Pizza, Popcorn & Pastoral Care

Snow on the hills outside Merchiston Castle

As I stood waiting for the Number 10 bus to take me back into Edinburgh town centre it struck me how similar the school I had just visited was to my own place of work on the far side of two continents away. If there is one thing that seems to be ubiquitous to boarding schools worldwide, it seems to be the smell of microwave popcorn emanating from house common rooms. During my time in the UK I was able to visit four different secondary boarding schools in the United Kingdom, namely Winchester College, Harrow and Wellington College in England, and Merchiston Castle in Scotland hence my standing in the cold with a fresh wind coming off the snow tipped hills and blowing the remaining scent of popcorn rapidly away.The aim of my visit was look at the provision of pastoral care in UK boarding schools. All the institutions I had selected to visit were well known for their standards of pastoral care and their tradition of boarding provision.

That these schools have excellent boarding facilities and are well resourced is a given. While we South Africans enjoy more sunshine when compared to our Northern European counterparts, in the aspect of residential facilities they put us firmly in the shade. The key element is space. Generally speaking each individual boarder has more space, in that their room, or their share of it, was bigger, and that each boarding house had more common areas than we would typically find in a South African school. These areas included a day room, separate kitchen area, games room and often a quiet study area. There was even a gym situated in one boarding house.

The most impressive accommodation I saw was at Merchiston Castle where their new three storey VI Form boarding house boasted lounges, coffee bars, numerous spaces for activities such as table tennis and pool, kitchens on each floor and individual en-suite rooms for each student. The ground floor also included a reception area, clearly designed to make the building attractive as a conference centre in the holidays to help defray what can only have been quite considerable costs.

Coffee bar
Lounge & coffee bar in the new Merchiston Castle boarding house

One other school had private ‘Skype’ lounges in each house so that students could make contact with home comfortably and privately. While these facilities are impressive it almost goes without saying that good pastoral care is so much more than simply bricks and mortar, however elaborately and expensively arranged.

While each school that I visited is unique and has their own way of managing the provision of pastoral care in the school, by the time I visited the fourth and final school I was able to predict the essential structure and support that would be provided. This is because care in UK boarding schools is underpinned by a strong legal framework that gives definition and shape to what is offered.

Schools in the United Kingdom are inspected regularly, and in terms of pastoral care, boarding schools are measured against a criteria of framework set out in a document known as ‘Boarding Schools – National Minimum Standards’ (DfE, 2015). This is no small thing, many schools have a designated compliance officer whose job it is to ensure that the school comes out well when measured against these criteria. To get an inspection rating of ‘outstanding’ is the goal and a more than useful marketing tool. Conversely for top schools any other rating would be seen as a disaster.

‘Boarding Accommodation’ is one of these twenty minimum standards but they also include ‘Health & Wellbeing’, ‘Induction & Support’ and ‘Staffing & Supervision’ to name just a few. A few days after my Scottish sojourn, I was dining in the south of England as a guest of Bramston’s House at Winchester College.  After drinks with the Housemaster and his ‘Monday’ guests we were ushered into the house dining hall where each guest was seated at the head of a table. Latin grace was said and then we served the boys from the head of the table. Following about 30 minutes of good conversation and homely food we then returned to the Housemaster’s lounge for coffee and biscuits.

The ‘Monday’ guests I discovered are all staff members who visit the house for lunch each Monday having received an invitation on the first Monday of the school year. This invite is then a standing invite for every remaining Monday of the year during the school term. The same goes for every other day meaning that on each day of the week a different group of staff dine with the boys in the house. In turn this is true for each of the eleven houses at Winchester.

I really enjoyed this tradition. It really helps build relationships and exposes the boys to different staff members in a more informal setting each day. Each house at Winchester has its own dining room and kitchen and so the food served has ‘home cooked meal’ feel to it. The drinks and coffee also creates time and space for staff to mix in small and varied groups each day, something that is often sorely lacking in our fast paced world. It is very expensive to run eleven different dining halls, but every time Winchester has been tempted to look at alternatives they have always rejected these cheaper options. I can see why.

Tube sign
It’s quite a walk up to the school from the tube station!

Harrow has got around this by having a central dining hall but creating separate zones for each house, where staff and boys eat together. This has the advantage that a Housemaster can locate any boys in space and time that he may need to and vice versa. While it perhaps lacked the charm of Winchester’s system it was an effective compromise between cost considerations and the benefits of eating together as a house. Along with my sausage and mash I managed to learn a little about the rules of Harrow Football (you can tackle anyone in the vicinity of the ball) and in turn tell the boys a little about rugby in South Africa.

With the school spread out over the town of Harrow-on-the-Hill I was really struck how each house really is a place to come home to. Each house is well staffed with around three staff living in, and talk of increasing this to four in the years to come. The Housemaster’s home is integrated into the fabric of the house making him very present in the lives of his charges. It was clear how much Harrow valued the role of their Housemasters and tutors in the care of their boys. I left a little bit fitter from all the walking around, especially the route up to the school from the tube station. It’s not called Harrow-on-the Hill for nothing.

Wellington College is famous for placing a premium on happiness. Just look at outgoing Headmaster Dr Antony Seldon’s ‘Happy’ entrance to his final speech day  I found that their approach to their students’ welfare was extremely comprehensive and thorough. An on-line Wellness Action Plan is created for any student at risk and key staff members are given responsibility to ensure that this happens with a committee to oversee the process. At Merchiston they called this GIRFEC (Getting It Right for Every Child).

In all the schools, house staff are supported in their pastoral care efforts by a team of counsellors (an average of around two per school), chaplains and nurses, as well as designated Child Protection Officers. Clear thought had gone into the provision of pastoral care; significant resources had been allocated towards it and structures to ensure accountability were firmly in place. I think the weakness in the system is that with such strong legislation the temptation may be to confuse the provision of good care with keeping up with paper work. At one school the notice boards in each separate house displayed identical documents to all the other houses. This is simply because certain information must legally be displayed and therefore cannot be left to chance or the vagaries of individual Housemasters.

There is little doubt that articulating standards to be met in what are important areas has gone a long way into lifting standards of pastoral care across the UK, but of course legislation cannot capture on paper the essence of care and sport which is at its heart an intangible concept. While legislation can perhaps help reduce poor pastoral care, it cannot ensure excellent care, only people can do that. Good pastoral care simply can’t be legislated for.

Be happy at Wellington College

I loved seeing what schools in the UK were doing in terms of boarding provision. I was blown away by some of the facilities and centuries old traditions that enhance pastoral care. However what impressed me most, as it does here in South Africa too, were the people. People who are passionate, dedicated, and highly capable. Professional staff who go way beyond anything that legislation can impose. For me excellent care must have a relational, as opposed to a legal, basis. In all of our boarding schools, both in South Africa and the United Kingdom, it is the Housemaster or Housemistress who personifies the house system, which is in turn part of the DNA of boarding schools worldwide. These people along with the tutors, counsellors and chaplains who support them, are where the real heart of pastoral care lies.

Back at my own school, at a recent book study where some of the staff meet to discuss how to best care for students, there was common ground amongst the group as to their best moment with boys. These were invariably informal moments, often out of the class environment, such as a school trip or around take away pizza at a tutor’s home. It is often in all the gaps between, and the cracks running through, the curriculum, sports and activities, that good pastoral care happens. Any structures and support must be engineered and designed to provide time and space for such relationships to form.

In summary; good pastoral care really does come down to good relationships. While reading Bear Grylls’ autobiography ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’, I was struck by what he said about the role of the Housemaster at one of Britain’s top boarding schools, “…so much of people’s experience at Eton rests on whether they had a housemaster who rocked or bombed. I got lucky”

Bear goes on to explain how his Housemaster, Mr Quibell, hated pizza with a passion, so as a joke Bear and his peers would call the local pizza store and arrange an order of thirty or more pizzas to be delivered to their Housemaster’s door. The students would then hide in order to witness the resulting reaction of their teacher and the consequent exchange with the delivery man. Despite the practical jokes Mr Quibell was clearly loved and respected. Bear writes, “…he was fair and he cared; and as a teenager those two qualities really matter to one’s self esteem.”

Conversely another notable celebrity, John Cleese, who attended a boarding school in the west of England describes his Housemaster as ‘one of only two staff members that he really didn’t like. In his book ‘So Anyway,’ he calls him a ‘joyless dwarf’. No amount of legislation can take care of a problem like that.


Known by name

As the autumn morning mist lifts over the Valley, it unveils a herd of Nguni Cattle grazing on the still green grass overlooking the school. On my morning walk to work still clutching my half drunk cup of coffee, I can often glimpse these animals dotted on the hillside, bright against the grasslands.

These extraordinary cattle are a part of the land management programme of the school’s ‘Nature Reserve’. The reserve is a section of the school property, dedicated to keeping part of the estate as a grassland habitat and as a safe place for the small and rare Oribi antelope.

As many people know one of the features of these cattle are their hide markings, which are uniquely specific to each cow. It is these incredible and quite beautiful markings that have made Nguni hides something of a sought after commodity both at home and abroad. Here Hwaqahwaqa, pictured below, roams the reserve. Her name means a mottled object or overcast skies.


What is particularly striking to me is the way that these cattle have been managed by indigenous people over the centuries. Because each cow is marked so uniquely it is possible to identify each one in the herd on sight by its hide. This has allowed and encouraged an individual naming process where each member of the herd is quite literally known by name.

Naming the cattle is a vital part of the management and care of the herd. To know each beast by name enables the Zulu people to tend the herd in a uniquely diligent way. Each animal is individually named with a term that describes in detail the markings and often something of their character as well. Naturally this aids with communication regarding the herd as information about each animal can be passed on without confusion. Indeed even members of the community who are not familiar with the herd are able to pick out an animal due to this descriptive naming process.

One of my favourite examples is that of Abafazibewela. The literal meaning of this name is the woman lifts her skirts to cross the river and this describes the creature above clearly and, at the same time, poetically. The name creates an image that is easy to remember; an immediate visual picture.


As I continue my walk to school the bell rings scattering my thoughts and causing me to quicken my pace. My attention turns to the daily management of a quite different breed, a herd of teenage boys, a significant portion of which are headed to my classroom. Jostling and pushing, each one of these individuals enters my classroom with a unique identity. He comes to my lesson with his own set of abilities, needs, fears and problems. The bell rings again for the start of the lesson and I am grateful for that cup of coffee.

There are certain parallels that we can draw from the Nguni naming process to the school and educational environment. Simply put we should know each boy in our care well enough to ‘name’ him. Naming, in this sense, means to recognize him, to know his habits and character, to anticipate him. For all our students we should know their weaknesses and their strengths so that our care of them is informed and tailored to their needs.

Marguerite Poland in her book ‘The Abundant Herds’ says the following, “Each beast in a herd of Nguni is individual in the combination of its colour pattern, horn shape, gender, status and history. Each occupant of the byre has its story, as does any member of the household, and carries its complex identity in the names and terms that describe its attributes.”

Like those tending these ancient cattle we too should know the stories behind each member of those in our care. We must glean something of their history, their past, a sense of what has gone into them to date. Like the cattle in the byre, they, not our school’s agenda, whether it be academic, sporting, cultural or otherwise, should be central to what we do.

Later that day I struggle to translate this idea into practice, as I meet with a boy whose unique story is hidden behind a mask of disinterest and sometimes anger. His disinterest unsettles me, making me feel irrelevant and out of touch and I am tempted to take him at face value and go and grab some more coffee. However I now know that this anger almost certainly masks many other emotions and I persist through my discomfort and his. Over time I may gain his trust and get to know him in a deeper way. I know that if this happens I am likely to be surprised by the depth of his feeling and just how complex his story is. Such investment of emotional energy and time is seldom wasted.

I know that this boy needs the space and the chance to create a new name for himself. We have to help him in this so that we do not trap him in the history of his current name or reputation. In Zulu culture the skill of naming cattle is a greatly valued one and there is lots of discussion regarding any beast that does not easily fit a category. Great lengths are taken to ensure that the naming process does justice to the individual.

Like the expert herdsmen we should develop a whole vocabulary and language around the care of our students. We should have extensive debate among experts for those that don’t quite fit the system. ‘What fills the heart is also spoken about’ says the Afrikaans proverb. So what is important will influence our language as a culture of community. The Zulu language has twenty different words for spots in order to aid the naming of cattle.

We too easily assume the stereotypical views of male students rather than seeing who they really are. As Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon suggest in ‘Raising Cain’, not every boy wants to be like Mike. “Some want to be like Will (Shakespeare); others yearn to be like Bill (Gates) or Al (Einstein); while still others want to be like Walt (Whitman).”

In my final session of the day my thoughts are already turning to home as I work with a boy on the problematic issue of his future after school. The effect of my morning coffee has long since waned and I am battling to concentrate. Nevertheless I am required to make myself present. I have to encourage this young man to name those parts of his self that could be viewed as strength or a talent. This is something that by himself he is perhaps unable to do. Some progress is made but we are both tired and it may be some time before he is ready to make any decisions.


As I walk home I notice the cattle are no longer in view and I end my day on my veranda as the sun sets and the first stars begin to shine. In just a short time, out here in the KwaZulu-Natal country side, the night sky will be ablaze with stars. I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” If we can know our students in this way, then they too, in their time, stand a chance to shine.

Hard times need soft hearts

The role of the teacher in South Africa

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Hard Times
The famed opening scene from school master Thomas Gradgrind’s classroom described in the book Hard Times highlights author Charles Dickens view of the shortcoming of Victorian education and society at large. “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” repeats Gradgrind. The industrial revolution had wreaked havoc on what was once an agricultural society throwing it into turmoil and creating a host of new social problems. Gradgrind’s philosophy was the philosophy of the age, the mind-set of progress and seen as the worldview of the future. In the following interaction with one of his students Sissy Jupe, Thomas Gradgrind’s pedagogy is clear.

 ‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind… ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Of course we know this to be ridiculous. Gradgrind is straining educational gnats and missing the camels. Today education seeks to do far more than just teach facts. Educators and societies worldwide regognise that an education reliant on facts and content alone would fall far short of satisfactory, as any teacher faced with producing a rubric that pushes learners to achieve all six forms of Bloom’s Taxonomy in a single task will know. However I would argue that this passage from Hard Times, and indeed the whole book, has relevance for education in post-apartheid South Africa today.

In a land currently blighted by poverty, plagued by xenophobic based destruction, and distracted by statue defacement, to name just some of the current issues, it would not be unreasonable to state that there are parallels in terms of social upheaval with Victorian Britain. Economic growth and prosperity have left many behind and there is a sense that education seems not to have come close to dealing with the issues. It is not dealing with the camels.

Many schools face significant pressure to achieve a level of academic results through deleiviering of the curriculum, both content and skills based. In addition schools can fall into the trap of keeping up appearances through sporting results or other performances. This is not enough. When I was involved in teacher training in Zimbabwe I often reminded teachers and prospective teachers that Robert Mugabe also went to school. I wonder if his teachers had known that one day he would lead the country how they might have done thing differently. Would they have spent so long on the understanding split infinitives or algebraic equations? Would the periodic table suddenly seem so important? What would they have done differently had they known? What would we do differently if we could know now?

In his article ‘It’s not about the statues’ (Times Live 10th April) Jonathan Jansen says, “Underlying all this upheaval remains the failure of education – such as the inability among the protestors to distinguish and anti-fascist memorial from an imperial monument, or a Boer war general from a colonial capitalist. This is the danger we course when political activism is unhinged from even a superficial knowledge of our complex and entangled histories.”

This is true, we have failed to provide even this basic level of understating and knowledge, but we are failing at a deeper level too. As schools we continue to be in danger of forgetting what is really important as we deal with young people. Facts, knowledge and skills are only a part of what South Africa needs. Later in Hard Times Thomas Gradgrind’s wife talks to her daughter Louisa.

‘You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ology’s of all kinds from morning to night. If there is any Ology left, of any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name.’…‘But there is something—not an Ology at all—that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don’t know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now.’

If we only focus on the academic or performance of our students we are in danger of missing or forgetting something (not an ology at all) but something that is perhaps most important of all, to be kind. To raise ourselves above the level of reasoning animals that Gradgrind insists we are, to be fully human and humane toward one another. Teachers and schools must make the effort to raise the standards to which we hold our young people to. For South Africa to move to a post Xenophobic society we need to learn to be kind, tolerant, just, disciplined, honest, forgiving, compassionate, caring, hardworking and to listen. No curriculum can deliver that, it is held in the hearts of teachers, parents and other concerned adults.

So yes we need some to understand that South Africa’s troubles will not be solved by attacking foreigners, or throwing faeces on statues.  And yes we need others to understand that as Jansen goes on to say, “As the poorest of our citizens continue to feel left out from any post apartite dividend, subjects of scorn will multiply – foreign nationals, monuments, street traders – and the tactics of the opprutnie will horrify”. But more importantly we also need to learn to be human.

To do these things we need educated teachers and we need teachers with heart. Teachers who can work in the zone beyond the hard facts of exam and sports results, who can withstand the pressure of the hard numbers of enrolment and finance. Who can help students understand these issues and the show them how to grapple with them through experiencing and practising soft but difficult skills, attitudes and mind-sets. No curriculum can do this, nor can any syllabus, only another human being can make an impact on a young person’s heart and mind.

In a more recent article ‘Don’t leave us to ourselves’ Jansen says to foreign national students, ‘We need you, in other words, to make us more fully human.’ (Times Live 17th April). Getting rid of foreigners is not the answer, the solution lies in our hearts and souls and the opportunity to become fully human. Our school are first and foremost communities full of human beings, all learning lies in relationship, particularly the deep learning that we are talking about here. We are not delivering a product or an economic unit, we are dealing with the hearts and souls of others.

In the midst of all the trouble these past few weeks there have though been glimpses of that what makes us human, as people have come to the aid of those in need. One example that sticks out in my mind took place in my home town of Howick. Two young Congolese men were set upon near a fast food restaurant by a group, one of whom went at them with a spanner. Local taxi drivers saw what was happening went over and put a stop to it. Later when the taxi drivers were asked about it they reportedly said, “there’s no place for xenophobia in Howick” I would love to know who their teachers were.

As educators we need to do two things. Firstly we must take some time and make the effort to educate ourselves more thoroughly about the history of this country, to better understand the frustration of its people and the complexities that underlie the current events, so that we in turn can help our young people grasp the reality around them. We owe it to their future selves. I personally have a lot to learn in this regard. Secondly as the new term begins I encourage you to look out at the young people in your class, or tutor group, sports team or assembly next week and take a moment to consider who they might become and where they might end up. President, politicians, journalists, doctors, conservationists, lawyers or a taxi driver who intervenes to protect a foreigner. South Africa needs more of those.

God Bless Africa; Guard her children; Guide her leaders. And give her peace, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen

Royal & Ancient

 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 Sands where the opening scene of the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ was filmed. Not a bad way to start a working day while munching on black pudding and networking with educators from around the globe. I have learnt previously that such tours are relatively common particularly in the United States where they are known as ‘fly ins’ and a staple part of the professional development of school guidance counsellors throughout the North American continent.


So what did I learn? Well I learnt a great deal about each university specifically, and about Scottish Higher Education more generally, as I was supposed to. But what I really learnt most about though was Americans. Did I mention that most of the counsellors on the tours were from the U.S?  There was one from South Africa (me), one from Australia, a handful from Canada and the rest from America (or international or American schools containing American teenagers). This is because American students are of great importance for Scottish Universities and for St Andrews in particular, (there are as many Americans at St Andrews as there are Edinburgh, a university four times the size). 30% of students at St Andrew’s are from outside of the European Union and the majority of these are from America, meaning that close to 20% of the student body is from the USA. This is compared with under two hundred before the year 2000.

Darwinian application systems

Americans can be intense (think giving yourself a round of applause just for making it to the afternoon), they take their profession seriously. With iPads out I assumed my colleagues from across the pond were busy on Facebook but closer examination revealed they were either taking intense and detailed notes, or tweeting to their students back home facts about the university. Why so serious? With so many American counsellors around me I quickly learnt why. The college admission process, perhaps I should call it industry, in the US is competitive. Each counsellor in the room represented a team of 4 or 5 guidance counsellors from the same school, each primed to help their students get into the best colleges. Top independent schools advertise themselves as college prep schools and in addition the industry is saturated with consultants and agents who can help you gain admission to the college of your choice if you think your school guidance counsellor is not up to it. Excessive you might think. Maybe, but in an environment where student interest is ‘tracked’ by colleges maybe not. 

Yes, tracked. The colleges call it ‘due interest’. American students are primed by their guidance counsellors to display interest through taking part in campus tours, attending summer programs, making phone calls and sending e-mails. All to make sure their interest in a university is logged, which may make the crucial difference as to whether a student is accepted or not. This is in addition to an application process that includes essay writing, teacher recommendations, and counsellor evaluations, proof of community service, SAT’s and school transcripts. 

In addition to all this more and more students aspire to university which puts a huge pressure on places at US Colleges. Many counsellors spoke to me of the changes in this regard, where parents have unrealistic expectations of the child’s university admission chances based on an outdated idea of how easy it was to get admitted twenty or more years ago.  Very often this pressure is transferred from high fee paying parents on to students and guidance counsellors. A university like St Andrews,as with any UK university for that matter, which does not track interest, and simply admits students based on their marks, one teacher reference and a personal statement, is like a beacon of grace. 

5 Reasons why Americans love St Andrew’s

In turn international students generally, and North American students particularly are important for Scottish universities, most notably St Andrew’s, Edinburgh and Glasgow. At any Scottish university a Scottish or EU student can go for free provided they are accepted by the university. Through some bizarre twist of political fate this means a student from Latvia can go to the University of Edinburgh for free while a student from London has to cough up some nine thousand pounds. No one at both universities I visited was either able or prepared to defend this system, understandably in my opinion.

What it also means of course is that it is very expensive for the Scottish Parliament, who have to cover the costs for every Dougal, Dimitri and Anastasia admitted to Scottish universities, no matter which part of the EU they come from, other than England, Wales and Northern Ireland of course. For this reason they cap the number of places available to Scottish and EU students. This then allows a university like St Andrew’s to supplement their funding by admitting international students who pay full fees. Internationals Admissions teams of ten or so staff at both Edinburgh and St Andrew’s make sure that they reap their share of the international harvest.  At St Andrew’s in particular many of these were American, nothing is more reassuring to an American than another American

1. Fees

The University of St Andrews and students from the U.S. are like a marriage made in heaven. Americans tend to have more money than most and so can more comfortably pay the fees required. In fact fees at UK universities compare very favourably to the expense of a Liberal Art College in the USA. Sixteen thousand pounds for tuition and six thousand for residential cost make a total of around twenty two thousand pounds a year. (About 400,000 Rand for those of you who are counting).  This is compared to forty seven thousand U.S. Dollars for a college like Lynn University (R583, 000) or fifty seven thousand (R719, 000) for somewhere like Harvard.  Fees at a Scottish university can only really be seen as cheap when compared to American standards. (Exchange rates based on 2015)


Meanwhile St Andrews are receiving sixteen thousand pounds plus for each international student that they admit that they would not otherwise have. In a country that does not have a culture of endowments to create additional income this is vital to the university’s growth and survival as a top ranked institution. This marriage like arrangement is even consummated in the form of a jointly awarded Bachelor of Arts in International Honours degree from both the St Andrew’s University and the College of William & Mary in Virginia, the second oldest college in the U.S.A.

2. Rankings

It’s also worth noting that students from the US will often look at rankings too and so for somewhere like Edinburgh (ranked as high as 17th in the World) compared to Emory (a great US Private University ranked at 156 in the same rankings but charging R531,000 per year), it’s a no-brainer.

3. Location

At the start of the conference the International Admissions team at St Andrews made a big play of Scotland’s location as an international destination hub. I had always thought of it as somewhat remote. Go to Paris (like Euro Disney) if you really want to be central in Europe. However compared to the United States, Scotland really is close to any number of countries and their capital cities. In a land where you can fly for 5 hours and still not leave national airspace this is a big selling point.

Americans don’t like leaving America. Stats vary but between 80-95% of Americans do not hold a passport. Why should they, the States are so diverse that everything they need and would want to see can be found within them.  Consider that there are 4200 universities in the USA this means that if you managed to list one hundred American Universities (go on try it) there will still be 4100 universities in the States alone that you knew nothing about.

So why leave the safety and provision of the United States? Well there are those that want to travel and gain international exposure (International relations is by far the popular course for Americans at both Edinburgh and St Andrews). If you are an American where do you go to get this? According to a recent Gallup Poll, the most loved foreign county for Americans is unsurprisingly Canada which scored a 92% favorability rating, right behind is Britain on 90%. For an American seeking an international experience the UK is perfect. It is a safe foreign destination, and what’s more they speak English and are within a few hours of well over a dozen foreign countries.

4. Liberal Arts

So why not go to England? Many do of course, but Scotland seems disproportionately popular with Americans. Perhaps it is the similarity of the Scottish degree to the Liberal Arts degree in the States. There are strong links between the Scottish and U.S. Higher Ed systems. Benjamin Franklin among others attend St Andrews and is thought to have taken back the degree structure and expanded it into the Liberal Arts model that U.S. Colleges are famed for. The relative flexibility of the Scottish degree contrasts favourable with the rigidness of the system  in the rest of the UK.

5. History

What cannot be discounted is the allure of the location of somewhere like St Andrews. As a medieval town, history and tradition are everywhere. For a relatively new country like the States, this sense of history is a big pull. Whether it is the ruins of the coastal castle hidden in the mist or the origins of tradition shrouded in the mists of time, it all adds to the atmospheric environment that a town like St Andrews creates. It genuinely looks like one of the seven ancient universities of the English speaking world that it actually is. 

The University is also associated with royalty, King James 1 or (James VI as he is known in Scotland) donated his library to St Andrews. It is also where the current Royals met. When our guide pointed out the hall where Prince William resided, out came the iPhone’s to capture the location, followed by the questions about the famous fashion show where Kate made a play to get back her man. 

What about South Africans?

Like the historic club and home of golf situated in the town, the University of St Andrews is itself both royal and ancient. It is not hard to see why this university, and its neighbour Edinburgh, are enormously attractive to Americans seeking an international experience. Like William and Kate they seem like a perfect match. But are they a good option for South Africans? More to come on this topic.

More than a game?

Gaming is big business. On 29 April 2008 a British-produced game, Grand Theft Auto IV, took the title of the most successful entertainment release in history. Within 24 hours, GTA IV had grossed $310m – comfortably more than history’s most successful book (Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, at $220m in 24 hours) and its most successful film (Spider-Man 3 at $117m).


The following year of 2009 according to Tom Chatfield, “…will go down in history as the point at which the UK videogames industry pulled decisively away from cinema, recorded music and DVD sales to become the country’s most valuable purchased entertainment market, with combined software and hardware sales topping the £4bn mark for the first time: more than DVD and music sales combined, and more than four times cinema box office takings.” Tom Chatfield, The Observer, 27 September 2009.

Since then gaming has dominated the entertainment industry with video game sales dwarfing movie, music and literature releases. The world’s most successful gaming franchise, Call of Duty, has sales that have exceeded the box office takings for the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings film series combined. According to Erik Kain in Forbes magazine, this series continues to dominate. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Call of Duty: Ghosts both made the top ten best selling games in the US in 2014 at number one and number ten respectively.

If the gaming industry is now the largest percentage of the entertainment industry, “the demographics of video game users are”, in the words of Gloria de Gaetano, “eight to fifteen year old boys – the initial target market of Nintendo”. In 2013 my colleague, Simon Crane, and I undertook some , what I hesitate to call, research into gaming in South Africa. Our small survey of teenage boys and girls found that boys are spending double the amount of time that girls play, with an average of 6.7 hours a week to 3.1 for girls.

It appears that boys ‘game’ more seriously, while girls are more casual gamers preferring to play on-line games through their mobile phones. Amongst the few teenagers we surveyed the most popular games for boys appear to be FIFA and the Call of Duty series. For girls it is Subway Surfer and Candy Crush at least in 2013.

So is this a problem? The oft cited concern is that playing violent games leads to violent behavior, but this appears largely unfounded. The words of one of our male survey respondents captures the reality, “I think that war games caused the Sandy Hook shooting in the same way that Tetris turned me into a block stacker.” Most games are played for fun and are relatively harmless. While this is generally true however there are problems with playing either too much or playing certain games. Grand Theft Auto comes to mind, a game which in my opinion no teenager, perhaps even no adult, should be playing. In addition, for the developing adolescent brain too much fast paced imagery is not good for anyone. In the words of Wendy Mogul, “There’s no SPF for movies or television, no safe way to let your children bask for two hours without risking a burn.” The same is true for video games, maybe more so due to the emotional involvement and immersion that some games demand.

However the biggest concern highlighted by teenagers themselves in our research was that of timewasting. Games took them away from things like work, exercise and healthy social interaction. Other issues mentioned include addiction to games as well as the modelling of poor behaviour including violent behaviour for certain at risk teens.

More rigorous research, undertaken by others more qualified than I, confirms that our teens are right in their thinking and that excessive gaming can lead to some serious issues. It really depends though on what is being played, how much time is spent gaming and who is doing the playing. In accordance with common sense it also appears that teenagers without strong family connections are at far greater risk than those with connected families.

These are issues that are not going away anytime soon. According to Kain, industry retail sales in the US continue to climb, up one percent in 2014 from 2013, so what are the recommendations? Here are a few taken from some of the literature available on this issue:

● Bond and connect with your child. They are only likely to really develop an unhealthy attachment to games if connection to family is lacking.

● A rule of thumb is that more time should be spent in ‘real time’ activities than virtual activity.

● Have rules. Research in the USA has shown that having and enforcing rules cuts down screen time by has much as two hours a day.

● Keep bedrooms screen free.

● Within reason stick to the age ratings given for each game.

● Use games as a critical environment by discussing and questioning what is happening. This engages the cerebral cortex of the brain and helps children think analyticaland intelligently about what they see.

● Schools can and should teach visual literacy to aid the process above.

● Design cognitive activities which challenge the child to plan, design, and create to ensure that the brain develops appropriately in this media saturated age.

http://www.common sense is an excellent site for guidance in many of the area mentioned above.

So in summary, be connected with your sons, know what games they are playing and talk with them about it. Set boundaries around the games they play and how much time they are allowed to play them. By way of closing I enjoy this quote pertaining to screen time, “No one thinks everyone should turn off the TV all the time. We all value computers. Video games are not evil. The studies don’t ask us to overreact. They ask us to pay closer attention.” Dr Barbara Brock.

Putting out fires

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 alarm, which typically sounds like a World War 2 air raid siren, did not work properly. It is usually guaranteed to send you running for cover while scanning for enemy aircraft overhead, but in this instance was barely audible, particularly if you happened to be teaching 9E at the time.

Once the alarm was finally raised, the school duly made its way onto the front lawn for the register to be taken. Once there they were treated to a number of spectacles. The first was one of the ‘bodies’ on the school roof who had to be wrapped in material, presumably to treat some fictitious burns, being winched to the ground. The other was the sight of the Head Master, who had for some reason been nominated to put out the fires, perhaps because this is something he does a lot of, attempting to manhandle a fire extinguisher that seemed to be suffering from performance anxiety. Both of these acts took considerably longer than I suspect they were supposed to. To be fair it did not help that the ‘body’ on the roof was clearly alive and well and somewhat terrified of being lowered over the edge of a building while rendered immobile in plastic wrapping and strapped onto a stretcher. In defence of the Head too he did miss last year’s Safety Training course and it turns out that his extinguisher was almost empty. Nevertheless these events served the unintended purpose of keeping the growing crowd fully entertained and manageable until all were accounted for and the drill was complete.

The problem of course was that not everybody was accounted for. In fact a whole class was missing. One teacher, bless him, had decided that the whole exercise was at an inconvenient time and simply carried on teaching regardless. Once this group was found it was then discovered a second teacher was missing. Fearing he had succumbed to the imaginary flames the authorities searched for him for some time before discovering him at home with his feet up where the only heat he was experiencing was of that emanating from the cup of tea he was enjoying, oblivious to the chaos he had left behind. It turns out the fire drill conveniently preceded a couple of free periods, so he had simply sent his class off and walked home to enjoy an extended break.

While all of this was going on one of the designated fire marshals whose task it was to check that the boarding houses were empty, radioed for help, trapped inside a building. Not sure if this was part of the simulation or not, the authorities responded with reassuring alacrity. It turned out that the marshal had indeed been imprisoned as a door had closed shut behind her and she lacked the necessary finger print access to make an exit.

Meanwhile someone had neglected to tell the surrounding community that a drill was being held. This might not seem like much but in a rural area predominantly consisting of forestry and farm land and at the end of a long hot dry spell, the risk of wildfires is a real one. The very thought of fire is enough to get the local farmers sweating and so when seven emergency vehicles roared into the local vicinity with blue lights blazing, phones started ringing. Tempers, if not flames, flared and the Head Master had to get involved in some more firefighting.

When all is said and done it seems we are going to be awarded our certificate. This is a pity, I was rather looking forward to having to do the whole thing again.

Christmas in school

At the end of November yuletide dinners are eaten in school and carol services sung (yes, in Autumn) and students head home for the festive holidays.

I work for a boarding school in the KwaZulu-Natal countryside of South Africa. Having left England for a gap year in Zimbabwe more than 20 years ago I am often surprised to find myself still in southern Africa. Moving south 10 years ago it was wonderful for our family to be integrated into the community that a boarding school provides; although work is pretty full on for the 60 or so full-time staff members who teach and live on campus, there is a lot of support, professionally and socially.

Working where you live has demands; in some staff houses you can hear the school bells ringing from around 6.30am through till 10pm and holidays are a much-needed break. During the term evenings and weekends involve hostel and sports duties – even on Sunday all staff are expected to attend one of the two chapel services on offer.

Although staff and their families draw a lot of support from each other, working and living in such close proximity can have its downsides. Your opponent in a common room spat may well be your neighbour, and the person whose dog keeps coming into your garden could be doing your end of year review.

When pupils left this Christmas, some staff went to assist with national exam marking. For me, the only thing I will be marking for the next 49 days is time. Playing garden cricket with my three boys, making and eating copious amounts of mince pies, reading on my veranda and perhaps getting away for a week or so at the beach.

It takes a while for the staff to realise that the campus is now our own: the empty fields, gym, tennis and squash courts lie waiting for us to regain the energy sapped from us this year. Like church mice we slowly venture out once the congregation has turned out the lights and left the building.

For the last 40 or so weeks teachers have avoided the outdoor swimming pool, either due to the cold or more usually for fear of unveiling their bodies with more than 500 teenagers in the vicinity. Now staff and families will be found at the pool: reading, sunbathing, playing pool cricket or even swimming. Occasionally a braai (Afrikaans for barbecue) drum will be found and an impromptu pool party will ensue.

The central part of the school holidays are the two Christmas services in our school chapel. The first is a nativity service on Christmas Eve. The service is supposed to start at the school gates and proceed to the chapel while singing carols. But in all the time I have been at the school this has only happened once. Usually the summer thunderstorms bring down enough rain to make the walk to the chapel from the car park look like a scene from the movie “Noah”.

On Christmas day we start early with the opening of stockings before the only bells we will hear all holiday peel out from the chapel just before 8am. Most staff that are not away visiting family or elsewhere on holiday come to the service, as well as locals and guests staying in the area. After church we retreat home to open presents with coffee and mince pies. Following which we join with one or two other staff families on campus to eat a fairly traditional English-style Christmas lunch, followed perhaps by an afternoon game of garden cricket, thunder clouds permitting.

Christmas always presents the dilemma of missing family. I would go and see my family in the UK but do not want to be away from my wife and children in South Africa. Air tickets are too expensive at this time of year to take the whole family over. Christmas day itself is so busy that I don’t have a chance to miss the English style festivities and family, but on Boxing Day I find myself more reflective.

This is when I will talk with my parents, brother and sister in the south of England and slip into a nostalgic or melancholic frame of mind. I can usually rouse myself from this by watching the Boxing Day test match on TV or one of the English Premier League games, hopefully Tottenham Hotspur, which can be viewed here.

It won’t be long before the fields are full again and the pool becomes a no-go area for all but the bravest teachers. When the bells once again resume their unforgiving schedule the Christmas break will seem like a distant memory.