St Stithians Online High School

As with most good things, it all starts with a story, or rather, stories.

I’m talking about the stories of many people, who, like desert weaver birds, each busy themselves in different times and places, and then, as if overnight, energies converge, intentional individual efforts become collectively visible, and a vibrant community emerges, purpose-built to flourish.

The story of the seemingly sudden appearance of St Stithians Online High School (SSOS) in July 2021 is not that different. Cynics might say starting an online school just then was opportunistic, a knee-jerk response to the lockdown caused by COVID-19. The cynics would be wrong. SSOS’s origins date back to 2000, and, like the building of a weavers’ colony, needed time, and the instincts, ideas, visionary thinking, skills, resources, and energy of many people to converge and spark a phenomenon.

What stands out in the story, as in nature, is that holding the whole together as greater than the sum of its parts, is the principle of what I call deep alignment. Deep alignment starts with individuals who have tuned in to what life is asking of them. It grows into the mysteriously operating intelligence of the group. Nurtured in relationships based on common values and authentic conversations, deep alignment directs and shapes singularities into a coherent and effective whole.

This is what makes the SSOS story so intriguing. It is a South African story in which passionate educators and visionary business leaders strive and struggle, out of love for this country and its people, to align their values, their hopes for South Africa’s future and their personal ambitions, their time, talent and treasure, and their differences, so that something greater than themselves is created to outlast them all.

And so, the rest of this story will be about relationships, values and conversations. These are multitudinous, accruing over 21 years. It will not be possible to tell you about all the actors and their individual contributions. Instead, I have drawn on the knowledge and perspectives of just five people who have lived not only their own stories in the South African education and business contexts, but who have borne witness to the formation of SSOS. I am grateful to Celeste Gilardi, Robert Paddock and Carel Nolte for agreeing to be interviewed for this article.

Online Schooling in South Africa

The who

At its core, SSOS is a relationship between St Stithians College and the Valenture Institute, an EdTech company based in Cape Town. Of course, it’s the people in those organisations who create the relationships.

Present rector of St Stithians, Celeste Gilardi, has been part of the College since 2001, leading the Girls’ Preparatory for approximately 20 years.

Current chair of Council, Carel Nolte, is a Saints alumnus and has held his current position since 2013. In between giving a no-return investment of his time at Saints, he is an entrepreneur, holding multiple portfolios in commercial ventures.

Alistair Stewart is current head of Advancement and Sustainability at St Stithians. He was formerly head of the Boys’ Preparatory and has been at St Stithians for 21 years.

Robert Paddock is the founder and CEO of the Valenture Institute, and is a Rondebosch Boys’ School alumnus, co-founder of digital education company Get Smarter, and holds positions on various EdTech-related companies and philanthropic enterprises.

In my capacity as head of Education Research and Innovation at St Stithians and a member of the College leadership team, mine is the tiniest and most recent part, but for me, it’s one that I am grateful to have played. It has cemented my conviction that, no matter how scary a situation is, one just must go full tilt into it as one’s authentic self. I have been in education for 28 years, and before that, spent time in the computer industry just as PCs were getting personal, and the internet superhighway was being built. I am into my fifth year at St Stithians.

The why

Let me start to draw the threads together.

In a routine yet surreal pandemic-responsive St Stithians executive committee (Exco) meeting, as we were all reeling from overnight conversion to online teaching under alert level 5 in March last year, Alistair mentioned three very crucial pieces of information.

First, he said, a group of like-minded school leaders were getting together to try and form an online school. Secondly, St Stithians had had its first online and distance learning graduates in 2000 and 2001. One of our families was travelling the globe, but still wanted a Saints education for their children. It was the value Saints places on personalised relationships that inspired it to grapple with the logistics of responding to the unique needs of two of its students. They successfully matriculated online and have gone on to do great things in leadership, education and the environment.

The third nugget Alistair dropped into the ExCo conversation was that Robert Paddock had started a new EdTech company called the Valenture Institute and was exploring partnering with an educational institution in Cape Town to offer a fully online high school. Alistair is renowned for having a vault of a memory, storing vital pieces of information connecting the stories of and relationships between many people to the story of St Stithians.

As the ‘newbie’, one of my strengths is to focus on one vital piece of information, drill down into its potential to get something done, then come up to connect it with all sorts of other possibilities. I see the world as a place where both people and things have agency and can move around to form new associations and assemblages in unpredictable multiple directions.

I also buy into a version of systems thinking that proposes that the most productive connections arise between actors in a network that have the fewest existing links to anyone else in the network. In our story, such an actor would be Robert Paddock.

So, I did what I do, and on 10 August 2020, direct messaged Robert Paddock via LinkedIn. His many strengths include humility, staying open-minded and adventurous, and agreeing to have conversations with strangers loosely articulating an idea. Yet another of his other strengths is that he does his research on the South African education landscape across all sectors – and he knew St Stithians as an innovator of excellence.

Most importantly, he believed in the possibility of a deep alignment between the values and adventure of start-up Valenture Institute, and the established ethics-based traditions and superior education for which St Stithians is known. Luckily, our timing and our talents converged, and Robert agreed to have an introductory conversation with me on behalf of St Stithians.

St Stithians Online High School

The how

As a leader, Celeste has many strengths: the ability to trust people with the place and space they occupy; to play the role they have been given and to believe they can use their strengths for the benefit of the College and as part of their own career growth. She is rock-solid and committed to building strong, authentic relationships and to teamwork. These are the engines of generative hope and are non-negotiable priorities.

And so, I got the go ahead to have a preliminary discussion with Robert Paddock about helping St Stithians start a full-time, purpose-built online school. Quickly after that, introductions between Celeste and Robert were made, team members brought on board and meetings begun.

Reflecting on his previous experiences of forming new partnerships, Robert emphasised the importance of paying attention, in those first moments, to the fit between the partners, testing to see if there is sufficient cultural match between organisations. Fortuitously, the potential for a generative match was clear from the first meeting, escalating fast to doing the work of deep alignment.

St Stithians Online School launched on 12 July 2021, 11 months and two days after initial contact was made between Saints and Valenture.

And now there is time to look back, reflect and analyse how the leadership roles of Celeste as rector, Carel as chair of St Stithians Council, and Robert as CEO of Valenture, came together to propel the deep alignment that realised a 20-year-old idea in an astonishingly short space of time. Without definitive leadership, new ventures quickly stall.

An evolution

In separate conversations with each leader, it became clear to me that certain fundamentals converged, creating that mysterious, intelligent, fertile environment in which disparate parts coalesce. What this looks like is neither luck, nor opportunism: it is people acting decisively for survival, not only of a single entity, but of the group.

What enables disparities to converge is not mere expedience. As Carel Nolte puts it, ‘[It is not an outsourced arrangement. It becomes a partnership, a co-collaboration and co-creation.’ This happens when transcendence digs its heels into the mud and muck of the ground beneath, when individuals grapple with the matter of life crashing into their worlds. Discerning between what one can and can’t control is crucial. The conditions for something new arise: awareness intensifies; complexity deepens; possibilities amplify. Some might say this is evolution.

For Celeste, establishing the online school is part of Saints’ evolution. The online school aligns with the College’s values because the process is hope in action. It is education becoming personalised, making more and different experiences possible for more students.

As she points out:

In the online school there are no borders. There are no barriers to what can be.’ Choice and flexibility are emerging in the post-pandemic landscape as essential drivers of high impact quality educational change. And choice without compromise is, for Celeste, one of the most important fundamentals of what Saints is.

She says:

It’s not that the online school will replace the onsite school. It’s about the individual student, and what he or she is looking for. At Saints, there is the understanding that children don’t have to fit into boxes. At our school, excellent teaching is about modifying and adapting learning situations and experiences to suit the students.

It’s all about access

Creating a virtual school, removing the hard materiality of place as a barrier and expertly mobilising the affordances of digitisation, takes personalisation of learning to another level. It also speaks to a further distinguishing feature of Saints’ ethos: inclusion. Celeste’s hope is that the online school will contribute to making a Saints experience affordable for more South Africans, to addressing access and equity and offering quality education to those who might in the past not have had access to it.

It’s about celebrating the values that unite us as a global community, and values to which all humans should adhere, such as respect and inclusion. As a faith-based school, we have a responsibility to expand our sphere of influence, not for self-aggrandisement, but because of the values for which we stand.

Carel Nolte agrees, saying:

I believe that we should increase our sphere of influence. If we are only educating on this beautiful little campus, it’s not good enough. We have to influence the world and make a positive contribution. And I think a big part of that is diversity. And the online school provides us yet another opportunity to be diverse.

Starting the online school is also about offering a lifeline to those families hard hit by the ongoing financial fallout of COVID-19. Looked at another way, it’s about being responsive to people’s changing needs. Celeste points out that,

As a faith-based school, Saints looks outward and tries to see how we might turn challenges into opportunities and how we might share our incredible resources. We know there is a crisis in education in our country, so what can we do to address that? What role can we play? Celeste’s hope is that fellow ISASA schools are addressing the same issues.

Collaboration in online education

A values-based relationship

Celeste quickly discerned that, in order to respond with speed and agility to create a fully online school, Saints had to look for expertise beyond its own excellent teaching staff, who, under lockdown, were working past the limits of their capacity and calling. As we met with Robert and his team, it became apparent that Valenture Institute’s ethos expressed in its name (references to values and adventure), aligned with that of Saints.

In his custodial capacity as chair of Council, Carel Nolte recounts that values alignment was a non-negotiable starter, adding:

It’s not a business partnership; it’s a values-based relationship. I had to be very sure that we were on the same page in terms of values. And I am delighted that in the first few months, those values have been on display: agility, trust, compromise, collaboration, respect for ourselves, and for others. And for me, that’s been fantastic.

In addition to their experience and expertise in the EdTech world, Valenture’s evident commitment to strong, authentic relationships as the engine of successful enterprise, created both the necessary and sufficient conditions for collaboration.

Commenting on the first series of meetings between the Saints and Valenture teams, Celeste is unambiguous, saying:

What clinched it for me was the calibre of people we were dealing with. We could have been in a situation where, yes, they were the leaders in their field, but without alignment with our values and beliefs about education, about what is right for students, this partnership would not have been established.

A shared responsibility

For Robert Paddock, it’s about personal ethics, about not resting on his laurels. It’s about seeing South African education not as a fragmented private-public dichotomy, but as a shared responsibility. We all need to pitch in to help: the state is not able to fix the basic education system without partnerships. It’s about using all available expertise to do something to head off the catastrophe that is now upon us.

My own research reveals to me that close to a million scholars have dropped out of school in South Africa since March 2020. Understanding this as a national crisis, resonates with Saints’ will to be part of the solution.

As Robert notes:

On a practical level, our current system won’t scale fast enough. That’s the simplest answer that I have and a very big part of what drives me. It’s a moral obligation. The shortage of schools in South Africa is a problem needing different thinking to that which created it.

I think one of the things that better quality online schools do is that they prove to government stakeholders and others that there are alternative ways of thinking about the future of schooling. And from my perspective, we simply cannot build enough schools, or train enough teachers fast enough to educate this country’s youth.

And so, partnering with Saints was the strategic beginning of a scalable education and economic model, a coming together of teaching excellence with expertise in learning design and education technology.

For Carel, it’s about potential for impact, and he says:

I’m very excited about how we can impact possibly 300 students in a couple of years and maybe 3000 in a few years. And I think those numbers are conservative. This model can be massive because we can have different structures within this. We can really extend excellence broadly because of this partnership.

Understanding the convergence

Creating a purpose-built, high touch online school is not a simple conversion of bricks-and-mortar into screens and clicks. It takes educational wisdom, a knowledge of the subtle dynamics of effective teaching, combined with an expert grip on the intersection of the technology, content, data and human support needed to create a rich student-facing online experience that surpasses dumping paper content onto screens and calling it a school.

For Robert, it’s about asking of the partnership:

Where do we have obvious capabilities that you don’t? And that you have that we don’t?’ And then it’s about putting those two things together side by side and finding the correct areas that overlap. Saints has educational wisdom, and Valenture has education technology and online learning design expertise.

Robert expresses it thus:

There’s a convergence here that Saints really understands: how you can infuse your experience into this digital domain to make our offering richer.

Since partnering with Saints, Valenture has massively scaled up its provision of high-quality online education to all South African students in the General Education and Training (GET) and Further Education and Training (FET) phases, and, in partnership with the University of Cape Town (UCT), now offers the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) curriculum online as either paid or free-to-use versions.

SSOS offers students the globally accredited Pearson International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) examinations, and the Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced (A) levels curricula and examinations.

In starting SSOS, Saints is enabling more South African students to access its particular kind of education.

It is also expanding the possibility for them to connect with the global education system. It’s about opening our gates to include more people into our virtual community of belonging, to offer them the care and support which is part of our Saints ethos. As Carel says,

As an institution, Saints needs to be cognisant of being a servant leader. To whom much is given, much is expected. Education in South Africa is broken in many ways. Even so, South Africa is a remarkable place and we have a responsibility and an opportunity to contribute to fixing education. We forget that when we are too busy pointing fingers at each other. Teaching is an essential profession because school should be about teaching relationships. Fixing schools in South Africa is not about putting another brick in the wall: it is about believing we don’t need more walls.

Editor’s note:

In September 2021, the University of Cape Town’s online school, which also partners with the Valenture Institute, was selected as one of the Top 12 innovators in the World Class Education Challenge held during the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2021.