By Charmaine Smith, CI communication and knowledge manager
Prof Shirley Pendlebury’s career experiences were seemingly a perfect mix to equip her for the position as director of the Children’s Institute (CI). In the mix are academic qualifications in education with specialisations in politics and philosophy – and a post-graduate diploma in typography and graphics. Added to this are work experiences in her early years at a printer, as a teacher and as a library assistant (where she proved so competent in her knowledge about books that she was appointed to lecture to student teacher-librarians on the history of illustrated children’s books, and on book design and print, amongst other subjects).
The bulk of her professional life – first at the Johannesburg College of Education, and later as the head of the School of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand – gave her invaluable insight and know-how on the workings of academic institutions.
This background served her well in heading the Children’s Institute team who are known for their research-relevance to policy and practice, publications that translate complex academic evidence for multiple audiences, and education and advocacy on the situation and needs of South Africa’s children.
Having joined in 2007, Shirley nurtured the Institute during some remarkable developments in the second half of its 10-year history. She says what “pleased her incredibly” was seeing the number of South African Child Gauges™ grow from the second issue when she joined, to the seventh issue that is currently underway.
“The Child Gauge is a mark of success of the CI. Its quality has been improved by introducing a more rigorous external peer-reviewed process. And by bringing in a diversity of contributors from outside the Institute, its range has increased, and quality research from other groups or individual is included. It has moved from a CI publication to one with intellectual and scholarly independence.”
A year after she joined, the new Children’s Act came into effect. “It was very exciting to be at the CI at the point when the long and hard work prior to my being there came to fruition”. The Children’s Act project, under the leadership of Paula Proudlock and Lucy Jamieson, has been a driver of civil society advocacy for progressive legislation on child protection and care. The project continues to monitor the implementation of the Act.
Shirley describes another highlight as a grant received from the Programme to Support Pro-poor Policy Development (in the Presidency) and the European Union to be part of a community of researchers who are working on the common concern of understanding and addressing the challenges of poverty and inequality in South Africa. The CI’s contribution was the development of a National Child Poverty Monitor, building on the work of the Children Count indicators project, led by Katharine Hall. “The grant also enabled the CI to set up its first internship, and deepened relationships with government and other research units at various universities.”
Shirley's passion for books, publishing, design and typography made her involvement in the annual production of the Child Gauge one of her top personal highlights during her time at the CI. Seeing staff progress in their own academic careers, convivial annual meetings with the CI’s International Board of Advisors, forging closer scholarly relations with other units at the university, and hosting visiting academics from abroad also make her list of personal highlights.
Developing partnerships with donors was a priority for Shirley during her time at the CI. However, she points out that, “in crucial cases, such relationships are not just about money. It’s about a real interest in and support for the organisation, and a deep understanding of the CI’s work”.
Generating an understanding of the work of a child policy research unit extends to multiple sectors, which makes networking invaluable. One example that Shirley recalls is her representation on the Leadership and Innovation Network for the Children’s sector (LINC), which she describes as “a nurturing space to meet people from government, civil society, funding agencies, corporates … where you could speak out and make friendships – and it is these friendships that oil the wheels for future interchange, for sharing. It is through belonging to a group like that, that an organisation is more able to exhort its influence.”
Similarly, the CI has been a member of the International Network of Child Policy Research Centres over the past decade, which is an opportunity of learning how other similar institutes are developing, what their central issues are, and “how they are facing similar challenges”.
As a soft-funded research unit that strives to inform policy and practice these challenges revolve mainly around money, and time. Shirley describes these as “sitting at the intersection of different spheres of activity”.
“As academics, there’s an imperative to work in as much depth as you can, and to be theoretically rigorous. But where project deadlines and obligations to donors and external partners drive the work, you can’t always afford the desired depth. If you spend too much time on more refined arguments, more sophisticated theory, more evidence, you will lose the moment for action. You have to move fast to make a difference in the public sphere.”
On the other hand, she cautions against “jumping too quickly to defending a position for ideological reasons rather than on grounds of strong evidence and careful argument.”
Shirley is cautious about speculating on the value of the CI’s work for government because, “they may not see it in the way that we see it”. However, she believes the watchdog and monitoring role of the Institute through the annual publication of the Child Gauge alerts government to areas for special attention.
The value of other activities is more apparent, such as providing some government departments with information in usable forms: “We know that from the number of times they refer to Children Count data, for example, or from going into government offices and seeing Child Gauge posters up on the walls. For some departments, the CI also provides an important sounding board, and a source of quick technical advice.” There is evidence that CI publications such as fact sheets and guides to the Children’s Act are widely used by government staff.
"Another contribution to government's work", says Shirley, is "that the Children's Institute provides evidence for public interest litigation that has the potential to result in better service delivery on children's constitutional rights".
Retirement for Shirley doesn’t mean getting ready to run a B&B in the countryside. She will be spending the next three months as a visiting academic at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, USA. She will retain some links with UCT, such as a member of the SANPAD-funded ‘Healthy Cities for Children’ project of the CI, which is part of a larger collaboration led by UCT’s African Centre for Cities. She will also continue to supervise post-graduate students in the School of Education.
But her passion for poetry, obscure books of philosophy, popular science and detective novels – especially feminist ‘whodunnits’ – means she can be looking forward to some down time, including more hiking, and (said with her trademarked twinkle in the eyes) “ getting back into drawing and painting”.
The appointment of a new director is underway. An acting directorate, led by Helen Meintjes, will hold the reigns until the new director takes office.