School camp debate

David Wynne,
founding headmaster: Somerset College

It is entirely correct that the authorities in the Gauteng Education Department investigate thoroughly the tragic drowning of Enoch Mpianzi, and one’s thoughts and sympathies go to his family. Outdoor educational activities can add considerable value to a teenager and there are numerous examples of these across the country.

While I would commend those who insist on finding out the facts of this disaster, I would plead with the departmental authorities, parents and teachers not to leap to the conclusion that excursions such as this should be banned.

All too often, we tend to hit the panic button and sweep them away because there has been a tragedy. I would appeal to all decision-makers in this instance, and in others around the country, to consider the educational benefits of outdoor activities and to interrogate the organisation that lies behind them so that the planning, execution and evaluation of activities ensures that they have a worthwhile outcome and clear purpose, and that the accompanying adults have been properly trained to lead them.

There are lessons to be learned in the wilderness that are extremely valuable.

Simply by being in a different environment, without all the mod-cons of city life, having to make decisions, learning teamwork, dealing with setbacks and getting out of their comfort zones – including participation in activities such as climbing, rafting, camping and learning how to get on with others in order to reach the team goal – all these provide ample evidence of growth in self-confidence and self-knowledge that often does not happen in the classroom.

There are plenty of schools which have had considerable experience of running very successful outdoor educational activities, and I am very confident that they would be willing to share their experience and expertise with schools who do not have such programmes.

The key to success is the detailed planning and the provision of competent leaders and back-up personnel.

There are also many organisations who operate these camps and journeys on a professional basis, and who have, for years, done so successfully.

That said, there are two serious questions that come to mind as we read of the reaction to the Parktown Boys High School (PBHS) disaster.

I note the Human Rights Commission was quick to spring into action (as they can be counted on to do when the TV cameras are around). Then there was the leader of the EFF boldly stating that he will see to it that “Heads must Roll”, a somewhat cynical opportunistic political pronouncement.

Of course there must be an investigation, and people must be held accountable.

But where were these organisations, and where was Julius when we learned of the 30 young boys who were sacrificed in the name of “culture” during the recent initiation processes in the Eastern Cape? Like outdoor education, initiation camps could provide valuable outcomes for these young men, if properly organised.

Sadly, it seems, if the victim is a young black man presenting himself for this rite, “tradition” gets in the way of society interrogating the organisers of these events and holding them to the same standards of accountability as they intend to hold the “Model C” schools like Parktown Boys.

One boy has died in this most recent PBHS tragedy. Hundreds of boys have died in recent years as a result of neglect and incompetence in the organisation of this rite, which purports to hold so much “prestige” in their communities.

Perhaps Julius could look for heads to roll in his own back yard and then call in the press.

I am a firm believer in the value of rites of passage. They exist in almost all societies around the world.

They are important markers in the journey of life, and they ought to be marked. As a headmaster, I deplored the sort of initiation that exists in a great many South African schools which is generally left in the hands of immature 17-year-old boys, who have little concept of it being an educational exercise which marks new learning and a better understanding of responsibilities.

Having had over 35 years of watching young men and women grow and mature in the space of a month has persuaded me that these outdoor journeys provide a much more effective outcome – provided that there is understanding of the educational goals and thoroughly effective organisation.

This article first appeared in Business Day.