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The state of, and key challenges, facing all-girls’ independent schools in a transforming South African society

| November 14, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Di Wilmot

All-girls’ independent schools are seen as having a concentration of the type of capital needed to address the societal challenges we are facing in South Africa at present.1

This capital is seen as including access to skilled academic staff, effective management structures, excellent facilities and resources, among other advantages.2 In many respects, all-girls’ independent schools:
…are exposed in certain ways, as people look to them with heightened expectations – as well as a mixture of awe and envy – to see what they are doing. These schools are seen as having a responsibility in the light of their privileged position in the South African field of education, to play an active role in “leading way the way” in advancing the transformation agenda.3

Educational process never neutral

There is a danger that if our all-girls’ elite independent schools do not take up this responsibility, their legitimacy and relevance in South Africa will be called into question. It is significant that the 2015 university student protests and campaigns about transformation4 have been directed mostly at South Africa’s top historically white universities, with their structures, processes and institutional cultures being called into question for maintaining and perpetuating inequality. We need to be mindful that:
…[t]here is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.5

How are all-girls’ independent schools responding and how should they be responding, so that their legacy of quality education continues into the future with girls from these schools leading the way in building a more equitable, socially just and prosperous South Africa? In my view, there are critical questions that must be addressed, such as: how can all-girls’ independent schools advance the transformation agenda?

How can all-girls’ independent schools advance the transformation agenda?

All-girls’ independent schools have made progress towards achieving racial diversity and equity in their student body, as the emergent black middle class has grown from 350 000 in 1993 to 4.2 million today (just over half of South Africa’s 8 million middle class).6 Assuming economic growth continues and, given that the majority of South Africans are black, it is likely that racial equity will be achieved in the foreseeable future.

The progress has not been as positive when it comes to racial equity among the academic staff, with black female teachers being under-represented. It is important that this is addressed so that all girls have role models who they can look up to. Furthermore, the gender and racial composition of management and governance structures needs to be looked at.

Good progress is being made with social class diversification in the student body, largely because of the bold steps taken by all-girls’ independent schools to strengthen and expand their bursary and scholarship programmes, thus increasing access for academically talented girls from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These changes have meant that allgirls’ independent schools are no longer dealing with a homogenous student body, as they did in the past. Today, 26% of the girls enrolled in all-girls’ independent schools are black from both middle- and working-class homes.7 Importantly, an increase in middle-class black girls’ enrolments has meant that socio-economic advantage has, to a large degree, replaced racial (i.e. white) advantage, with the majority of girls coming from affluent black and white middle-class families.

Complexities and challenges

Increasing racial and social diversity brings complexities and challenges. Until a critical mass of 35% of black learners is reached, the dominant culture is likely to remain white, middle class and assimilationist.8 Class diversity within our black population adds another layer of complexity to our schools. This brings into question what kind of girl these schools are trying to produce, the values and traditions they hold dear, the behaviours they reward, and what role models they provide for their girls. It raises uncomfortable questions about privilege and institutional culture, and the extent to which all-girls’ independent schools are welcoming and inclusive, as opposed, to alienating and uncomfortable places for
all their girls.

Are South African all-girls’ independent schools engaging deeply enough with the difficult questions about diversity and institutional culture? The transition from a poor, working-class family to a prestigious school where a middle-class, Anglocentric ethos predominates is not an easy or smooth transition for everyone. How do our all-girls’ independent schools reduce the alienation and discomfort some girls may experience when they enter these schools?

At a 2011 workshop on transformation at the university where I work, a colleague, Sally Matthews,9 drew on the ideas of two Americans, Arthur Kimmel and Peggy McIntosh, when dealing with the issue of privilege and institutional culture at the university. It may be useful for us to use the same lenses to view our all-girls’ school context. Kimmel’s ideas about privilege in the United States of America (US) are useful when thinking about privilege in a South African all-girls’ independent school context. According to Kimmel:

To run or walk into a strong headwind is to understand the power of nature. You set your jaws in a square grimace, your eyes are slits against the wind, and you breathe with fierce determination. And still you make no progress.

To walk or run with that same wind at your back is to float, to sail effortlessly, expending virtually no energy. You do not feel the wind: it feels you. You do not feel how it pushes you along; you feel only the effortlessness of your movements. You feel like you could go on forever. Only when you turn and face the wind do you realise its strength.10

Matthews explains how Kimmel uses the image of the wind to talk about how being white or male or heterosexual in the US is like running with the wind at your back, and she argues that:
…institutional culture is like the wind. If it’s at your back (in other words, you fit in with your institution’s culture) you probably don’t notice it and you don’t realise how it helps you to move effortlessly forward. But, if you are running into the wind (in other words, you don’t fit in with the prevailing institutional culture) it can feel as though moving even slightly forward requires incredible effort and determination.11

The knapsack of privilege

In an all-girls’ independent school context, this raises sensitive and difficult questions, including:
• How should all-girls’ independent schools be engaging with privilege in their schools?
• To what extent are their girls oblivious of their social and economic advantage?
• To what extent are all-girls’ independent schools educating girls for a life of privilege or making them conscious of their privilege and encouraging them to use their privilege for the greater good of society?

Matthews also draws on the works of another American, Peggy McIntosh, who writes about white privilege in the US to show white people how they are privileged in ways that are probably not visible to them most of the time. According to McIntosh, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, visas, tools, blank cheques and so on.”12 Following McIntosh’s example, Matthews then unpacks the so-called invisible knapsack and draws up a list to help white people recognise what is in their knapsack of privilege at the university where we both work. To what extent are all-girls’ independent schools helping their girls to unpack the invisible knapsack of white, social class and economic privilege that they may carry without perhaps being conscious of its contents? An interesting exercise for all-girls’ independent schools would be to ask their students to comment on, for example, the following six statements:
1. My friends are not surprised to hear about the latest skiing holiday my family went on.
2. I feel comfortable signing the list being circulated by my peers asking me to state how much I would like to give as a tip (which I can charge to my parents’ account) for our cleaner.
3. I am accustomed to using the different cutlery laid out in the school dining room.
4. If I mislay my school blazer, I can simply order another one.
5. When I am invited to dinner at a friend’s home, I am familiar with the general etiquette that goes with these sorts of events.
6. I have the latest gadgets, including an iPhone and a tablet.

Time to up awareness

How are we educating girls to be aware of and acknowledge their advantage – be it social, racial or economic – and to use it in ways that benefit others? How do we do it in ways that don’t engender feelings of guilt? Making visible their privileges is a responsive way in which all-girls’ independent schools can embrace and grapple with diversity, and it will help them to begin to understand why some people feel comfortable and at home while others do not in these schools. This awareness opens up opportunities for change and for using positions of privilege to try and advance the interests of those who are not in the same position of privilege, and it will help to create a more inclusive school and society.

To what extent are South African all-girls’ independent schools asking questions about the dominant cultural forms at their schools? Do the visual representations, practices and traditions and naming strategies represent their diversity? How are they dealing with ambiguity about feminism? How does the hidden curriculum promote traditional socio-cultural values and roles of women as homemaker, good hostess and supportive partner? From my interactions with female university students at the university where I work, and my observations in some social circles, I am aware that these expectations are still pervasive and powerful. What more should all-girls’ independent schools be doing to interrogate the assumptions they make without realising their implications and consequences?

Responsibilities for schools going forward

This paper has opened a window on the state of all-girls’ independent schools in the context of a transforming South Africa, and it has raised critical questions about the role these schools are playing, and can play in advancing the transformation agenda by:
• providing access and support to academically talented girls from diverse racial, social, cultural, linguistic, economic and geographical backgrounds
• embracing diversity and creating and sustaining an affirming, inclusive and positive institutional culture
• addressing issues of racial and gender equity at all levels of

There can be no doubt that all-girls’ independent schools are in a strong position and have a responsibility to lead the way in advancing the role of women in a transforming society such as ours. The extent to which our all-girls’ schools will continue to flourish in the future will depend on:
• how willing they are to hold up their practices and traditions to scrutiny and critical interrogation
• how comfortable they are with ambiguity and uncertainty and the messiness of change
• how well they maximise the opportunities for innovation, renewal, reimagining and enhancement that challenges provide.

The insights provided in this paper contribute to understanding the key challenges we are facing at the present time in South Africa, and they provide talking points for girls’ education more broadly. All-girls’ independent schools should face the future with confidence and hope, and take up their responsibility to lead the way in creating a world of possibilities for young South African women from diverse cultural, racial, linguistic, socio-economic and geographical backgrounds.


1. Elsewhere in this paper (see the full text at:, Wilmot states: “Although [this paper is] focused on a specific sector of schooling, namely prestigious all-girls’ independent schools, the identified challenges and questions asked are relevant to prestigious all-boys’ schools and coeducational schools, both in the public and independent sector of schooling
in South Africa at this point in our history.”
2. See:
3. Ibid.
4. See, for example: Analysis/Education/6/student-protests-a-textual-analysis and africa/. Also see Wilmot’s own comments about the #FeesMustFall campaign in the complete version of this paper at:
5. R. Shaull in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972). See:
6. See, for example:
7. Hofmeyr, J. and Lee, S. (2004) “The new face of private schooling”, in Chisholm, L. (ed.) Changing Class: Education and Social Change in Postapartheid South Africa. Cape Town and London: HSRC Press and Zed Books.
8. Ibid.
9. Matthews, S. (2011) Presentation on Institutional Culture. Rhodes University Imbizo, 27–28 July 2011. Rhodes University, South Africa.
10. Kimmel, M.S. (2010) “Introduction: toward pedagogy of the oppressor”, in Kimmel, M.S. and Ferber, A.L. Privilege: A Reader. Boulder: Westview Press.
11. Matthews, S. (2011) op. cit.
12. See:

Category: Summer 2016

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