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The enduring value of the English Olympiad

The English Olympiad, which is a joint project between the Grahamstown Foundation and the South African Council for English Education, has run annually since 1976, and each year asks participants to write extended, and creative, responses to questions that aim to elicit their understanding of a range of prescribed texts. This activity, simple on the face of it, asks a great deal from its participants. It rewards those who are disciplined in preparation and display empathy, independence of thought and an ability to identify and evaluate a range of viewpoints and ideas. 

This year four of the top ten writers were from St John’s College in Johannesburg.

The English Olympiad, and Olympiads across other subjects such as geography and science, provide opportunities for students who aspire to excellence outside the classroom and curriculum. Participation in the English Olympiad is voluntary and requires individual preparation and commitment from the entrants. Some schools offer tutorial sessions in preparation for the competition, but St John’s does not, and it is up to each student to prepare as they see fit. Their ability to do so, especially over the past year, with its unparalleled demands, disruptions, and stressors, has been exceptionally impressive.

Reading, understanding, and interrogating a text is a process that has wide application. It is, on the one hand, a deeply critical activity. Realising that no text is ever neutral, and instead reflects the assumptions and intentions of the author, provides a strong foundation in negotiating life’s complexities and contradictory ideas. Gaining confidence in their ability to think critically in this way gives students access to a multiplicity of perspectives and a healthy distrust of dogma. 

But powerful writing cannot be entirely dispassionate and disinterested. The competition provides nothing less than the opportunity, according to Sarah Nanabhay, who placed seventh in the competition this year, “to witness and understand new perspectives on life and identity by engaging with very different texts from very different writers telling their stories”. At some point, critical thinking must be buoyed by an engagement with the text on its own terms, and with a deep empathy for character and circumstance. 

Each year the Olympiad is centred around a specific theme. The 2021 theme was People and Personas and the prescribed anthology, entitled This is My Story, was a collection of first-person narratives. Sazi Bongwe, who placed second nationally in this year’s Olympiad — and who has also written for the Mail & Guardian this year — notes that, “The texts this year all centred around characters’ individual stories, and engaging with them all helped me come to terms with my own. Each character was vulnerable and that implored me to be vulnerable and dig deep into myself. In my experience, that’s where the best writing comes from.” 

The competition is open to all learners in grade 9, 10, 11 and 12 in the year that the Olympiad is written. This means that students can enter repeatedly, and we find that those who excel tend to be repeat entrants who take it upon themselves to improve their performance each year. Ydhan Naidoo, who placed tenth this year, wrote the Olympiad for the first time two years ago and did not receive a certificate. Since then, he tells me, he “practised the art of essay writing and good time management and put a lot of effort into learning how to structure and plan essays”. 

We are proud of our students’ success, for which they deserve full credit. Where their parents, teachers and caregivers may have contributed is in helping to support their growth as self-assured, independent thinkers. Each one of the Olympiad entrants has amply demonstrated their ability to express a range of substantiated and considered opinions, and this clearly translates into a confidence in the way they approach and engage with texts. 

As they go out into the world, the skills they have learnt and traits they have grown into will stand them and our society in good stead. The ability to listen, to understand competing ideas and perspectives, to evaluate them and critique them, and to base this process on a fundamental empathy is the mark of a well-rounded, thoughtful human being. We appreciate the role the English Olympiad has had in helping to shape such humans and look forward to seeing the mark they make on society.

In reflecting upon the holistic value of the writing process, Eli Osei, who previously earned a merit award, and this year came 44th nationally, said: “While I am sure that, thanks to the support of my teachers, I have grown as a writer, I believe that the main difference between now and then is in my experiences of life itself. Perhaps all writing, even fiction, is about drawing from this truth.”

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Fiona Kampmann
Fiona Kampmann is head of English at St John’s College

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