The St Benedict’s “Embrace” conference: transforming schools through social cohesion

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

By DEON OERSON

Social cohesion, and the motivation to create inclusive, transformed and diverse schools, maps the landscape of our current schooling context.

The commitment to uphold the values of oneness through engaging in social contracts offers an opportunity to provide equal opportunities for students and teachers alike. Located in Bedfordview, Gauteng, St Benedict’s journey of transformation started as early as 1978 when Catholic schools opened their doors to students of all races. The aim to become an inclusive school community was twofold, one of defying the legislation of racial segregation in schools at the time, as well as creating equal opportunities for boys of all races. Transformation is still a difficult journey shared by many schools. Although schools are more progressive in their practices, culminating in complexed and multifaceted environments where the advancements made are measured by the considered developments in pedagogy, as well as curriculum and technological advancements, it is still found that many grapple with establishing a culture of true inclusivity. At the heart of these transformative environments lies the people. It is the people who drive the agenda of creating equal opportunities for growth and learning for all pupils.

Bursaries a chance to drive social cohesion projects

Most schools, both affluent and mid-fee-paying schools, institute programmes to include pupils from previously disadvantaged communities through their bursary and scholarship programmes. These pupils are confronted by the stark contrast in socio-economic standards between home and school. Socially cohesive schools recognise these inequalities and offer support for their pupils. Pupils are embraced and motivated to engage fully in the learning opportunities and social environments of their school communities through the sharing of resources. They are encouraged to add their own value to these communities by being authentic and contributing wholeheartedly to the multicultural context of their schools. André Oosthuysen, executive headmaster at St Benedict’s, reiterated the importance of cultivating socially cohesive schools in his address at a transformation and leadership dialogue series in 2014:

As St Benedict’s continues to grow and flourish within the new political and educational landscape of South Africa, the magnitude and complexity of diversity and transformation dictates that we broaden our perspectives and recommit ourselves to building a community in which equity and diversity are viewed, not only as moral and ethical imperatives, but also as practical necessities.

ISASA Toolkit resulted in key conference

These “practical necessities” are the daily needs of each pupil and staff member to ensure success in the academic, sporting and cultural programmes offered by the school. Reference here could also be made to the practical ways in which the ethos of the school is promoted. We are guided by ISASA’s initiatives to promote transformation and diversity in schools through the publication of the Toolkit for Diversity and Transformation, which has intensified our focus on promoting and implementing programmes that foster social cohesion and transformative practices. Earlier this year, St Benedict’s hosted a conference titled “Embrace”. The aim of the conference was to explore the many ways in which schools can transform through the promotion of social cohesion. The three key areas that formed the basis for the conversations were advocacy, institutional change and individual change. The papers delivered encouraged the delegates to examine their own contextual environments. It was found that the fostering of social cohesion is on the agenda of most schools. There is a common understanding that the importance of establishing communities and environments which embrace diversity cannot be overlooked. Pupils, parents and staff value themselves when they know that their contributions towards the social, cultural, sport and academic success of the institution are recognised and accepted.

Climate surveys of institutional practices valuable

It is currently clear that all schools must create a framework of ethical and values-based rules that cultivate a greater understanding of the social relevance of identity and transformation. Community engagement through climate surveys is one of the vehicles that can help with exploring the culture and ethos of a school community. These surveys provide valuable insights into the lived experiences of the pupils, parents and staff. They not only highlight good practice, but also create a clear understanding of the needs of the school community. The extent to which equal opportunities impact and promote social cohesion is assessed, and strategic imperatives can be formulated to ensure that support is given to the most vulnerable members of the school community as a priority focus. The promotion of social cohesion through the fostering of social integration, equality and social justice happens when schools examine the relevance of their institutional practices and the impact they have on the promotion of transformation through social cohesion. Recognition must be given to the diverse group of schools, each with its own social construct, and yet sharing a common purpose: to promote positive relationships, trust, solidarity, inclusion and collectivism. The conversations and papers shared at forums such as the “Embrace” conference lend themselves to set the tone for continued growth, exploration and implementation of social cohesion in schools. Our conference revealed that there is a need to embark on projects aimed at active citizenship. This need was underpinned by the themes expressed in the presentations. Furthermore, delegates issued a call to all schools to counter structural discrimination in our daily practices by encouraging all members of the school community to actively promote social cohesion.

Ongoing, robust conversations

The delegates identified other areas that should be highlighted for continued conversation. These are related to gender transformation and diversity, best practice that sustains transformation and diversity, and a framework of strategies which address the hurt, pain and anger that many young people express. A need was also expressed to include support staff in transformation and diversity conversations in a way that doesn’t alienate or marginalise them. The contributions made by ISASA executive director Lebogang Montjane, Sarah Nuttall,1 Karin Murris2 and the breakaway speakers who shared their knowledge, insights, lived experience and academic research on becoming cohesive school communities were well received and stimulated robust conversations. The insights, programmes, plans and processes they presented offered a framework for continued growth, exploration and implementation. We owe much to our delegates for attending this conference and adding meaningful contributions to the current focus on creating social cohesion in schools.

The spirit of human rights must prevail

Transformation through social cohesion is not only the responsibility of school leaders and governors, but all members of school communities. The need to actively counteract prejudice and treat all members of our school communities within the spirit of human rights is an imperative that should guide the thinking and doing of pupils, staff and parents. Post-conference, the conversations continue and opportunities to examine our own practices, question our traditions and reinvent our learning institutions to promote social cohesion is multiple. At “Embrace”, it was agreed that we can only achieve truly cohesive school communities if we treat all members of our school communities within the spirit of oneness by recognising the human spirit of belonging.

Deon Oerson is campus head: community advancement and wellness at St Benedict’s College.

References:
1. See: https://wiser.wits.ac.za/users/sarah-nuttall
2. See: http://www.education.uct.ac.za/edu/staff/academic/kmurris

Category: Winter 2018

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