By Eidin Griffin
Many years ago, I set off from Johannesburg to visit a small school in KwaZulu-Natal to see if it would suit my son, who had just completed Grade 1.
After travelling through the rolling lush hills of the Midlands, I turned into a stone gateway and was greeted by a rather unusual sight. High up in a tall and imposing tree were four children. They were completely engrossed in sawing, hammering and building a platform, and were sending a small bucket up and down to the ground for more supplies. I climbed out of my car and stood there agog at the sight. In my experience, if you allowed children to do this at a school in Johannesburg, there would be infuriated parents and swift letters of litigation. A quiet voice spoke into my ear: “Don’t distract them, they all know what they are doing.” I turned around and looked at the smiling principal, and was intrigued. She explained to me that if children could climb the tree, then they were perfectly capable of building a treehouse there, and that the smaller children sending supplies up were not yet up for the challenge. I was smitten, and subsequently, my son was enrolled into this special gem of a school.
King’s School in Nottingham Road is the unofficial Hogwarts1 of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. From the old hand-hewn ironstone walls, ancient trees and creaking wooden floors to the big fireplaces, shelves of leather-bound books and school ghost, King’s School is a unique primary school, which prides itself on providing an education that ignites curiosity, inspires creativity and fosters compassion. The original farmhouse that still serves as part of the school was built in 1858. King’s School (then for boys only) was established by Sidney Edminson2 in 1922, and the school has continued to this day to be a bastion of progressive educational principles. The school enrolled black children in 1977 – a move that was strictly forbidden by the apartheid government of the time and resulted in the loss of government subsidies to the school. Under the strong leadership of head John Carlyle-Mitchell and with support from philanthropist and anti-apartheid activist Peter Brown,3 King’s strove to lead by
example and grant all enrolled children their basic human right to quality education.
Much-loved Mitchell makes maths magic
Current head Tanya Mitchell, with her halo of grey hair and spectacles, is clearly adored by the children as she walks around the school. Dressed in practical aertex shirts and shorts in the distinctive royal blue, red and gold school colours, they rush up and tell her what wondrous insect they have just found or show her their latest artwork. She stops, listens, admires and encourages. However evident her kindness, her twinkling blue eyes have a steely depth, and you know instinctively that to cross this lady would not be the most comfortable experience. You perhaps wouldn’t be turned into a toad, but might end up feeling that you have disappointed her – and that would be far worse.
Mitchell studied a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Natal, followed by a Master’s degree in Biochemistry at the University of Stellenbosch, before coming to King’s in the 1980s. Conscientious, compassionate and patient, she dedicates her life to the school, teaching a full
timetable and setting an example to staff and children.
Mitchell is instrumental in introducing children to mathematics in an innovative and practical way. Using the incredible grounds of the school, her classes of children explore, investigate and calculate, and this practical methodology instils a love of maths and science at an early age.
Thanks to staff, students embrace the world
Anton Davies, the previous head, is still teaching science at the school, and his practical passions are reflected in his classes as boys and girls build solar cookers and learn to service cars. The diverse team of teachers at King’s includes philosophy buffs, musicians, artists, computer experts and gardeners who also run the library. The teachers are complemented by enthusiastic teaching interns and friendly administrative and support staff.
King’s children are not just au fait with the latest iPhone technology, but they can also show you where the chameleons live, quote Shakespeare, calculate water catchment from a rooftop and tell you what earthworms like to eat. The school grounds – comprised of the original farmhouse and classroom and boarding buildings as well as playing fields, a forested area, small dam, outdoor amphitheatre, an Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis and netball courts and an outdoor classroom with permaculture gardens – are full of wondrous places where every child can quietly search for their sense of self.
Alive with adventure
The school motto, “Quant Je Puis” (“Be the best you can be”), speaks of a tradition of excellence that has produced graduates who are “educated” in the broadest sense of the word. Lifelong learning is a philosophy of the school – and one which stands all its alumni in good stead. King’s School alumni are diverse and creative and include actor Ben Voss,4 chef Peter Goodwin,5 sculptor Luke Falconer6 and top international horseback archer Daniel Griffin.7 The common denominator in King’s alumni – from graphic designers, businesspeople and entrepreneurs to sporting heroes and musicians – is a strong moral ethic that surpasses colour and creed, and motivates many of them to visit the school again and relive their childhood exploits and adventures. Tales of daring are often mentioned – galloping ponies bareback, climbing out windows, getting covered in mud and building crazy gadgets. An unusual aspect of the school is the resident ghost, who is fondly known as Doctor Rob, a wellrespected and kindly physician who once resided at the school and used it as his sanatorium. It is said that he returns once a year to tickle the toes of unsuspecting slumbering children. The night of his reappearance is less of a fearful event than one when a completely giggly and charmed atmosphere prevails.
Happiness in action
Standing in the school’s main quad area in the afternoon, you can hear some older girls practising their netball skills, and spot two tiny friends from Grade 1 stealthily following a hen and her chicks through the shrubbery. The sound of a violin floats through the air from the music wing and the thwack of a cricket ball echoes up from the fields. There is a game of hopscotch happening on the pathway, as Sugar the dog comes lolloping up from a swim in the dam and showers the group of giggling children with droplets of water. The bell hanging from the huge pepper tree is rung by a very rhythmic Grade 6 child, and the children come spilling out from their afternoon prep time and games to receive a mug of milky rooibos tea and some freshly made muffins. Visitors to the school are utterly charmed by the quirky sense of comfort and old-fashioned farm feeling and often remark how they long to shrink, Alice in Wonderland-style,8 to be able to go back in time and attend the school themselves.
King’s crowned for its environmental care
King’s has recently been identified by the Cisco Foundation Charitable Trust12 as a school that produces future leaders. This foundation financially supports a number of local children who have been chosen as potential change-makers. Such choices are tough to make, as King’s is known for its small classes with dedicated teachers, who consistently urge their students on to success. Full boarding facilities as well as day scholar options create a school community that is both loving and structured. Consistent immersion in books, nature and the arts help young learners discover their particular talents and passions from an early age. Unusually, but without a doubt, engaging with the animals at the school – such as the pigs, ponies, chickens and dogs – helps the children gain confidence and learn about different types of communication. Unlike many larger schools, King’s children make friends across the grades, and they learn excellent teamwork skills in the sports teams, which include children of different age groups and abilities. Indeed, King’s is renowned for its inclusion of girls in its cricket and rugby teams. The school honours the timeless values of courtesy, honesty and individual responsibility. Children are taught that they are members of a community, a constitutional democracy and a small planet.
A right royal school
My son moved on from King’s with a great love for maths and science and an immense appetite for literature. His tight-knit, multicultural class graduated into a variety of excellent high schools that appreciated these independent individuals. From Shakespeare productions to treehouse building, King’s School provides a warm, well-rounded and unforgettable childhood experience for all young scholars. It has been a truly unique experience to be part of this magical school.
1. See, for example: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Hogwarts_School_of_ Witchcraft_and_Wizardry.
2. See: http://www.kingsschool.co.za/files/Kings-History.pdf.
3. See, for example: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/aug/23/ guardianobituaries.southafrica.
4. See, for example: http://www.benvoss.co.za/site/home.
5. See, for example: https://www.linkedin.com/in/peter-godwin-1634b5a8.
6. See, for example: http://www.thefalconerfoundry.com/.
7. See, for example: http://www.mountedarchery.co.za/dg.
8. Carroll, L. (1993) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Dover Publications, Reprint edition.
9. See, for example: http://www.ieducation.co.za/the-green-good-news-schoolstory/.
10. See, for example: http://www.mmep.co.za/.
11. See, for example: http://www.nrf.ac.za/organisational-structure/officemanaging- director-south-african-environmental-observation-network-saeon.
12. See, for example: http://csr.cisco.com/pages/cisco-foundation.
Category: Winter 2016