Long Read | The colonial virus infecting SA schools

The ideology of empire and British colonialism, from the surpassing value placed on private education to the nonsensical wearing of uniforms, has deformed the education system.

My first memory of Dulwich College in London, England, was as a 12-year-old standing among the portraits of Old Alleynians who had won the Victoria Cross in World Wars I and II. They were hung – together with a portrait of explorer Ernest Shackleton, another Old Alleynian – in a permanent exhibition next to the bursar’s office, where my parents had come to pay my fees before term started. 

“Seven VCs! Obviously not a school for people with brains!” my father joked. Inwardly he would have been impressed. An officer in a tank regiment in the second war, mentioned in dispatches and blinded for weeks after his tank was knocked out, Ted measured the Englishmen of his generation by whether they had served.

Through the windows, on the lawn in front of the centre block, was further evidence of the school’s military traditions: the octagonal cenotaph with its carved lists of the Old Alleynian war dead. I seem to remember that on Armistice Day the school would gather at the memorial and observe a minute or two of silence for the 837 forerunners who had made the “ultimate sacrifice”.

It was Ted’s idea that I should go to Dulwich, a long-established independent school at the same end of the educational spectrum as Eton and Harrow. I was to board there, staying with family friends and relatives during holidays, while my parents and sister returned to South Africa and, in a year or two, were to follow me. 

Circa 1960s: Drew Forrest in his school uniform at the age of 13 as a junior boarder in Bell House at Dulwich College. Most of his fellow pupils were day scholars from the surrounding south London suburbs. (Photograph supplied by the author)

This imposing pile of ornate red-brick buildings, inspired by the architecture of medieval Florence, I was later told, was to be my new home. I would not see my family for a year. Capable of great kindness, Ted undoubtedly loved his children and thought about their future. He told us more than once that our inheritance would be a good education. 

But once he had decided on a course of action, he could be single-minded to the point of ruthlessness. I remember lying awake in the dormitory late at night, listening to the distant trains on the Victoria-West Dulwich line, stricken by homesickness. I pleaded to be brought home; my mother sided with me. Ted overruled us both, telling me by return post: “Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.”

Dreams from the imperial age

Behind this lay an idea of fatherhood shaped by the military and academic values needed to carve out and run the largest empire in history. He himself was the product of a minor public school in Suffolk where his father, a tenant farmer, had sent him as a boarder at the age of seven.

This was the 1960s, yet Ted was still in thrall to the beliefs and practices of the imperial age. Boys were small adults, to stand alone or to be made to stand alone. Within limits, mothers could indulge them, but the job of fathers was to toughen and train them in stoical resistance to sadness and other tender emotions.

The model was India, from where senior colonial civil servants had sent their children to English boarding schools, often at a young age, to stake out their ruling-class membership and demarcate them from the “domiciled Europeans” who could not afford to go home and were suspected of racial impurity. It was a heartless convention. One of Ted’s cricketing colleagues was sent back from India at the age of nine and did not see his parents for 10 years.

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In South Africa, my father was a businessman, not a servant of the realm, but he certainly saw himself as an Englishman abroad. He opposed the rise of Afrikaner nationalism not so much because its avowed aim was to consolidate white power, but because it threatened the country’s umbilicus with Queen and Country. 

The early to mid-1960s was an important time of political, economic and cultural transition in England, and the stirrings could be felt at Dulwich. Through the petrified forest of archaic institutions – single-sex education; corporal punishment, fagging and over-mighty prefects; compulsory chapel on Sundays and forced attendance at 1st XV rugby matches; straw boaters, pinstriped trousers, detachable collars and cornflowers on every lapel on Founder’s Day (supposedly the favourite flower of the founder, Edward Alleyn) – the first rays from the shifting post-war world were starting to filter.

21 April 2015: A sculpture of Dulwich College founder Edward Alleyn in the grounds of Christ’s Chapel in Dulwich village. An English actor, Alleyn was a major figure of the Elizabethan theatre. (Photograph by In Pictures Ltd/ Corbis via Getty Images)

The Dulwich experiment

Though an ingénu from the African wilderness, ignorant of the British class system, I soon realised that my classmates were not the bluebloods I had expected from reading about Greyfriars and “the Owl of the Remove”. Many were the clever sons of working and lower-middle England from the surrounding south London suburbs of Herne Hill, Tulse Hill, Denmark Hill, West Norwood, Bromley and Beckenham. The surnames – everyone was known by his surname – seemed to reflect this: Bowyer, Dick, Long, Brewer, Streeter… (Streeter was a genial London hard man who removed his teeth to play rugby.)

I came to understand that “colonials” like myself were among the few private fee-paying pupils. Most were there because local councils were paying for them under a scheme proposed by a former “master” (institutional pomp for principal) to rescue the school from financial crisis. Called “the Dulwich experiment”, it offered council-fee support to pupils who passed their post-primary school (11+) and college entrance exams.

Unlike Eton and Harrow, “full” boarding schools, the pupils at Dulwich overwhelmingly were day scholars. Boarders were an exotic minority with a sprinkling of exiled whites like me and a few dark faces stranded far from sunnier climes. 

7 April 1970: Dulwich College, an independent single-sex school, was rescued from financial crisis by the ‘Dulwich experiment’ in which local councils offered fee support to pupils. (Photograph by Evening Standard/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

Lunch break on my first day at Dulwich quickly dispelled any ideas I might have had about the superior manners and refinement of my new schoolmates. There were no top hats or wing collars, and no one spoke – to borrow from Dylan Thomas – with the Elgin Marbles in his mouth. I wandered around the grass verges under the fruiting chestnut trees, watching older boys play touch rugby with folded school caps, tripping and cursing each other. “You sod!” one shouted. It was not part of my South African vocabulary, but I knew it was a taboo expletive.

The average day pupil was no different from the comprehensive school boys and girls I would later teach. One of my first excursions was to the nearby semi-detached home of a boy who sat next to me in class 2D. For a white South African used to sunlight and gardens, it was a new and alien experience: the narrowness and pokiness, the grey light seeping through the upstairs bay window on to the dingy furniture, the identical terraced houses across the street at a jostling proximity that almost seemed medieval…

Life as a boarder

It was as if there were two schools. The boarding houses were the last redoubt of the old public school tyrannies, while the classrooms were dominated, to use a historical analogy, by independent freeholders who were not at the bidding of feudal overlords. Fagging and beating, by prefects as well as masters, continued only in the boarding houses. Whereas boarding house prefects had real power over their “subjects”, school prefects existed on a much diminished scale. Except as enforcers of the dress code and policemen at school events, one was scarcely conscious of them. 

Precise routines and codes of privilege governed the boarder’s life. Older, favoured boys had private cubicles, while the junior boarders and some lower-ranked seniors slept in serried rows in dormitories patrolled by masters and prefects. Everyone ate in communal dining rooms and most showered in communal bathrooms. A bell rang reveille and lights went out at particular times, meals started and ended at particular times, communal “prep” (homework) started and ended at particular times, we were required in chapel at a particular time on a Sunday morning…

It is fair to say that corporal punishment, whether administered by housemasters or prefects, was rare – but the power to inflict it, and therefore the threat, was ever-present and used as a disciplinary cudgel. 

Undated: A photograph of Drew Forrest’s cricket side, the Dulwich Colts, taken during his time at Dulwich college. He is sitting on the left in the front row. (Photograph supplied by the author)

One of the offences was talking in the dormitories after lights out; I and a younger boy were caught repeatedly transgressing and told by the head prefect to expect a thrashing. A particularly sadistic touch was his instruction to wait in pyjamas, dressing gowns and slippers outside the prefects’ room at 9pm – in two weeks’ time.

On the day of execution – 56 years later I remember it was a Tuesday – I was a quivering ruin. The two of us stood in the corridor as the prefects arrived one by one, ignoring us. A long silence followed. Then suddenly, through the house darkened and stilled by lights out, rang the shout of all the prefects in thunderous unison: “FORREST!” “MAXWELL!” We shuffled in to find them sitting in concentric crescents, with the head of house, a large rugby-playing white Northern Rhodesian, sitting like a red-faced arch-demon in the middle. It was his muscular arm that would wield the cane.

It now seems merely grotesque, even ridiculous, but then it seemed a dark ritual charged with terror. We were petrified. As the other judges looked on stony-faced, we were ranted at interminably by the head of house, without knowing how the hectoring would end. In the event, the punishment was a four-page essay on a subject I no longer recall. But as a deterrent for the sin of post-lights out chatter, the proceedings could hardly have made a deeper impression.

Caught in the past

David Verdon Knight, the master in charge of my junior boarding house, Bell House, was a recycled Dulwich product. Known to the little boys in his care as “DVK”, he was a diehard Old Alleynian from the 1930s whose life seemed to have been spent in a sealed time capsule. I later met one of his former colleagues, who told me he could be relied on to fight any proposed change to the school’s sclerotic traditions.

After meeting the pipe-smoking, smooth-mannered Knight, my father pronounced him “the best kind of Englishman”. That was a matter of perspective. For my first six months at Bell House I wore a caliper on my left leg to correct a knee injury, and this seems to have protected me. When the caliper came off, things went downhill quickly. DVK became possessed by the idea that I was a “brash colonial” who did not know his proper place. “You are a very small boy in a very big school,” he berated me as I stood before him in his study. 

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To win the kind of subservience he wanted, he pursued me relentlessly, even after I had graduated from Bell House, denouncing me as a problem boy to other teachers. I had the misfortune to be a member of the athletic house and cricket team that he headed, so I could not escape him. In one act of petty spite, he forced me to join a cricket side of younger boys outside my age group that I did not know. He also broke me to the ranks at Bell House, where I had been a prefect. Forrest: “I think …” Knight: “I don’t care what you think!” ran one agreeable exchange on the cricket field.

I last encountered him several years after leaving Dulwich, striding through St John’s Wood from the direction of Lord’s cricket ground in a three-piece tweed suit, wearing the ultimate ruling-class badge of honour – the Marylebone Cricket Club tie. He registered no recognition and passed without speaking. DVK’s campaign of harassment reflected the closed system of the boarding houses, where a master could target a pupil over years if so inclined. Attitude, a central theme of film director Lindsay Anderson’s deadly satire If, was very important to him and his ilk: the external forms of compliance did not suffice – inward acquiescence was also expected. 

At this time, public schools were not so much dedicated to instilling specific ideas, such as the importance of empire or the established church. The medium was the message: pupils were unconsciously schooled in the virtues of a hierarchical order and submission to their class superiors.

Class, hierarchy and status

The proletarian upstarts at Dulwich brought with them Britain’s pop culture, erupting with rough vitality through the dusty, splintering floorboards and worn, fecal-coloured linoleum of Bell House. It was there, presumably from a transistor radio, that I heard my first Beatles single. Offshore radio – Luxembourg and then Caroline – provided the soundtrack for the phases of my boarding career. The first dark, snowbound Christmas, with its aquaplaning paths and gutters hung with foot-long icicles, is inseparably tied in my memory to The Tornadoes’ jaunty instrumental Telstar, which, like the big freeze, clung week after week to the charts.

The class war found other forms of expression. In defence of the uniform and received standards of appearance, the masters and prefects waged ceaseless war on stovepipe trousers, elastic-sided winklepicker boots and long hair. Cynicism and a satirical stance towards the school establishment and its values were the prevailing posture among older pupils; “heartiness” was the cardinal sin. DVK was given to railing against what he called “a trade union attitude” – a reluctance to do more than was formally necessary, a dearth of enthusiasm. 

As I later saw first-hand, state schools manage perfectly well without uniforms. What were they for? Like regiments’ and prison outfits, they seemed to be about the levelling of individuality and promotion of a more pliable group mentality. But for the Dulwich establishment, the badge and the loyalty it inspired were an intrinsic good. 

Circa April 1964: William Griffiths, 6, wears his policeman outfit and helps signalling traffic in East Dulwich Grove in southeast London. Drew Forrest was at Dulwich College in the 1960s. (Photograph by Express/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

I never encountered thinking of that kind at the state school where I taught; we wanted children to be happy and successful, not cling to and live through the institution. The public school ethos must have been a hangover from the former requirement of military and racial solidarity in an isolated ruling caste encircled by hostile subject peoples. Of course, regimentation is perfectly conformable with the principle of hierarchy, which was – and still is – intrinsic to the public school system. 

I was immediately made aware of the exalted status of the staff at Dulwich, and their own internal ranking, when at my first assembly 70 or 80 masters in dark academic gowns, some fur-lined, solemnly filed on the raised stage in the Great Hall in order of precedence. In fact, I seem to remember a school booklet giving the significant dates of each term that listed all the masters in order of seniority and with their qualifications, from the Master (Ronald Groves, MA BSc Oxon, Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry) downwards. 

Gradations of status in the student body were expressed in the distribution of power and privilege, but also through a form of sumptuary law that confined the lowliest boarding house members to black ties and jackets, while sportsmen and members of clubs for senior boarders could aspire to a colourful palette of ties and blazers, culminating in the fabled white blazer for the school’s sporting gods.

Sexual segregation

Single-sex education was another enigma. Dulwich in the 1960s was, in fact, one of three long-established gender-exclusive private schools that belonged to the same foundation, among them the James Allen’s Girls School (JAGS), which was founded in 1741. The one-sex shibboleth extended to staff: I can recall one female teacher at Dulwich, of the low-status optional subject of fine art.

Nostalgia for a static pre-war world partly explains the stubborn persistence of sexually segregated schooling into the modern age: for the true-blue it must continue because, like the uniform, it has always been. But as with the cult of competitive sport and sportsmen, and the assiduous cultivation of hierarchy, it was also tied up with the military norms underpinning the traditional Alleynian world view. It is all there in Henry Newbolt’s poem: the masculine sporting code, enforced by the team captain, which must carry the schoolboy through the games of war and life. (“Play up! play up! And play the game!”)

The role of selective, boys-only schools in perpetuating male dominance in countries such as Britain has been extensively argued. What has not been sufficiently emphasised is the role of such schools, particularly boarding institutions, in sexual dysfunction. The lack of workaday contact between the sexes and the close confinement of 60-odd teenage boys for long months spawned a steamy, fantasy-infested climate in which girls became almost mythological – the objects of both abnormally heightened desire and neurotic anxiety. 

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Constrained social intercourse across the gender divide was sanctioned at Dulwich in the form of dance lessons in the Great Hall to which girls from JAGS were invited. Under the great traceried windows I recall the agony of the physical contact required by the March of the Mods and cha-cha-cha, and the interminably drawn-out, tension-wracked silences between the dance tracks.

There were other side-effects, particularly in Bell House. The head of house became entangled in a love affair with a younger boy earmarked to succeed him; the lovers would tryst in the darkened cloisters after the Sunday evening film for some heavy petting, spied on by their giggling peers. The air in Bell House, to use satirist Peter Cook’s account of his own public school, was soon “crackling with romance”. I recall a communal kissing session in the house’s pitch-dark cellar involving three or four couples, and my later (rejected) attempt to climb into bed with one of the kissing cousins after lights out. 

Of course, homosexuality is not dysfunction. It stands on a continuum of sexual responses and for some is the natural way of being. But in this case, I have no doubt that it was a situational distortion of the most peremptory of instincts. 

The lovebirds were not expelled. But DVK waged a resolute campaign against their infatuation, which included barring the younger boy from house office.

Times a-changin’

The subterranean class conflict at Dulwich would sometimes break into the open. Forces of reaction in the staffroom must have gone into deep mourning in 1964, when Harold Wilson won a slim parliamentary majority and lifted the Labour Party into government for the first time in more than 20 years. But there were hosannas in my senior boarding house.

My own response was divided: I instinctively supported Labour but had been morally disfigured by feelings of isolation and defensiveness as a white South African. I am ashamed to say that I publicly supported Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. By the time I left Dulwich for home, the ideological fog had lifted.

Circa 1960: Private school-educated Harold Wilson speaks at a miners’ rally in Durham, England. He led the Labour Party to victory in 1964 and became prime minister of the United Kingdom. (Photograph by NCJ Archive/ Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

There were other straws in the wind. For example, it was announced that hymn 423, Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendour, would in future exhort the Deity to “cleanse the body of this nation” – not “this empire”. (The author, an Old Etonian and canon of St Paul’s, clearly conceived of Britain’s “dominion over palm and pine” as a God-given mandate.)

Among the more political pupils, a new left-leaning musical fashion took hold – American folk music, with its 1950s-style adolescent rebellion, now with a cause. (“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/ And don’t criticise what you don’t understand …”) But in the ferociously competitive and backbiting milieu of a boys’ boarding house, even music became a way of getting the drop on one’s fellows: the culturally backward (like myself) listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio; the seniors took care to stay several jumps ahead with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly.

Perhaps the clearest sign of resistance from below was the response of my classmates to the Combined Cadet Force (CCF), which pupils could choose to join from the first year of senior school. Brought up by my father on tales of derring-do in the Tunisian desert – the war had been the crowning event of his life – I instantly signed up. I was astonished to learn that only one other member of my class had done so.

This introduction to the joys of army life consisted of pressing khaki trousers, blancoing belts and puttees, and polishing boots for inspection by the commanding officer, followed by an afternoon of drilling – to the bellowed instructions of a schoolboy non-commissioned officer – with .303 rifles last used in the trenches on the Western Front. Once a year, on “field day”, we would bus for manoeuvres to Box Hill in Surrey. Ably skewered by the film If, this event consisted of charging around aimlessly in camouflage or crawling through the gorse with one’s puttees adrift while trying to overrun an “enemy” position. 

Signs of resistance

My romance with the science of warfare lasted a year. But what I did see, and had not expected, was the deep current of anti-militarism among the ordinary English teenagers that largely made up the Dulwich student body. They were not interested in joining the CCF and scornful of those who did. 

George Orwell comments on this side of the English national character in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, pointing out that before the war many pubs barred soldiers. Based on this experience, Britain can only continue indulging its post-imperial gunboat fantasies, in Iraq and the Falklands, for example, because it has a small, professional army cut off from the mass of its citizens.

Of course, there would be no armed uprising at Dulwich, as there was in If. But at the end of my last term, there was a kind of symbolic insurgency. Walking down to breakfast one morning, we were amazed – and delighted – to see that the florid neo-Italianate clock tower had been generously daubed in white paint with political slogans and the emblems of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the anti-apartheid movement. The cricket sight screens had also been turned into billboards. The culprits were traced and expelled. One of them, I am proud to say, was a close friend.

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As a 16-year-old back in South Africa, I looked at the world through new eyes. The school I was sent to instantly struck me as another Dulwich, miraculously teleported to the rolling hills of rural Natal. Almost all the familiar traditions flourished at Michaelhouse, as if upheld by colonial outcasts kowtowing to the metropole: boys-only education, full boarding, the Anglican Church connection, prefects, fagging, corporal punishment, the cult of sport, initiation rites, uniforms… right down to the ivy-clad, neo-Gothic chapel. 

A curious exception was cadets, which I do not recall. At nearby Hilton, South Africa’s most expensive private school, the College Guard ran for a century until it was disbanded in the mid-1980s. (The Hilton website used to boast that the unit fought in the South African Border War. It does not say for which side.)

At Michaelhouse, race was the new reality – the student body lacked even the slight admixture of melanin I had grown used to. Besides admitting the sons of wealthy local farmers – one of whom was in the habit of delivering his offspring to the school by helicopter – the school was entirely disarticulated from its context. The only amaZulu were those who worked in the kitchen or as cleaners and ground staff. 

Clinging to legacy

Like a rogue genetically modified seed, the imperial legacy of special schooling for the governing classes, with all its trappings, has escaped into the wider educational environment. Uniforms, for example, are now universally enforced in state schools for South Africa’s impoverished pupils – and their parents are expected to pay for them.

At Dulwich, there have been changes over the past 50 years. Comical straw boaters and detachable collars are gone; so too are the evil twins, fagging and flogging. But other time-expired institutions, such as the exclusion of girls, boarding and uniforms, persist into the third decade of the 21st century. No doubt the inane veneration of Edward Alleyn continues (“the Founder’s name lives on, a promise of unparalleled virtue to come”, fawns the school song, in Latin.) Firm-jawed and far-sighted, the cadets of the CCF still guard the white cliffs of Dover, although girls from JAGS are now invited to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

There are exceptional cases, but as a rule private schools serve a financial and academic elite. Dulwich no longer receives local authority funding, so it uses its fees – £45 000 a year for boarders, or R900 000 at the current rate – to spread the love to the less well-off. How many admissions, I wonder, are genuinely from the bottom of the pile? At any event, the school weakens the state system by creaming off some of the most able staff and pupils, and recycles power and privilege by giving to those that have. 

8 June 2010: A view of the main yard of Michaelhouse, a full boarding school for senior boys in Balgowan, KwaZulu-Natal, which was founded in 1896. Drew Forrest started attending the school when he was 16. (Photograph by AFP Photo/ Juan Mabromata)

The same applies, a fortiori, to South Africa’s 2 500-odd private schools. With fees of R300 000 a year, Michaelhouse and Hilton are towering bastions of privilege and reproducers of a deeply unequal social order. 

As an issue, public schools periodically break the surface of British political life. But with cross-party support – half the prime ministers since World War II, including two from Labour, have been private school products – they seem as massively immovable as the Dulwich centre block. 

In South Africa, private schooling has never really been a policy matter. But perhaps it is time, as former government minister Penuell Maduna has said, that it became one.

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