Last weekend, we proudly hosted the 6th annual Circle of Excellence (COE) Conference which brought together 55 of our 100 member schools. The COE celebrates and promotes the development of holistic educational excellence in Southern Africa. It was launched in 2008 to identify and celebrate the region’s top secondary schools for their excellence in education and their consistent delivery of successful candidates to the Fellowship.
The COE is a diverse group of schools that is committed to producing the region’s next generation of high impact entrepreneurs. The COE also provides the pool from which the placement schools for our Scholarship are chosen.
Tom Hamilton, Headmaster at St. Alban’s College (a Foundation placement school and COE member school), graciously consented to our posting his reflections on the 2015 COE conference.
“We live in the world our questions create.” David Cooperider
It surely wasn’t a coincidence that the first boy I met as I walked the grounds on this closing afternoon of the long August holiday was one of our Allan Gray Scholars, Mongameli. He made his bus bookings a little too enthusiastically and has arrived back from his home in KZN a whole day early.
Still, Mongameli’s enthusiasm, ambition and excitement were palpable before we even got close to a handshake and a welcome. He has had a tough year, having to go home to recover from a serious illness for almost three months, an illness for which he will be on medication until the end of the year.
I asked him how he felt, whether he had done enough to catch up on all the missed work, whether he was ready for the challenges ahead. “Sir, my July examinations were the best I have ever achieved since I came to St Alban’s. I believe that I can do even better by the end of the year.”
“But what about all the other things you do here, will you be able to keep a balance?” I ask. “That’s the challenge of being healthy again, Sir. There are so many opportunities to learn and extend myself. And there is the exchange to Ireland!”
“I have just come back from a three-day conference of the Allan Gray Circle of Excellence Schools and we have been challenged at a high level. One of the issues we discussed was the Fellowship Programme. Mongameli, do you intend to be a strong contender for the Fellowship when you get to university in 2018?’
“Sir, whenever we meet those guys (I am sure that he using “guys” in the generic boy-girl sense) we are blown away by them. I would love to be a Fellow. They think big!” he says.
They do indeed.
The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation (“Foundation”) was launched in 2005. The first trustees were appointed that same year – Prof Jakes Gerwel (Chairman) and Mahesh Cooper (Director at Allan Gray and an Old Albanian from our Class of 1994).
St Alban’s College was one of the original schools on the 2008 COE list. To be a Foundation COE School means something – it brings expectations that the school will strive to improve continually too. Certain of those schools were selected as placement schools for Allan Gray Scholars, and we were delighted to enter such a partnership in 2009. Our first Allan Gray Scholars, Katlego and Aviskar joined us in 2010 and matriculated last year. Katlego was successful in being selected for the Fellowship Programme, and was joined on that programme by Buni, who had attended St Alban’s College on a Don MacRobert Bursary, courtesy of the St Alban’s College Foundation.
There are currently twelve Allan Gray Scholars (all boarders) at our school. These boys were selected from several thousand applicants for the Scholars Programme and went through an intensive multi-stage selection process. They were selected with a view to their living the Foundation vision, which we share:
‘In the coming years, there will emerge from diverse communities a new generation of high impact entrepreneurial leaders. Individuals of passion, integrity and innovation, who will be at the forefront of the continuing economic and social transformation of this region. These individuals will be ambassadors of the power of initiative, determination and excellence, acting as role models so that many more will follow in their pioneering footsteps.’
The investment being made by the Foundation is substantial. They pay 50% of tuition and boarding fees; books and stationary; uniform and equipment; trips, tours and transport. In addition the Scholars are given regular mentoring and extension, which is aimed at preparing them for the Fellowship programme and university study. In simple terms, the Foundation invests approximately R150,000 per annum per Scholar, and we invest approximately R90,000 per Scholar by way of a bursary.
Schools like ours are often prisoners of our own success. Why would you, how could you, change the way you are when you are successful? The CoE Conference gave us distance and space from our successes. It helped us to see ourselves as we really are, it helped us to begin to imagine ourselves as we might be in the future. Fundamentally, it reminded us that individual success just isn’t enough, there is an overarching need for us to build a better society.
Our school, no matter the bursary programmes and the history of community service and social responsibility, is a social construct as much as anything else. In large measure, our underlying ideology is one of privilege, advantage, and entitlement. There is a real danger that we can begin to feel that catering for the ambitions and needs of the well-to-do is sufficient for our continued existence. Significance always require more than that. The Scholarship and bursary recipients who have come through the College over the years have played an extraordinarily powerful role in our society, way beyond their numbers would suggest. We can’t lose that.
Change is rarely linear but is often unpredictable, messy and it involves entering unchartered waters. Leaving politics, activism, ideologies aside, what the Foundation challenged us to seek this weekend were new ways of inculcating entrepreneurial and ethical leadership mindsets in our scholars. Young people who forget the entitlement, and privilege, who go out there to create new futures.
Cooperider encapsulated the issue in that pithy statement: “We live in the world our questions create.” There is a real danger in South African society that we don’t ask the important questions, that we settle for being champions in our own suburbs. Schools like ours have the ability (and have already demonstrated the ability) to make an impact far beyond what our numbers would suggest. Strong leadership at all levels is required if we are to reach our full purpose and potential.
So what are the questions that we should be asking ourselves if we are to create a future of which we can all be proud, in which all will be better off, in which we fix what needs to be fixed and do what needs to be done? It may involve taking risks, presenting ourselves with new challenges, seeking innovation in our ideas and our practice. It will certainly involve giving more responsibility to our youth, to ‘empowering’ them, to use a very common phrase. This will fly in the face of what many of our constituency prefer, for modern parents tend to disempower their children by over-parenting and for far too long. In this particular conference, empowerment of our youth to develop the mindsets to become change agents in society was a central theme; that is significantly different from what many of our parents seek, which is for their children to acquire the skillsets to be successful in our society.
Leadership is a very personal journey; it requires a person to ask deep questions of himself/herself. We are much more opaque than we think we are; and not just to one another, but we are opaque to ourselves in the first instance. We might deny it, but we are. So much goes unsaid, unchallenged and untested in our public and private discourse. We trade in myths – whether they be the panacea of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, or the myth that apartheid is long past and is no longer relevant, or the fallacy that all good schools need to do is to continue to be like they always were.
Does that mean that what we are doing now is wrong? Maybe, maybe not.
Prof Pedro Tabensky of the Allan Gray Centre for Ethical Leadership at Rhodes University put it powerfully: “You will never find someone doing something wrong, thinking that they are doing wrong.”
If we want to become more ethical leaders, then we need to be putting something very different in place, we need to accept our darkness and our complexity as individuals and as a community, and see it as part of our richness. If the adults in our community can become more effective ethical agents then there is a chance that we can create a new generation of young people who can become the change agents to transform this country and this region.
The conference was powerful. It has certainly given us the seeds of our future thought. It demanded that I ask these questions of myself, and that I help us to create the space for all of us to ask the same questions.
I am confident that we will find the right questions; that we will become what our questions require us to become.