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.


I used to love exams. The change of routine and amount of free time suited me down to the ground. I knew that by and large I would do fine, and by that I mean get over 50%. I usually managed that, but not always. I also knew that my parents knew me, and had the patience to wait for me to spark which happened in the subjects I clicked with. I never felt under undue pressure, even if my siblings were by and large academic achievers.

The vast majority of this school are entering the exam period. My I remind parents that neither they nor their daughters are defined by the academic success. Success for one lass may mean something different to the success of another. Comparative analysis of results of your lass with others is simply destructive.

A story goes that a precocious young boy arrived home to find his dad looking disapprovingly at his report. “Explain these results!” demanded dad. “Heredity and environment,” replied the lad. There is no question that each person has a range of ability passed on by parents, with the position that he or she occupies in that range determined by environment (home and school.) Remember that always. The manner in which the genes re-assemble by no means guarantees familial traits are passed on in the manner in which they are assembled in parents and siblings!

Another story is told of the dad who asked his son how his exam went. The son replied “They asked me questions I didn’t know, so I gave them answers they would not know!”  Exams of today are not the exams we wrote as school kids. Knowledge, while important, is not the purpose. The skills acquired during the year are a major part of the assessment and exams are carefully set and moderated to cover many different skills. Studying facts is important, but the skills are much more important. Hours of studying and learning facts cannot suddenly compensate for skills not mastered.

What we know to be important during these periods are diet and sleep. “Comfort” eating and junk food must be avoided and sleep must be long. This is what science clearly tells us. Pizza and late nights are not what the doctor orders!

The jury on the value of exams as part of the educational process is still out, and is roughly split. At many universities students who have demonstrated mastery during the term are exempted exams. We have an increasing emphasis on the importance of SBA (School Based Assessment) which means that all work done at school has some bearing on the final result. The requirement for portfolio collections for matric, means that the mastery of skills acquired through the years can be demonstrated. While exams are the agreed marker points we must prepare our girls for them….and let’s face it….they do improve motivation!

Best wishes to all through this period.

To the moms and dads who feel more anxious about the exams than your daughter appears to be. You have done well.  Anxiety is not helpful at all.

To the staff who set, moderate and mark, this is a tough period. A holiday lies ahead. Thank you for your efforts this year.

To our girls…breath deep and slow…exams are show off time! You were made for goodness. All that is required is your best effort. No one can ask more.

Groen droogte..The illusion that all is OK?

Dear St Mary’s Community

January and February have flown!

As I sit and write this letter the skies are cloudy and blissfully cool. As always I am trying to think what needs to be said and what the community needs to hear.

Perhaps, in the context of the present drought, I can write about the message I gave the girls these last two weeks in assembly. Having returned from a few days in the bush over half term I was struck once again by the deception of “groen droogte,” that is having enough rain to keep the surface green but not enough to sustain real growth for feeding.

The analogy for us and St Mary’s DSG could not be clearer.  “Character” is about who you are, personality is how you behave.  If you do not have depth of character, those positive attributes of personality will not emerge and the negative attributes of personality will not be under control.

I read a great quote in this regard “if you are not careful you will be measured by what you do and not by who you are.”

Let me give an example. The great adult instruction “Do what I tell you to do not what you see me do” is wasted breath. Children will echo another quote “What you do speaks to me much more loudly than what you say.” Even more importantly is this famous quote “Who you are speaks so loud that I can’t hear a word you are saying.”

At St Mary’s DSG we are most interested in character; that is the moulding of girls of integrity whose values resonate with the needs of the world and her peoples.  We cannot preach a loving world if how we talk and act towards each other is not loving; we cannot preach a transformed society if our hearts are not transformed;  we cannot preach a common humanity if we do not act humanely towards all; we cannot preach understanding if we don’t make the effort to understand.

Our country is beset by problems resulting from exactly the issue I am raising. I am continually amazed at how little actual listening is done…listening from the context of the other. It seems that more and more people listen with their ears and not their hearts. That is not listening at all.

I am determined that St Mary’s DSG (with all its flaws) will make every effort to be a microcosm of how the world and this nation should and could be.

Under Pressure

Dear St Mary’s Community

Up at 05:30, shower and dress, yoghurt and fruit in the car on the way to work, coffee from the petrol station, arrive at school 06:30. Check up on homework, read through work for test, line up at 07:20. School until 13:50. Lunch. Extra lesson. Orchestra. Sport until 17:30. Home by 18:00. Relax, dinner, 19:30 start homework and if time allows revise. 11:00 (if lucky) sleep.

Day after day, week after week, day after day week after week.

Under pressure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Food prices up, petrol up, crime up, corruption up, inflation up, interest rates up, unemployment up, university acceptance requirements up, and the rand down.

Under pressure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It is June already. Pace up!

Under pressure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It is not a case of losing the plot…it is very clear that we have lost the plot in this modern world.

We are unable to bear silence because of the loneliness of our hearts, missing out on the exquisite refreshment of solitude. Our need for constant stimulation means that we must talk, rather than enjoy the mystery of the simple presence of the ones we love. Our rush leads us to look ahead, frantically eliminating risk, missing the sacred that lies at our feet in the wonder of daily lives. The future occupies our every thought, while God is present in the here and now. We nurture our under-nourished souls with the false lure of immediate gratification like addicts searching for a next fix, when what we crave is real relationships and meaningful purpose. We look for answers to the cruel realities of life in man-made deities and quasi religion whilst missing the still small voice of love which talks to us continually. We plug into devices which pretend reality, but which lie profoundly, and eliminate the delight of everyday sounds behind the isolation of headphones.

Each of us knows the truth of these words, indeed we know what to do, but it seems that success in the eyes of the world is only available to those who subscribe to the “ways of the world.”

Breathe deeply beloved. Breathe deeply and slow down. Meet each other’s eyes and smile at the depth of love and divinity in each. Let your touch convey deep sacramental meaning of acceptance beyond achievement, and let your voice minister not just to the intellect but to the very purpose of life.

We are not destined to live “under pressure.” We do not have to. We live “under Grace.”

A succesful school?

Dear St Mary’s Community

I would love to tell you about my children.

But I won’t!

Don’t we love to boast about our offspring? Don’t we love it when they are successful, first of all in small things and then in big things. But aren’t we just a teeny bit competitive? “My child walked at nine months, when did yours?”  It is not just about our child shining, but that they should shine brighter than others.

I hear parents on the side of the sport field. Encouragement resonates but so also does the need to win. Is winning actually an important life skill?  What is success?

Speak to those whose lives are waning and we all know that what we will be told stands powerfully juxtaposed to how we live. Love more, buy less. Find happiness, not possessions. Build relationships. Be content with what you have. Live simply. Help others.

What success would a school have which stands deliberately apart from the driving need to be successful, the need to compete and to win, and actually teaches sacrificial service, humility, community and simplicity? I am sure that you and I want St Mary’s DSG to be these latter things, but we also want to be seen as the best, to win.

Marketing is essentially boasting about those things which attract customers, and exercising practices which will keep them. How does this fit in with humility? It is a difficult question. You and I, like we are with our children are not really content that St Mary’s DSG is just successful. We want to say that we are the best (and add hopefully that my daughter makes it the best!)

As we reach the winter half term, we are all aware of the long 9 weeks to reach this point, and I thought I would share these thoughts that I am wrestling with.

My other thoughts look back on the events of the half term: a new bishop, all the sporting activities, all the concerts, all the parent interaction, music Thursdays, assessments, marks and comments, chapel services and assemblies, meetings of the Governing Body and Sub Committees, pastoral concerns and interventions, management meetings, budgets, laughs and tears……it has been a rich half term, fully delivering the holistic education for which we are known.

My thoughts also dwell on the recent Tshwane unrest, the greed of tenderpreneurs, Brexit and economic uncertainty, nationalism and mass immigration, ISIS and suicide bombers, the homeless, poverty and corruption. It is not an easy world to be in. The solutions to thoughts that I am grappling with for the school must provide solutions in the future, and the girls who leave our school must take the solution out.

That then is a school involved in true education.

Reflections at the end of a busy term

Dear St Mary’s Community

We have reached the end of the first term of 2016.

This term started with the admin offices opening on 4 January. It has been a time of heat and drought for the country, a term in which the country has seen unprecedented political turmoil, a term punctuated and abbreviated by half term and the Easter break. Everyone I speak to mentions the relentless pace of life, made all the more real as parents struggle with tough economic conditions and the uncertainties of the times. It is almost with disbelief that we consider we are in April and a third of another year has passed.

What have been my highlights?

I have been most encouraged by the response to our marketing effort and the interest in the school at all levels. Open Day was an exhausting reminder of how this school operates together a community with the whole school saying “There is something special here!”

I have been delighted with the way in which newness has emerged despite the busy-ness of the normal term, with the Valentine’s Weekend Sport Festival of Tennis and Squash, the Eco-market recently held, and the Whole School Outreach Day. I heard a comment from a new member of the community “This really is a family!”

Our educators have made sure that they remain firmly in touch with best practice through many curriculum meetings (both external and internal) and conferences with the broader educator community often in their own time.  I say to them “Thank you for your care and professionalism.”

I have rejoiced with the recognition given the school by the Epoch Optima Trust and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. The former have given us a large grant to develop an AP Maths Visual programme which can be used nationally. Mrs Eiselen will be on sabbatical next term to do bring this to fruition, and Mrs Shaw  who has been assisting is Mrs Labuschagne’s absence, will move to take her classes. The latter have again listed us as one of their Circle of Excellence Schools. Both of these reflect the standing of the school as one leading change in our country. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said “the type of school they said could not exist.”

I have once again been so proud of the Spirit of our girls, not just because they won the Spirit Trophy (again) but because our teams throughout the school are hugely spirited. The Head Girls rallying cry for the school “We rise by lifting others” certainly epitomises the school.

I have been glad to hear that our school camps have taken many of our girls to where they have not been before in experience, physical endurance, and interaction. I have also seen the fulfilment the Grade 9s have felt being introduced to new skills during their “Create Distinction” programme.  A school I visited in England called this “Compelled into experience.”

I have once again seen students who have really been battling, begin to triumph academically, and I say to them “Never ever give up….it is GRIT that counts.”

I have been pleased with the balance of joyful enthusiasm and discipline which characterises the school, knowing that there will always be those who need support in correction, something this school does firmly yet lovingly. “Separate the person from the action” is advice much missing from this world.

During this time we have welcomed two new staff babies into the world, but have also suffered with members of the community who have lost love ones. Almost every day I hear of the celebrations and sorrows which characterise our human condition. I have also personally been uplifted by triumph and dashed by adversity. “Stars only shine through because of darkness, joy is only known juxtaposed with sorrow.”

We have been extremely busy with charitable events. Throughout the school  there seems to be an understanding of the blessings we have and the necessity to share with other. “It is certainly more blessed to give than to receive.”

We have moved triumphantly, with the Church from The Epiphany, through Lent and Good Friday and celebrated Easter. We have shared the fullness of the human condition with our Lord. “The Lord is risen, Allelujah.”

But my chief highlight of the term have been the shining eyes and unsolicited hugs; the evidence of joyful giftedness which continually surrounds us all.  It has been a hard term…..and these things have carried us through.

“Thank you all…enjoy the holiday.”

P to the Power of 4

Imagination! Imagination transports us to another world. As we read novels we leave our present circumstances and are transported to a new world. We can at the same time be in South Africa and India (if you are reading the Ganesh detective series) or in Botswana (if you read the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books.) Our imagination can take us forward to the world we would like. It allows us to picture what we would like, and then we can work towards that Vision. For that is what it is…a Vision. The most famous vision in the world is the picture painted by St John in his book of Revelation “And then I saw a new Jerusalem….. .”  It is vision which inspired Martin Luther King to speak his “I have a dream….”  speech.

My Vision for this school speaks of producing “confident yet humble women of integrity and character to serve the nation and the world.”  Can you imagine people saying, I know where you come from through our confidence, your humility, your integrity, your character, your service? If the world would notice that, then I would know that you are truly educated.

When you imagine something, and have a vision, the next thing you do is to plan towards that. I don’t just have a dream, I have a plan for you for this year. It is simply p4.   I could have called it 4P but in fact the effects of this plan result in exponential not arithmetic growth. Purpose, Preparation, Presence, and Performance.

  • At this school our purpose is always to use to the best that which God has gifted us with. More over our purpose is always extrinsic…it is focused out of ourselves. You are being educated and growing up not for yourself but for what you will do for others. Whatever you do, before you do remind yourself of your purpose.
  • Preparation is a sign that you know your purpose. Your mental state and attitude, your readiness for class, your punctuality, your warming up, your homework and going beyond your homework, your organisation are all part of preparation.
  • Present means you are not just ticked off as present, but that all of you, 100% of your attitude, concentration, energy, passion and enthusiasm is there.

Maths or English, Hockey or Volleyball, Orchestra or Choir, your purpose, preparation and presence determine your performance. And this year we will say to you all, “Are you ready to put p4 into action?

2017 will be a year of performance.