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Learning to lead the leaders

| August 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Mampho Langa

The African School for Excellence (ASE) is an unique independent school and new ISASA member located in Tsakane on the East Rand in Gauteng.

It was established in 2013 and has 168 grades 7 and 8 scholars from Tsakane and the neighbouring communities. Its aim is to offer world-class education to the low-income surrounding communities. An internal survey indicated that 80% of our scholars and their families depend on government grants for survival.1 My experiences as head of academics at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG),2 part-time lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and programme manager for the South African Actuaries Development programme,3 have exposed me to different models of education leadership but the ASE approach was new to me. My transition from OWLAG to ASE was fuelled by the burning desire to support this extraordinary new undertaking in from its humble start.

A transformative vision

The ASE education concept was propagated by Jay Kloppenberg.4 In my opinion it signals the birth of a revolution in township education.5 ASE will alter the perception that the culture of education in townships is nearly non-existent and that too few students from township schools graduate at tertiary level. The ASE’s mission is to develop matriculants with the skills and mindset to make a transformative impact on their community, and on the world. The ASE curriculum is designed to form the basis of this academic and moral development, igniting scholars’ passions and providing them with the skills to enact real change within their communities, both during their high school years and beyond.

Scholars not learners

Our stance at ASE is that every scholar is capable of reaching great heights irrespective of their socio-economic background. We call them “scholars” rather than “learners” because we believe that they are capable of using their intelligence and critical thinking skills to solve everyday life problems. According to the dictionary a “learner” is “… Someone (especially a child) who learns (as from a teacher) or takes up knowledge or beliefs” which implies a child cannot learn independently. A scholar, on the other hand, is generally defined as “a learned or erudite person, especially one who has profound knowledge of a particular subject”. 6

Our curriculum has been designed to allow independent learning and an exploratory approach to learning. We furthermore encourage the daily use of a language of high expectations from the classroom to the offices. To further reinforce our culture, we emphasise excellence, accountability, resilience, humility and integrity as our core values. To ASE, excellence means a pass mark of 80% and above. Every educator and support teacher is responsible for ensuring that such scores are achieved and that every scholar is equally accountable for their own learning. As a “no excuses” school, we are responsible for our mistakes and failings. Our weekly teacher development programmes become useful in ensuring that these goals are upheld. The weekly peer classroom observations, feedback and self-reflective sessions have helped our teachers make made enormous strides in inculcating our core values.

In 2013 our scholars took the Cambridge Curriculum Primary Checkpoint test; our overall averages surpassed the national average in the United Kingdom.7We, however, still believe we can do better than this. While most township schools consider a high matriculation pass rate as their primary goal, we set our academic sights far higher. We are not ashamed to state, unequivocally, that we expect all of our scholars to graduate with globally competitive skills and to attend and succeed at top-tier universities, technology institutions and colleges both in South Africa and abroad.

Resilience the bedrock

In addition to excellence as our core value, we also expect resilience, humility and integrity to be part of the lifestyle in our school. The words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, underpin our conviction:

“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”8 Our standpoint is “No matter how often we fall, we always pick ourselves up and try again”. We furthermore expect the ASE community to humble themselves and treat everyone with integrity. We celebrate a collaborative working spirit in our team mathematics and partner reading classes. These classes allow our scholars to ‘self-discover’ their potential and take decisive leadership roles rather than detaching themselves from problems and expecting the educator to teach in order to learn.

Peer learning model plus technology equals triumph

Our team mathematics classes are meant to develop the scholars’ confidence to solve problems independently and to spend ‘time-ontask’ until something is accomplished. Asking for help and collaborating with peers is essential in these classes; part of being accountable is asking for help when you have bitten off more than you can chew. When scholars act as teachers, it accelerates learning in two ways: first, one-on-one instruction from a peer is often the most effective means of learning.9 Second, teaching a concept is often the best way to consolidate one’s own knowledge. The ASE model provides numerous peer-teaching opportunities each day.

ASE furnishes its scholars with technological skills using digital tools and content provided by the Khan Academy10 to reinforce what they have learned in class. The Khan Academy material drives the scholar to work at the edge of their ability, making frequent mistakes and receiving immediate feedback which exponentially increases the speed of learning.

Every day a leadership day

The ASE curriculum also incorporates a specific leadership programme which runs between 15:00 to 16:30 on a daily basis. The programme includes teaching basic survival life skills and servant leadership skills.11 Our scholars are given opportunities to develop their own community service projects: every scholar is expected to take a leading role in changing the lives of some community members. Assisting others in a time of need can also benefit the helper by strengthening their resilience. Our scholars have been involved in caring for the aged and frail, breast cancer awareness campaigns, ‘Keep Tsakane Clean’ initiatives, football clubs and adult literacy classes.

The staff at ASE are proud of what we have achieved so far and what we will achieve in the near future. It has not been an easy journey but we keep our heads above the water and we always rise to any challenge. We are positive that our scholars will make a difference not only in Tsakane but in South Africa as a whole.


1. See, for example: and-values.

2. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley-on-Klip in Gauteng is also an ISASA member. See:

3. See:

4. Jay Kloppenberg has worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. in New Jersey in the US and South Africa, and as a venture capitalist focused on the sub-Saharan African microfinance industry at Mecene Investment in Johannesburg, Gauteng. Kloppenberg has an MBA from INSEAD Business School in Fontainebleau, France. Prior to joining the business world, he taught English in the United States and Senegal. (Source:

5. Township residential areas in South Africa originated as racially segregated, low-cost housing developments, for black labourers to remain closer to their places of employment within the cities and towns. The demographic and socioeconomic distribution of the townships perpetuates racial segregation and a scarcity of resources in their public schools. (Source: Bouwer, C and Mampane, R. (2011) “The influence of township schools on the resilience of their learners”. Available at:

6. See, for example:

7. See:

8. See, for example:

9. See, for example: Landers, H. (n. d.) “Using Peer Teaching in the Classroom”. Available at:

10. Originally the source of great controversy, the Khan Academy is now widely recognised as a source of educational support for teachers and learners across the globe. It is a “not-for-profit organisation with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” (Source:

11. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the top of the pyramid, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. (Source:


Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2014

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