By the numbers

Is it fair that we distill 12 years of schooling into just 14 digits through the medium of exams?

By Tim Jarvis


A few days ago I attended my youngest son’s ‘Prize Giving’ ceremony, or as I now call it, the ‘Watching other people’s children get prizes’ ceremony. I have learnt over the years that it helps to have low expectations going into such events but still two hours is a long time to sit waiting in vain for even a mere flicker of recognition.

When my children were much younger, parents would scour even the Headmaster’s Newsletter for a mention of their child’s name. A friend of mine complained to me that in all the years they had been associated with the school not ‘even once’ had their children received acknowledgement of any kind in this weekly publication. ‘Not a headmaster’s commendation, not a mention in the sports results, not even the litterbug award!’ they cried. “Really”, I replied, “my children are mentioned all the time”. My friend looked surprised (he knows my children). “Yes” I went on, “If you turn to the back page and look at the ‘Lost Property list’, you’ll see they’re mentioned frequently.”

Recognising children, their abilities and efforts, is a difficult task. As we sit at the end of the year parents are receiving reports of assessment results grading their children into various unvariegated categories. For matriculants around the country it is the big one, a piece of paper containing seven or so numbers upon which their fate seemingly rests. 12 years of schooling reduced and distilled into just 14 digits.

We live in age where we can measure almost everything. My son has a Fitbit which can track, his steps, heart rate, calorie consumption and sleep patterns continuously. What can the numbers tell you about a person? In our end of term staff Chapel service one of the seamstresses who works in the Laundry Department was honoured for her time in the school. It was estimated that she has sewn some 130,000 labels onto clothes. That tells a story. It got me thinking, what my life would look like by the numbers. Most of this is ‘since records began’ so does not capture everything. Here goes:

The tale of the tape: Not the whole story

66, 645       steps I walked (49.8 km) in the second week of August this year.

44,031         the number of sent e-mails since 2006

16,402         steps walked (12.4 km) in one day in May when I had evening duty.

8,320           estimated counselling appointments with students

3900            (at least) reports signed for university applications

1641             tweets on Twitter @timothyjejarvis

264              goals I have had the pleasure of witnessing my soccer team score

109              heart sinking moments experiencing my team conceed a goal

52                 sermons I have delievered in the school Chapel

51                 my Discovery Vitality age (measure of your health relative to your actual age, based on blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index e.t.c)

45                my actual age

13                 end of year staff parties attended

The numbers tell you something, but not everything. They don’t tell you about the steps that took you down to school in the evening to be with a student battling with anxiety. Nor do they capture the laboured, torturous steps up the side of a mountain with a group of boys graciously (most of them) waiting for you to catch up. It doesn’t measure the steps taken with a beating heart down the aisle to preach for the first time in the school Chapel, nor the time  dressing up the senior (elderly) housemaster ‘Yeezy style’ as part of a sermon. (The numbers also tell you nothing about the staff parties, but that’s a good thing.)

The e-mails don’t tell of the hours of communication with the parent whose child is in serious trouble, nor the plethora of phone calls, SMS’s and WhatsApp’s that accompany a student who is struggling. Statistics about goals, or other measures of sports success, can’t tell you of a young man’s tears when he is told he is being dropped, nor the boy on the bus home who rested his head on his friends shoulder after an injury ruled him out for the rest of the season. Sheer numbers of applications processed alone don’t describe one student’s despair when he fails to make the university of his choice (or even university at all), nor the delight and satisfaction when a pupil receives an Oxbridge or Ivy League offer.

And so it is with those numbers on your school leaving certificate. They can only tell a part of your story, and a small part at that. School covers only a limited sphere of life, and exams in turn measure only a fraction of that. No matter your results, good, bad or expected, just remember you are so much more than what the numbers say.


Learning by degrees

Last year I visited the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. I like to go and look at the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner. As I entered the first gallery I noticed a group of seven or eight young men and one young woman. All were smartly dressed, the men in open collar shirts with clean cut hair and polished shoes. One of the young men was standing in front of the group explaining the painting behind him. I continued my cultured meander to the Turners via Rubens in Room 29 and bumped into the same group again. This time a different young man was talking about a different painting. I finally reached Room 34 and plumped myself down in front of Turner’s ‘Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus’ on the comfortable leather viewing couches the National Gallery provides, glad to take the weight of my feet for a time. No sooner had I done do when the homogenous group dressed in smart casual reappeared for the third time. Somewhat annoyingly they stood right in front of my picture while a now completely different member of the group took the lead in analysing the painting. At the end of his worthy, yet somewhat unconvincing effort, an older woman who was clearly in charge gave the group some feedback and then sent them off with instructions to meet later at the Noel Coward Theatre for the evening performance of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (well worth watching by the way).

Trafalgar Square: Home to the National Gallery

As the Smart/Casuals disappeared she sat down next to me and I took the opportunity to ask her who the group of young people were and what they were doing. ‘They’re soldiers’, she replied and went on to explain that they had been identified by their senior officers as having leadership potential. They were up for their board interviews to undergo officer training at Sandhurst but the army had recognised, that because this particular group of people had not been to university, they were at a serious disadvantage to the other candidates. The army then provided, at its own expense, a six week ‘crash’ education course, including current affairs, global politics, history, public speaking and a three day trip to London to look at art, plays, museums and the like.

In short the British Army recognise the value of a broad education for their leaders, over and above training.

The idea that university is about education rather than training is not always understood. Jonathan Jansen was speaking to Russell Loubser the then head of the Jo’burg Stock Exchange, about how universities must train students for the workplace. “No professor,” Loubser replied, “you educate them. I train them.”

University should be about education not training

The point being that training happens when you get into the work place, education is what should be happening at University. Dr Max Price, the Vice Chancellor at UCT says, You are going to live to around 100 years and will have three to four career changes over the course of your life. However you will only be full time at university once. You need to do a degree that offers you a broad education and a good foundation.” Dr Price actually advises that you should not do a BCom or the LLB (Law) degree in the belief that such degrees are too narrow, suggesting instead either the BSc or a BA as your foundational degree, as that will give you skills that will last across a long period of time and that are transferable across a wide range of careers. In fact Wits University scrapped the LLB in 2015. According to Attorney Michael de Broglio, Wits explained this decision by saying, “…they wanted people who entered the legal profession to have a greater philosophical understanding of law, to understand its place in society, to be more mature and to have a better grasp of ethics.” While the LLB gave people good technical skills around law, it seems its graduates did not have a broader understanding of the context in which they were operating.

This advice from Dr Price goes against what many people believe about degrees, most notable the Bachelor of Arts. The BA comes in for a lot of stick, you may have heard a number of jokes around it. Here’s a common one for example, “…what’s the difference between a BA degree and a large pizza?” A large pizza can feed a family.” Such comments are built on the misunderstanding that you do a degree to get trained as opposed to educated. As Jonathan Jansen says, “A good BA would have given you the foundations of learning across disciplines like sociology, psychology, politics, anthropology and languages. A good BA would have given you access to critical thinking skills, appreciation of literature, understanding of cultures, the uses of power, the mysteries of the mind, the organisation of societies, the complexities of leadership, the art of communication and the problem of change. A good BA would have taught you something about the human condition, and so something about yourself. In short, a good BA degree would have given you a solid education that forms the basis for workplace training.”

Even if you do decide to do a Commerce degree, make it as broad as possible says Professor David Sewry, Dean of Commerce at Rhodes University. Prof Sewry actively encourages his B. Com students to take courses from outside of the Commerce faculty. He believes, for example, that an Accounting student who has also studied, say Philosophy or History, is going to be a better Accountant. When I visited the Engineering faculty at UCT a few years ago I learned t
hat only around half of its graduates actually went into Engineering, the rest ended up in banking, project management and a range of other careers. This is simply because some of the transferable skills learned while being educated can be applied in a number of different fields. Some universities offer a ‘programme’ based approach to degrees where courses are prescribed and more prescriptive. Others such as Rhodes University favour a ‘formative’ degree, one that allows a broader base of study with more flexibility.

Rhodes University offer formative degrees

The American Liberal Arts degree is built on this premise. It is not possible to study toward your professional degree until you have first completed your four year undergraduate Liberal Arts degree. There are no faculties to speak of, rather students take courses across a wide range of fields only selecting their majors after two years of exploration and experimentation. Again the thinking goes that an Engineer who has also studied Eastern religions or Creative Writing is going to be a better Engineer than one who has not.

So is this really practical? I have just read an article by George Monbiot entitled ‘Drums of War’ where he cites the study published by the Oxford Martin School in 2013 on the impacts of computerisation. What ‘jumps out’ is that technological advance is wiping out a whole array of careers through automation. Jobs at lower risk involve, “work that requires negotiation, persuasion, originality and creativity.” Monbiot goes onto say, “The management and business jobs that demand these skills are comparatively safe from automation; so are lawyers, teachers, researchers, doctors, journalists, actors and artists.”

In other words, “… jobs that demand the highest educational attainment are the least susceptible to computerisation.” So please parents and teachers, encourage your children to be educated not just trained.

Royal & Ancient

With the surge of interest in universities outside of South Africa many students are exploring the UK as a place to study. This is an updated blog on my visit to Scotland last year to look at higher education in this northerly part of the union.

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

 The Caledonian Sleeper rolled into Edinburgh at about 6:30 AM. A biting cold February wind greeted me as I disembarked from the train and made my through Waverly Station. I was in Scotland as a guest, first of University of Edinburgh, and then of the University of St Andrews. I joined a group of more than forty other school Guidance Counsellors from around the world, but, as we will see, predominantly from North America. We were all accommodated and catered for at the expense of our host universities while going through a programme of presentations and tours to give us insight into each university. 

After two days in Edinburgh we travelled across the Firth of Forth to Fife and St Andrews. From our hotel I was able to breakfast looking out over the 18th fairway of the Old Course of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to West…

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Rac, Roids & Rage – The 3 R’s of boys’ schools

I still vividly remember the day twelve years ago. I stood transfixed near the side of a field watching (at a safe distance) as seemingly fully grown men launched into each other at what I later learnt was the 1st XV rugby trials. It was my first immersive experience of a largely all-male environment and I recall thinking what possible need could these boys have of a school counsellor. As I observed they appeared strong, confident (even dominant) and in control.

At a safe distance.


Three lies of Masculinity

Joe Ehrman, a defensive lineman with the Baltimore Colts for much of the ’70s, gave a well-known TED talk in 2013 in which he says that as a child, he was taught that being a man meant dominating people and circumstances — a lesson that served him well on the football field, but less so in real life. In his TED talk Joe identifies three lies of masculinity that all boys and young men learn about what how to be a man. They are:

  1. Athletic Ability: You have to be big and strong or at least athletically capable. It is very clear to boys, from magazines, movies and adverts aimed at men, that size matters. Take the cover of any issue of Men’s Health magazine as an example.
  1. Sexual Conquest: Being attractive to, and successful with, girls (having game) is seen as important. Today this may also include sexting (digital sharing of sexual images and words), sort of virtual conquest if you like.
  1. Economic Success: It is seen as a mark of masculinity that a man must provide for his family. Provide and protect is the mantra of many men through the ages.

The three R’s

These three lies are very much alive today. Place these myths though in the fertile ground of an all boys’ boarding school and they can easily become intensified. Just think of an almost all male environment without the leavening effect of females. Then take that and place it in the pressure cooker of a twenty four hour, seven days a week and it is easy to see how things can get out of hand. The term given is ‘hyper-masculinity’ where genuine male traits are exaggerated, distorted and even celebrated. Without awareness and intentionality in confronting these issues we can easily end up with the traditional 3 R’s of Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmatic being unintentionally supplemented by three very different R’s.


Today it appears that it is more important for boys and men to look good compared to 30 years ago. Taking the anti-acne drug Rac, or Roaccutane, is an essential ingredient today for looking good and makes the ‘spotty teenager’ a thing of the past in certain circles. Concerns about over-prescription have been reported but it is hard to say no to a teenager ridden with both angst and acne. In terms of sexual conquest, appearance and image (both body and branding) are important. Dental work is also de-rigour, a key component in an image conscious society, where face value means different things to different people.  Leaving your appearance to the influence of genetics and hormones is simply not enough.


Where size is impimg_1348ortant, steroids are always going to be a temptation. Boys these days gym, some even claim it is their official sport. This goes hand in hand with a focus on healthy eating. Many will happily skip desert at a formal dinner in order to preserve that ‘shredded’ body and a good definition these days is far more likely to be a topic of conversation in the gym class than the English lesson. It is not surprising with this focus on body image that anorexia and problems related to body image such as body dysmorphic disorder make their presence felt even in a boy’s school.  There is an ongoing pressure for young men to be physically strong. Of course beyond the physical this translates into being strong emotionally, in this case not having (or at least not showing) emotional needs or weakness.


Rage, of course, is the term given to the big end of school party that Matrics flock to after they have written their last school exam. Gathering at various centres around South Africa, this is the party to end all parties. In this context I am using the term to cover partying generally and in particular the consumption of alcohol.  Every event, be it a Matric Dance or a formal dinner, has to be accompanied by pre-drinks (prees) and an after-party. The common factor is alcohol. It sometimes appears that the youth seemed determined to cram in as many opportunities for drinking as is humanly possible around just one event.

Alcohol consumption is not just an issue amongst boys of course, in fact research tells us that binge drinking for young girls is a significant and growing problem.  Nor is drinking specifically a problem with the youth. However drinking alcohol is somehow associated with being or becoming a man. I watched a ridiculous advert the other night where a group of men recapture a horse that has escaped its attractive female owner and gone charging down the high street. With the damsel in distress looking on, the men complete the task and then reward themselves to some beer while the sound track pumps out, “I’m a Man, I’m a Man, I’m a Man.”

Gender straight jackets

The media and even society gives our boys limited options as to what type of men they can become. Dr. Caroline Heldman in ‘The Mask You Live In’ explains that there are four ‘predominant male archetypes that we see in film and television and other forms of popular culture’.

  1. Strong Silent guy – This man is always in  control and is not emotional (James Bond)
  2. Superhero – This character engages in high levels of violence to maintain control or achieve a goal (Batman, Captain America, Iron Man e.t.c)
  3. Thug – In the media these are predominantly men of colour, pigeonholed into violent roles. (Officer Frank Tenpenny in ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’, reminiscent of Detective Alonzo Harris in the movie ‘Training Day’)
  4. ‘Manchild’ – A male who’s in perpetual adolescence. “His body doesn’t typically have a lot of muscle, but he tends to project masculinity in other ways, through the degradation of women and engaging in high-risk activities”. (Most of the characters in ‘The Hangover’).

This one dimensional view of masculinity is extremely restrictive and limiting. For many of our young men, it is like being forced to wear a straight jacket that prevents a full range of emotional expression and oversimplifies the glorious complexities of being fully male.

What do we do?img_1345-copy

What are we doing as a school, as a community, as educators and as parents, to provide boys with access to a healthier range of masculinity? What
does healthy masculinity look like anyway? I was once asked by a psychologist when discussing these issues, “In what way is a good man different to a good woman?” When you go beyond the surface, that question is very hard to answer. Grappling with questions like this as an educational community is vital. If you work in an all boys’ school or have a son in one, here are some things to consider as a way forward.

  1. Redefine strength – Boys want to be strong, there’s absolutely no point in telling boys that they don’t need to be strong. It’s built into their psyche that they want to be seen as strong. The message just won’t compute. What you need to do is redefine what strength is.” Martin Seagar. We need engagement and conversations with boys that create a definition of strength that includes emotional expression and vulnerability.
  1. Redefine masculinity – At the end of his TED talk Joe Ehrman posts that being a man is actually about relationships and making a positive difference to the world around you. With reference to being a man he says, “One, it’s your capacity to love and to be loved. Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. Second thing, it ought to be defined by commitment to a cause. All of us have a responsibility to give back, to make the world more fair, more just, more hospitable for every human being. So I think it’s about relationships and commitments to a cause. That’s the underline of all humanity — men and women.”
  1. Provide a range of healthy male role models – Boys need to see there are many ways to be a man. As psychologist Michael Thompson says, not every boys wants to be ‘…like Mike…’ This means school staff and visitors to the schools need to reflect a diverse and varied spectrum of men. In addition, while male role models in boy’s schools are vital, it is also important that female staff make up a significant proportion of the faculty.

Don’t stay on the sidelines

Thinking back to all those capable boys I watched on the rugby field twelve years ago I now know that all is not what it seems. I have learnt that you take boys at face value, at your peril and possibly theirs. Young men will often put up a convincing mask of anger or disinterest that discourage us from getting close to them. Another memory I have is that of my youngest son, less than two years old, wandering away from my wife one afternoon down at the school sports fields. It was not too long before he was howling with a thorn in his foot. Before my wife could get to him though, a young man had detached himself from his scrum of peers, sat down next to my son, put his arm around him and gently pulled the thorn from his foot.

It’s all there, emotions, feelings, kindness, strength, thought, care, compassion, gentleness, vulnerability. But the thing is, you can’t stay watching at a safe distance, as I was that day on the side of a rugby field. You have to get involved and be willing to be immersed to some level of discomfort, yours and theirs. These last twelve years have taught me that these young men have fears, vulnerabilities, anxieties and weaknesses as do we all. There is still plenty, for me, all staff working with boys, and parents to be engaged with. We just have to be willing to dig a little deeper, look a little longer and create the space for these boys to become the young men they were created to be.

If you work with boys, don’t stay at a safe distance, have the courage to get involved.

Better out than in?

It’s that time of year again when many students head off on their outdoor education experience and trade the walls of the classroom for something a little less predictable…

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

Three days are spent in the Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack The High Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack

I am not the most athletic of people. OK I am not at all athletic, the less charitable of my colleagues might go so far as to say that I am a trifle overweight. In addition my bush craft is somewhat lacking, while I can navigate round the mall with the best of them and triangulate with unerring and pinpoint precision the nearest coffee shop, my sense of direction deserts me the second the words outdoors and, great, meet up together. In short I would much rather be inside than out. So it was with a sinking feeling (a sensation that I was to experience again too soon) that I caught my lift to take me out to join a group for the second week of our school 13 day ‘Journey’ experience.

Involving six full days of hiking including the ‘barrier of spears’ of…

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Can’t stop loving you

On a cold, drizzly Friday my son and I set off for a fathers and sons weekend. Turning off the freeway we found ourselves faced by red and slippery district roads, far better suited to farm trucks that the city sedan I was driving. With some slipping and sliding we eventually found ourselves at the entrance to the camp: a steep, slick tongue of red clay. “Ok, ok. Here we go boy”. But no go, the car slid off to the side of the road, and settled itself in the thick, wet, grassy ridge. “Maybe we should just go home Dad?”

In this guest blog, psychologist Dr. Rob Pluke recounts his experience of a seemingly disastrous father and son experience and discovers that all is not what it seems when it comes to building relationships with our boys.

Truth be told, my son wasn’t that keen on the camp, and he’d said that he felt a bit sick on the way. But I had wanted to go. I had planned for it – damn it, even paid for it, and we were going! Anyway, soon some of the other dads made their way down towards us, and one used a big 4×4 to tow me out of the mud. If this weekend was about showing our sons how to be men, then I was off to a rather poor start.

Two failed men

“…we were quickly directed on to our first assignment – an ominously angled zip line.”

Gathering our bags and pieces of my dignity, we picked our way up towards the lodge. As late arrivals we were quickly directed on to our first assignment – an ominously angled zip line. As we trekked up the  path to the platform, my son grabbed my trouser leg, looked up at me with pale face and big eyes, then turned towards a bush and vomited. Half an hour later we were back in our car, bags repacked, and creeping ever closer towards the comforting familiarity of tar. We had a Phil Collins CD playing at the time. Maybe you know the song “Cos’ I can’t stooop loving you! No I can’t stoooop loving you!” Two failed men, singing at the tops of their lungs. Later that night we made supper together, and then my son introduced me to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie. He told me it had been a great day.

I don’t know. By my expectations, we hadn’t managed to fulfill one of the requirements of a fathers and sons camp. No blood-letting, solemn pacts, or weird chants – gee man, not even a single obstacle course was conquered. But strangely enough, the weekend stands out for me as a highlight time with my son. On reflection I now see, that without awareness or intention, my boy and I ended up checking some very important boxes.

Ticking the boxes

First simply by being together we were able to enjoy moments that are impossible to script. I’m going to try to remember this.

Masculinity is what happens when men come together

Second, we knew in a beyond words kind of way, that because we were in something together, partners in crime if you like, we were busy being men. So I guess what this tells me is that masculinity isn’t something out there – an essence we need to achieve. Instead, masculinity is what happens when men come together. It’s a relational experience – an acknowledgement of ‘us-ness. This is one reason why dads are so important to their sons. When we stand alongside our sons, they experience themselves as men.

Third, something very powerful happens when we stand alongside our sons during moments of weakness and vulnerability. When we can do this, we show our sons that they really can be themselves. So whether they’re sick, scared or uncertain, they’re still ‘man enough’. Did I wish that my son would charge up the hill and swoop daringly down the zip line? Sure, a part of me did. But I think I’ll always be glad that I stayed with him, walked with him, and loved him as he was.

Finally, one of the great benefits of staying at my son’s side was that he invited me into his world. I know that he and I will always have Transformers. But more personally, I will always have that song. Whenever I hear it, a fierce love seeps from my cells and rises up and into my throat.

Something very powerful happens when we stand alongside our sons

Going off road

On that day my son took me off-road, and away from pre-navigated routes to masculinity. He helped me to chart territory of the heart that I had never before encountered – territory that exists far beyond the prescriptions of status and peer approval.

So I don’t give a damn what the real-man’s manual says. Because I can’t stop loving you.

Rob Pluke is a Counselling Psychologist and author. His latest book is called ‘Are you disappointed in me Dad?’ and will be available from November 2016.

Want to learn more about connecting with your son? Then have a look at this clip from ‘The Representation Project’. Whether throwing a around a ball or serving up breakfast, Steven and Mike model healthy masculinity and support their kids in being their true selves.



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If  you and your son are interested in a fathers and sons experience with a difference then check out the Courage 2 Connect website at:



Putting out fires

With the land turning brown and fire breaks being burnt, I was reminded of this blog I wrote last year…

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

Health and safety has not yet reached the epidemic proportions here in South Africa that it undoubtedly has in the United Kingdom. However it is making its well-meaning but sometimes counterproductive presence slowly felt, to the point where we recently had a whole school fire drill. Not that we don’t have these but this time in order to ensure we maintained our safety rating we had the full Monty, complete with ambulances, fire engines and simulated injuries.


In order to receive the necessary accreditation the whole community of more than five hundred students, teachers, staff from the laundry, kitchen and grounds had to be present and accounted for within fifteen minutes from the initial sounding of the alarm. A time was set, a managed fire lit and five ‘bodies’ to be rescued placed randomly around the school premises. All was ready.

It did not go well.

To start with the…

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