Q&A: St Alban’s College headmaster

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Why don’t public schools succeed?

It’s not about resources, it’s about attitudes. The thing that allows us to be a bit nimble and somewhat risky in a way is we’re not afraid of failure; we’re not afraid of embarrassment.

We don’t have a fear-of-failure mentality. We’re willing to try things and if it doesn’t all work out, as long as one or two or three do, that’s a good return.

We find in many state schools there’s a sense that you don’t want to be caught making a mistake, so you just do the minimum, you just play it safe all the time. Here our teachers push the boundaries.

Sometimes with the staff it’s actually about trying to keep them in line just a little bit – saying: “Hang on a bit, we’re trying three new things this term so we’re not going to try a fourth one.”

I don’t think it’s apathy in the public system. I think it’s just, in some cases, a sense of hopelessness because there isn’t strong leadership from government, from the department, from the local district leaders. Principals, to an extent, are also strangled, because if you even want to engender something new they’ll say “what’s in it for us?”.

The type of ethos you’re going to get in a school like St Alban’s or Pretoria Boys or Menlo Park is to give extra time to the students if they want it, but this isn’t common in this country.

And it’s not common because teachers don’t see their primary role as education; they see it as the means of earning a living. Teachers in good schools and great schools don’t see it as a means of making a living; they see it as a calling, a vocation.

If I talk about the happiness that we’ve got in our school, it’s not an overt drive to achieve happiness. To my mind, happiness is a by-product of all the good, healthy things that happen.

If you set out to achieve happiness, there’s some deception going on; perhaps just pretending you’re happy is enough to get by. Happiness, when it happens, just creeps up on you. It just means you’ve got good, strong, resilient, boisterous, healthy systems, which take time to create.

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