatory Action Learning and Action Research (PALAR) design, he recruited 15 community volunteers and formed an action learning set where they collaboratively sought to understand the processes and conditions needed to recruit, support and sustain community volunteers and their involvement in the school. Transcripts and visual artefacts from the action learning set meetings and a focus group meeting of the school management team were analysed to generate data, complemented by secondary sources, such as documents. This participatory approach to data generation allowed the voice of every participant to be heard; agency was increased through active participation; and the sense of affiliation to the group was deepened. The iterative design of the research process further ensured that the participants also engaged in a critical discourse analysis of the emerging data, of which the trustworthiness was enhanced through the use of dialogic and process, catalytic, rhetoric, democratic and outcome validity. The emergence of the data through this collaborative engagement was underpinned by the ethical values of mutual respect; equality and inclusion; democratic participation; active learning; making a difference; collective action; and personal integrity.
The findings revealed that community volunteers did add immense value to the school by supporting teaching and learning processes. However, the community volunteers also harboured expectations of material support and opportunities to develop skills. In addition, the study revealed that the hierarchical culture and structures present in most South African schools need to become more democratic and collaborative, with those working to make the school more functional, including community volunteers, being valued, acknowledged and supported. The participants also constructed their understanding of what a community school should be and do and how it should serve the interests of the children from the community. A process model was constructed from these findings regarding on ways to recruit, sustain and support community volunteers involved in community schools, specially designed so that schools could adapt it to suit individual contexts. In addition, a manual of the process model was generated so that the participants could facilitate other schools to implement it.