Lessons from Livingstone High

Andrew Kenny on how one school transcended the iniquities of apartheid

What is the single most important thing needed to improve the dire state of public education in South Africa today? In June this year I saw its embodiment. I watched a frail, 88 year old lady rising slowly to a stage. This was at a graduation ceremony at the University of Cape Town, where Stella Virginia Petersen, in a wheelchair, was receiving a Doctorate in Education. With teachers like her, even the poorest of South African schools would be producing students of the highest standard, especially in the sciences, which were the study of her life.

I first met Mrs Petersen in 1971. I had graduated from UCT with an honours degree in physics and decided to try teaching. I was accepted at Livingstone High School, which then fell under the infamous "Coloured Affairs Department". The school was at the lower end of Claremont in Cape Town. I was there for the whole of 1971 and the first term of 1972, teaching maths and science to Standard 7 and 8 (Grades 9 and 10). Mrs Petersen was the senior biology teacher.

The madness of apartheid confronted me immediately. As I walked into the classrooms, I couldn't help noticing that a third of the "coloured" children were lighter than me. I am swarthy with brown eyes and black hair (well, it was black then); many of the children had blue eyes, light skin and fair hair. My fellow teacher for these classes was a coloured woman called Marcia. She was my age, had the same qualifications as me, had began teaching a year before me, taught the same subjects to the same classes and was undoubtedly a better teacher. I was paid R240 a month and she was paid R160 because I was "white" and she was "coloured".

Livingstone drew children from a variety of backgrounds, some the worst imaginable. The Cape Flats includes some of the baddest badlands on Earth. During these years one of the tricks of the criminal gangs was deliberate crippling: in a crowded train on a Friday evening, the gangsters would press against a man who had his week's pay in his pocket; one would push a sharpened bicycle spoke into the back of his neck, ram it through into his spinal column, shake it around and remove it; the gang would take his money and walk away; he would fall down, paralysed from the neck down for the rest of his life.

The school building was sparse and the grounds tiny. Compared with the school I went to (Fish Hoek) or the school in England I taught at afterwards (Caludon Castle Comprehensive in Coventry), the facilities were very poor and crowded; sometimes classes had to be conducted in the cloakrooms. The money spent per pupil was low.

The teachers were under constant surveillance and harassment from the apartheid authorities. They were all highly politically conscious, most of them were Marxists of one persuasion or another, and many of them were politically active. They were bullied and banned by the security forces; some were denied promotion; all were constantly humiliated.

In this setting of poverty, deprivation and repression, I saw the best teaching I have ever seen in my life. The reason was simple. The teachers were all completely dedicated. They were all disciplined, hard-working and devoted to the well being of their pupils. Some, including Mrs Petersen, went beyond this into the realm of heroism. Despite the fact that they were all highly committed politically, and indeed some of them were revolutionary, it would not have occurred to any of them to skip one second of teaching time for political activities. The thought would have horrified them. Teaching always came first. Then the phrase "time in class" had not been invented: there was no need of it for them; they knew nothing else.

Another thing that struck me was that, despite the revolutionary rhetoric, all of them believed in old fashioned teaching methods. There was no messing about with fads like "Outcomes Based Education" or the wretched trendy nonsense I saw afterwards in England. They believed in discipline and enforced it, with the cane if necessary. They loved their pupils but beat them if they didn't do their homework. They taught the basics first, writing, reading and arithmetic, not hesitating to use rote learning, and when the pupils were solidly grounded in these, they would move on to more advanced studies. It is my profound belief that there is no better programme of education.

The most celebrated teacher there was the legendary R O Dudley. I was in awe of him although he was the warmest and most helpful of men. He was the head of physical science and Deputy Principal; everybody knew he should have been Principal but, because of his political activities, the authorities would not allow it. He was born in 1924 in a house in Palmboom Road in Newlands, which his great-grandfather had bought in 1852. They were kicked out of it when the apartheid government declared it a white area.

In 1940, at the age of 15, he went to UCT, where he studied maths, physics and chemistry, won the class medal for physics as an under-graduate, and then took an M Sc. He began teaching at Livingstone at the age of 20 and continued to do so for the next 39 years.

Dudley was a Trotskyite. Among the activities of his long political life, he was President of the New Unity Movement. He was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. But, with all these revolutionary credentials, he often seemed to me nothing other than a classic liberal and his views on society and teaching were practical and rational.

He hated waffly theorising and strongly recommended to me a book called "Man Must Measure". He was horrified at the slogan "Liberation before Education" and told his pupils, "I don't want you to be in the vineyard picking grapes". He was rigorously non-racial (as were all of the teachers). In a famous meeting with Nelson Mandela in 1994, when Mandela asked him to help the ANC gain the "coloured" vote, he turned on Mandela and said he was not a "coloured person", not a "coloured leader" and that he had fought his whole life against these racial classifications. (Mandela took it well).

Another legend, of a rather different type, was G L Abrahams. He reminded me of a professional wrestler with spectacles and a tie. He was the head of maths. His pupils, often very deprived pupils from broken homes and violent slums, regarded maths as the most difficult subject. He solved this problem with a simple strategy: terror. It worked like a charm. He combined dedication with menace. His pupils were in dread of him. He accepted no excuse whatsoever for homework not done or tests badly failed. He used the cane. Livingstone had among the country's best results for matric maths under him. Many an ex-pupil, with a bruised backside and a first class pass in maths, would look back on him with grudging gratitude.

Mrs Petersen was selfless, inspired and remorselessly hard-working. She became in the 1940s the first "black" woman (or "woman of colour" if you want a really excruciating phrase) to gain an M Sc in Botany at UCT. Apparently the white students would not sit next to her. She then took a Masters degree in Education in the USA. She taught at Livingstone for 38 years. She was not a tyrant like G L Abrahams (who was jolly and humorous out of the classroom) but carried an air of steely authority, so none of the pupils tried it on with her. She brought honour, interest, scholarship and variety to her teaching, and instilled in her pupils the wonder of science. Her ex-students came back to enrich Livingstone when they had finished their further studies. She also became an expert on the fynbos.

I left South Africa in June 1972 and in August started teaching at a Comprehensive School for boys in Coventry, England. The contrast with Livingstone could not have been greater. Caludon Castle was a purpose built new comprehensive school with enormous grounds, gleaming new buildings, well equipped laboratories, and every shiny new facility you could think of. Huge amounts of money had been spent on it. Everything about it was wonderful except for the education, which was appalling. The education at Livingstone was incomparably better.

Comprehensive schools were an educational disaster dreamt up by British socialists and implemented by the Labour Party Government. The idea was that all children, regardless of class, background or ability should mix together in egalitarian bliss. Naturally, however, the Labour Party ministers did not send their own children to comprehensive schools ("You see, little Nigel is a sensitive boy and ... ").

Nor did anybody else who could afford not to. Compounding the disaster were the absurd educational fads of "child centred education", which meant that children should, through their innate niceness and creative instincts, somehow absorb knowledge from the ether rather than having teachers teach it to them.

The school went from Form 1 (Grade 7) to Form 6 (Grade 12), with 300 boys in each form. The catchment area was well off working class. In Form 1, many of the 12 year old boys could not write and none of them could do the arithmetic that we could at Fish Hoek when we were 8. In the final year, less than 20% of the boys took any school leaving exam at all. Over 80% left without any qualifications - which didn't bother them since they moved straight on to well paying, unskilled jobs on the production lines of the local motorcar factories. (This has ended now).

The mood of the school was sullen and dispiriting. The boys did not want to be there, nor did most of the teachers, who merely went through the motions of teaching. With a few exceptions there was none of the enthusiasm, none of the love of scholarship, none of the excitement of new knowledge that I found at Livingstone. It was a miserable place.

Where Livingstone had revolutionary teachers and old fashioned teaching, Caludon Castle had conservative teachers and revolutionary teaching - which was calamitous. I taught maths, and was forced to abandon the good, practical methods that Marcia had shown me at Livingstone and adopt a lot of moonshine which included cutting figures out of paper and learning set theory instead of arithmetic.

To show that we were in tune with the computer age, we had to teach the poor boys binary numbers. In a staff meeting, I complained that to be able to convert decimal numbers to binary numbers, you have to be able to divide by two, and none of the boys had been taught how to divide by two. I was laughed off as reactionary from South Africa.

Looking back, 40 years later, the lessons to me are crystal clear. Public education in South Africa is a mess and so is it in much of England. Good education does not depend on money. A fortune was spent on comprehensive schools in England; a fortune is being spent on state education in South Africa; very little was spent on Livingstone High School, and the education there was incomparably better. Stupid educational fashions like "Child Centred Education" and "Outcomes Based Education" are entirely destructive. What we need is straight-forward teaching methods as in olden days, where the basics are firmly established and every child can read, write and do arithmetic, and dedicated teachers.

How do we get dedicated teachers? I don't know. But I do have a suggestion that I believe would improve our education. I suggest that it should be legally compulsory for all teachers, all principals, all education ministers, all teaching trade union leaders and all people proposing educational policy to state in public where they send their own children to school.


1. Stella Petersen graduated with her doctorate on 10 Jun 2011. Some of the information in the article is from the citation.

2. Cripplings. I met a physio and a doctor had dealt with these victims. The physio said she saw three groups of quadreplygics: motor car accidents victims; rugby players; and victims of gang crippling. The gangs also used it on errant members for discipline reasons.

3. Some details from R O Dudley's life are from his citation for his D Ed Honoris by Francis Wilson.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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