[Warning to those who went to Private Schools in South Africa (specifically those who went to my old school): You might not like some of what I have to say…]
[Prefix: After writing this, I’m guessing that some people will just dismiss what I’m saying as “some poor guy who has sour grapes”. But doing that would miss the main points: Speak the truth, and speak it honestly – without sounding like a “PR Robot”. Give us a consistent message and, since you have the money, why not try and make it professional and user-friendly. ]
I just recieved a letter from my old school (St. Andrew’s College – Grahamstown, not Bloem)… They’ve been trying to do something with the old boys. I’m not sure what they’re trying to do, but I suspect their primary goal is to obtain money. (Although I suspect they don’t want us to suspect that…)
The first contacts were all about the school’s 150th “birthday” next year, and then came the “please give us money” e-mails (along with a relatively shocking website). Suprisingly, it worked quite well with the school raising about 18million rand in a VERY short space of time. (I haven’t checked for about 6 or 7 months now, so its probably more by now.) Then came the “Jo’burg old boys” e-mails which seem to be sent out by 2 separate people to the same list of recipients. So I get the mails twice each month to remind me about their “Old Andrean Drinks” evening on the 1st Thursday/Friday of every month. (Can you tell I’ve taken to ignoring them – I can’t even remember which day its on anymore…. Anyway, for a school that can raise so much money so quickly, they really need to find someone who can help them use technology.)
Today’s e-mail was from their “Liaison Department” and was… well… rather disturbing. Let me quickly put it in perspective: Once a year St. Andrew’s plays rugby against their “arch enemy” Kingswood College (they’re the only 2 private schools in Grahamstown). Its a “big event” with lots of fanfare and hype. It usually happens around their half-term, so pretty much all the parents of the pupils are there and many old boys come from far to watch it. The event is called “K-day”. (don’t ask why, I don’t know)
Now on to the e-mail… It basically said “click on this link for a message from the headmaster”. The web page was basically a letter (no images). So again I wonder who they’re paying to help them with their “online presence” or their “electronic communications”, coz its not very “user friendly”. Anyway I clicked… and got “chided” by the headmaster.
So the message so far is “Come to our celebration”, “Give us money”, “Come drink with us”, “Behave yourself!”… I wonder what’s next.
Anyway, back to his letter. It was to all old boys and parents telling us that last year there was shocking behaviour at K-Day (with drunk parents and old boys causing scenes, provoking fights, etc) and reminding us that both schools have a christian heritage and suggesting that we should behave accordingly.
I was partly amused and partly annoyed by this. You see, when I was at the school there was very little “christian heritage”. Unless you count being forced to chapel twice a week only to hear un-engaging messages of little relevance to our young lives, while surrounded by peers who have no intention of taking in any of the message. Even for a christian (as I was & am) it was boring, and generally the time could have been spent more productively(spiritually speaking). But at the same time surely if they are so filled with virtue and are so proud of how they turn their pupils into “fine upstanding men”, these very same men should not be behaving so badly? Perhaps all is not quite so well with the education they’re recieving? Perhaps they need to be addressing the culture created by the school on the whole and specifically the culture around this one event. (I’m aware that this is partly what the headmaster was addressing in his letter, but there is no “acceptance of responsibility” for anything the school may have done to allow things to get to where they are)
But then this is a new headmaster, so perhaps he is greatly different to the one that was in charge when I was there. Hoping that this might be the case, I thought I’d read one of his other letters. (I’m assuming the link will change with time… If so, you might have to search for Newsletter number 17 from 28 June 2004)
I quickly found that my hopes for change were not well founded. I must point out that I don’t know the guy, and I’ve neither been to the school, nor taken an active an interest in its goings on pretty much since I left. So I could be forming a totally incorrect opinion of the guy. But his letter was so insincere in its tone, politically scripted in language, and generally made him sound like a P.R. robot. On top of that he just waffles… he never really makes a point. (Or at least not one that is backed by any facts or proof)
Here’s a quote from the letter:
“The thought occurred again when a prospective parent came to see me the other day, sat down in the study, (she was attractive and blonde) [WHAT? Does that have any bearing on the story? Or is he saying that he’s just “not getting any at home”? Or maybe he’s trying to “identify” with the parents? Well, I’d hope its not the last one, or else he’d be making a bit of a stupid mistake – they’re not likely to be bachelors, and hence interested in the latest cute butt to walk into his office!] and asked:
“What has St Andrew’s got to offer?” [Good question!]
I had to pause, smile inwardly, and did not allow myself to list 5 squash courts, two pools, 2 basketball courts, 6 tennis courts, 400 computers, approximately 10 000 metres of fibre optic cable etc, etc.;[Yeah, right – you’ve just taken great pain to mention them here. You’re proud of it. Its always mentioned in any PR documents – even though most of it is badly administrated, and generally has had lots money wasted in its installation/upkeep] because St Andrew’s College has never been about the outward and visible sign[s], those things that you can measure and see, but always about the inward and spiritual grace. [NOT – you’re appreciated if you’re in 1st team Rugby or Cricket, and only slightly less appreciated if you’re in 1st team hockey. There’s no recognition for “inward and spiritual grace”. Give me a break! Enough of this PR junk!]”
He goes on to make comments about how there’s a “respect and dignity and understanding towards” the older boys by the younger boys “so that we feel connected to what is good, to the love of Christ, to those less fortunate than ourselves”. Yeah right! They “respect” them out of fear. Fear that they’ll be bullied, beaten, and ridiculed, while any attempts to bring attention to this are scorned on by peers, the older boys, the younger boys, and even some of the school teachers would “look the other way”.
He also says that the school is active in helping out the poor communities of Grahamstown but neglects to mention any examples. Its a similar sentiment to what was said when I was there. Even then it wasn’t true and if it is now he certainly isn’t giving anyone any reason to believe that it is.
I admit that there is something that is learned through the “newboy” experience, through the “stick together no matter what” type spirit that is present, through the “honour awarded” to sporting achievment, the “hardships” that build character, and “spiritual depth” to be gained in the chapel. But I reject the ideas that “newboys” are beaten (and other forms of degrading behaviours that I was fortunate to miss out on because I was a day pupil (who spent every waking hour at school, and was only at home to sleep)). I think there are limits to be placed on the “stick together” spirit. I think a school needs to recognise that sporting achievement is not the only achievement in life (and for most of the boys it won’t be). I think the “hardships” can be guided, and that “spiritual depth” should be shown by example and be relevant to the pupils. I’d love to know how to balance these things, and how to put them all in place in a “real live” school.
For now there’s not much I can do regarding those things… I don’t know enough to be able to formulate ideas that one could prove would actually work, and I certainly don’t have the influence (read: money) to make any of those changes in my old school.
But what I CAN suggest is that my school needs to re-vamp their PR – be real, be honest, stop sounding so darned politically correct, start sounding like a human being… and for goodness sake make your websites and “electronic communications” more usable!
I guess I’m also frustrated partly because I hoped that the school would have progressed since I left, but from this I’m guessing it hasn’t.