By Andrew Cook
At the South African Heads of Independent Schools (SAHISA) conference, held in September 2015 in
Polokwane, Limpopo, the Mitchell House School head boy, Ngwako Moloto, and head girl, Panache Furuso, led the Saturday morning devotions.
When they had finished speaking, one of the attending heads thanked them and said, to much appreciative applause, “If you represent the future of South Africa, then we are in good hands.” As their principal, I couldn’t have been more proud. Founded in 1994, the fledgling product of a truly democratic South Africa, Mitchell House seemed to me to have come of age.
Enrichment Centre an internationally recognised model
Mitchell House derives its name and existence from one of Capricorn High School’s residences.1 Capricorn is a government school with a proud tradition. In 2001, the Department of Basic Education required the return of the borrowed residence, and our board of governors at that time took the leap of faith to establish its own purpose-built campus on the outskirts of Pietersburg/Polokwane, in Limpopo. In 2004, the preparatory school relocated and continued to thrive in its new premises, long the home of guinea fowl and duiker. In 2006, a further leap of faith saw Pathways, a nongovernmental organisation, established to look after the needs of significantly disabled children, amalgamate with our prep and take on Enrichment Centre as its name. Twenty-four children in three highly intensive classes of eight were established. At the Enrichment Centre, each child participates in an individualised education programme, but is included into the prep’s educational programme where appropriate. This mutual partnership in learning is a unique inclusion model that could be used around the world.
Punching above our weight
In 2008, the founding of a college completed the educational offering with the name of Mitchell House and our first matriculants sat their exit examinations in 2012. We are a relatively small school, so even though we punch well above our weight in a wide range of activities, it is difficult to be master of all trades. What has been wonderful, though, is to find opportunities to collaborate with some of our more established neighbouring schools, so that as well as merely competing with each other, we have found ways of sharing expertise and strengths. For example, we have run annual teachers’ days where all of our educational community can benefit from the expertise of Jonathan Jansen,2 Imtiaz Sooliman,3 Brigitte Thompson,4 Nicky Bush5 and Khalil Osiris.6 The Project for the Establishment of Primary and Pre-Primary Schools (PEPPS),7 Ridgeway College8 and Stanford Lake College (SLC)9 participate in our annual one-act play competition. Craig Carolan, principal of SLC and an expert on Thinking Skills,10 has run workshops that have benefited our teachers and our learners. PEPPS offers music and has spearheaded music festivals that provide a platform for our talented musicians. And all of these schools have played a role in helping Mitchell House to understand and meet the demands of what a quality secondary school should be offering.
No Gucci without graft at Mitchell House
In 2016, we will have 627 pupils in our school, and our demography reflects that of Limpopo province itself. Our parent body consists largely of a generation who did not enjoy the benefits of a quality, rounded school education and have surmounted considerable obstacles to pay a premium independent school fee. Like many affluent schools, we face a double challenge: first, from our students, a sometimes overly materialistic outlook on the world that reduces the notion of success to a power to consume; and second, a curious desire on the part of some opulent parents to smooth the path for their children in such a way as to deny them the very challenges that the parents overcame and which made them the resilient and resourceful people they have become. At the worst, they want the “Gucci” without the hard graft.
Re-visioning the reasons for teaching and learning
In 2014, we built a boarding establishment that allows us to host interns who are training to be teachers under the auspices of the ISASA Mathematics and English (M&E) Programme.
At a recent lunch hosted by Investec (a major sponsor of the M&E Programme),12 director Andy Leith asked, how can our education system overcome the toxic notion of entitlement that affects so many of our school-leavers? According to Leith, there are those job-seekers who present an attitude of entitlement, expecting the corner office as if by right, because they have gone to the right schools and universities.
On the other hand, said Leith, previously disadvantaged youth often expect consideration because, having been denied a proper education by an unjust regime, they have a right to affirmative action treatment. Neither end of the spectrum see the need to gain recognition by actually doing the work required to deserve this consideration.
Although this was obviously a generalisation to make a point, I felt challenged by the conundrum. As I reviewed our curriculum for grades 8 and 9, I felt that we were offering little more than “head knowledge”. We were not really teaching our pupils to engage with their studies with understanding, so that they could use their knowledge with agility in a variety of situations and to discover the satisfaction that derives from accomplishing something difficult through hard work.
Empowerment of entrepreneurs
Enter Lynne Cocks, one of the brains behind the Centre for New Venture Creation at Tshwane University of Technology.14 This unit focuses on the empowerment of individuals as entrepreneurs, and on actual business start-ups, through practical and integrated learning. It is now regarded as one of the most successful training units in the country and Cocks has received national recognition of her contribution.
Cocks is a successful entrepreneur in her own right who, after a decade of mothering her Down syndrome daughter, found that she longed to be involved with teaching again. As an educator at Mitchell House, she pitched the idea of making the development of an entrepreneurial mindset part of all teaching and learning. Thus, in English for example, since visual literacy and advertising are part of the syllabus anyway, why not take a real-life issue and ask learners to solve it? For example, how would the advertisers of a national distillery break into new niche markets? What sorts of aspirations might these new markets have and how could you appeal to it? What sorts of assumptions and stereotypes would you need to unpack? This kind of challenge would not require teachers to add more content to an already bloated syllabus, but rather to be more relevant to the needs of our stunted economy.
Business plans a key part of the process
Cocks argues that if all teachers found a way to present at least one lesson a term with this as a goal, our pupils would benefit from the cumulative effect and it would reinforce the good idea that knowledge is integrated, rather than seeing what they were taught as a series of separate silos. Consequently, at Mitchell House, we arranged our economic and management sciences (EMS) lessons into two-hour sessions during which each pupil, under Cocks’s mentorship, would develop a complete business plan whilst learning the subject content along the way. Our thinking was that even if our pupils did not become entrepreneurs in their own right, if they chose to go the corporate route, this mindset would advantage them and their companies. Could this be part of an answer to Leith’s conundrum?
Learning with understanding
An important group project aligned to this initiative has been the development of a vegetable garden, in conjunction with our Enrichment Centre children. Our Grade 8 students have spent time learning how to plant and tend a garden that will supply our school kitchen with fresh vegetables and allow for the excess to be sold to a local restaurant. This requires a marketing plan, proper costing and quality control. It demands that our gardeners understand our climate and what is likely to thrive and what not. Unable for the most part to dig themselves, Enrichment kids are able to water the garden and inclusion happens in the most natural way – the result of working together on a meaningful project and discovering each other’s gifts. Our Grade 8s find that earning is hard work and that if a living thing is to be kept alive, someone has to take ownership of and responsibility for it. In arts and culture lessons, pupils have had fun designing and creating scarecrows out of recycled material – an exercise in conservation and imaginative collaboration. If the garden is the entrepreneurial laboratory that lays the foundation for learning with understanding, then the creation of an individual business plan for each learner is an end goal. This plan will be fully developed for use in the entrepreneurial club for Grade 9 and Grade 10 learners. Cocks wants all her pupils to be able to pay for their fees well before they leave Mitchell House!
I have no idea whether it will work in the long run or not, but just seeing the bright eyes of those who have discovered the joy of productive work is reward enough for the moment. It has also provided the impetus for our other Grade 8 and Grade 9 teachers to collaborate to develop a more cohesive and relevant curriculum for their learners. In this way they are living up to our school motto, ‘Nil Cedendum’ (Surrender nothing worthy), and are helping to forge a mindset that will move our beloved country forward.
1. See: http://capricornhigh.com/.
2. See: http://whoswho.co.za/prof-jonathan-jansen-5582.
3. See: http://whoswho.co.za/imtiaz-sooliman-5506.
4. See: http://www.positivebehaviour.co.za/.
5. See: http://www.nikkibush.com/.
6. See: http://www.khalilosiris.com/.
7. See: http://pepps.co.za/about-us/.
8. See: http://www.ridgewaycollege.co.za/.
9. See: http://slc.co.za/wp/.
10. See: http://www.thinkingschoolssa.co.za/?page_id=14.
11. The ISASA Mathematics and English (M&E) Programme makes accessible teacher internships based on an alternative, robust training model to supply quality teachers in the scarce subject areas of mathematics and English in South Africa. Based on a decade of ISASA schools’ experience,
it involves school-based training, mentoring and completion of a university degree by the trainee teachers in member schools. (Source: http://www.isasa.org/what-is-the-me-programme/.)
12. See: https://www.investec.co.za/about-investec/contactus. html?gclid=CP6i2MfUmckCFQgGwwod-fUMrA.
13. See, for example: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-09-22-op-edyouth- unemployment-in-sa-apartheid-is-alive-and-well/#.Vk2IgL_iuWw.
14. See: http://www.tut.ac.za/Other/advancement/success/Pages/default.aspx.