From the Headmaster’s Desk Dale College
Newsletter No. 1: The stark news September 2019
So January 23rd I received a call. To be honest, I shouldn’t have taken it. (But I’m glad I did!) I was walking with my Gr 12 students all around me. We were on our way to a Phys Ed class. It was an 043-number, Buffalo City Municipality district. My pulse racing, I answered… Nine whirlwind days later, I was on my way to take office as Principal at Dale College.
That whirlwind has not abated.
This newsletter is my response to a request for such a newsletter from the Cape Town ODU. (Thank you again, gentleman, for that meeting in early July.) The fact that this first edition is only coming out now, is inexcusable, but attests to the challenges I experience in freeing up time for anything outside of what lands on my desk and is URGENT. I won’t deny that I have also been anxious to write these newsletters. It is invariable that I will offend people in describing what keeps me busy, but this newsletter represents an important opportunity to be accountable and transparent in my leadership of Dale College.
So the school is in a tough place. I knew this coming into my interview last year. But I did not fully understand all the factors that had led the school into its precarious position. Without wanting to sound alarmist, I want to play open cards about some of these details below. Let me also say, at this point, this newsletter is crucially short of photos – please forgive this for now. But let this dire, stark, illustration-less newsletter be a metaphor for that which has seemingly gone uncommunicated and unseen to Old Boys and supporters of the school. I have said it before – it is a travesty that Old Boys know more about the national rankings of our sports teams than our appalling slip in discipline and academic rigour.
The academic standard (also discipline, and general school culture) at Dale College has been sliding gradually for a number of years now. 13,5% of Matric candidates failed in 2016, becoming 15% in 2017 and 25,2% of candidates last year. What is the future of these candidates? The goal of schooling is to get students to exit with a pass. These statistics are unforgiveable. In the words of an Education Department official, with whom I met in the March holiday: “Mr Shaw, let us understand one thing; there is no way that Dale College can charge its parents what it does, and yet produce the results it did last year!”
What leads to these results? For now, let me focus on two (or three) emergent understandings of the Dale College situation: Poor discipline (on behalf of learners and teachers), and a poor academic ethos.
I met with a previous Dale College school manager soon after I started at the school. He said to me, “Garth, I gave up on discipline. It was just too difficult.” I knew I needed to hit this nail hard. Since the start of the 2nd term (let’s call it 16 weeks of school), I have been involved in 15 formal disciplinary hearings and another 15 or so informal hearings. We have made seven recommendations for expulsion to the Department of Education, and they have supported us with all seven expulsions. We have implemented a demerit system with detentions running on three days a week, and Headmasters detention for serial offenders four days a week. We now have a paper trail, and can hold repeat offenders to task. I hope that the back is broken, but I am aware that this will be an ongoing challenge, and we are far from finished!
You may ask why I say the discipline of teachers is also poor? I’m not sure when you last visited Dale, but there is now a fence running from the Gym-hall to the bus (formerly, the bicycle) shed, and then down to the Eastern Wing of the school. It stops kids going to play ball on the Buster Farrer field. It also gives the school the impression of being a prison yard. It was previously believed that this fence also stopped learners from bunking school. But when I asked staff why learners were still bunking classes and not being punished, we started to understand that learners do not bunk because it is easy to escape school. They bunk because teachers do not know they are missing, and do not punish them if they are missing. The same goes for learners arriving late for class. So, my challenge (euphemistically said, but with growing frustration) to teachers is
- Be punctual for class.
- Keep record and punish late arrivals.
- Know who is in your class.
- Follow up on kids who are missing from your class. EVERY SINGLE LESSON!
If learners are only attending class because the ‘prison walls’ keep them from bunking, then we as teachers are failing our expectation to be professional, hold learners accountable, and to make learning attractive. I am pleased with how teachers have responded, but there is still much improvement to be made.
The academic ethos at Dale College must surely be at an all-time low. How did this ethos deteriorate? (Come Dalians, I know it was always low, but this is unprecedentedJ) Do learners come to school with a poor ethos? Can the school control and enthuse this ethos? The sport ethos has remained high (at least, for our headline sports it has), but are learners picking up on the disjoint between the sport department and the academic staff? (Note the subtle hint to a challenge I have encountered.) Why is it that the isiXhosa department produces phenomenal results but the other subjects trail significantly? (Will chat more on this in the next newsletter) Again, I am pleased with some of the wins we have seen, even in the seven short months since February, but there is much to be done.
At the risk of offending people, let me allude to some of what has left the school with its academic (and non-academic) challenges – it would be false of me to not say anything about this… It is a huge challenge to me that a significant number of the staff employed are either poorly qualified (or under-qualified) for the responsibilities entrusted to them. Let me say, at the same time, that this is a legacy of previous management styles, where a tendancy to fill classes with cheap teachers was prioritized over filling classes with well-qualified teachers. The Selborne Principal, Andrew Dewar, recently said to me, “Garth, when I got here I placed a huge priority on appointing staff with strong academic qualifications. I am happy with where we are now, but I needed to take a firm stance.” A similar stance must become our priority as we restore the pride at Dale College. Quality teachers, with strong qualifications, equipped to contribute to the all-round legacy that characterizes Dale College, must be our priority. Let me also say, however, I find many gems on the staff. Dale College does still carry a powerful reputation, and I have seen quality drawn to the school in the appointments we have made this year, as well as amongst other teachers on the staff.
I will refrain from discussing in full detail here, but we also need to address the manner in which our budget is weighted to sport. I know sport plays a phenomenally important role at Dale College; for students, the community at large, and Old Boys. But having recently returned from the annual Boys’ Schools Headmasters Conference, I am crucially aware that we are not being equitable with the manner in which our budget is being spent. We cannot deny that our academic results reflect this.
Our budget has other challenges as well. I said in the Google form invitation to sign up for this newsletter that I might be blatantly direct with funding appeals. Supporters of Dale College, please know that any Rand being spent at Dale College from now on is being turned over at least twice. Amongst other challenges, our failed relationship with the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture has left us with a budget deficit of 2,5 million Rand to date. We have had to ask some of these learners, who were on full bursaries to Dale College, to find alternative accommodation as our hostels continue to run at a loss. Four of them are staying with my wife and me until the end of the year as they have no other options. The community we serve leaves us charging school fees less than two thirds that charged by our peer schools (True story – phenomenal that we get by with what we do, but are we really getting by?) Sad as it is, we have emptied our Olympic size swimming pool. Our Astro turf needs resurfacing – anyone have a corporate sponsor that could assist with this in the next budget year? Our computer room needs a revamp – rough estimates put the cost of an upgrade at approximately R150 000. We sold one of the school’s vehicles (ostensibly bought in recent years as a Principal’s perk) to pay for the 1st phase of an IT upgrade – I am still astounded that a school in 2019 (charging the fees we do) could have classes without internet connectivity, without whiteboards, and without data projectors. We have addressed this, but as mentioned, with the 1st phase only … Thank you to all who have signed up for the 100’s-club – provisionally, we intend to give all our classes a facelift (varnished floors, painted walls, chalk-free whiteboards, posters on the walls and other educational resources, blinds on the windows, etc.) To be honest, our whole school needs a facelift, but let me leave that for another newsletter.
Let me mention two more funding requests, however:
- We need to repair the fencing around the Buster Farrer field. Apart from the eye-sore that this is (see the one photo, below) we are faced with significant security threats and have been made victims of crime due to the easy access to our school facilities. For R3000 a panel (we need at approximately 100 panels to secure the road edge), would you donate for a plaque on a fence, e.g. “in memory of ‘Insert Name’, Matric 1957.” Or simply, “sponsored by ‘Insert Name’ family”
- Exemptions – sponsor a child: Let me leave it to the next newsletter to explain fully how “exemptions” are changing / challenging the way schools need to budget… While our (relatively low) school fees of R24 080 actually place us in a relatively good position regarding exemptions, the fact that we have learners who cannot afford these fees hits us hard. Many of these learners are great kids, come from humble homes, and are proud Dalians. And we are proud of them. Would you be willing to sponsor an “exemption” candidate, or partially sponsor such a learner? Please contact me for more information if you would like to explore this option.
Friends, I told you this might be wordy. Sorry if it is too long – I would welcome feedback!
PS 1: If you haven’t signed up for the mailing list for this newsletter, please complete the signup form by clicking on this link, here. Alternatively, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PS 2: If you would like to commit R100 per month towards the 100’s Club, please do so here.