The opportunities and challenges facing independent schools – South Africa 2017: a view from St Stithians College: part one

| November 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

BY TIM NUTTALL

This article is based on a presentation given by Tim Nuttall, rector of St Stithians College, during the Gauteng
Department of Education Consultative Summit with Independent Schools on 13 September 2017, hosted by
Curro Waterfall School in Midrand, Gauteng.1

It is important to recognise the wide diversity of types of independent schools, while also being clear about how to
define the independent sector. If schooling is understood as an ecological system, then it is also vital to understand the kinds of roles independent schools do and can play in a healthy ecology of South African schooling.

I begin with an outline of definitions as I understand them, as a leader of an independent school. The South African
Schools Act (SASA) of 19962 established a national schooling system for the post-apartheid era, creating an integrated framework from the balkanised structure of apartheid education. The SASA defined and recognised two categories of schools: public and independent. Public schools are state controlled, state funded, located on state land and managed through the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) public schools includes departmental schools that are located on private property. Public schools are defined on a range of funding provision, with a commitment for the state to fully fund Quintile 1–3 schools and partially fund Quintile 4–5 schools. The first category (Quintile 1–3) consists of no-fee schools, while schools in the second category (Quintile 4–5) are
entitled to charge fees approved by each school governing body.

Significance of the terms “private” and “independent” schools in South Africa

Independent schools are required to register with the DBE, to comply with national laws and education regulations and to be accredited by the state’s quality assurance entity, Umalusi.3 However, they are privately owned entities,
governed by boards that reflect this private ownership. In this sense, these schools are “independent” of direct departmental management. They have areas of discretion in their governance and management, within the constraints of laws applicable to privately owned institutions. As a result, the terms “private” and “independent” are interchangeable, although each term carries nuances of emphasis. The term “private” emphasises the nature of ownership, while the term “independent” carries greater focus on choices, priorities and institutional character, which flow from governance and management process that are not determined by public officials in the education department. In the political lexicon, “private” and “independent” can be both pejorative and praiseworthy; a space to be attacked and a space to be defended.

Sector defined by great diversity

As private trusts or companies, independent schools are broadly divided into two categories, as per the Companies Act of 2008: non-profit companies (NPC) and profit companies (PC).4 Schools that are NPCs typically register as non-profit organisations (NPOs) for taxation purposes, and their motive is not to generate profits from their operation. NPC schools are mostly reliant on annual school fees and school investment funds for their revenue. Any annual surplus is reinvested into the entity and stays on the balance sheet. Schools that are for profit are typically financed through annual school fees and a shareholder structure, which seeks to derive a profit on private
investment while delivering the educational service. The differences between non-profit and for-profit schools
are just one aspect of a myriad of differentiators within the independent sector. There is a wide range of school fees, from high fee to low fee. Current regulations create a mechanism for co-funding between parent fees and departmental subsidies for independent schools, where the fees are below a defined level. Typically, higher-fee independent schools offer variations on a holistic model of schooling, while lower-fee schools focus on a narrower offering. A minority are specialist schools in the arts or sport. Wherever independent schools are located on the spectrum of tuition fees, these institutions are educational enterprises that need to operate according to a
sustainable business model. Annual budgets are shaped by considerations of strategic priorities, affordability, attracting and retaining quality staff, funding operating and capital costs, cash flow, investments and fundraising.
There are independent schools that have a religious character, and schools which are explicitly secular. There are coeducational schools and single-sex schools. There are primary and secondary schools, and there are pre-primary to matric (kindergarten through to Grade 12) schools. There are schools that teach the national curriculum, assessed either through the DBE or through the Independent Examination Board (IEB).5 There are schools that teach to a variety of alternative curricular frameworks, including international curricula, faith-based and faith-shaped curricula, and curricula grounded in specific educational methodologies (such as Waldorf or Montessori).
There are independent schools that select only academically able students; while others have a more academically inclusive enrolment approach. There are independent schools that are among the oldest existing schools in South Africa (going back to the 1840s and 1850s), and there are brand-new schools which are being built in large numbers in response to the South African urban sprawl and the growing market demand for alternatives to public
schooling in the present. There are schools that are historically white and historically black, reflecting the apartheid past and the continuing imprint of these racial categories and geography. There are schools that are transforming away from these legacies, some rapidly and others slowly, as our society deracialises its social structures, particularly through the growth of black middle and upper classes.

Diversity and dynamism within school systems are global and beneficial

I wish to argue that – as in the natural world – a rich and diversified ecology of schooling in South Africa is, in principle, good for the country. The economic, technical, social and cultural needs of South Africa are diverse and dynamic. We need an adaptable and complex education system to advance and meet these needs and to create new opportunities, so moving towards a society that is recognisably different from our apartheid past. This system rightly includes both public and independent schools. It is worth reflecting that there has been a global expansion of privately funded and managed schools – in developing economies, in particular – and so South Africa’s
experience is not exceptional. Within the bounds of national policy, the benefits of a diverse and dynamic educational system are evident. Through active participation in quality assurance processes, including Umalusi
accreditation, Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA) evaluation6 and a number of international
association review structures, independent schools contribute significantly to setting national benchmarks for
educational excellence.

South Africa’s school system needs to be interdependent

The critical point to make, however, in advancing the positives of a complex ecology of South African schooling is to stress that the dominant relationships should be interdependent rather than hostile. There should be a “both and” mentality, rather than an “either or” one. This is the basis for hope of a better future for our land and its people. Public and independent schools inhabit the same society and, broadly, our intent should be aligned. Exploring the spaces of synergy, cooperation and mutual respect between public and independent schools is a key priority. The GDE’s Summit with Independent Schools is an important opportunity for taking forward this mindset, and I
return to this in the final section of this paper.

A critical look at the purpose and intent of independent schools

Purpose and intent are contained in school governance documents, in mottos and taglines, and are lived out daily
through expressed values, programmes, relationships and outcomes. Independent schools (and, I might add, all schools) have three critical sets of questions to ask of themselves as they hold up a mirror:

1. How clearly does a school understand its reason for
existing, and how well is this expressed in a statement of
intent and purpose?
2. Does the statement of purpose and intent contextualise
the school in and for South Africa’s (and Africa’s) present
and future? Specifically, does how does the school seek to
educate citizens and to advance the Constitution?
3. How far is there alignment between the statement of
purpose and intent, on the one hand, and the daily life of
the school? How are words on the page and expressed
principles lived out in practice? What responsibilities do
the governing body and management of the school take to
review, develop and ensure this alignment?

In the case of St Stithians College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, I have been clear, as the rector and executive head,
that I have a special responsibility to work with the college executive and with the council (governing body) to define and advance our Statement of Intent and Purpose.7 The current document was approved by the council in 2015, after an 18- month period of formulation, and confirmed again in 2017 after a review was undertaken.
There is not space here to give a detailed outline for the rationale of the St Stithians intent and purpose. Suffice it to say that such a guiding statement should be both descriptive and aspirational in relation to the school’s reason for existing, and it should be a short, well-considered document with words and meanings carefully chosen. St Stithians is a college comprising seven schools, consisting of primary and secondary boys’ and girls’ schools, together with a co-educational junior primary school. The college is an independent, non-profit institution located on an African Highveld campus in Sandton, Johannesburg. In addition, St Stithians incorporates Kamoka Bush School near Modimolle in Limpopo province, and the Thandulwazi Maths and Science Academy on our campus.

Schools must contribute to nation-building

The second question above addresses the extent to which independent schools articulate their intent to contribute to
nation-building and the creation of a post-apartheid society. In Learning: The Treasure Within (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation/UNESCO, 1996),8 the four pillars of education are defined as “Learning to Know”, “Learning to Do”, “Learning to Live Together” and “Learning to Be”. While many schools will focus on the first two pillars – the acquisition and assessment of knowledge and skills – this is too narrow a definition of educational purpose. The second two pillars – the inculcation of values and the development of social
and emotional intelligence – are often included in definitions of holistic education. Many independent schools consider holistic education a hallmark of their offering. Given this, how many independent schools make explicit reference to educating citizens of South Africa about the necessity of building a new society that is significantly different to the country’s apartheid legacy? In reflecting on this question, the national Constitutionrepresents a foundational framework in defining the new society we should strive to create and in articulating the values of this
society. A further question flows: how do the purpose statements of independent schools articulate the guidelines of
the Constitution? In applying the challenging insights and questions outlined above to the St Stithians Statement of Intent and Purpose, I select the following phrases from the statement: “St Stithians College is a proudly South African school, embracing diversity and offering a distinctive educational experience.” “…to contribute as African and global citizens.” “Create a community of belonging among our students, staff, parents and alumni.”
“St Stithians College is committed to the positive transformation and development of South African society.
We seek to embrace Ubuntu, to be ‘One and All’.”

St Stithians asks strategic questions

In implementing its intent and purpose, St Stithians is guided by core policy documents, by our Strategy 2025 Framework9and Master Plan 2053, which looks forward to the centenary year. Having a strategic approach, and one that asks critical questions, is an important way to ensure alignment and focus in implementing a school’s intent and purpose. In relation to the imperative for independent schools to educate citizens for South Africa’s present and future, the following three of the six themes of Strategy 2025 are particularly relevant:

1. Defining our school character
2. Creating a community engagement curriculum
3. Promoting institutional advancement and sustainability
through a community of belonging.

By addressing “school character” as a strategic imperative, space is created for asking challenging questions about what kind of school we want St Stithians to be. What are the values, assumptions and core features of the college as a Methodist church school? What should be changed to make the college more relevant, transformed and inclusive of diversity as we journey from being an all-white school founded in 1953 and which began to enrol black students from 1980 onwards? This is a lively and engaged conversation space. The intent to create a community engagement curriculum seeks to commit St Stithians to making an impact beyond the school gates on our wider community in greater Johannesburg, and to learn from the relationships forged. In the process, South African citizens are educated and the college grows its role as a corporate citizen. The term “engagement” commits the college to building community partnerships, with schools and church organisations as a primary focus. The long-term institutional and financial sustainability of St Stithians is the focus of the college’s “advancement” strategy. Underpinning this intention is the creation of an active “community of belonging” among present staff,students and parents, and among alumni and past parents. “Belonging” is a challenging and stretching concept for a school: how do members of the school community feel included? And how excluded? What traditions and assumptions need to be questioned, given the historically white culture of the school, the increasing enrolment of black students and the predominance of white people in leadershippositions? How do individuals from diverse social andcultural backgrounds come to know one another and so break down the stereotypes that are such an engrained feature of South African society with its highly divisive past?

In part two of this article, which will appear in the autumn 2018 edition of Independent Education, Nuttall will
discuss the “important opportunities and responsibilities to explore in furthering public-private partnerships
involving independent schools, public schools, the education department, education NGOs and corporate funders”.

References:
1. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN4_5UFEA6s and
http://www.gdeindependentschoolsummit.sci-bono.co.za/www/index
2. See: https://www.education.gov.za/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=
aIolZ6UsZ5U%3D&tabid=767&mid=3184
3. See: http://www.umalusi.org.za/
4. See:
http://www.cipc.co.za/files/2413/9452/7679/CompaniesAct71_2008.pdf
5. See: http://www.ieb.co.za/
6. See: http://iqaa.co.za/evaluation/iqaa
7. See: http://www.stithian.com/content/page/governance
8. See: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-theinternational-
agenda/rethinking-education/resources/
9. See: http://www.stithian.com/content/page/governance

 

 

Category: Summer 2017

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