Setting strong standards

2015-08-07 10:47
The strong yearly growth of St Charles College has necessitated some large capital projects, such as the newly completed rugby field, christened ‘Old Orchards’.

The strong yearly growth of St Charles College has necessitated some large capital projects, such as the newly completed rugby field, christened ‘Old Orchards’. (JUSTIN WALDMAN)

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AT 140 years old, St Charles College is the oldest independent school in Pietermaritzburg, and after surviving some difficult times and facing closure on more than one occasion, the all-boys’ school is now going from strength to strength, bravely adopting innovative education techniques and programmes to provide “education for life”.

“When I joined the school 18 years ago, things were so tough that I had to choose between having a light or a fan; I couldn’t have both,” St Charles College principal Allen van Blerk remembered. Since then, however, the college has been growing between eight percent and 13% a year, “necessitating investment in some large capital projects, which, while requiring strict financial management, are exciting developments”.

It was in 2002 that the most significant change was brought to bear on the college, a change that took some 10 years to implement fully. The school’s board felt that South Africa’s education system was too volatile, so decided to look for an alternative that would provide the stability the boys needed and would be of a recognised, world-class international standard. Van Blerk was appointed as the head of the Academic Research and Development team tasked with finding such a system. Two possible educational systems were identified, the International Baccalaureate originating in Switzerland, and the Cambridge A Level system from the United Kingdom. After much research and deliberation, the college settled on the Cambridge system. “As a top-class educational system, we found Cambridge to be much more flexible and more suited to boys’ education,” said Van Blerk.

Cambridge was piloted at the school in 2003, and was made voluntary for the Grade 10 boys who were the first group to write the international exams. After three years, it became compulsory for all Grade 10 boys to write the IGCSE (O levels), followed by the introduction of the AS (equivalent to matric) and A Level examinations, for the Grade 11 and 12 boys, respectively. It was only in 2008 that the school changed completely to the Cambridge system. Up until then, the boys wrote exams for both the IEB and Cambridge syllabuses simultaneously. Among the last group that wrote examinations for both curricula, out of 66 boys, 57 of them obtained degrees. “That’s quite significant,” said Van Blerk. “These boys left school with an IEB matric and a Cambridge matric, so were probably the most educated matriculants in the country at that stage.”

When I asked how St Charles College, or other Cambridge-offering schools, are “allowed” to offer a different curriculum from the South African system, Van Blerk said that education in South Africa is compulsory only until the end of Grade 9, thereafter, we can choose how we finish our schooling. “This is an important freedom, one of many that we have,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of independent education and independent-thinking people to exercise those freedoms and rights. If they aren’t practised, they will be lost.”

During the investigation process, Van Blerk and his committee discovered that the IEB and NSC issued exactly the same certificate. This only confirmed why the college needed an independent system. “We wanted our curriculum to be of an international standard, and we wanted it and the certification to be independent; in South Africa neither of those things is true.” Van Blerk felt that those requirements justified the college’s existence. “It is our responsibility as an independent school to challenge the status quo, to ensure that South Africa doesn’t settle for mediocrity, setting strong standards and examples to follow. Independent education should be challenging state education to raise standards; everybody benefits.”

The St Charles College boys certainly cannot be accused of accepting mediocrity as pupils have been top in the world for maths three times out of the 160 countries that do Cambridge, with one boy coming sixth in the world in English (“which is good for a boy, as girls usually dominate in this area”). In 2014, eight old boys graduated as medical doctors. Last year’s dux of school achieved six As at AS level and came first in maths in the world with 100%. He was the top Cambridge pupil in South Africa at AS Level and top SA pupil in A Levels. He achieved four A stars at A Level which is above 90% and an average of 94,5%. He wasn’t the only pupil who did exceptionally well, behind him came a whole list of boys who excelled in their exams, with 33 boys achieving A symbols in maths.

In Grade 10 last year, at IGCSE level, there were more than 50 distinctions for both maths and science, with one pupil coming first in the world for physical science. At AS Level, one third of the pupils obtained distinctions in maths. Eighty percent of the boys do higher maths, “it’s hard but they are managing it”.

Van Blerk said: “Our intention is not to show other people up here. We want to show that South Africans don’t have to be last on the list. We come so badly last in world education, which is not necessary. Something has to be done and as education is Pietermaritzburg’s main industry, all educational institutions should work towards turning it into a centre of excellence.”

When asked why he thought that the St Charles College boys have consistently achieved so highly, Van Blerk said that it’s a combination of reasons. He said that the impressive Cambridge curriculum attracts intelligent, capable academics who are confident in their subjects and are excited about teaching in the strong academic environment that it creates. Cambridge prepares pupils for tertiary study by being more concept driven than content driven. “Research has shown that the last two years of school should narrow down the fields of study, providing and encouraging a deep analysis of the concepts being taught which aligns prospective students with university thinking. Cambridge does this by reducing the number of topics. Our pupils are being taught concepts that they will use at university and they will never forget them,” Van Blerk said.

South African universities are starting to recognise the value of the Cambridge system, and Stellenbosch, the University of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth offer Cambridge pupils extra points for their AS and A Level results. Other universities, such as Wits and University of Pretoria, use specific guidelines when dealing with Cambridge pupils and look at every single Cambridge application individually. “They know that our pupils excel at university, which is what is drawing the universities to us.”

Why then, I asked, if the Cambridge system adequately prepares its pupils for university, are they still required to write the benchmarking tests that some of the universities now require? “I have no problem with our boys writing these tests, and I actively encourage it. A pupil could have a very bad day on an exam and the benchmarking test is supposed to show inherent ability. It’s an extra precaution to ensure that they really are able to cope at university, and that can only be a good thing,” Van Blerk said. “Cambridge provides a standard that must be met. A pupil will not receive his or her qualification until that standard is met; it’s as simple as that. Cambridge tells the truth in that it gives a clear indication of where strengths lie.”

A major obstacle to offering Cambridge was recently removed. “Up until last year, Cambridge released results late in January after the awarding of places at university had already taken place. That placed enormous pressure on us and we had to forge strong relationships with the universities to get them to take our boys at that late stage. We worked tirelessly to forge these relationships and to work towards getting Cambridge to release the results earlier. I am pleased to say that Cambridge has brought the release date forwards by two months. Our A Level boys write their AS Levels (matric equivalent) in June and then go on to write three or four A Levels in November. This means that the top boys have the advantage of submitting their final results before other pupils writing matric get theirs.”

St Charles is often accused of being too academic for some pupils, which Van Blerk vehemently denies. “That’s nonsense. St Charles and other institutions that offer Cambridge have a completely normal distribution of academic abilities. The rest of the world is managing just fine and so can South African children, whom we shouldn’t sell short. As in the case of all educational institutions, some pupils may need a bit more support and strong teachers, but there’s no reason for every single pupil not to succeed. Cambridge demands hard work and if pupils and teachers are prepared to put in that work they will be rewarded. Other countries would laugh at us if we said it’s too difficult.”

With St Charles College aiming to be the leading independent school for boys in Africa, it seems that there is nothing that this small school for boys cannot do. Added to the mix, the many other excellent educational institutions offered in this province, perhaps KwaZulu-Natal can become the leading province for education in South Africa

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