By Lebogang Montjane
In February of this year, I attended a conference in New York City.
This was a certain type of homecoming for me, since New York was the place of my first full-time employment after college and where I went to graduate school. Last year, ISASA was approached by the American National Coalition of Girls’ Schools1 to participate in a Global Forum on Girls’ Education, in celebration of its 25th anniversary. As one of 13 strategic partners to the conference, ISASA led a delegation of 16 principals and a deputy principal of our member girls’ schools.2 A component of being a strategic partner was that ISASA had to bring a featured speaker. Ours was Di Wilmot, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Rhodes University.3What made Professor Wilmot an appropriate choice to be our speaker is that she herself is the product of a girls’ school; she also sent her daughter to a girls’ school and was the first woman chair, in 136 years, of the Council of the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown.
Girls’ schools in South Africa: the numbers
Last year, in preparation for the Global Forum and with the desire to build as large a delegation as possible to attend the conference, I took the opportunity to visit every girls’ school within ISASA. Although our delegation was strong considering the unfavourable exchange rate, I had hoped that more heads of our member schools would have been able to take advantage of this unique opportunity. In terms of our member schools, which number 762, 62 are girls’ schools – 8.2%. Nationally, of South Africa’s 25 392 schools, 114 are girls’ schools – a mere 0.5%. According to the South African Girls’ Schools Association (SAGSA),4 of these 114 schools, 35% are independent. Besides their monastic character, what is distinctive about girls’ schools in South Africa is that they are overwhelmingly fee-paying schools. Only 5% of them are non-fee-paying schools, against a backdrop (as estimated by SAGSA) that 78% of public schools are no-fee schools.5
Eight universal educational themes
The conference itself was well attended. A total of 930 delegates from 23 countries were present. As expected, of these, 725 delegates came from the United States. Besides the ISASA delegates, three other heads of South African schools attended. The president and vice president of SAGSA were two of these three.6
Five ISASA member schools co-presented at the conference. The conference organisers set out eight universal themes, requesting strategic partners to select some of their schools to share their perspectives. In selecting which themes our delegation would present during the breakout sessions, it was clear to us that South African independent schools are unique in their approach to community engagement. Whilst our international counterparts send their children out to do good works, we invite our communities onto our campuses to share in our bounty. St Dominic’s School for Girls, Roedean School (South Africa) and St Stithians Girls’ Preparatory School and College presented on the excellent outreach programmes they are undertaking to improve our country.
Another theme that appealed to our schools was innovation. They felt that international peers may enjoy hearing about some of the innovative work being done on the African continent. Brescia House School spoke about how it blends technology into its curriculum. St Mary’s School, Waverley shared its new grades 8 and 9 cross-discipline and experiential curriculum.
Three critical questions
As our featured speaker, Wilmot delivered a paper entitled “The State of and Key Challenges Facing Girls’ Education in a Transforming Society”. She raised three critical questions that independent girls’ schools are going to have to address if they are to remain beacons of excellence. In her first question, Wilmot wondered whether elite girls’ schools are adequately advancing the necessity of transformation. With student population demographics changing, are institutional cultures keeping up with these shifts? In her second question, Wilmot observed the advancement women have made in closing the education gap, but expressed concern with the under-representation of women academics in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Lastly, she raised the general under-endowment of independent girls’ schools, in comparison to their male counterparts. With economic conditions being difficult, it will be necessary for the alumni of independent girls’ schools to be far more generous to their alma maters. I know that all of ISASA can benefit from hearing Wilmot’s insights. I am extremely pleased that she has agreed to be one of our speakers at the Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA)7 conference this September, where she will deliver her conference paper.
Steinem and Huffington
Of the keynote speakers at the conference, two stood out: Gloria Steinem8 and Arianna Huffington9. Feminist icon Steinem spoke about the importance of listening, especially for those in authority who have greater power. She was remarkable in her openness in having uncertainties and not having all the answers. Arianna Huffington is noteworthy for encouraging people to disconnect from their devices. Referencing the frenetic world we live in, she cautioned that sleep deprivation had become a pandemic whose centrality to productivity is underestimated. In a global education system that trends towards being results-orientated, we all need to pause to consider the observations of Huffington with regard to taking time for oneself and encouraging our charges to do likewise.
An invigorating pre-conference programme
I must admit that for me, the highlight of my time in New York was the pre-conference programme I organised for our delegation. Prior to entering Teachers College, Columbia University,10 I was a teacher-intern at the St Thomas Choir School11 and I got to participate in the Interschool12 Teacher Intern Programme. During this memorable year, I was privileged to attend weekly seminars at some of New York’s leading independent schools. Some 20 years later, it was wonderful to be back at Nightingale-Bamford School13 and The Spence School14. I got to reunite with two of my friends, Sherwyn Smith, who teaches English at Nightingale-Bamford, and Michèle Krauthamer, head of the upper school at The Spence School. We were warmly welcomed by Paul A. Burke, head of school at Nightingale-Bamford, and Bodie Brizendine, head of school at The Spence School, and their senior teams. To my deep surprise (and what a tremendous honour), the president of the board of trustees at Nightingale-Bamford, Rebecca Grunwald, was also there to receive us. We will forever be grateful for their collegiality and their willingness to share their schools’ journeys with us. Lest you think ISASA heads of schools have lost their youthful wonderment, you should have observed their excitement when walking to The Spence School through a snowfall.
The Klingenstein Center
As part of the pre-conference itinerary, we were hosted to a seminar luncheon at The Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University – a centre dedicated to studying independent schools and developing leadership within them.15 Here, too, we were beneficiaries of extraordinary hospitality. Professor Pearl Kane, the Klingenstein Family Chair for the Advancement of Independent School Education, who has been the director of the Klingenstein Center for several decades, led a seminar on independent school leadership. She is renowned for having mentored innumerate independent school leaders around the world. Kane reminded us that leadership is not a position but is a behaviour. At the Klingenstein Center, we also heard talks from various programme participants and sat in on some of their group work sessions. Pete Simpson, assistant director of the Klingenstein Center, spoke to us about the leadership development programmes offered by the centre. With the assistance of a fellow Connecticut College alumnus who is a doctoral student at Columbia, I then gave a brief tour of the campus of Columbia University, including Barnard College – the women’s college of Columbia University. Our tour ended with a photo at the iconic Alma Mater statue, which is stationed in front of the Low Memorial Library, the university’s administration building.
Growing our independent girls’ schools
I hope that the combination of our pre-conference programme and interacting with other educators from around the globe made this a worthwhile continuing professional developmental opportunity for the heads of our member girls’ schools. I do know that many of our heads returned from New York with new ideas, and also affirmed some of their practices they are implementing in their schools.
1. See: http://www.ncgs.org/.
2. The delegation included Ivanka Acquisto – St Stithians Girls’ College;David Arguile – St Anne’s Diocesan College; Shelley Frayne – Diocesan School for Girls; Celeste Gilardi – St Stithians Girls’ Preparatory School; Brenda Howden – Auckland Park Preparatory School; Sally James – St Mary’s School, Waverley; Lisa Kaplan – Kingsmead College; Deanne King – St Mary’s School, Waverley; Melvin King – Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy; Roger Loring – St Dominic’s Catholic School for Girls; Debbie Meyer – St Dominic’s Catholic School for Girls; Ann Owgan – Brescia House School; Susan Tasker – The Wykeham Collegiate; Darrel Webb – St Peter’s Girls’ School; Stuart West – Herschel Girls’ School; and Mary Williams – Roedean School (SA).
3. See: https://www.ru.ac.za/education/managementsupportstaff/diwilmot/.
4. See: http://www.sagsa.co.za/.
5. Ibid. See also: https://nicspaull.com/category/education/page/3/. It should be noted that in the winter 2016 edition of Independent Education (Volume
19, No 2, page 12), I observed that Nic Spaull estimates that between 66% and 88% of South African public schools are no-fee schools.
6. In their breakaway session, Cally Maddams and Erica Hayes-Hill, president and vice president of SAGSA respectively, talked about the role
of South African public girls’ schools in providing a superior education.
7. See: http://www.sahisa.org/.
8. See: http://www.biography.com/people/gloria-steinem-9493491.
9. See: http://www.biography.com/people/arianna-huffington-21216537.
10. The oldest school of education in the United States, founded in 1887 – a fact that delighted the delegation when they heard. (See:
11. See: http://www.choirschool.org/.
12. See: http://www.interschool.org/.
13. See: http://www.nightingale.org/.
14. See: http://www.spenceschool.org/page.
15. See: https://www.klingenstein.org.
Category: Spring 2016