Keynote address given by Archbishop Ndungane, Executive Director of the HSRP, at a function held by the Umlambo Foundation
Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane
Pursuing Excellence in Education
30 January 2009
Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka – my dear friend, Phumzile – Founder and Executive Chairperson of the Umlambo Foundation;
Ms Tyobeka, Deputy Director General of General Education and Training at the Department of Education;
Ladies and Gentlemen;
and, last but by no means least, the First Cohort of Principals from the Leadership and Management Programme it is my distinctive pleasure and privilege to address you this evening.
There is a Chinese proverb that says ‘Learning is a treasure that a thief cannot touch.’
This is the treasure that we are here to honour and celebrate, encourage and promote, this evening.
There is no richer treasure, no greater gift, that we can give to the young people of this nation, than education.
And when we speak of education, we are not merely talking about the ability to pass exams, or jump through the hoops of assessment.
We want them to delight in discovery; and, through the classroom, find inspiration that will fire them for the rest of their lives.
Now, of course, we recognise that our education system has had a less than ideal past, to say the least.
And we acknowledge that many schools still struggle with inadequate resourcing, and are still playing catch-up.
But the human resources are there, in the raw – and we can mine them, for the treasures of education.
Young people and teachers – the indestructible human spirit is within them all, and it is this we must bring up to the surface. It is into this that we must breathe inspiration.
When it comes to inspiration, then Barack Obama is our man of the moment.
Through words and example, he is inspiring every single American, no matter what their background, to believe that anything is possible, if you really reach for it.
‘Yes, we can!’ was his election motto, encouraging a new generation to believe they could make a real difference to the life of their country.
In his inauguration speech, he told them how this could be possible – through hard work and honesty, through tolerance, through courage and determination, and through shouldering responsibility.
In essence, his message was: if we follow this path, then ‘Yes, we can!’ will be our answer to whatever challenges lie ahead.
This is the inspiration we want the young people of South Africa to share.
I cannot think of any country in the world where there are such exciting possibilities for every single citizen to play a significant part in shaping the future.
We have made the transition from apartheid and are now consolidating democracy.
The future shape of our country, the society we live in, is very much in our own hands – and especially in the hands of the young.
This reminds me of words the poet Wordsworth wrote: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”
Wherever our young people go, whatever they choose to do – and not to do – will influence the unfolding life of our country.
This means we should not be afraid to strive for excellence in our schools, and encourage our learners to aspire to be the very best that they can be.
We must say to them, ‘Yes. you can!’
I am reminded of these words from the actor Michael J Fox:
“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for, perfection is God’s business.”
Excellence is our goal, and it lies within our grasp – within the grasp of people such as yourselves.
Recent studies show that the single most important factor in the success of schools, is the role played by the Principal or Head Teacher.
You, above all else, are agents of excellence.
I congratulate you.
I honour you.
I stand in awe of the responsibilities which you dare to shoulder.
I commend you for the dedication you have shown in committing yourselves to this Leadership and Management Programme – with its focus on everything from improving results and enhancing the culture of learning and teaching, through to reducing drop-out rates, truancy, pregnancy, and poor discipline.
I hope that, in some small way, I can encourage and support you, through what I do, as a senior citizen in retirement!
So let me say a little about the Historic Schools Restoration Project, which I head.
In a nutshell, the aim of the Historic Schools Restoration Project is to put the very best of the treasure of learning into the hands of more and more of our country’s young people.
Our starting point is the rejuvenation of historic schools – meaning, primarily, institutions such as my own alma mater, Lovedale; along with Adams College, Inanda, Ohlanga, Healdtown and the rest, which were largely established or run by the churches; and which produced so many leaders of outstanding ability and integrity: from Madiba himself to Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu, through to you yourself, Phumzile, to name but a few.
Though seriously run down under the previous dispensation, some of these schools have managed, against all odds, to retain pockets of excellence, and hold on to the values and strengths of their past heritage.
These are qualities that we cannot afford to loose – indeed, these are qualities that we must nurture and expand – if we are to sustain and develop all that we have gained in the transition to democracy; and if we are to consolidate and extend economic opportunity for all.
It is this need which directs our vision, which is: ‘to nurture future African leaders of calibre and integrity, who are able to meet the critical needs of community and country, in a values-based, transformational environment’
We will do this through what we have termed our mission, namely: ‘to promote the restoration of under-resourced secondary schools of historic significance into sustainable as well as aspirational African institutions of cultural and educational excellence’.
Our expectation is not only that these schools will produce future leaders of calibre, but that they will blaze a trail of inspiration and hope, so that other schools can follow a similar path.
We also see them as centres of excellence, providing resources on which other schools and the wider community can draw.
Let me stress this point. We are certainly not intending to set up elitist structures for the enjoyment of a very few.
Our aim is to sow seeds, that will grow and spread, and contribute to the flourishing of the entire educational system, the entire country.
We are doing this with the wholehearted support of government, who are providing financial as well as practical backing.
We are doing this through developing partnerships with Provincial and local authorities.
We are doing this by promoting a wide range of relationships with surrounding communities.
We are doing this with growing support from the private sector and business community. Their future also depends on the quality and calibre of education, and its ability to deliver excellence. And, from our side, we need the private sector to nurture within our education system the seeds of the innovative excellence and entrepreneurial mindset in which they deal.
And, last but by no means least, we are doing it with increasing encouragement from the alumni of these schools, whose support ranges from financing to offering advice and consultancies, skills, training, mentoring, coaching and all manner of other help.
They are a true treasure.
Our alumni are to be found in every walk of life – especially the more pleasant and leafy walks! They know it is their education that helped them reach these positions, and now they are ready to give back to a new generation.
All alumni, along with all other supporters, are warmly invited to an alumni dinner on 28 February at the Gallagher Estate in Midrand. If you would like to join us there, register through our website [www.historicschools.org.za], or phone our offices, to book your place.
Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister in the middle of the nineteenth century, voiced a universal truth when he said ‘Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.’
For us too, the fate of our country depends upon our ability to deliver effective education, excellent education, to every young person in our nation.
Can we do this?
Well, some of the statistics, on illiteracy and innumeracy, are really frightening.
Equally frightening is the reality that such a small proportion of learners make it through to Matric, and a third of these then fail.
I am also more than alarmed by the standards that seem to be required of them. When I was at school, a 30% result had nothing at all in common with the concept of a pass mark!
But there is nonetheless such hope within our country.
Across the country, our newspapers had remarkable stories of young people, from disadvantaged backgrounds, in under-resourced schools, producing the most remarkable results.
Joseph Dimpe – who walked more than 20km to school and back, cooked and cleaned for his paralysed mother, survived on her disability grant, and studied by candle-light in their tiny shack – achieved six distinctions.
So too did Philip Dubazane, now 22, who rose above his conviction as a 17-year old, for murder and hijacking, thanks to the teaching in the prison youth centre – which has the name ‘Usethubeni’, ‘You still have a chance’.
‘Usethubeni’ must be the message that every young learner knows is for them.
And Avuyile Kopolo achieved the third highest marks in the entire Eastern Cape, with her with seven distinctions.
She told the newspapers ‘Our school is just like all the others in previously disadvantaged areas. It faces similar challenges that relate to poverty. However, I am someone who always wants to excel in everything, that is just me. I hope that my story will inspire all pupils in disadvantaged schools to work hard and stop making an excuse of not having enough resources.’
She has hit the nail on the head – striving to excel, and doing so through hard work! This is the culture we want to instil into our learners.
There is another lesson we can learn from Avuyile. She also said ‘My dedicated teachers also made it easy for me to get good results.’
Yes, the Principal is the most important factor in the success of a school; yes, learners must be disciplined in order to reach for excellence; but the quality of individual teachers is absolutely crucial in determining educational outcomes.
Studies around the world show that you get better results from a good teacher in a poor school, than from a poor teacher in a good school.
Where there is excellence in teaching, it more than compensates for other shortcomings a school may face.
This should be an encouragement to every disadvantaged school in the country!
It should also provide all the impetus necessary to ensure that upskilling of teachers is a top priority alongside strengthening principals in management and leadership.
And though it is not popular to say so, we must not be afraid to reward good educators – and to penalise those who fail their learners.
A culture of excellence at every level – the expectation that all will give their best – as principals, teachers and learners share in the business of education, will help us produce young people who can be leaders not only within politics, but within every walk of life.
And so, our project wants to celebrate and support schools that address the whole of life – much as your Leadership and Management course is addressing the whole of life.
We want to celebrate and support schools that provide a safe and supportive environment that affirms learners, helping them to find their identity, dignity, self-awareness and mutual respect – and to share these values with others.
We want to celebrate and support schools where everyone feels free simply ‘to be’; and to become more fully oneself, as one learns to engage emotionally and spiritually, as well as intellectually, with all of life.
We want to celebrate and support schools that affirm educators and staff alongside learners; schools that enjoy effective governing bodies, solid parental support, close ties to education officials, and strong links to professional organisations.
We want to celebrate and support schools that are a source of pride within their community; schools that are an asset not just to their neighbourhood, but also to other schools in the vicinity – schools that are contributors, which do not suck out the best and keep it for a small minority.
With government at every level, with local communities, with the private sector, with alumni, with all who support our goals, we want to build new partnerships for promoting excellence in education,
And I hope that these new paths that we are opening up will become wide highways along which far more schools will be able to follow.
My firm intention is that the Historic Schools Restoration Project will be able to encourage and inspire not only our partner schools, but many others, to share in our vision – which is, and I quote again, ‘to nurture future African leaders of calibre and integrity, who are able to meet the critical needs of community and country’ [unquote].
After all we strove for in our turbulent past – all we strove for, for ourselves and for our children – we dare not now settle for anything less.
Let me end by returning to my Chinese theme – for we know that China exercises an increasing influence on our continent!
The beginning of this week brought the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Ox.
Well, the Year of the Ox is said to be one where success follows sustained, disciplined, mindful effort.
It is a summons to responsibility and hard work, as the path to achievement, the path to excellence.
Well, let us not be afraid to promote this particular aspect of Chinese influence within our schools – whether as principals, educators, or learners – helping the next generation to understand how the values of hard work, discipline and responsibility, which Barack Obama also underlined, really are the way to prosperity and success.
We cannot do this in the place of our young people – but we can teach them to do it for themselves and for the future: for the good of our nation, for the good of our world.
As another Chinese proverb puts it, ‘teachers open the door, but you enter by yourself’.
That may be so – but it is by walking through ourselves, that we give the best possible encouragement to our colleagues and staff, and to our young people to follow after us.
So be encouraged, to persevere in hard work, discipline and responsibility – and may it bring you the success you seek, the success you deserve, and the success of those you serve.
Dear principals, it has been my joy to share this evening with you – knowing that in following this programme, you have indeed committed yourselves to lead by example.
May God bless you, in all you are and in all you do; and may he make you a blessing to your schools, to your communities, and to our nation.