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Out of the Fire – Where Schooling Worked in Times of Crisis – All Saints College, South Africa, 1986–1997

| September 24, 2010

Researched and edited by Gavin Stewart with Angela Church and Butch Coetzee for the All Saints Education Development Trust
Published by The All Saints Education Development Trust: 186 pages
ISBN: 978-0-620-45647-0
Reviewed by Fiona de Villiers

It is an extraordinary tale: in 1985, while South Africa’s townships were on fire, plans were afoot to establish a new school in the heart of the Ciskei ‘homeland’. The school was All Saints College (ASC), and its growth during one of the stormiest periods in our political history is the subject matter of Out of the Fire – Where Schooling Worked in Times of Crisis – All Saints College, South Africa, 1986–1997.

Co-editor Gavin Stewart says in the introduction: “All Saints was such different things to its different constituencies it escapes any single understanding. “In order of appearance, Richard Todd, the sponsors, the Trustees; the first, second and third principals; the teachers, parents, students from very different backgrounds and ‘geographies’; communities, political and sporting formations all had different expectations of the project.”

Planners and policy makers can learn from Richard Todd

Let us first consider Richard Todd’s contribution. Here was a man at the height of his career, Headmaster of one of the pre-eminent schools in South Africa, Hilton College. However, he had other plans, other convictions; telling the Financial Mail in 1985 that “failure of government to provide equal education opportunity for all is a major contributory factor to the escalating waves of unrest. Economically we can’t afford to waste these children’s potential. Politically it would be extremely dangerous, and from a humanitarian viewpoint unthinkable.”

Todd’s vision was an independent school in a racially neutral area (initially he dreamed of more than one such institution), that would be co-educational and provide places for day scholars and boarders in standards nine and 10, with a significant percentage staying on for a post-matriculation or a bridging year. The scholars would be chosen on academic record and leadership potential from schools where their promise might not otherwise be realised. The academic focus would be preparation for a tertiary education.

A wonderful pipe dream indeed, but Todd made it happen, and policy makers planning the way forward for South African education can learn an inestimable amount from his experience. Todd created the conditions for the establishment of the Leadership Education and Advancement Foundation (Leaf ) (the main source of financial support for ASC), secured funding partnerships with organisations like the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and land (some eight kilometres from King William’s Town) from the Ciskei government. Together with the first Board of Trustees and other interested parties, Todd put in place all other necessary mechanisms and procedures, not least of which was the building of the school itself. True to Todd’s timetable, the school welcomed its first 85 students in 1986.

Burton an inspired educator and leader

Current Heads of schools and their management teams can learn much from Michael Burton’s part in this story. He was the first Geography teacher at – and second Headmaster and later Director of – ASC, and Out of the Fire documents his passion, his commitment to excellence and his personal capacity for ongoing learning. In 1986, he recorded that an incident at the College “reinforced the early impression that was building in my mind that if I wanted to succeed as principal I needed to take real cognisance and seek student opinion on issues outside the classroom”. This recognition gave rise to a foundational philosophy that guided every ASC enterprise.

Burton again: “Ownership at All Saints was a collaborative affair… everything that was important in the management of the school was contained in a College Handbook, and every entry had been through a participatory process involving students, teachers, parents and (later) community members.”

A remarkable group of teachers

Teachers will (or will not) draw inspiration from the school leader at any school. Clearly Burton’s enthusiasm rubbed off on the ASC educators. But they were also an extraordinary group of well-qualified forward-thinkers – mostly white – who journeyed in good faith to a school described thus by ASC Trust Chair Franklin Sonn: “The school was situated in isolation in a dark corner of the Ciskei; deep Ciskei….” They came because they loved to teach, and were willing to learn, and those at the ‘chalkface’ today can learn, in turn, from them.

Priscilla Murugan, History and Economics teacher at ASC, recalled the Socratic approach favoured at ASC: “We talk about outcomes-based education today, but at ASC we had been practising that.” Said Sonn: “Now all of a sudden, they sit in a class where, if they ask the teacher a question and the teacher says: ‘So what do you think?’ Then the teacher would say: ‘I never thought of it that way, that makes a lot of sense, but only if I may ask you what’s going to be the result of your thinking?’”

English teacher Peter King remembers the political context: “There was one real imperative with staff: to engage one another honestly to try to break down the wrong perception that it was a microcosm of apartheid, authorities that were predominantly white and the masses of oppressed people who were predominantly black.”

Students caught up in a complex political dynamic

Who were these ‘predominantly black’ students? Today many of them are captains of industry, members of government, respected academics and prominent civil society leaders. Back in the 1980s and 90s, they were a select nervous few, many of whom left their families for the first time and travelled long distances to a brand new school populated in the main by white teachers. Burton surmised: “Students attended ASC in order to obtain regular qualifications which would enable them to attend what were almost exclusively white universities.

They came in the face of very real threats to their lives. Some saw their enrolment at what could be seen as an elitist private school as a negation of the cry: ‘Liberation before education’.” It was worth it, report ASC alumni in Out of the Fire. Recalls Pumla Gqola, “The political vigour and discussions at ASC challenged the ‘easy’ politics I had taken on by osmosis…” Susanna Coleman remembers that “there we all were: a whole ‘gemors’ of languages, hairstyles, teenagers and adults, agitators and pacifists, capitalists and communists, Christians and atheists, Rastafarian and Hindu”. Zukie Jafta is grateful for the ASC tutoring system:
“You had quite a lot of reading to do overnight… we came from an environment where we were led by the teacher, now you had to lead yourself.”

From the ashes can rise the phoenix

There is not space enough in this review to document the struggles (within the struggle) that erupted at ASC because of the complex political dynamics of the time, or the eventual demise of the College. (Said Jono Clark, one-time Chair of the ASC Trust: “The day Mandela said ‘free education for all’ [the funders] all breathed an enormous sigh of relief and said they don’t have to subsidise the school any more. Those kids can go to Dale, Selborne, KES in Johannesburg… the money turned off
within a year… All Saints became unsustainable – and the cause was the new political dispensation.”)

A lesser publication would perhaps have downplayed these depressing elements. Their detailed inclusion makes me wonder, in conclusion, how to define Out of the Fire. It can be called a record, an archive, a history, a collection of memories captured in a frank and loosely colloquial way. On another more profound plane, however, I return to Stewart’s description, “All Saints was such different things to its different constituencies it escapes any single understanding.”

Out of the Fire is a rich resource that should be required reading for all who care about the future of education in South Africa, its abiding message captured elsewhere by the great playwright Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

To obtain a copy of this book, contact Mike Burton at or Gavin Stewart at

Connect with the All Saints story by visiting the Facebook page at or visit http://www.allsaintseducation.

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Category: Book Reviews, Spring 2010 Edition

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