A duty of care? Schools must prioritise wellbeing over reputation

The second season of My Only Story prompted Theuns Opperman to reflect on the environment within elite South African boarding schools, and the toxic behaviour it can breed. Theuns contends that the temptation schools face to protect their image comes at a cost to the students themselves. Below is extract from his article, reproduced and edited with permission.

‘Back to School’, a news24 podcast, details the events at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, that led to the suicide of one of its Grade 10 pupils, Thomas Kruger. Along the way it uncovered signs of predatory, grooming behaviour by one of its staff members, David Mackenzie. As I listened to Deon Wiggett’s troubling narration, my instinct was to point a mental finger at the very idea of boarding schools, and monastic boys’ boarding schools in particular. Especially in the case of the elite “good” boarding schools and their culture of covering up anything that might reflect poorly on them.  

While the context of the podcast is around specific circumstances of abuse and grooming, my broader focus is on the underlying systemic and cultural failure of these schools, which contribute to an environment that enables such incidents. While there are excellent teachers who take duty of care to their students seriously, as entities these schools exist primarily to perpetuate their own myth. This is turn creates the space for unhealthy behaviours to go either unnoticed or unchecked.

Military style discipline 

Boarding schools have always been places where a military-style discipline structure is imposed. This structure is enforced to a large part by the students themselves. Expecting immature teenagers to practice self-control when offered – tacitly or overtly – almost unchecked power is asking for trouble. Yet, the entire hierarchical system is built on this premise. For generations boys who have attended boarding schools have lived through this process of institutionalised violence. Yet, even fathers who had a hard time themselves keep on sending their sons back for more.

While there are excellent teachers who take duty of care to their students seriously, as entities these schools exist primarily to perpetuate their own myth.

My theory is that – because of our romanticisation of the suffering – we look past the real harm. We justify the bullying and dehumanisation as part of a process of growing up and “becoming a man”. We convince ourselves that, even if our time was punishing, surely by now things must be better.

4 types of boarders

Within this Prussian like world there are different layers of boarding experience for students who tend to fall into one of four categories.

  1. Hot-Shots

“Hot-shots” as JD Salinger calls them, excel at almost everything, particularly sport. These are the poster boys for the boarding establishment. Everyone is measured against them. These lucky few are the ones who maintain the dream of what ‘The School’ represents. Most (but not all) of them actually do have a wonderful time. When they themselves end up as teachers or Heads of these schools, they sincerely believe in the marketing and the myth of ‘The School’. They are not bad people, but they often have a real blind spot for the alternative experiences’ others had in the same space.

2. Contributors

Secondly, there are those who do not necessarily excel at the recognised sports, but they have created a niche of excellence for themselves in something. If they don’t rock the boat and their excellence in their field is appreciated, they can go through the system without too much hassle.

3. Foot Soldiers

These are normal, average students who want to be part of the bigger whole, accept the way things are as “part of life”, put their heads down and try to get on with it. Their hyper-vigilance and the constant low-level anxiety that accompanies it, is the price they pay to manage each day and to deal with occasional incidents of real conflict. They buy into the “this is how things are supposed to be” narrative. This is also the group that does most of the romanticisation after leaving.

4. Outcasts

The ones who either cannot or will not fit in. They are perceived as weak and targeted for exclusion at best, elimination at worst. This is done physically and emotionally by the boys, and structurally by ‘The School’.

Until we are intentional about breaking the cycle of violence in our boarding establishments, we are lying to ourselves and our parents.

Selling a fantasy

And it is into this structure, characters like Mackenzie insinuate themselves to create off-shoots of hierarchy that provides a home to boys who might not feel they have found their real home in ‘The School’. They have always done this. What might be making it worse now?

Perhaps part of the reason is that the good teachers and Housemasters (and they are the majority) simply have less and less time to engage sufficiently with all the students. It is crucial that we train all staff to recognise predatory and grooming behaviour, but also that we ensure they have the bandwidth to do so.

Until we (including Boards, Headmasters and Old Boys) are intentional about truly putting every student first we are selling a fake idea of school. Until we are intentional about meeting the needs of children today, not the mythological child of 1950 (or even 1850), we are selling a fantasy. And until we are intentional about breaking the cycle of violence in our boarding establishments, we are lying to ourselves and our parents.

This intentionality does not mean expelling the odd boy for going too far in the system that we helped put in place. This means re-examining everything we think we know about discipline, school structures, hierarchy. Everything.

Theuns Opperman’s article raises some challenging questions. Please share what you think by completing the poll below.

Theuns Opperman is a head of a school. The orginal full length version of this article can be found on his blog, Theuns’s Homeroom. News24 also carried a version of it as an opinion piece, under the heading David Mackenzie saga – The importance of duty of care to our pupils’

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