How to ruin a school

John van den Berg | Mar 02, 2022
John van den Berg, a parent and husband to a teacher, writes on the capitulation by St. Mary's DSG (Pretoria) to racial witch hunting

Sections of the commentariat have done much recently to expose the ‘woke’ assault on our schools and warn of its consequences. I consider these exposés to be an essential part of the campaign to save our schools from woke-capture, but all the ones I have read have come from parties outside the affected school communities, whose observations therefore are made at a personal distance. This article provides what I think is missing: an account from the inside. It is a parent’s story.

In mid-2020 the country's high school sector was convulsed by a series of self-styled 'anti-racism' protests. These started at a school in the Western Cape, before spreading quickly across the country, gaining firm traction in a subset of the country's elite schools, with private girl’s schools in particular, the hardest hit.

Passions were undoubtedly ignited by the George Floyd killing in the US and the emergence of BLM, and many of the complaints and allegations that fuelled these protests were the same, but no two schools dealt with the challenge in the same way. Some were able to steer their ships through the storm relatively unscathed, others sadly, ran theirs aground.

If there is one school in this spectrum that stands as a salutary example of what not to do, it is St. Mary’s DSG, Pretoria. Its sad story is in essence one of weak leadership leading to institutional self-harm and it bears recounting as a warning to others. But it is also an intensely personal story, for my wife was a former teacher, and my daughter a former learner, at the school, and they were pulled into the vortex.

In the build up to a much-publicised protest which took place on 25 June 2020 and which was seen as important enough to make the news on eNCA, the school's teachers had been subjected to a slanderous naming-and-shaming social media campaign, replete with obscenities (such as "f_ _ k Mrs _ _ _"), body-shaming and threats, accusations characterised by half-truths, fact-twisting and in some cases complete fabrications, and calls for the dismissal and ‘blacklisting’ of staff. Attempts were even made to entrap staff.

The school had been alerted to what was taking place in the surrounding social media space, and who the culprits were, but its response was not to come to the aid of its beleaguered staff, but rather to acquiesce to the demands of the 'mob'[i] and initiate a witch-hunt against them.

Staff were hastily suspended and expensive teams of lawyers brought in to investigate. No stone was left unturned in the hunt for acts of discrimination. Social media sites were trawled and anonymous postings against staff carefully collected and collated. This was done not for the purpose of punishing those responsible for these actionable postings, but rather to use as evidence in the prosecution of the school's teachers.

This exercise cost DSG millions but produced in the end not a single witch, for at its conclusion, no member of staff was found to have committed any act of racial discrimination of any sort. In fact, in the case of only one staff member did the investigating advocate, who certainly didn't err on the side of generosity to the teachers, think a formal disciplinary was warranted. But the employer's case in this single disciplinary was flimsy and collapsed almost immediately because no witnesses could be found to substantiate the charge of discrimination. In an institution apparently so riven with the scourge of racism, one might have expected a slew of guilty verdicts.

But what was the human cost of all this? One can write of the reputational damage, the shattered morale of teachers and the fear each had they might be the next one hauled before The Inquisition, and so on, but numbers best illustrate the point.

Since the protest 18 months ago, more than 20 high school staff have either left DSG or given notice to do so, this from a high school staff establishment of less than 40. Of those that have abandoned the school, some have left teaching altogether, while others have taken up positions at other schools. As an aside, I'm told that the vacancies page of the ISASA website is a favourite port of call for DSG’s teachers[ii].

If the school was worried by the loss of so many teachers, then it certainly didn’t show, for they appear to have traded a scarce-skills senior mathematics teaching post (and possibly other teaching posts too) for the establishment of two executive level ‘Transformation and Diversity’ positions. A clear indication of where DSG’s new priorities lie.

The school was, however, guilty of another arguably more egregious act of wrongdoing: one of omission. It failed to protect those learners who had become the target of bullying for having failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for the protest cause.

These learners were mainly white, but by no means exclusively so. My daughter was one such victim. She left the school before the end of her grade 11 year, after having been allowed to write her end of term exams in a separate venue (this fact alone should have signalled to the school that something terrible was amiss) leaving behind an academic scholarship and staff remission bursary.

Her plight was far from the worst, however. In one instance, the father of a white learner who had been the target of the most appalling bullying, was asked by the school management to collect his daughter from the school premises because her safety could no longer be guaranteed. (This father had, over a period of several weeks prior to this, written letters to the school imploring them to act against those responsible for the bullying of his daughter. His pleas fell on deaf ears.)

This was an extraordinary admission for the school to have made. It seemed not to have occurred to them that safeguarding children entrusted to their care, was actually a responsibility of theirs, and an important one too.

Despite bullying being a Level-4 offence (this is the most serious category of offence in terms of the DSG School Code of Conduct) and a mountain of utterly compelling evidence of the bullying of learners and the slander of staff being given to the school, chapter and verse, to the best of my knowledge, not a single learner has appeared before a disciplinary to answer for their conduct arising from the shameful events of 2020.

The consequence of all this has been a 20% reduction in the high school intake, and a steady stream of learners leaving the school. 

An irony in this is that DSG, like so many other of our elite schools, parrots the mantra of seeking 'diversity and inclusion', but its recent actions have seen the school actually becoming less, rather than more, diverse.

One can write that many of those leaving were high achievers that would have done the school proud, but again numbers best illustrate the point. In the recently announced IEB matric results, 56 distinctions were earned by nine[iii] girls who left DSG in the aftermath of the 2020 protests. It is telling too that they all left in their grade 11 year. Ordinarily, changing schools a year before one's matric is ill-advised and these girls would surely have stuck it out, had they not found things intolerable.

The DSG matric class of 2021 would have been a bumper year. Could have been, should have been, but wasn't.

Since these figures are silent on the loss of learners in lower grades, one wonders what the 2022 matric results and beyond will be like.

There are two salutary lessons to be learnt from all this.

The first is that a school must back its teachers for they are the institution's most precious resource. Good teachers lost are not easily replaced. In cases where learner complaints against teachers are made, the common-sense principle of audi alteram partem should be applied right at the start of an investigation before consideration is given to the initiation of any formal proceedings.

Had DSG done this, almost all of the charges levelled against the teachers would have been swiftly refuted and matters laid to rest in a matter of minutes. Much anguish and reputational injury could have been avoided.

The second lesson is that school managements need to apply their codes of conduct consistently and without fear or favour. The modicum of moral fortitude that this requires was sadly absent in DSG’s case, and this failure has longer-term harmful consequences. Teachers now fear that if they admonish a learner, there is a chance the learner will take to social media and slander them in an act of reprisal, secure in the knowledge that such an act will go unpunished. This fear strips the teacher of real authority and destabilises the classroom.

The school acted with extraordinary haste in suspending its teachers. Such was the rush that many were served with notices of suspension over a weekend, and this was followed within 24 hours by a communique announcing the suspensions to the school community. This was no less than the mob demanded.

But this haste to suspend was not matched by an equal urgency to explain to the teachers what it was they were meant to have done wrong. The letters of suspension did invite the suspendees to challenge their suspensions within a four-day period, but it’s hard to challenge a suspension when you haven’t been told what the reasons for it are. The suspended staff had to wait seven very anxious weeks before any allegations were actually put to them.

But the school somehow lost all enthusiasm when it came to disciplining miscreant learners, even when these learners had been recommended for disciplinary action by the independent firm of lawyers employed by DSG with the express brief of investigating and making such recommendations. One must ask why?

The answer can be found in a quite shocking admission made by the Chair of the School Governing Body in a meeting with staff in September 2020, held soon after the suspended teachers had returned to work. Below are his exact words:

"With regards to the fact that the investigations into staff had to be finished before the disciplinary actions [against learners] was taken, it was not an easy decision for the Governors to make, it is a political thing rather than a strategic thing, the way I see it. Because you must remember teachers that this crisis has got racial undertones and the sad thing that I was confronted with was that when it comes to cyber misconduct the learners implicated, I think all of them are black, and we have black parents sitting on our shoulders trying to see what we do next …”

Later on the Chairman opines with reference to the aforementioned black parents that they were:

“… influential, loud and well-organised.”

This frank but craven admission requires no explanation.

One of the protest demands was for the compulsory teaching of ‘White Privilege’ so that this oppressive and apparently pervasive culture could be outed and then expunged from the school. One wonders, however, how the above utterances are to be explained through the paradigm of White Privilege.

In its quest to find acts of racial discrimination, as in the differential treatment of people based on their race, perhaps the Governing Body needed to look a little closer to home.

Any hopes entertained by the five returning suspendees (all had been cleared of the allegations made against them[iv]) that a return to normality was possible with reputations intact, were extinguished by the following Instagram posting which greeted their return to the workplace:

“Today we received a letter from the school that will be posted soon.

The school has decided to allow the racist, xenophobic and homophobic teachers back into office from tomorrow onwards.

No justice has been served for the girls in our school.”

The school management was aware of this posting and who the learner was who wrote it, but took no action.

What of the future?

The attempts that I and many others made over a long period of time to get DSG to acknowledge that it had done the wrong thing and to change course, were unsuccessful. And spectacularly so, for even if a public admission of wrongdoing on their part, the issuance of apologies or just an expression of regret, was too much to ask for, one might have expected the school leadership to at least want the painful and shameful events of 2020 to quietly recede into the past.

Not so it seems, for on 25 June 2021, DSG chose to celebrate the occasion of the first anniversary of the 2020 protest with a special ceremony and the release of a commemorative video. Comparisons were even drawn between the Soweto youth of `76 who risked their lives standing up against the might of the Apartheid state, and brave girls calling out their school and its teachers for their (as it turns out phantom) racism, homophobia and xenophobia. The school had heard their calls, praised them for their heroism, apologised for the hurt caused, and set course for a new nirvana.

This marked the point at which my wife left DSG, a school she had loyally served for nearly ten years. She was not alone of course, and like many others now teaches at another institution.

A common understanding of fairness and compassion seems unable to intrude upon this stubborn narrative. Perhaps in the end cold numbers will.

John van den Berg is an academic at a South African university, but writes in his personal capacity. St Mary’s DSG Pretoria is an elite private school in the province of Gauteng South Africa.

 Footnotes:


[i] In July 2020 DSG employed, for a brief period, the services of an advocate widely recognised as the expert in social media abuse and cyber bullying. In an online session, intended to offer legal advice to staff, she used the word 'mob' to describe those responsible for the assault against the school and its teaching establishment. She also said that the hostility directed at the institution was the worst she had ever seen.

[ii] In 2021 an anonymous survey was conducted amongst members of the school community. The survey contained a host of questions, but some were directed at teachers specifically. One such question asked whether they had applied for a teaching position at another school. The number of teachers who answered this question in the affirmative is not known because the school management refused to make available to staff the survey results.

[iii] This data I got from a quick survey amongst my daughter's friends and school acquaintances, but these numbers are a lower bound on the actual figures.

[iv] These were the exact words used by the School Board of Governors in a communique sent to the school community at the end of September 2020 reporting on, amongst other things, the outcome of its investigation of the suspended staff.

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