A day in the life

| November 9, 2010
By Tom Hamilton

I read the news today oh boy…
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
(With apologies to Lennon/McCartney)

Even as we sat in the sardinecan-like environment of the conference hall at the Riverside Hotel in September 2010 during the Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) conference, grappling with the challenges of making a significant and broad contribution to the betterment of our society, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) led a nation-wide public service strike.

Within hours, Basic Education Minister Motshekga, who on the previous Saturday morning had opened the main ISASA conference – the precursor to the separate SAHISA and SABISA (Southern African Bursars of Independent Schools Association) gatherings – came to reassure us that despite calls for scrapping private schooling set out by COSATU in a recent economic strategy paper, our right to exist is not under threat.

Strange days indeed…
We are not alone: education is a contested entity across the world. Perhaps our unique challenge is that we have so many teachers who choose to be polititions rather than teachers. The ‘haves’ haggle with the ‘have-mores’ and the ‘have-nothings’ are left to fend for themselves. Sometimes you just have to laugh, even if a little nervously.

What’s the point of conferences?

ninth conference: a different format and, as usual, far too much to digest. Those of us who run boys’ boarding schools have a golden rule – no unstructured time allowed! I wonder if the conference manual has a rule that says “no time for a lie-in, no time to nap, no time to chat, no time to walk, and no beer before dark (except for Zimbabweans)”?

So why do we do it every spring? There is therapy in being with equals, in sharing our stories – warts and all. The new Heads bring their energy and enthusiasm. The old-timers tease and chuckle, circulating in clusters, mingling easily. Who is going where? Whose Chairperson is losing the plot? Does the new Head of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy have a new suit for every day of the year? Did you see Jane Hofmeyr’s new hairstyle? Did Andrew Blair really say that the average tenure for a Head in Australia is two years and seven months? (I could have been fired four times by now!)

Is crisis the mother of necessity?

That we have a crisis is not in doubt. Speaker Professor Crain Soudien suggested that the headlines in any daily paper indicate that South Africa has a higher number of concurrent social, economic, educational and political challenges than any other country in history; that we are an experimental laboratory of incredible scale, and that
we have the capacity to make sense of these challenges. Challenging. Hopeful.
If necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps crisis is the mother of necessity. While many of the speakers at the conferences pointed out the need to change the way we use our resources, how we link with our local communities, and how we set our fees, one had the feeling that the majority were not convinced that we have yet reached a
state of absolute necessity.

It would probably be fair to say that the common currency of independent schools is relationship-building. It would also be true to say that the quality of the people on their campuses is what sets independent schools apart. And those people are also our greatest single expense. Anything that interferes with that will be viewed with suspicion (including transformation and longerterm financial sustainability). Things may have to get worse before they get better.

No room for mavericks?

Perhaps it is simply too difficult to imagine how we can reduce staff and yet maintain relationships; contain costs and yet offer unique and powerful levels of excellence; sustain our schools and yet offer much more to the communities around us; retain our independence and yet seek more public/private partnerships; become more efficient and productive without getting smaller or losing capacity.

Tensions everywhere. Did someone say ‘values’? The word came up everywhere at conferences this year. During times of economic strife, there is a greater shared focus on our collective humanity. The success of independent schools in helping students to find their better selves and be significant, as well as successful, is not underestimated. But it certainly means that there is little room for mavericks in our happy circle.

SAHISA and ISASA doing well

Centred leadership – the way that women in power make sense of the multiple roles that they are expected to play – came through in a thought-provoking talk delivered by the CEO of ArcelorMittal, Nku Nyembezi-Heita, at the SAHISA conference. She chose Hilton over St Stithians College for her son; someone else chose Michaelhouse for his boy in order to toughen him up, like a cub in a lion pride. While we compete with varying degrees of civility, people make their choices for the most unusual reasons. And the freedom to choose lies at the heart of our existence. Paul Channon has led SAHISA well in a period of identity formation. He can take heart from the progress we are
making. The new Chair, Mary Williams, has an emerging organisation to nurture and grow; hopefully her successor will inherit an organisation of assertive, adolescent temperament in two years’ time.

ISASA, too, appears to be emerging as a significant role player in our exciting democratic society. We have come a long way since the genteel days of our inception, in those days of compromise at the end of the 20th century. These most recent were proud and exhilarating back-to-back conferences.

Conferences encouraged bold moves

In fact, not only was I proud but I was emboldened. Within 24 hours of returning to our school post-conference, I appointed a black man to the position of Housemaster at St Alban’s. He studied here on a bursary in the nineties, completed an internship here in the noughties, and will return next year in one the highest positions our school has
to offer.

A couple of hours after this exciting meeting, three colleagues and I met with three senior officials from the Tshwane Department of Education (DoE). Together we drew up plans for crisis revision workshop schedules, post public service strike. Two hundred Grade 12 pupils from Mamelodi and Atteridgeville were scheduled to be bused to St Alban’s by the DoE and taught Science and Maths by our teachers in our hall using resources provided by the department.

By doing good in one generation, we do well in the next. No goodness is wasted. Every future improved is an act of creation. I sense that we will see much creation in the next few years, for our appetites have been whetted. Maybe things will get better before they get worse, after all. It was a collegial conference ‘season’, perhaps too much so! The third verse of The Beatles’ song is a little nonsense concocted by Paul McCartney. It is appropriate, at least to me:

Woke up, fell out of bed,

Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.

I hope to get a little sand between
my toes next year in Cape Town!

Tom Hamilton is Headmaster of St Alban’s College.

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Category: Summer 2010

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