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

| April 10, 2018 | 0 Comments


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.

There are many worthy initiatives a school can undertake to promote a sense of belonging, including events, rites of passage, communication and intentional acts of connecting.

Here, I mention just a few initiatives undertaken at St Stithians College in Johannesburg, Gauteng. The first was the termly meeting of the Strategic Planning Group at the end of 2016, where we ran a workshop aimed to sensitise the college’s leaders to unconscious biases, stereotyping and prejudice.

The second initiative was a Staff Development Day at the beginning of 2017 for the 420 staff employed at St Stithians. The staff were divided into groups of 15, and we intentionally mixed individuals from across the schools and administration departments. The programme of the day was “Circles of Connecting”: staff members were asked to share their life stories, to reflect on their identities as South Africans (or other nationalities), and to talk about how they felt they belong – or do not belong – at St Stithians. Through parent-teacher committees, student committees, staff forums and chapel services, the themes of “identity and belonging” are a special focus at present at St Stithians. The Teaching and Learning Committee is addressing opportunities to decolonise the curriculum.

Who belongs where?

At Founders’ Day 2017, when the whole school community gathered in a crowd of around 5 000 people, I stated in the rector’s address as I engaged with the theme of belonging:

Who am I? Who are we? How do we feel that we belong? How do we feel that we do not belong? What do we stand for? What do we stand against? Why is stereotyping so pervasive? How aware are we of our unconscious biases? How aware are we of the assumptions that we make?

The silent and submerged factors which erode and undermine our sense of belonging are the most difficult to identify, challenge and reshape. The ways in which we share and grapple with these profound questions today shape the promise and the pitfalls of the future.

To be relevant, meaningful and purposive, a St Stithians education should seek to equip us to be thought leaders and lead practitioners in this landscape of belonging:

• What is the “head” of our belonging – how much do we know about each other, and the multiple contexts of our communities?

• What is the “heart” of our belonging – how much do we empathise with others, create relationships and embrace diversity as a common good?

• What are the “hands” of our belonging – how much do we live out a generosity of spirit, lives of connecting, serving and contributing?

[We must seek] to be the head, heart and hands that seek to build, not to break down; hope, not despair; connect, not disconnect; love, not hate.

At St Stithians, we educate individuals to live out a “Saints Character”, so that our students and staff can “Know myself, be myself, and make my contribution”. This mantra puts authentic identity at the heart of a St Stithians education:

 If we belong, we share a common set of values.

If we belong, we contribute.

If we belong, we assume responsibility.

If we belong, we stand for what is right.

If we belong, we are affirmed and we affirm others.

If we belong, happy fulfilment flows.

(These evocative words are on the foundation stone of our college.)

Addressing race and racism head-on

It is essential that schools – and particularly schools that are historically “white” schools, or are located in predominantly white residential areas that are experiencing growing numbers of black homeowners – address race and racism directly and intentionally. This emphasis is part and parcel of the education of South African citizens, who are ready to embrace the present and create new futures. The constructs of race and racism run deep in contemporary South Africa, particularly among adults who are the opinion-formers and the parents of children at school.

It is important that we develop a common understanding of race and racism. “Race” is a term that is used in society to describe individuals, or groups of individuals, who are physically categorised by the colour of their skin. Race is a social construct that draws on – and emphasises – these physical differences, particularly a binary world view that separates “white” from “black”.

Racism is about categorising people with reference to skin colour in ways that are demeaning, derogatory or patronising.

Racism is multifaceted and needs to combine the following insights in a working definition:

Racism is rooted in worldviews developed through history – particularly for our time, of transatlantic slavery, European colonialism from the 1800s to the 20th century and, in South Africa, of apartheid as a particularly long-lasting manifestation of this colonialism. At the heart of apartheid was the creation of a racially discriminatory society that favoured white people and suppressed black people. Apartheid died politically in 1994, but structurally, economically, culturally and psychologically, apartheid remains alive and pernicious into the present.

Apartheid thinking and consciousness remains deeply engrained among South Africans, often reinforced in subtle ways. There are many unconscious biases and stereotypes that affect our worldviews, both as white and black South Africans.

We need to sharpen our understanding of the shadows of apartheid. We cannot deny them. Given the history of colonialism and apartheid, racism has been, and is still today, characterised by white people wielding power in a particular way that is – or can be perceived to be by the recipients – demeaning, derogatory, undermining or patronising. In the context of schools, this enduring legacy places a particular burden and responsibility of insight and accountability on white people who are in positions of authority and power, as administrators, teachers or coaches. This is a burden and a responsibility, but also a good opportunity for listening, growth and self-reflection.

It is critical that schools – and here the focus is on independent schools – create safe and engaged spaces for addressing anger, fear, anxiety, frustration and hope in relation to race relations, as we build a South Africa that honours our national Constitution and embraces a different future for our society. We need to engage our staff, students, parents and alumni in these critical conversations. The focus is justifiably on racism, but close behind are sexism, homophobia and other destructive and demeaning social pathologies.

A total commitment to transformation

St Stithians College adopted a Transformation Statement1 in 2009, and in August 2017 published a Statement on Race and Racism, Transformation and Diversity.2 These official pronouncements, rooted in our values as a Christian school, are backed up by the creation of council, staff and student transformation and diversity committees; the appointment of staff and student leaders in our schools into transformation and diversity portfolios; and the design of school programmes that explicitly integrate transformation and diversity agendas. Our student admissions procedure has an explicit transformation agenda, and our approach to employing staff is increasingly influenced by employment equity targets. Our procurement policy is currently under revision to create more explicit broadbased black economic empowerment (B-BBEE)3 criteria. As the rector, I have seen it important to “lead from the top”, creating an enabling context for these transformation and diversity initiatives. It is important to articulate both what the college stands for and stands against. Current initiatives are to draw up anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia policies that explicitly address future transgressions by staff, students and parents of the college’s Code of Conduct.

In the rector’s address at Founders’ Day 2016, I urged the community of St Stithians thus:

 Let us be a college where we think before we speak.

Where we listen before we pronounce.

Where brotherhood and sisterhood include one and all.

Where we drive out derision of the other.

Where we talk openly and courageously about our hurts,fears and hopes.

Where we define racism and sexism, and act against it.

Where we celebrate diversity of race, culture, class and gender.

Where dignity is affirmed.

Where we honour God, Self and Other.

Where we enable each individual to know self and be self.

A future way: public-private partnerships

Alongside the important contributions of South African schools to citizenship, national-building and value formation in a transformed post-apartheid society, the educational space is undergoing rapid change – particularly in the emphases on thinking skills and e-learning. Teachers must be assisted in updating their expectations and competencies. The teacher in 10 years’ time will require a skill set that is different from that of today. Compounding the schooling system’s ability to respond to and embrace these changes, the gulf of social inequality is reflected in continuing wide discrepancies of quality across schools.

Given that many of the better-resourced independent schools occupy the frontiers of these changes, and see them as opportunities, an argument can be made for the importance of these schools entering into partnership agreements with public schools. The Gauteng Department of Education’s Schools of Specialisation concept4 is a good example of public schools taking the initiative to embark on school improvement plans, and this is another area of potential cooperation with independent schools. Public-private partnerships will need to be entered into carefully and purposefully, so that there is mutual growth and benefit, as well as sustainability. It is likely that “brokers” will need to be appointed both in public and independent schools, and perhaps in schools associations, to create and grow these partnerships.

The Thandulwazi Maths and Science Academy

In the case of St Stithians, the creation of the 12-year old Thandulwazi Maths and Science Academy5 is an important example of a private-public partnership, with a B-BBEE profile6 and emphases on black beneficiaries and women. Funded largely through corporate social investment and private donations, together with an allocation from the St Stithians annual budget, the Thandulwazi Academy has grown into a significant educational initiative. The academy is growing in stature as the seventh school of St Stithians and impacts the lives of 2 500 students and teachers annually. The programmes are based on the St Stithians campus, but include a satellite teacher programme in Limpopo.

Throughout the year, some 1 000 Grade 9 to matric students from 160 public schools in greater Johannesburg attend classes on Saturdays at St Stithians: they study mathematics, life sciences, physical sciences, English and accounting. On 11 Saturdays, pre-primary and primary teachers attend teacher development workshops run at St Stithians, with a similar programme being offered in the Sekhukhune district of Limpopo. The third component of the Thandulwazi Academy is the employment of 40 teacher interns, who are registered for distance learning qualifications (weighted towards mathematics and the sciences) and work in the schools of St Stithians. This is an immersion model of teacher education. The intern programme represents a significant contribution to the future cadres of high-quality South African teachers.

St Stithians is considering how to extend and replicate the model of the Thandulwazi Academy. An online teaching and learning platform is an obvious option to pursue. Furthermore, the intention is to grow firmer relationships with a core of public schools whose students and teachers participate on a voluntary basis in the Thandulwazi Saturday School and Teacher Development Programme. This initiative would dovetail with the growth of a community engagement curriculum, outlined earlier in this article as a strategic initiative of the college.

Many independent schools have “community school” initiatives that seek to link with public schools. The challenge and opportunity is to grow these into sustainable and multipliable projects. To do so requires new vision and determination on behalf of the leadership and governing bodies of independent schools, and a matching intent by public school and education department leaders. A working committee in Gauteng would be an excellent initiative to advance this joint cause and develop a strategy that could take public-private partnerships into areas not yet envisaged.

What are our worthy goals?

The spirit of this article is to endorse the intentions to create a positive and engaged relationship between independent and public schools, under the umbrella of national policies, as we jointly address the pressing challenges and opportunities of our society. We should strive to create a healthy ecology, embracing the benefits of diversity. Independent schools must realise, at this time in our country’s history, that it is vital that there is an intentional and strategic focus on inculcating the seminal principles of the national Constitution. Indeed, this imperative is pressing for all South African schools. How do our schools stand up when they look in the mirror with these questions in mind?

Using St Stithians as a case study, I have outlined a number of steps taken on the college’s strategic transformation journey as a proudly South African school. Reflecting on my role as rector and executive head, I have sought to set the tone and create direction. The stance taken by the leaders of schools is critical. Alongside the priorities of creating excellence in “Learning to Know” and “Learning to Do”, schools should be both safe and challenging spaces as we advance “Learning to Live Together” and “Learning to Be”.

The way forward for independent schools is to be open to engaging in multiple and purposeful partnerships that draw public and private schools into common projects with worthy goals. Rather than turning inward, independent schools must think and act “beyond the school gates”. The Thandulwazi Maths and Science Academy at St Stithians is one example highlighted, and there are many more. We must do our work at this time when the context and methodologies of education are changing rapidly, requiring adaptation and fresh thinking.


1. See:

2. Ibid.

3. See:

4. See:

5. See:


Category: Autumn 2018

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