Once every three years ISASA (Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa) hosts a Combined Conference for the head teachers, bursars and independent school leadership here in Johannesburg. The Conference is held over four days and this year it took place at the Sandton Convention Centre over the half term weekend.
As always there was much that served to challenge, enlighten and enrich us as educators and those involved in education administration. We were able to make the most of a carefully orchestrated and specially set aside time in which we were brought up to speed with so many broader issues of common educational and national interest.
The theme for the four days was Schools Driving Change.
Gillian Dippenaar, Mandy Herold and I were fortunate to have been able to attend. The broader messages coming out of a conference such as this can always, of course, be dissected in so many different ways but for me the five key take-aways running through the four days were:
- safeguarding relevance in an age of uncertainty and upheaval;
- understanding what sustainability actually implies;
- seeking out and embracing change-management strategies;
- community engagement;
- education – the great equalizer.
One newsletter will not allow me to share commentaries and messages from every speaker, so I have selected a few of the more prominent and/or provocative ones to share with you all.
The Conference got off to a flying start as delegates enjoyed listening to an inspiring plenary address by Simon Henderson, the Headmaster of Eton College in the UK.
As a young aspirant teacher, Simon spent a year or two as a Gap student in South Africa. He was at pains to share with us just how much of his career to date has been fashioned by what he learnt and experienced at St Peter’s Prep all those years ago. In particular, and in the context of his message, he reflected on the importance of community spirit, relationship-building, and a sense of belonging, as he had experienced it, and as it ought to be felt by all who are involved in the lives of schools. As an aside, we learnt too, that his dad had attended The Ridge School back in the 1930’s.
Making use of some delightful anecdotal stories and examples, Mr Henderson spoke with some real conviction on the subject of relevance and how it needs to apply to us as 21stCentury schools. He referred to the implied paradox where educational institutions, being responsible for bringing a world of learning to children, are faced with the reality that children are actually carrying the combined knowledge of the world in their pockets. He explored and shared some of what Artificial Intelligence is bringing our way and how schools will need to adapt as we prepare our children through their learning adventures in ways that the current educational systems don’t embrace.
In the light of this, the question that he was exploring was primarily whether or not liberal education in its purest form is still relevant. Representing, as he does, a school steeped in over a six hundred years of history, his question resonated well with so many much younger SA schools that, nonetheless, also represent and embody deeply traditional cultures of liberal-inspired learning practices.
This brief summary doesn’t allow me to share the full substance of his argument, but in essence, his very persuasive presentation made a strong case for our schools to embrace, with even more meaning, a liberal education that remains committed to promoting and entrenching the vital softer skills that the increasingly programmed, techno-driven curriculums of the future will almost certainly lose sight of.
In quoting renowned author Malcolm Gladwell, Simon supported his argument against a few well-constructed truths. When asking the question, what makes people successful?, Gladwell successfully argues: hard work; self-belief; a strong support network from peers; autonomy to work on one’s own; mastery built on autonomy; knowledge, questioning and communication that, if well done, leads to strengthening of individual character; grammar, rhetoric and dialectic (argument and debate) that promotes the art of application. All of these lead to deeper happiness and a valued reflection of self-worth.
Prof Richard Calland, a senior law professor from Cambridge University led the second plenary session on the subject of Education and the Sustainable Development Goals … Are schools fit for purpose?
His presentation was divided up into three parts. These were what he termed, firstly his proposition, then his provocation and finally his proposal.
- an age of uncertainty, anxiety and paradox
- sustainable development is a non-negotiable
- an age of unreason
- a time of crisis … what lies ahead is formidable
- the data is bleak and hugely overwhelming
- humanity faces a challenge of unprecedented scale and complexity
Some questions …
- how did we get into this mess?
- are we preparing our children … really preparing them?
- our educational systems are part of the problem
- businesses have started the ball rolling with
- promises to improve
- action to innovate
- transformed approach: changing not only the behaviour but the systems
- how much more the education systems need to change
- thinking self-critically about education:
- what you teach … curriculum
- how you teach it … pedagogy
- where you teach … infrastructure
- education is so very much part of the solution
- the Education and Sustainability Leadership Programme … ELSP
ELSP has been initiated in the UK and is now going global
Prof Lara Ragpot from University of Johannesburg spoke on Mind, Brain and Education … are we educating children for the 4th Industrial Revolution?
Prof Ragpot gave a fascinating presentation that focused attention on brain development in young children, the work of neuro-scientists and neuro-educationists, and the importance of teaching styles needing to change.
Challenging the readiness of current educational system in preparing children for the 4th industrial revolution and the fact that 85% of jobs in 2030 haven’t been invented yet, Prof Ragpot concludes that the softer skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking are essential tools for survival in the future world of work.
She argues in favour of what is a recognised and long-standing construct, not only because of what the future will demand of young people but because of what neuro-science is telling us about brain development in young children and their ability to register and pick up many more of the softer skills than we have given them credit for.
Legogang Montjane (Executive Director of ISASA) gave another enlightening, well-researched and brutally honest address. It was delivered against the backdrop of him having successfully completed five years as head of ISASA. He delivered a five-year overview by sharing his views on how member schools and ISASA ought to better position themselves for the future. He also made a point of sharing what he considers to be the critical challenges facing all independent schools in South Africa.
These read as follows:
- Economic downturn
- Single Revenue Stream
- Education Price Index and the ‘Free Ceiling’
- Reputational Risks
- Role of Government
- Stakeholder Engagement
- Increasing Litigation Involving Schools:
- Contractual disputes e.g. parent contracts
- Municipal rates e.g. eThekwini Municipal Case
- Competition Commission Complaints
- Transformation and the demand for changes to institutional culture.
A few other inspirational presenters included:
- Professor Zeblon Vilakazi … Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Pedagogical Practices
- David Grier … Leading Smile for Africa
- Colin Northmore … Giving children back their childhood and Community Engagement
- Professor Cheryl de la Rey … Transformation, Diversity and Social Cohesion
- Justice Leona Theron … Education: The Great Equaliser
A final word
“The main impact of educational neuroscience will be in the training of the teachers of tomorrow. If you were given the choice right now of visiting a doctor who had memorised a list of symptoms and their linked treatments, or a doctor who understood the reasons why diseases produce the symptoms they do and why treatments work, which one would you choose?” THOMAS, 2014
Best wishes as you enjoy the final few weeks of the 2018 academic year.
Richard Stanley Headmaster