Unsurprisingly, the focus of discussions at the conference I recently attended with 342 other Principals of Independent Schools has been around the events at universities and schools lately. They are intricately related. At this conference we listened to Vice-Chancellors of universities, as well as students and scholars involved in protest. We also listened to the shared experience of each other (in a huge diversity of schools.)
In addition I have been in discussion with Bishop Allan in my capacity as Canon Chancellor of the Diocese of Pretoria, and, of course as Head of School.
The Governing Body has agreed that it is important that I communicate some thoughts to you on this matter, as we cannot pretend that we are an island at this time.
Let me start with my personal starting point as the Head of St Mary’s DSG. Two things are important here: firstly I have acknowledged in front of the whole senior school that I cannot take my own past away, and that despite my own attempts and my protected, liberal and strongly Anglican upbringing, even now, I am scarred by apartheid South Africa. We all are! I must take this into account all the time as I interrogate how I relate and lead, and sometimes unwelcome thoughts, words and actions appear which remind me of this. Secondly, my own faith and that of this school, defines our relationship, one to another, in a way which gives us hope and purpose which society cannot give. We are all “made in the image of God”, and our relationship as “Daughters (and Sons!) of the King”, stands before all other criteria which may attempt to separate us. What an advantage we have!
I will move on to the universities next, not only because for many of our girls this is where they will go, but also because these current events form a prism through which they see new perspectives. Despite all the negative attention in the press, before this current crisis, no teaching time had been lost, and for ALL our major universities the indicators of quality, such as results and research, improved in 2015. Our universities continue to offer superb value for money. From a social-political point of view the fees issue is real. As real state investment in tertiary institutions has decreased over the years and costs increased, the ability of poorer students to attend has reached a critical point, and has blown up in our faces. The VCs said that “in 10 days students achieved what they (the VCs) had been asking for, for 10 years!” As you know, no fee increases were introduced for 2016 and money was found to fund much of the gap. It has been learned through this that the State acts and can find money when pressed hard enough in this way. Where this money has come from has not been interrogated. At the time of writing, the Minister of Higher Education has announced a “not more than 8% increase” which has unleashed a predictable fury by what has been dubbed “the vociferous minority.” The way in which universities will individually apply this has not been given time to emerge, but money will have to be provided to subsidise the poor and those who can afford to will have to pay more. While universities have contingencies to engage and to protect, there is, a nihilist/anarchist agenda attached to some of these acts which is difficult to act against.
What about the university students? The current movement lacks leadership and coherence, but this doesn’t mean that there are not real issues out there. If a few random tweets can galvanise huge protest, and even educated young folk, many from independent schools, can say that they understand wanton acts of destruction of property (even if they don’t condone it) , we need to take this subliminal rage seriously.
My understanding is that two major issues are at play: one is a lack of hope, and the other a deep social conviction that poverty has been forgotten. Our young people see the world we have left them, and they are not delighted with the mess they see. Then they see the vast majority of their compatriots who have been forgotten, amidst their own privilege together with endless corruption and wastage. They are angry that they have been stuck in the middle to pick up the pieces; angry with their parents who achieved political liberation and then forgotten the poor; angry with the politicians who have simply “not got it!” They are also angry with the neo-liberal philosophy which underpins modern economies: if you work hard it will be alright, with the underlying flip side of “if you are poor you are not working hard enough.” In this dispensation people have learned that if you want to be noticed, violence does the trick and as it seems other means have failed, “what are the alternatives?”
Those precious university years are times where real education begins, and our young people learn about the unprotected world, and are encouraged to debate and question the world order. Yet at the same time there is a narcissism about their actions. They want to “occupy space,” “to be noticed” and they want it now!
What about schools?
Schools are not universities! Learners from our schools are minor children and even when they turn 18 they remain bound by the Codes of Conduct and disciplines of their school and under their parents’ discipline. It would be grossly irresponsible to regard them as “mature minds.” We presume that the acceptance of the Codes by the parents and the sacrifices they make to enable a St Mary’s DSG education underpins a resonance between them and the rules and values of the school.
Does that mean that our schools are places that remain static as society faces change and challenge? Of course not! Schools must be places where adolescents (and all children) feel safe. That means parameters and rules. Part of that means the safety to err, to learn how to question, to be respectful and show manners in good times and difficulty. It is expected that as the girls approach matric that events at universities will inform their thinking and space must be made to listen. Anxiety as the unknown future beckons after the relative protection of school is inevitable. Part of our responsibility must be to prepare the girls for the environment they will encounter in the future.
It has become abundantly clear that the underlying currents of our young people, have been undetected, and that platforms need to be formed where they can express themselves and adults can listen. (This word “listen” is vital as it changes the power dynamic of a conversation.) We have started this transformational listening at St Mary’s DSG in earnest, and will continue to do so in order that all our girls will feel more abundantly at home, more abundantly loved and more abundantly understood. I commend these thoughts for discussion at home as well.