Boarding school changes

At the end of last year, David Zuma, one of our support staff, retired after 46 years of work in our school. He started when he was 15 years of age and recalls how he used to get up at 2am to ensure that the old coal stove fires were lit in the school kitchens in time for breakfast, which would unfailingly and solely consist of porridge.

David Zuma retires after 46 years of service

I could not help reflect that David will have seen and experienced many changes during his time working in a boarding school for nearly half a century. I think for me though, the pace of change has accelerated particularly in the last 20 years or so. When I arrived in Africa in 1994 I had not sent an e-mail or made a call on a mobile phone.

It is hard to imagine life today without mobile phones or e-mails although some of our older staff make a good effort to do just that. There is the story (possibly apocryphal) of one recently retired teacher who, when persuaded to get on board the technological train and finally open his e-mail application, found he had over 10,000 unopened messages to sift through. It may well be no coincidence that his retirement came so shortly after this event.

For the students, e-mail is the least preferred method of communication. Why go to the bother when you can (in rough chronological order) SMS, Facebook, BBM, WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat all from the convenience of your own mobile phone. Owning and using a phone 24/7 is natural to teenagers, almost like an external hard drive for the brain. Try confiscating one at school and the reaction is as if the right to a phone is enshrined in the universal declaration of teenage rights. To deprive an adolescent of data is like restricting their oxygen supply.

These changes have had a huge impact on boarding. Several of our teachers who have been working in our school for over 20 years remember that students used to have to obtain a permission slip to call home, which allowed them to join the weekly queue for the payphone. They did not have long once they were there, nor could they talk freely. Telling Mum how you miss her hugs and hate your dorm mates is difficult to do when there is an impatient, and clearly unsympathetic, line behind you.

Today of course, communication is available constantly and instantly. Ten years ago a colleague of mine had an altercation in his classroom with a pupil. As the lesson neared the end he realised that it was the sort of issue that might end up on the headmaster’s desk and so decided to inform the head as soon as possible. Immediately the bell rang he made his way across the quadrangle to do just that.. Before he even got halfway across he was hailed by the head’s secretary to be informed that a parent had made a complaint about him. It transpired that the student while still in class had texted his father who in turn had contacted the head all before the end of the period.

This freely available contact with home has led to increased accountability for boarding schools and higher expectations on the staff who work in them. Many colleagues speak of how much more staff are involved in the lives of their charges now, with a much greater awareness of the need for pastoral care than 20 years ago. This accountability has without doubt been good and much needed. Boarding schools are much kinder and caring places than they used to be. However it has come with a cost for the teachers that work in them. Like the frog that got boiled alive without noticing due to the slowly but steadily heating water, staff from a wide array of boarding schools talk of how the incrementally increased pressure and expectations have built up to a point where the demands of the job take their toll both physically and mentally.

‘Free Bounds’ from the London Illustrated News July 5th 1958

The one day of the week where there is usually the chance for some downtime is Sunday. In the school where I work students used to be encouraged (forced) to leave the vicinity of the school from the hours of 10am until 4pm to roam the nearby countryside, by all accounts every boy had a bicycle at school for this express purpose. One can only imagine what actually happened during this time. Today though, it is an effort to get the students to leave their dorms let alone the premises. Cyber space rather than outdoor space seems to be the environment of choice. With the rise of technology this has led to the phenomenon of what, in our school at least, is called ‘moleing’. This involves burying under ones duvet, preferably on an overcast day, to consume an entire series or as close as possible, on a lap top. ‘Suits’, ‘Vampire Diaries’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ are just a small sample of the almost endless supply of available fare.

To help occupy free time the school still does run clubs and societies, but these are on a much reduced scale to what they were. The Venture Club used to have a waiting list of eager boys keen to explore the South African bushveld. Nowadays however it struggles to get enough participants to make outings viable. The Natural History and Board Games Society no longer even exist. There was even a Gun Club; I still have the tie that its members used to wear. Today though the closest we get to a gun club is the ‘first person shooter games’ the students play. ‘Gaming’ is now a verb and a preferred leisure activity.  ‘FIFA’ and the ‘Call of Duty series are the most popular but there are plenty more.

As a boys only school, after a full morning of class followed by an afternoon of sport there is overwhelming temptation to succumb to some time out ‘gaming’ in the evenings between (hopefully) prep sessions.  Imagine multiplayer on-line games in a school setting where over 500 people roughly your age are all on the same network, the possibilities are almost infinite. Such is the enthusiasm that these games invoke that for one popular game about ten years ago; the students designed and programmed the entire school building into the game as a backdrop option for battles.  More recently the boys adapted FIFA 15 so that it included the entire school Under 16A soccer team, complete with pictures, player profiles and ratings. I can’t imagine this happening even two decades ago. Both of these initiatives require creativity, ingenuity skill and no small amount of effort. Whoever said boys don’t like to work?

Cyber space, rather than outdoor space, seems to be the environment of choice

Of course it would be wrong to conclude without mentioning that old staple of boarding school conversation, food. I think David would be the first to say that what is available today is unrecognisable to the fairly stolid offerings of a few decades ago. Each day a menu is published, vegetarian and other options are provided, along with extra cold meats, salads and fruits that are made available. Of course this does not stop the students complaining, sometime vehemently, about the food. Perhaps that is one thing about boarding school life that will never change.


  1. Loved this post! Having had two boys at MHS, there was a difference in their activities from when Riry first started, to when Ross left!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tim,

    I can absolutely relate. As a student who started at said high-school in 1998, there was absolutely no connection to the outside world besides the access a pink phone slip allowed or the daily Natal Witness. Cellphones began to appear about 1999/2000.

    As a professional working in the IT consultancy space, there is a love/hate relationship with technology, more specifically the ease of connectivity in the ‘always on’ environment. One is always connected whether to peers, friends, family or employers.

    I for one am opposed to it, but somehow cannot live without being connected to everything all the time. I would be interested in your views as to how you think this will affect these young guys growing up. I can see (as can we all I am sure) how it has made its mark on society (and not always in a positive sense).

    My group of friends and family have begun deliberately getting out and about – away to disconnect. I wonder if the youth of today will not be able to see the necessity of this?

    I read an article recently which stated that we will all have drones constantly by our sides performing tasks within 10 years.

    Can you imagine?


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Richard,

      Yes it certainly will have had an impact on how young people grow up and think. I don’t think young people distinguish between the real and on-line world. Having grown up with access to technology from an early age it has always been part of their lives and so is very much integrated into their world.

      It is what it is, with both positive and negative ramifications. It can be hard for teenagers to navigate the social pressures of constant media which in turn can cause increased stress and anxiety. Living your social life on-line where what you say and do can be captured permanently and circulated quickly, can create a real tension.

      As with all of us, those with a healthy self image, supportive families and good friendships will tend to avoid the excesses that technology introduces and gain most from the benefits it can bring.


  3. Hi Tim,
    I’m almost sure I remember David, and wish him well in his retirement. We are probably of similar vintage. I certainly remember the porridge and the dried jam sandwiches in a brown paper bag we took on Sundays for “free bounds.” Not even the fish we tried to lure would touch this bread, so there must have been abundantly better offerings in their streams.
    Friends and old boys with sons at the school have kept me up to date with the changes that have taken place over the last 40 odd years, certainly for the better. I was glad to hear that cold morning showers are no longer compulsory, while in our day we were relieved to see the demise of the cold freezing plunge pool.
    It is gratifying to note that the singular thread of appreciation at being privileged to have had an eye-opening education has lasted through all the changes at the school and boys today appreciate this as much if not more than they did 50 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hamba kahle David, we were both considerably younger when we had dealings in the kitchen, negotiating the somewhat eccentric demands of Numbers Norberg!

    I was at Balgowan during some of the first of the big changes mentioned, hot showers in all of the houses, cubicles in the dormitories, payphones instead of the manually operated exchange and permission slip era. Incremental change and welcome for the most part. Although the first two computers, Apples 11e’s no less, were delivered during my A Block year, I had no further dealings with a computer until after I had completed articles, ten years or so later. Hard to imagine in today’s connected world, however touching on what you spoke of, it certainly does offer different challenges to teachers, students and parents. I recall more than one schoolboy incident that caused rage, fear and loathing in varying degrees, however because mum and dad weren’t milliseconds away online, the “mountains” tended to achieve their proper proportion by the time I next spoke to the folks and didn’t require any intervention.

    Looking back on it, I am pleased I experienced Michaelhouse when I did; remembering a decidedly un-athletic 13 year old being dragged out to play touch rugby for the first time, climbing ropes in the gym, another first. Whilst the athleticism is still lacking, sport of various kinds plays an important part in my life and I had a feeling of deja vu only this past weekend, cooking on the same little blue Camping Gaz stove that accompanied me on Venture Club outings and countless freebounds adventures. I wonder whether today’s boys will look back on their online adventures in quite the same way?

    Regrets? Yes a few, but the only one that matters is that I fell one outing short of gaining my Venture Club tie. Thanks for the blog and the memories.


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