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How can I use my own values and my experience of schools in South Africa to influence my own education and the education of others?

An action research project by
Mark Potts, Westwood St. Thomas School, Salisbury, Wiltshire.

e-mail Mark with comments on his writing at mpot@waitrose.com

My Experience

Just occasionally in life experiences occur that have a deep impact and lead you to re-examine your own values. Such an experience was my visit to South African schools in February 2002. Born from a leaflet placed in my tray by my Headteacher, the experience led me to consider my role as an educator (South Africans refer to all people involved in delivering education: administrators, assistants as well as teachers; as educators).

I had visited Africa once before and had experienced something of the schools, but nothing had prepared me for the reality that is South African schooling. As a political activist in the 1980's I had been supportive of the anti-apartheid movement and like most celebrated the end of apartheid in 1989, only to find that, in the words of the poet Tatamkhulu Afrika, "Nothing's Changed" [1] .

Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.

No sign says it:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man's cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table's top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it's in the bone

I back from the glass,
boy again,
leaving small mean O
of small, mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing's changed. [2]

The anger, that desire to throw stones. It is exactly what I had felt as a young man growing up in Merseyside, watching the Conservative Government implement economic policies that destroyed the jobs and livelihoods of the people around me. Now I was re-visiting those emotions as I reflected on my experience of South African schools. It violated my personal values of justice and equity, values that I have lived as an educator.

I took a digital camcorder with me to South Africa and took footage of the townships, the schools and the people.


It was the power of this visual image that persuaded me to reflect on the relationship between my own values and my experiences in South Africa. There they were caught on tape. I edited the video footage to create a story, my own story, my interpretation of the new South Africa. I decided to make a commentary to go with it.

My own values as an educator(and education as a value-laden activity)

I wish to live my values through my school life. When I reflect on my own experience in education, I realise that I have lived my own educational values by teaching for twenty years in comprehensive schools. Over these years, I have taught many students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and I have helped many of them to complete their courses successfully and progress to higher level courses or in to paid employment, thus living out my values of justice and equity.

The Influence on my own education

Jonathan Jansen and Yusuf Sayed in their paper ¤Implementing education policies: the South African experienceË, talk about the need for a ¤paradigm shiftË

Table 1 [3]

Old South African education

New South African education















Lack of ownership by participants

Stakeholder Ownership









This transformation of education is necessary to cement the political transformation of South Africa.

My desire to use my South African experience to influence others and myself stems from a belief that it is possible to help this transformation process. As Jansen and Sayeed say

"The help that is sought is not esoteric knowledge but ways to implement policy at a very practical level" [4]

This gives me reason to believe that I and my colleagues and students can make a difference. In find my belief in my own transformatory capacity as an action researcher reinforced by Jean McNiff.

Ref (www.jeanmcniff.com)

I therefore set out to convince colleagues and students that we have a duty as fellow human beings to support the transformation.

The way that I would do this would be to use the video footage that I had shot in South African schools to persuade others of the need for action.

I was embarking on the third unit of my MA with Bath University. The third unit was to be an action research project. After a session with my tutor, Jack Whitehead on 24th April during which he described the human response to atrocities in Palestine, I realised the similarities with the strength of feeling that I had experienced during my visit to South Africa. I decided to make my experience in South Africa the focus of my action research project. I mentioned this to Jack and he concurred, Excited by the idea, I later emailed him to open up a dialogue:

Date: 24 April 2002

From: Mark Potts

To: Jack Whitehead

Thanks for the leading the session this evening as skilfully as usual. There is always so much to think about after meeting with you. After further reflection I am really excited about basing my enquiry for this Unit on my experience in South Africa. I was interested in what we discussed at the end of the meeting about developing as human beings and having a humanising viewpoint. I was very moved by what I saw out in South Africa and would like to inform colleagues about the situation. I feel that I would like to investigate further how it can influence my own and the school's practice. I already have some pretty powerful video footage of schools out there that can, I think, influence people and the way that they feel about the situation in South Africa. My experiences in South Africa spur me to action and, amongst other things, I want to establish a meaningful link with a South African school.


Jack passed my message on to Rajani Naidoo, a colleague of his at Bath University who wrote back to him:

Date: 25 April 2002

From: Rajani Naidoo

To: Jack Whitehead

Hi Jack

I have not written on schools unfortunately but on higher education. I will
have a think about school refs that I can pass on. The best work (If he looks
up their names in ERIC and other databases) on schools and the political
situation etc is by Johan Muller, Linda Chisholm , Yusuf Sayed, Peter
Kallway. He could contact Yusuf Sayed at Sussex University, School of
Education and Leon Tickly at Bristol who both do good work at school level
and are really helpful. In the meantime I will think for refs. Oh, and the one
person who is very into action reserach, teaching teachers how to reflect,
empowering groups etc is an assoc prof at UCT called Chris Breen who is
great. . I am sure he would also be able to help. He could help Mark establish
a link with a school.


As luck would have it this happened:

Date: 26th April 2002

From: Jack Whitehead

To: Mark Potts

Hi Mark - I'd believe in synchonicity but Chris Breen from UCT has just
written to me out of the blue!! I've replied to say that his name was given to me yesterday and
I've passed it on to you. Smile- what a delightful end to the week. Jack.

I contacted Chris Breen to introduce myself and open a dialogue with him about South African education and linking with a School. His suggestion was that I start by contacting one of the Schools that I had visited. I decided to email a colleague that I had met in Nqhabakhazulu School in the black township of Kwamashu and suggested linking our schools.

It was clear to me now that I was committed to this project but how to produce an action research project on it. I discussed possible titles with colleagues in the Westwood St Thomas research group. By expressing what I wanted to achieve through the project a colleague, Stuart Jones, suggested that I was looking at my own educative values and he was so right. I reflected on his comments and formulated a title that I then emailed to Jack for comment:

Date: 8 May 2002

From: Mark Potts

To: Jack Whitehead

You have got me thinking again. This time it is about framing the title of my research project. I am almost happy with the following

"How can I use my own values and my experience of schools in South Africa to influence the thinking of others about their own educational values"

This puts the focus on their (others) educational values and how my video and commentary make them reflect on these values and voice them. Alternatively, I could drop the word "educational" and consider the influence on their values, educational or otherwise. What do you think?


This was Jacks response:

Date: 9th May 2002

From: Jack Whitehead

To: Mark Potts

Good to know I can still raise a thought or two!

I like your question - I'm wondering whether 'How can I use my own values
and my experience of schools in South Africa to influence my own education
and the education of others?' - might enable you to focus on education as
a value-laden practical activity - sometimes the word thinking becomes
disconnected with action and loses some of its potential to influence the
world for good.

Looking forward to seeing you on Saturday. Jack.

Jack's suggestion was an excellent one. I could see how important it was that I included an account of how the experience had influenced my own education. I could also see how I could benefit from focussing on how I have influenced the education of others, rather than their thinking, as it was action that I wished to inspire, not just thought.

This left me with the question as to how I could demonstrate my influence on my own education and the education of others.


I took the opportunity to show the video to my fellow researchers on the Westwood St Thomas Research Group at a meeting at Bath University. My tutor, Jack Whitehead recorded the session on video and I was able to analyse my own delivery of the information and the reaction of my colleagues to it. The video evidence shows


Having reflected on the session at Bath, I decided that I needed an ambitious, yet achievable goal that would inspire others and myself to action. I decided that my goal would be to build a team of educators and students that would work to establish a link with Nqabhakazulu School in the black township of Kwamashu in Durban. Our aim would be to raise sufficient funds to equip a room with a network of ten computers with up to date software. A team of educators and students could then visit the School to help to install the system and advise on its' use. This would enable us to establish email links with students in the School and, together with training, help to transform teaching and learning in the School.

I decided to put this idea to the group at our next meeting on Wednesday 15th May and to the Year 12 students in an Assembly. As my wife, one student and one colleague subsequently pointed out, how did I know that what the School wants is a suite of networked computers? Do they have greater priorities? I had partly rationalised this in my own mind prior to making the suggestion, but these responses made me publicly state my reasoning for choosing this as a goal. As I did so I recognised that my own educational values were emerging. I reasoned it as follows:

  • It would capture the imagination of Thiris, the teacher with whom I was in email contact with, an ICT teacher. I had talked to him in South Africa and he had struck me as someone who shared my educational values.
  • It would enable us to develop the link more fully through email between staff and students, once the network was up and running. The link would then be broadened and deepened.
  • ICT is an area in which we have considerable expertise as a School, both amongst staff and students. We could draw on that expertise to establish the system.
  • I believe that ICT has a major role to play in education. Establishment of a network of computers, together with INSET on teaching and learning using ICT, would give students at the School a real opportunity to develop skills that they are unable to access at the moment. As a believer in the value of vocational education, it would enhance the student's job prospects.
  • It would, I think capture the imagination of our own staff and student body. The reaction from the Year 12 students that had seen the video and of my staff colleagues had been very enthusiastic and had led to an impromptu Staff Room discussion about possible fundraising events and how to buy the computers at lowest possible cost. One sixth form student said that his father builds computers at home at a fraction of the cost that they retail for and that he would discuss with him how to make it work at the lowest possible cost.

Despite this rationale, I decided that if I am to really live my own values to the full, I would need to seek the views of the South African School, through Thiris my email contact. An email to Thiris followed:

Date: 21 May 2002

From: Mark Potts

To: Thiris Arumugam (Nqabakazulu School š South Africa)

In the past few weeks I have been showing students and staff at my School in England, Westwood St Thomas' School, the video footage that I took in South African Schools and telling them about my experience there. It has had a big impact on those who have seen it and I have a proposal to make. My School would like to establish a long-term link with yours and we would like to this link to be fruitful for both Schools. One way in which we could establish this link is that we could raise funds to pay for some new computers for your School and send some staff and students out to your School to set up the computers and install the latest software on them. If we could do this it would allow our staff and students to communicate through email with your staff and students and we could enrich each others lives. I fully realise that your School may have other priorities for development and we may be able to help with those instead. Perhaps you could discuss this idea with your Headteacher and reply to me. Or else, the Headteacher may prefer me to contact him directly and I will then write a letter to him. Please let me know the best way to proceed with this.

My family are very well and I hope that yours are too.



How can I use my experience in South Africa to influence the operation of Westwood St Thomas School?





Video of Bath Uni session.

Emails from Penny K and information

Emails to Chris Breen, Rajani, Jack W, Thiris

Letter to Headteacher

Video of lesson with Year 11 English

Video of Assembly with Year 12

Business Link Information

Management Group


Jonathan Jansen and Yusuf Sayed: Implementing education policies: the South African experience

Nothing's Changed



Why visit South Africa? My values as a person/ as an educator. What I expected to get out of it?

How it affected me? My feelings (anger, empathy, determination)

Feelings into actions.

The use of video as a tool for influencing others in viewing humanity.

Importance of dialogue and collaboration.

Hi Mark

Thanks for making contact and for your offer to assist.
My main aim in making contact with Jack was to try to find out how he
has structured his courses at Bath and how he has gone about gaining
recognition from his peers. One area that you might like to comment
on is the modules that you have taken in your M.A. and any references
that you have found to be really inspiring. Our set-up at UCT is such
that courses which focus on the real needs of teachers are seen to be
'less academic' and more frivolous by colleagues.

It sounds as if you have already gained an enormous amount from your trip
to South Africa. I'm wondering whether you would want to contact one
of the schools that you visited in Durban - perhaps one of those that
you have captured on videotape. The Kwa-Zulu Natal region is one of
the most contrasting areas in terms of wealth a poverty and presents
some enormous challenges. The Western Cape in contrast is
comparatively very well resourced, although of course we do have a
huge range of schools. Do you have contact details for the schools in
Durban that you visited? Would this be reasonable starting point? I
could give you the email address of a colleague who works in the area
at the University of Natal if that would help. Let me know.


[1] Tatamkhulu Afrika š Nothing's Changed

[2] Lines 17 to 48

[3] P 177

[4] P181


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