/ 21 April 2005

Embracing Africa – slowly

An institution that’s been in the education game for more than 150 years has embarked on a journey to transplant its cultural roots from its colonial origins back into Africa.

In 1849 Robert Gray, the first Anglican bishop of Cape Town, established Bishops College for proper Christian young men. Since then it has succeeded in churning out members of South Africa’s elite in the boardroom, Parliament and on the sports field. And most recently, also in space – in the case of former Bishops head boy, Mark Shuttleworth.

But the times are changing for the school once dubbed ‘a small piece of Britain transplanted on Cape soil”. Bishops is about to evacuate its colonial island of elitism and embrace the mainland of the new South Africa.

‘An education at Bishops is a privilege for any young man, but it’s wrong when access to that education is artificially protected or used to preserve unearned privilege,” says Grant Nupen, principal of Bishops. ‘It’s essential for our students to be reminded of their place in South Africa. We want to focus on ‘eliteness’ – as in excellence of education – as opposed to elitism, which implies snobbery or exclusivity.”

This process of transformation began with a conference in September 2001 as a first step to defining a new vision for 2010. Out of this emerged a new vision statement – ‘Bishops inspires individuals”.

Although Bishops opened its doors to all races 22 years ago, economics has been a major cause of the glaring disparities in the numbers of black and white learners enrolled at the school. To narrow the gap, Bishops has begun an extensive bursary programme for black children, with 17 learners from disadvantaged homes currently on full scholarships. The goal is eventually to have 60 youngsters on the programme.

The school has begun developing a high performance sports fitness centre to cater for rugby, cricket and hockey. This initiative seeks out talented black children to be transformed into potential provincial and national players. The sports development programme is already under way at Bishops Preparatory School, where a two-year rugby development clinic provides coaching for children from underprivileged schools.

Staff composition is also shifting in order to underscore a more progressive, non-racial approach to education. But it’s not just about shifting demographics and adjusting ratios. Beyond the objective of a culture of inclusion lies a savvy marketing strategy to promote the Bishops brand. It ties into recent global trends in education to remove the dowdy and dated perception of schools and transform them into profitable businesses.

Melvyn Wallis Brown is the newly appointed marketing manager for Bishops who has been busy recruiting corporate kids from across the continent, particularly from East Africa. ‘Many parents want a good Anglican education for their children,” he explains. ‘Due to South Africa’s favourable exchange rate, Bishops is dirt cheap compared to its overseas counterparts.”

Bishops is also breaking away from its old traditions of fundraising through donations from its well-heeled clientele. Plans are afoot to market its state-of-the-art resources in a manner that will secure additional, ongoing finance for the school.

Other changes are reaching into the school’s cultural heart. The yardsticks of achievement at Bishops no longer revolve exclusively around the four Rs of education: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithemtic and rugby.

‘Madness” – as in music, art and drama – has become an integral part of education. From the moment they enter the Pre-Preparatory School the boys are encouraged to sing in the choir, play an instrument and become ‘professional” listeners.

In addition, a ‘Pastoral Care” unit provides confidential counselling to help learners with decision-making, vocational guidance, academic concerns and any other personal matters.

And the new relaxed culture at Bishops is unmistakeable. These days the boys are not required to doff their boaters at the sight of a member of the fairer sex. Although there are no plans to make the school co-educational, fraternising with females outside the classroom is encouraged.

True to the ‘local is lekker” spirit, shebeen evenings are sometimes held in the Bishops grounds.

A trusty barometer for testing transformation on the ground is via the canteen menu. These days the traditional cottage pie, roast beef and Yorkshire ‘pud” has been replaced by burgers and boerewors. Mind you, there’s still room for improvement. For example, at a recent sports event, Muslim parents went hungry because the hot dogs weren’t halaal.

‘There has been some resistance from conservative quarters who are afraid that Bishops will sacrifice some of the traditions that have made it unique,” says Nupen. ‘But transformation does not imply a lowering of our standards. Our role is not to protect the boys from society but to prepare them for it.”

Nupen is not throwing out the baby with the bathwater – the core of the school’s identity is being retained. For example, although Bishops welcomes students of all religions, the Anglican Church remains a pillar of the education provided at the school. Old boys get married in the school’s chapel, baptise their children, and are even buried there. In fact, the relationship between Bishops and its learners is often a cradle-to-grave bond.

But there are convoluted complexities aplenty that will make this transformation journey a slow one. It’s all very well levelling the

playing fields at school – but sustaining the notion of unity in diversity becomes pretty tough when one pupil returns home to a mansion and another to a shack.

Nupen doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But he’s clearly unafraid of the questions.