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Do not wait to see what others do: what needs to change in our schools right now

| June 28, 2017 | 0 Comments


More so than ever, it is vital that independent schools – still largely viewed as places of privilege – address the wider concerns of the society in which they find themselves and identify more intensely with common concerns. They cannot remain islands in a stream of change.

It is unsurprising, then, that many of the leaders of the recent tertiary #FeesMustFall1 movement were sons and daughters at independent schools. These young people believe that they have cause to be angry when they take the perspective that, by and large, most of their community are excluded from the processes and experiences which confer societal benefits. However, the concept of no fees is not a sustainable or practical solution. Government needs to look to make tertiary education progressively more accessible, and the most practical path would seem to be an extension of its core approach to the provision of basic education: those who can afford to pay must, and those who cannot should be assisted.

It’s right to question the status quo

The recent fees furore at home bore striking resemblance to a similar tide of sentiment rising in tertiary institutions in the United States and elsewhere, defined by a need to interrogate historical symbols and figures that, to date, had been given pride of place.

The increasingly diverse present-day student bodies found at universities around the world started to question why these symbols should remain when some found them to be a direct negation of their, and their ancestors’, humanity. In answer, I believe it is advisable to interrogate existing symbols and systems within our schools and to ask ourselves how well they reflect current society, our existing student bodies and our contemporary values.

Certain odious symbols may need to be removed, and new historical figures lifted up out of obscurity and given a place at the table of narrative and memory.

Time for schools to talk transformation

This transformative process should be about enriching and diversifying the cultural landscape in which our young people find themselves, so that more of what is relevant to them is visible and accorded respect. Put simply: have the difficult conversations in new ways and allow young people to grapple with the complexity of their inheritance, for they are children of a country with a unique and layered past.

Schools brave enough to undertake such a journey of selfreflection in the service of a tomorrow as yet unseen will learn much from the process of taking stock. As Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot maintains in her seminal work, The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture,2 there is no such thing as a perfect school, but that educational institutions prepared to interrogate and examine their imperfections – not for the purposes of self-indulgent navel-gazing, but with the intention of seeking the origins of such and of discovering solutions – can, in doing so, be regarded as “good” schools.

A reciprocity in language acquisition required

Such “good” schools cannot ignore the language question. To understand one another’s perspectives, we need, quite literally, to understand what we are saying in various mother tongues. The South African Constitution enshrines the equality of all 11 official languages and states that “practical and positive measures” should be undertaken to elevate the status of these previously neglected languages.3 Research4 furthermore proves that we actively disadvantage children, both academically and socially, if we do not allow them to explore language structures and norms in their mother tongue first and then support that mother tongue at school level, so that they develop the necessary transferable linguistic skills that will enable them to master a second language and perform successfully at an academic level while using it.

There needs to be a reciprocity in language acquisition, as it is this that indicates truly valuing the language of another and, in this way, valuing the culture at large, as so much of a people is woven into the fabric of their language.

Is this a picture of your school?

Multiple academics and cultural commentators5 including Max Price, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town,6 have reiterated the need for all South African children to learn multiple previously marginalised languages to integrate fully. These commentators warn that students currently coming out of independent schools (including ISASA member schools) are not being given an education that is aligned to the cultural realities of their country.7

Similarly, in his response to the public broadside of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announcing (while on the campaign trail)8 that ex-Model C schools9 “teach black pupils to hate the ANC”,10 academic Anthony Butler called her attack a “cheap shot” aimed at earning political points. He then went on to deliver a scathing indictment of the “continuing culture of white entitlement” to be found in such schools, and an “assimilationist” approach that sees the “acculturation” of black pupils into a school where:

There is an emphasis on… “proper” English, little enthusiasm for African culture, the perpetuation of European sporting codes and inappropriate regulations governing appearance and a studied scepticism about the pervasive existence of a “Eurocentric” curriculum… [that] perpetuate[es]… racial stereotypes in the classroom.11

How much of this criticism could, legitimately, be levelled at independent schools, which bemoan the difficulty in finding a suitably qualified Sesotho teacher in Africa while offering Latin and French as full subjects of study? There is no more time for delay. It is my belief that teaching South African indigenous languages remains an educational and national imperative. We can no longer allow excuses of timetable strictures, for example, to stand unchallenged. Although there are regional aspects to South African linguistic patterns, in Gauteng, it is unacceptable that well-resourced independent schools should offer as additional languages isiZulu and Afrikaans only.

School staff transformation also essential

Similarly, as our student bodies diversify, there is an urgent need for our staff compositions to also reflect a shifting demographic. It is essential that pupils see those who look like them at all levels within the school, including management and senior staff. This should not be a “quota” process, but rather an organic one born of a tenacious will to look for and find talent among black people and women. This requirement should come from an understanding that to be a “good” school that makes sound contemporary decisions, such diverse perspectives have to be heard and taken into account. Anything less is stagnation. Schools must ask themselves whether all voices are valued, and whether diversity is a concept that extends beyond the diversity of mission or curriculum and is seen at every level and in every way throughout the school: diverse thinking, diverse practice, diverse staff and pupils. We must ask ourselves the hard questions We know that, thanks to technology, the world is more interconnected than ever before. If we accept that central to a quality education is preparing children for a time to come and not only a present world, then we understand that our pupils have no choice but to become global citizens. But what does embracing cosmopolitanism entail? Well, it is most certainly not about maintaining distinct fixed groupings within the same general space. It is not about pursuing what Indian economist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, Amartya Sen, calls “plural monoculturalism”,12 but about freeing up cultural identities and allowing them to run amok and play havoc with our assumptions of blackness, whiteness, femaleness, maleness. We must allow individuals, in constantly emerging and diverging ways, to choose the extent to which they do or do not identify with and occupy a position, allegiance or state of mind – transiently – and with an engaged curiosity and freedom of reasoning and decision-making that celebrates cultural diversity to the extent that it is freely chosen by those involved.

Initiate new inclusions

The overarching theme here is that the school environment needs to reflect more closely and engage with the pupils it serves and the greater communities from whence they come. Among many other aspects, this will involve the interrogation of existing symbols and systems, coupled with necessary adjustments, new inclusions and, potentially, some removals to mould a more inclusive and palatable collective school culture, a much greater parity of language treatment and instruction, which needs to start immediately, and the transformation of staff to include underrepresented people of all kinds and at all levels.

I suggest that schools should seek to start this process in earnest so that they are able to manage the process skilfully to keep what is best about their school, while updating what is archaic and removing what no longer serves the best interests of all constituent members. ? This article is an adaptation of a keynote address made by Lebogang Montjane to the Pastoral Care Conference at St Peter’s Preparatory Schools on 19 May 2017.


1. See, for example: 161031093938509.html

2. Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983) The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture. New York: Basic Books.

3. See: pdf.

4. See, for example: their-mother-tongue.

5. See, for example: tongue-education-what-you-should-know/ and 1466054 and south-africa-s-mother-tongue-education-problem.

6. Price addressed this issue during his speech at the 2016 Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) conference in Cape Town.

7. See, for example: 2013/08/12/private-schools-reminders-of-white-supremacy/.

8. See, for example: dlamini-zuma-hits-campaign-trail-province/.

9. See, for example: in-south-africa.

10. See, for example: anti-anc-8668928.

11. See, for example: 05-26-anthony-butler-zumas-centre-cannot-hold–and-dlamini-zuma-is-anon- starter/.

12. See, for example: “What does embracing cosmopolitanism entail?”




Category: Winter 2017

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