Transformation isn’t black and white. Neither is it a rainbow. It’s a journey – from somewhere to elsewhere!
The challenge we face is that we disagree about where that journey started.
Not all of us agree that we need to go anywhere and we have no clue as to where we’re headed.
How will we know we’re transformed?
How does a butterfly know it’s no longer a caterpillar – it flies, it no longer has to crawl!
For the past decade we’ve crawled – much of that time has been dedicated to blaming other people and groups on the other side of fences we’ve built to defend our own positions.
On Friday evening in his “send me” Sona address, newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa gave a glimmer of where we’re headed:
“We are continuing the long walk he [Nelson Mandela] began, to build a society in which all may be free, in which all may be equal before the law and in which all may share in the wealth of our land and have a better life.
“We are building a country where a person’s prospects are determined by their own initiative and hard work, and not by the colour of their skin, place of birth, gender, language or income of their parents.”
How does transformation work in practice?
We have close to 300 schools in the newly merged Nelson Mandela Bay’s education district.
While on paper these are divided into 14 circuits, in reality there are three zones – township schools, northern area schools and schools of the suburbs (the former Model C schools).
Over the last 20 years our cities have begun to change.
Families are no longer geographically bound by race.
In tandem, driven by poor results, moribund administration and exhausted resources, pupils in township areas commute daily to schools in other areas.
It’s not to say there aren’t pockets (individual schools and teachers) of excellence in the township areas, but the daily migration is a reality.
The changing nature of residential areas and the daily commute has brought into question aspects of school structuring that has remained unchallenged for generations.
Prickly pears there are aplenty: admissions and language policy, racial representation of pupils and teachers, school financing models, after-school activities, sporting pride, dealing with legacy and long-established tradition, and – ultimately – the question of who the schools are there to serve. The answers vary. We rush to defend our child or school.
Emotions rise and the chemistry of difference, combined with a bit of heat and pressure, often spills out onto the newspaper headlines.
It’s messy. It’s the challenge of transformation at street level.
Every parent in our city is driven by the same motive – we want the best for our children.
That may mean waking up in the early hours of the morning to get your child from Motherwell to Summerstrand.
It may mean sitting up late at night trying to understand the hieroglyphics that masquerades as maths.
It may mean extra lessons, sport practices at inconvenient times or enduring musical instruments blaring through your home.
But if you’re a parent, you’ll do everything within your means to ensure that your child has a better future than you did.
The paradox of transformation is this: every complex system must adapt to changing circumstances to survive, but every system’s survival is dependent on its ability to resist change.
No change and the system (be it a school or a country) dies.
Too much change will have the same result.
And our schools need to change – not just because our country has fundamentally changed, but because the world our children will inherit will look very different to the world we’re comfortable in.
And so, is transformation at schools simply a matter of changing the numbers?
Getting the matric pass rate up, stemming the number of exiting Grade 10s, numbers of kids to a classroom, scores on exams and getting the demographic numbers in the school (pupils and teachers) and sports fields to match the numbers outside the school?
Those are the tangibles and – as is etched onto every management graduate’s forehead – what you can’t measure, you can’t manage.
But emphasis on only getting the numbers right leads to only numbers being the measure of a good school.
Shortcuts are inevitable – we exit pupils in Grade 10 to ensure our matric pass rates reflect well.
We “buy” in skilled children to make sure our sport sides are representative.
We implement quotas to paint great photographs.
But in the tyranny of numbers we’re losing our children.
We instil in those who succeed and those who fail, the certainty that performance outweighs character.
Numbers on a certificate are absolutes.
Being a good citizen of a complex country is an optional extra.
Does it matter if the person who teaches our child about the legacy of apartheid is white, does it matter if the swimming coach is black?
If the pupil cannot do a complex algebraic calculation, does it matter whether the teacher is competent or representative?
Does it matter if this year the head boy is black and next year the head girl is white?
Does the school logo designed a hundred years ago match the reality of the school today?
When a school governing body (SGB) appoints a principal, is familiarity with systems of old, or their ability to lead transformation, your winning criteria?
The answer – in short – is that we have to work it out.
And in working it out everyone’s voice (not their fears) should be heard because we can’t afford, nor do we wish, to leave anyone behind.
Numbers are simply a dashboard on the journey of transformation; a necessary but limited view of the world. It isn’t the full picture. Perhaps the words of our new president can help kick-start the dialogue:
“While change can produce uncertainty, even anxiety, it also offers great opportunities for renewal and revitalisation, and for progress.
“Together we are going to make history.
“We have done it before and we will do it again – bonded by our common love for our country, resolute in our determination to overcome the challenges that lie ahead and convinced that by working together we will build the fair and just and decent society to which Nelson Mandela dedicated his life . . .
“Now is the time to lend a hand, now is the time to send me.”