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Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 14 November 1999
Elite school dumps its prefects
Once prefects at Hilton College 'almost ran the school' and could use the cane freely. CARMEL RICKARD reports on the end of a tradition
HERESY is in the air at Hilton College. Old traditions have been revisited and found wanting, and that most holy and ancient college institution, the prefect system, is to be dropped from next year.
Yet the portraits of the guardians of tradition still hang secure on the boardroom walls of the KwaZulu-Natal school, starting with the first chairman of the college board of governors, Ernest Acutt, in mayoral gown and chains.
Around the boardroom table under Acutt's gaze, senior boys meeting the Sunday Times now say the previously unspeakable: that the prefect system had serious flaws and they are glad to see it go.
From January, the school will start a scheme of development and leadership training for the entire matric class. All the boys will be encouraged to make a realistic assessment of their skills and talents, and be challenged to extend themselves.
They will take part fully in many aspects of management and decision-making, gaining first-hand experience of the running of the large institution Hilton College has become.
This, says headmaster Mike Nicholson, is the way to prepare boys for the reality of the working world, where the prefect style of top-down leadership has long gone.
The changes mirror a trend in the British public schools on which Hilton was modelled. Several boys who have spent terms as exchange students at top schools such as Harrow and Gordonstoun say the new Hilton system is similar to those already in place there.
This year's matric class, the last to include prefects, and boys who will be in next year's class, agree that the new system will bring benefits.
"The old way had its good points, but just a small group benefited from it as a leadership experience," said Frederick Volbrecht, a prefect who will stay on to do post-matric and will become the first head boy under the new system.
Guy Bower is more cautious: "I am the fourth generation of my family here. I have been a prefect, like the rest of my family who were at Hilton. My dad thinks it is a good idea and so do I, but I'm not sure that they didn't make these changes too quickly."
When next year's matrics first heard of the new system, there was an uproar. But after being told details of the plan, they became strong backers.
Said Reggie Mlangeni: "It will give everyone a chance to contribute to the school in whatever way they are good at."
James Rycroft likes the fact that it will help prepare the matrics for "real life". Even more than that, the new system "takes away the division between prefects and those who didn't make it".
This is a concern expressed by everyone from Nicholson, through the staff, to the boys. They have seen the damage done to a previously united class when the boys reach matric and only 40 of the 100 pupils are chosen as prefects. The friction between those who got the nod and those who perceived themselves as having been rejected sometimes caused lasting problems.
In some cases non-selection did serious damage to a boy's self-esteem, and friendships often suffered when one boy was chosen and the other not.
"It's a confidence barrier," said Wayne Clarke. "We've all seen matrics who don't get selected just throw in the towel."
In a school with such a strong sense of tradition there's little wonder the boys at first put up strong resistance. The prefect system is almost as old as the school itself.
The founding headmaster, William Orde Newnham, named the first prefects in 1873. They included that same Ernest Acutt, later chairman of the board of governors from 1903 to 1905, who continues to watch over meetings in the boardroom from the portrait gallery.
Newnham's first address to his band of six began, "To you, gentlemen prefects, I would say a few words. Stamp out with ruthless heel swearing, drinking, filthy conversations and bullying; but in small matters there are many things which you may overlook. I would not have your happy school life spoilt by making policemen of you."
Five years later the next headmaster, Henry Vaughan Ellis, firmly stamped 19th-century English public school style on Hilton College. His 1878 "School Constitution" laid down that there would be "one Praepositor" (prefect) for every 10 boys. Their duties included punishing "loiterers".
Prefects now had a clearly defined "policeman" role and had to punish all minor offences with "impositions" not to exceed 100 lines of Greek, 200 lines of Latin or 300 lines of English.
Faced with "deliberate disobedience to their authority" they were to administer corporal punishment "not to exceed eight stripes with a light cane or wattle switch".
The prefects' powerful role continued through the decades, as one old boy, Timothy Addison, remembers from the mid'60s: "The prefects, it seemed to us, almost ran the school, for it was seldom that we came in real contact with the masters, except in the classrooms."
This relieved the masters of direct administration and, because the title "prefect" was "far more than a mere badge of office", the system ensured that the "traditions of the school were preserved", he said.
Is this why the prefect system continues?
Most schools would prefer to say the system identifies leaders, lets them practise leadership through responsibility for discipline and then take these skills with them into adult life.
But the reality is often different. Nicholson says he believes there is little correlation between appointment as a prefect and achievement of leadership and excellence thereafter.
Take as one illustration of his view the case of three prominent judges - Judge Arthur Chaskalson, president of the Constitutional Court; the late Judge John Didcott, veteran defender of human rights; and Judge Andrew Wilson, deputy head of the truth commission's amnesty committee. All are Hilton College old boys. Not one was a prefect.
Nicholson seems almost surprised at how old boys and parents have backed the new scheme. One father, chief executive of a leading company, was so impressed that he offered to come and tell the boys why it would stand them in good stead.
The boys report the same attitude: "My brothers were prefects, but they are strongly in favour," says Don Truter.
Next year's matrics are excited at being the guinea pigs. They say tradition is important, but so is proper preparation for the real world.
However, it's not all easy. There's the challenge of uncertainty, and they must come to terms with the realisation that they will never be prefects - in an education system which still values the institution highly.
And despite their support for the scheme, they are finding this a particularly difficult time of year. "Guys at other schools say, I'm a prefect. What about you?", says Russel Symcox. "It's hard to know what to reply."
Daily Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, 23 November 1999
Corporal punishment battle rages on
An assault conviction against a school worker has delivered a blow to attempts by a Christian fundamentalist group to overturn the ban on corporal punishment.
By Gavin Foster
THE fight by Christian Education South Africa (Cesa), a fundamentalist Christian schooling group, to reverse the ban on beating schoolchildren suffered a setback on Monday when a Durban school worker was convicted of common assault.
After convicting Valerie Ryan (48), magistrate SJ Mayeza discharged her with a caution, saying Ryan believed her actions were legal, and she probably wouldn't do it again.
But the trial was not really about Ryan. It was about Cesa and what its members feel is an infringement of their constitutional right to freedom of religious belief. Cesa maintains that its members' right to administer corporal punishment, which it calls "biblical correction", is clearly spelt out in the Bible. Proverbs 23 verses 13 to 14 instructs believers to "withhold not correction from the child, for if thou shall beat him with the rod he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell."
When corporal punishment was outlawed in schools on January 1 1997, Cesa, which represents 209 schools, applied to the Constitutional Court. Judge Pius Langa rejected the application. "If they [teachers] choose to take the risk of beating children knowing full well that the provision's constitutionality is under challenge then there should be no complaint if appropriate consequences follow their deliberate conduct," he said.
Ryan's conviction arose from an incident at Pinetown's Highway Christian Academy in March when a 13-year-old grade eight girl was given two strokes on the buttocks.
After corporal punishment was outlawed, Cesa schools asked parents to sign a document authorising staff to administer corporal punishment whenever it was deemed necessary. The parents of the girl beaten by Ryan claimed that although they had signed the document, they had told the school principal, Chris Barnard, that if their daughter was to be beaten they should be advised in advance.
Barnard was away when the pupil was caned. Although Ryan has a standard seven education and is employed as a monitor (unqualified teaching assistant) it was felt her experience as a mother and grandmother qualified her to carry out the punishment.
The "corporal correction report" that the child took home afterwards recorded that her response to correction had been "screaming, shouting, trying to run from the room". When the parents read the report and saw their child's heavily bruised buttocks, they laid a charge of assault against Ryan.
The prosecution, after reviewing the circumstances surrounding the charges, declined to prosecute, believing that the indemnity signed by the parents made the beating legal. It was only when the Human Rights Commission intervened a few months later and pointed out that no person may sign away the rights of a child that the docket was reopened and justice took its course.
Cesa and Highway Christian Academy declined to comment on Ryan's conviction. Ryan's lawyer has been instructed to appeal.
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