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Parenting and Education

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January is upon us, and within the next couple of weeks, children in South Africa will start to embark on a new school year (our school year runs from January to December). But what are our responsibilities as parent/s? How can we have a positive influence on our children’s education? What kind of environment can we as parent/s provide to support our children to develop in to adults who are creative, curious, critical thinkers, problem solvers, innovative, collaborative, inclusive, motivated, and have purpose?

When I (Rachel) think back to our son being 3-years-old, he was naturally curious. Zac would ask endless questions, which we, as parents, would do our best to respond to appropriately; not always giving an answer, sometimes asking him what he thought, or asking another question to provoke him to go deeper and stretch his thinking. Observing and listening to him as he explored through play revealed a rich imagination and incredible creativity, as he searched for solutions to the situations that he faced or had constructed himself. We, as parents, did not need to teach him these skills, as Wagner highlights:

‘…human beings are born with an innate desire to explore, experiment and imagine new possibilities … to innovate.’

Wagner T., 2012. Creating Innovators, p.26.

As Zac moved in to the school space he wanted to learn to read and write, he had a desire to develop the more formal skills of communication and had an inquisitive mind when it came to numbers. He learnt as he explored and played with others. So, as I reflect on my own experiences as a parent, and think about establishing quality education for others, I wonder what can we do to encourage and nurture these ‘child-like’ qualities, if our children are naturally curious, wanting to experiment and learn?

Wagner, in the writing and development of his book Creating Innovators, spoke to a number of parent/s of children who have become innovators and entrepreneurs, both in the social sphere and in the field of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM); parent/s who all supported their child’s interests and natural curiosity. Through his research he found many commonalities in the way parent/s supported their children, including:

  • providing home environments where children were free to discover, to experiment, to explore their questions and find answers
  • providing toys / activities / resources that supported their child’s imagination and creativity
  • encouraging risk taking and learning through trial and error
  • not over structuring their children’s time after school, so children had space to explore, play, discover etc.
  • encouraging reading for pleasure
  • spending time as a family
  • supporting their children as they pursued their interests

Above all, what these parent/s had in common was a deep respect for their child’s interests and abilities; embracing who their child was. They were intentional in offering different activities related to their child’s interests and passions. Parent/s believed in their child’s dreams, encouraging them within this, rather than worrying about a career. They listened to their children’s ideas, dialoguing with them as they explored challenging areas and developed the value of giving back and making a difference.


Reflecting on Wagner’s research, there are definitely areas where I want to improve, so I can support my son (now 18-years-old), as he seeks to pursue his dream and fulfill his potential.

Maybe this has touched on something that you – whether you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, and so on – would also like to develop in the year/s ahead; if so, why not spend a bit more time reflecting on the last two paragraphs (above)…

  1. Take the time to read through the last few paragraphs again.
  2. Highlight the areas where you are doing well.
  3. Highlight one area which you know you need to focus on in order to support your child, grandchild, nephew or niece etc. Break this down. Decide one thing you can do in the next few days and build on it.

‘As a parent, what is most important is to respect your children and to listen, but not to be too free. There have to be limits, boundaries, structure. But too much of this – of teaching them to be obedient – can kill the creative impulse. The challenge is to balance respect for authority with constructive engagement and constructive rebellion – teaching your kids to be strong, but giving them the walls to push against. You can’t separate innovation from disobedience. But you can’t be an innovator and rob banks’

Semyon Dukach

‘Glocal’ Research

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As part of the process of establishing a child-centred inquiry-based learning environment that balances the requirements of a curriculum, with competencies like critical thinking / problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, and character qualities such as curiosity, initiative, persistence, adaptability, social and cultural awareness, our co-founders Phil and Rachel Bowyer have taken steps to ensure children’s rights will be upheld in quality and inclusive education, including:

Local Research

  • Extensive reading, research and development of a context-appropriate ‘philosophy for education’ that reflects our image of the child, how children learn best, and – taking these factors into account – the unique role the educator adopts, considering the importance of relationships (2016)
  • Visiting innovative models of education within South Africa, including Richards Bay Christian School, SPARK in Maboneng, and St Mary’s in Waverley, Streetlight School in Jeppestown and Udobo in Durban (2017)
  • Meeting local stakeholders located within the eThekwini and KwaDukuza Municipality operating within the business, education and church sectors (2017 onwards) – to date Soul Action has met with over 200 people

Global Research

Between April and June 2018, the scope of research widened to include education that is bringing freedom around the world. Co-founders Rachel and Phil Bowyer spent ten weeks with children, staff and leaders in i). Italy – Reggio Emilia; ii). the US – Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Harlem, Centerville and Washington; iii). the UK – London; iv). Israel – Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; v). New Zealand – Blenheim and Auckland; vi). Australia – Sydney.

Notes and journaling

To document this research, field notes were taken outlining the key information and dialogue that took place during visits.  Using these field notes, retrospective reflection on each individual visit led to the identification of specific learning points; these were shared on Game Changers Facebook page in the form of ‘Notes’ whilst on the road, and later redrafted to form the body of the report as a ‘Learning Journal’.

Learning points

On return to South Africa, Phil and Rachel Bowyer spent time recapping each individual visit – referring both to the field notes and Facebook Notes – and, after considerable discussions, came to conclusions with regards to the main areas for learning.  The information gathered from these discussions was coded to enable similar information to be identified. The information was worked through twice, coding and re-coding, to ensure consistency. 

As a result of this process, clear themes emerged, which have been grouped in to four sections (below), namely: 1. The image of a child; 2. The Staff Team; 3. The Environment; and 4. The parent-carer and relationships with the wider community.

© Copyright 2018 by Philip and Rachel Bowyer. All rights reserved. No parts of what follows may be reproduced, stored in a retrival system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronice, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, expect for the inclusion of brief quotation in a review, without prior permission in writing from the authors.

Learning points

1. The image of a child

We believe that every child is a unique individual who is capable, creative, curious, intelligent, and – to fulfil their potential – children should be free to participate in their education, development and learning.

Over a ten-week period Phil and Rachel Bowyer visited schools around the world that valued the rights of the child to access quality and inclusive education.  Many of the schools involved in the research had developed approaches that offer children the opportunity to discover for themselves in authentic situations and co-construct knowledge with others.  The approaches observed enable children to develop knowledge, skills and understanding which are necessary to fulfil their aspirations and relevant for today’s society – foundational literacies, alongside competencies like complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, as well as character qualities such as curiosity, initiative, persistence / grit, adaptability, leadership and cultural / social awareness.[i]

1.1. What the world of education reveals

Reggio in Italy, represents one approach where educators – in partnership with children’s interests and ideas – design ‘projects’ with 0 to 6-year olds.  Reggio sees learning as a dynamic process in which adults work with where children are at, provoking them to more forward by oscillating between what is known and unknown. 

Working with children aged from 2 to 13 years, New York’s Blue School balances the development of foundation literacies – such as language, mathematics and science – with what they call ‘project’ work, or to be more accurate ‘a way of being’. This facilitates an integration between subjects and the development of competencies and character qualities like creativity, collaborative problem-solving and self / social intelligence.  Educators took students’ interests and current knowledge in to account as they planned.  Ad Fontes Academy in Virginia was utilizing a ‘classical curriculum’ for 4 to 18 years; an approach that enables children to develop foundational literacy skills in language, logic, math and writing, as well as become independent learners, with the ability to think for themselves.  In New Zealand, the Department of Education is moving towards an inquiry approach – where children determine a path of inquiry related to their interest – for its project-based work.  Inquiry based learning represents a way of enabling children to develop skills in collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.  This approach is used alongside the teaching of key skills in reading, mathematics and writing.

What all these approaches to education have in common is that they assist children to do ‘own’ their learning. 

We observed well-motivated individuals in all the schools involved in the research, especially where children were free to voice and express their thoughts, and where their ideas about creating, forming and shaping the future were valued.  The best approaches balanced and supported the development of foundational literacies such as language, numeracy, science, ICT, finances and cultural / civic literacy, alongside the competencies and character qualities the World Economic Forum believe children will need as working adults.[ii]  

In those early childhood education centres around the world, where more than one culture was represented, languages were given a high priority, with each age group having teachers who spoke the main languages of the local community, which enabled children to develop skills in speaking these languages fluently.  As the culture and history represented by the community in which any future school will be located are researched, the languages which are used in the early childhood education centre will need to be carefully thought through.

1.2. The aim for South Africa

As we establish a quality and inclusive school – starting with 3-year olds and adding a year at a time – due consideration needs to be given to teaching and learning approaches that align with a philosophy that values foundational literacies alongside critical thinking / problem solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration, whilst recognising learners right to be active participants in their education and development.  

Every school involved in the research demonstrated high levels of trust in the capability, creativity, curiosity and intelligence of children.  This was evident in those approaches that encouraged children to actively participate in their own learning, in the way adults / staff interacted with children, and the environments that were purpose built or repurposed to accommodate this approach to learning – these will be explored in the following sections.  

2. The Staff Team

A school’s educators, alongside its leaders, are the vehicle through which children receive excellent education. 

2.1. What the world of education reveals

All the educators involved in this research were of the highest calibre and held in the highest regard by the leadership of the schools; this was evident in the way educators were active within the learning spaces, in their commitment, motivation and preparedness.  The most inspiring educators were visibly passionate; they clearly wanted to make a difference to the lives of the children in their care; teaching was a vocation not a job.

Educators were trusted by their leadership to provide high quality care and education; they were empowered to make decisions on activities that would support children to oscillate between what is known and unknown.  Educators saw themselves as researchers and co-learners with the children, often working with small groups, both in early years’ settings and the primary school, serving as guides and facilitators.  Small group work enabled higher levels of interaction, with adults gently provoking dialogue, incisive questioning, listening and observations in response to children’s ideas and views. This way of working also enabled differently abled children to be catered for, included and thrive.  Educators documented the learning and progress of children; some schools encouraged documentation of the whole class, whilst others documented the learning of the individuals through portfolios, which they either referred to as ‘learning journeys’ or ‘learning stories’.

Inspiring leaders were evident in every school; people who believed in what they were doing, worked alongside their staff team to ensure the philosophy was practiced and the school provided quality teaching and learning.  Leaders provided structures to support staff, including facilitating regular individual observations with feedback, planning and reflection meetings and professional development.  Alongside these structures, leaders set clear expectations, modelled behaviour and were highly visible.  As part of their role, leaders created the culture for teaching and learning, the environment for the work to happen.  Schools in Washington, Virginia and London developed their ethos and habits from a theological foundation, whilst a preschool in Auckland (pictured), had contextualised the Reggio Approach established in Northern Italy, to accommodate their Christian ethos, alongside a philosophy that celebrated the local Maori context, culture, history and traditions.

All schools acknowledged that finding and appointing the right educators to collaborate with children and other educators was a priority; individuals who viewed teaching as a vocation, who were committed to the philosophy, believed all children were capable, curious, intelligent and active participants in their own learning. 

Views on the level of qualifications needed to work within the early years setting differed between contexts, from an Auckland preschool that first welcomed community members with a love and desire to work with children – before encouraging them to pursue formal training and qualifications – to a Sydney preschool that appointed high numbers of staff with degrees, believing this supported in delivering quality care and education.

2.2. The aim for South Africa

The appointment of high-calibre staff, who are committed to the philosophy, and have a desire to work as part of a team alongside the educational leader in developing the culture for teaching and learning, will be critical to establishing a school in KZN. Structures that support staff will be developed to facilitate quality education.  

2.2.1. Investment in teachers

‘The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking.’ii(a)  

After an initial focus on training, the NPO Soul Action South Africa noticed a significant shift in depth of personal development and sustained transformation in its schools-based programmes in 2014, as a result of a decision to begin to meet educators on a regular one on one basis – for mentoring and support – alongside delivering workshops. 

Learning from this experience, the facilitation of ‘thinking environments’ – characterised by making room for greater attention, equality, appreciation, encouragement, feelings, information, diversity and incisive questions – became a core feature of Soul Action South Africa’s work with leaders of business, churches and Non-profits from 2016.

‘What really makes education effective is well-leveraged leadership that ensures great teaching to guarantee great learning.’iii(a)  

Quality education is not something that can be left to chance.  Children fulfilling their holistic potential requires quality teachers, and quality teachers require leaders who are prepared to observe lessons, give feedback and facilitate appropriate professional development – some of the instructional and cultural levers that drive ‘consistent, transformational and replicable growth.’[iii]

2.2.2. The Role of the Principal

Uncommon School’s Patrick Bambrick-Santoyo, questions why US Principals spend over 90% of their time focused on tasks that do little to increase student achievement.  He believes a Principal’s first priority is to, ‘create the highest-leverage, most game changing 30 minute conversations possible.’  Leaders of quality schools develop quality educators via, ‘weekly observations and feedback’ – a schedule that allows educators to develop more in one year than most do in 20.[iv]  Whether there is any truth in the statements that anyone can master anything in 10,000 hours or 10 years, Soul Action believes South Africa’s children – and South African society as a whole – cannot afford to wait a moment longer for quality leadership within the education sector.

3. The Environment

A learning environment reflects what a school believes is important for learning and discovery.  A variety of educational facilities, for children aged 0 to 18 years, were involved in this research – from single storey schools, to vertical schools established in inner cities across many floors of high rise buildings.  

3.1. What the world of education reveals

The physical environment of the infant toddler centres and preschools in Italy’s Reggio Emilia, and the Reggio Inspired schools around the world, invited active participation, creativity, different perspectives, reflection, research and relationship building.  Reggio’s primary school incorporated an ‘atelier’ – with an art and design studio feel to it – which encouraged the expressive and poetic ‘languages’ to be integrated across all learning. 

In New Zealand ‘Modern Learning Environments’– simple flexible spaces, which are shared by two or three classes in schools – encourage children to collaborate and solve problems in groups or pairs.  Children are free to work in whatever spaces where they feel most comfortable, in a way that is most appropriate for their learning style.  The environment enables children to work completely individually, yet completely together. 

The isolation of teaching staff that can sometimes be an issue in more ‘traditionally’ designed schools was broken down by creating physical environments where teachers could work together in pairs or small team. 

Outside spaces were given high priority, especially for younger children, where they provided a rich learning environment alongside the inside area.  This was especially evident at a preschool in Sydney where there was a teacher dedicated to facilitating discovery, and document learning in the outside space.  At the same preschool in Sydney, a homely environment was achieved inside through the use of soft / warm colours, natural materials, and framed family photographs.  Furniture was either adult, but cut down to size, or scaled down and bespoke. Rather than imitation, kitchens were fully equipped, functioning, with running taps – some had expresso machines. In the main kitchen, children prepared food alongside a chef, whilst others laid tables with cloths, china and glasses.  Children and staff ate together, as they would at home or out at a local restaurant. 

The communal co-constructing aspect of learning – typified by the importance of food knowledge, preparation and presentation – in children’s development and learning was evident in many of the early years’ settings.

At the heart of being collaborative is the belief that we are better together than we are on our own – which resonates with the notion of Ubuntu in South Africa. Collaborative schools welcome dialogue and are participatory; each member of staff is encouraged to bring ideas, thoughts and knowledge, with the understanding that in sharing, a better, richer, fuller education can be provided for every child. Collaboration works well when teachers value and respect the other, when people are not competing for power or status. Teachers within a collaborative context need to want to listen to each other, to be flexible and embrace change.

Creating an environment that encourages collaboration relies heavily on the intentionality, empowering nature and facilitation skills of the school’s leader.  Structures are necessary to support teachers as they seek to work together; giving staff the opportunity to share what is working, as well as think / work through any challenges.

3.2. The aim for South Africa

There is a need to consider how to create a learning environment aligned to its philosophy. A philosophy that, when practiced, demonstrates Soul Action’s commitment to support children as they co-construct the type of foundational literacies, competencies and character qualities that are required to voice, shape, form and create the kind of South African society that we long for today and imagine for the future. 

Born out of a marriage between philosophy and architecture, the built environment needs to be conducive to the cognitive, physical, spiritual and socio-emotional development of 21st Century skills like critical thinking / problem-solving, creativity, communication, collaboration, curiosity, initiative, persistence / grit, adaptability, leadership, and social / cultural awareness – not just for children, but for educators, leaders, parent carers and the wider community.   Our school will be a microcosm of the society we imagine for South Africa as a whole.

4. The ‘parent-carer’ and relationships with the wider community

We believe that quality and inclusive education is a shared responsibility between the school, families and the wider community.  The highest quality schools involved in this research valued and respected the contributions and participation of parent carers, and the wider community; an approach that is supported by research that demonstrates that when parent carers are involved in education, children tend to perform better (Okeke, 2014).[v]  Schools were being intentional about developing genuine inter-cultural relationships among families, by utilising occasions, rhythms and structures that celebrated, respected and sought to understand the range of cultures, history and traditions that were unique to their contexts.

4.1. What the world of education reveals

Malachim Preschool, a Reggio Inspired centre in Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel had developed interesting approaches to include parent-carers in the life of the school.  For example, parents were encouraged to inhabit the learning spaces at the start and end of each day, since the preschool believed this helped the children to understand that what they do there is important. Profiles – that documented the learning and progress of each child throughout their time at the preschool – are completed in partnership with the parent and / or primary carers. 

Mia Mia, a long-day education and care program in Sydney, have carefully considered the role of the family.  Each prospective family is shown around the centre, on an individual basis, so that the philosophy and approach can be explained and observed before parents make an informed decision.  The transition process from home to school is also planned with the parents; this can take up to a few weeks depending on the needs of each child and family.  Documentation is developed on a daily basis and used as a way of communicating learning with families, and parents participate in the maintenance and development of the built environment.

The infant toddler centres and preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy are places where parents are encouraged to be part of the life of the school.  At various points during the life of what the schools call a ‘projectista’ – an extended period of focused research and design – educators will gather parent-carers to share what the children have been exploring, expressing and learning.  Parent-carers will be invited to reflect, participate and contribute their ideas, knowledge and points of view, to make new proposals and extend the scope of research.

At the Peace Preschool in Jerusalem – a school that welcomes Jews, Christians and Muslims – every opportunity is taken to celebrate festivals through the sharing of stories, food and art.  They have found that this enables strong relationships to be built with parent-carers, which supports the deepening friendships among families.

At a preschool in Auckland, the historical context of where the school is located has been thoroughly researched; from this, practices have emerged that respect and value each family’s culture.  This has enabled genuine relationships to be built with the families and community, so nurture and education are a joint effort.

Schools located in the UK and the US intentionally focus on families within a defined community, in order to bring about sustained change and transformation.  The Oasis Hub Waterloo focuses on one square mile – they believe that quality education and healthy communities are necessary for children and young people to thrive.

Intercultural describes communities in which there is a deep understanding and respect for all cultures. Intercultural communication focuses on the mutual exchange of ideas and cultural norms and the development of deep relationships. In an intercultural society, no one is left unchanged because everyone learns from one another and grows together.’iv(a)

4.2. The aim for South Africa

Participation from parent-carers and community stakeholders is absolutely vital as we establish a school in KwaZulu Natal.  Wherever the school is located, relational research will be required to discern the mix of cultures, history and languages that are represented, with the intention of developing practices, rhythms and ways of being that accommodate, celebrate and empower families as they develop diverse, genuine and meaningful relationships.  The hope would be that any learning gained from the relational research would inform the initial ‘what’ ‘how’ and ‘why’ we are as a school; particularly how to work alongside families, their children and the wider community in ways that appreciate, respect and value all the cultures represented.

[i] World Economic Forum (2015). A New Vision for Education [online]. Available from, p. 3

[ii] Ibid.

ii(a) Kline, N. Time to Think: the ten components [online]. Available from [Accessed September 2018]

[iii] Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2012) Leverage Leadership, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Other levers include data-driven instruction – you cannot know if students are learning at the highest levels unless you assess that learning – planning lessons, and developing positive, joyful, strong staff and student community / culture. 

[iv] Ibid., 23, 61.

[v] Okeke C. I., (2014) Effective home-school partnership: Some strategies to help strengthen parental involvement, South African Journal of Education, Volume 34, Number 3, August 2014.

iv(a) Spring Institute (2018). What’s the difference between multicultural, intercultural, and cross-cultural communication? [online] Available from [Accessed October 2018]

More than a dream.

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At game-changers we truly believe that every child – whatever their age, gender, race or socioeconomic status – should have access to quality education so that they can fulfill their potential. This is why we are committed to establishing a quality, inclusive and affordable school, for families from a range of incomes here in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
In order to make the school sustainable – whilst catering for families from a range of incomes – our aim of quality and inclusive education for all, requires a different funding approach to what currently exists here in South Africa. Generally, quality education within South Africa comes at a cost, a cost that the overwhelming majority of the population cannot afford. Even in a ‘Post Apartheid’ society, the average black family still earns five times less than the average white family. We want to create a different model, an affordable approach for everyone, where the level of school fees you pay are in relation to your income.

As part of our research into innovative, child-centred approaches to education, we had the opportunity to visit a high school in Washington DC that is part of the Cristo Rey Network.

Below, we share a bit about Cristo Rey’s story…

In 1991, a Jesuit Priest, Father Bradley Schaeffer, had a vision to start a school in an economically disadvantaged community in Pilsen, Chicago. As a Jesuit he knew his calling was to serve the poor. High schools in the community, at the time, had a drop out rate of between 56% and 73% and weren’t giving children and their families the life they sought. He recognised that as people of faith they needed to be involved in education to bring change and transformation for families.

In More than a dream – the book that tells the story of how the first school started – Kearney (2008) highlights how the initial team strived to create a sustainable model. They identified the need for a different approach, recognising that the models to fund schools – tuition fees, endowments for bursaries, volunteer teachers – would not work, Schaeffer in 1993 explained:

‘We’re working on a model that people will be able to afford. We know that’s an issue. I don’t know how we are going to do it yet, but we’re going to make the school affordable’ (p.23).

And they did create a model to make the school affordable. They developed an approach consisting of a Corporate Work Program in which students worked one day a week. This money would go towards the payment of their tuition costs, and in addition to this families would pay relatively low school fees. Kearney explains:

“To make the school more affordable, its founders adopted a bold new funding model. It was the kind of model that when proposed in most boardroom brainstorming session would elicit a chuckle and a few harrumphs. Someone would probably say, “Yeah, wouldn’t it be nice if we could.”

Inevitably, though, it would be dismissed in favour of something more practical, something that had already been done, been tested, and proven successful. The new approach would fall silently from the table, its potential snuffed out by a refusal – or maybe an inability – to think of what could be.

In this case, though, the new model defied the odds and stayed on the table. The Jesuits were determined to start a school for the children of the working poor – and they vowed to make it happen…
The model proposed for the new school was untested and certainly unconventional. But the Jesuits decided, after substantial consultation and discernment, to try it anyway” (p.xiii).

The first Cristo Rey school did start in Pilsen, Chicago in 1996. Now 22 years later there are 35 Cristo Rey Schools, located in 21 states in America, serving 11,522 students.

Cristo Rey’s story is so inspiring. So many steps of faith had to be taken from the vision in 1991, to the first school becoming a reality in 1996. They were committed to providing quality student-centred education for the economically disadvantaged, and by taking one step at a time, this is what they achieved.

Like the Jesuits, we are determined to start a school. For the vision to become a reality a different funding model is necessary. To ensure quality and inclusive education for all in South Africa we need a different model. Our approach may also be untested, but we are going to try it anyway.

Ensuring ‘Quality’ within Early Childhood Education in Sydney.

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Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia – – was established 24 years ago to provide a long-day care program for the community. The centre is also the school for the Institute of Early Childhood’s demonstration program and a site of innovative practice.

Reflecting on the final visit of 10 weeks of research, the word that springs to mind most is ‘quality’:

  • quality in terms of the homely environment created for the 0 to 5 year olds in their care, with careful thought going in to the furniture, the resources available and what is placed on the walls
  • quality of teachers, with a high number of staff qualified to degree level
  • quality of interaction between adults and children, with approaches that differentiate for the developmental needs of each age group
  • quality of collaboration between staff to provide education and care
  • quality in levels of staffing with high staff to children ratios, and permanent staff to cover break times, non-contact time and annual leave – ensuring consistency
  • quality of the outside area, with a dedicated teacher being responsible for the space and documenting learning
  • quality in the food served, and the dedication of the chef to work with two children each day and document learning
  • quality in the way technology is integrated in to learning
  • quality in the documentation that is developed on a daily basis by a teacher from each age group, and used as a way of communicating learning with families
  • quality in the way the centre works with families, from the admission process, to considering transition, to having easily accessible photos of each child’s family in their room, to the participation of families in the maintenance and development of the built environment
  • quality of the leadership in working alongside, supporting and developing staff

In dialoguing with Susan – Mia Mia’s acting director – she highlights how research shows that ‘quality’ within early childhood centres is linked to the level of qualifications of the institution’s leadership and of the teachers, and the ratio of those adult staff members to children. All other influences flow from these two key areas.

In establishing a ‘quality’ school in Durban careful consideration needs to be given to qualifications and ratios. A good number of teachers working within the early years setting in South Africa will be qualified to certificate or diploma level, which means quality will rely on developing structures that support staff to be the very best they can be, and – where appropriate – encouraging further formal study, so that staff within the early childhood centre qualify as teachers with degrees. Further thought is required as to how to provide high adult to child ratios; maybe this will need to include volunteers and / or parent helpers under the guidance of the teacher.

The image of a Child.

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We believe every child is a unique individual, who capable, creative, curious and intelligent. In order to fulfil their potential, we also believe that every child should be an active participant in their education, learning and development.

Throughout ten weeks of research into innovative models of education, we have experienced schools that are prioritizing and valuing the rights of the child to quality and inclusive education all over the world. Many of these schools had developed unique approaches that give children the opportunity to discover for themselves in authentic situations, and to construct knowledge with others. The approaches we’ve observed enable children to develop knowledge, understanding and skills which are necessary to fulfil their aspirations and relevant for today’s society.
The Reggio Approach – which we first experienced in the city of Reggio itself, but saw influencing schools in New York, Tel-Aviv, Auckland and Sydney – encourages teachers to work in partnership with children’s interests and ideas in the design of projects (particularly with 0 to 6 year olds). Reggio sees learning as a dynamic process in which adults work with where children are ‘at’ and provoke them to move forward by encouraging them to oscillate between what is known and unknown.

With children aged from 2 to 13 year olds, New York’s Blue School, balances the development of academics, i.e. math, language and science, with ‘project work’. Project work facilitated the integration between subjects and development of key skills in creative thinking, collaborative problem-solving and self and social intelligence. Teachers planned taking students’ interests and current knowledge in to account.

New Zealand’s Department of Education is steadily moving towards an inquiry approach to project based work, where children determine a path of inquiry related to their interest. ‘Inquiry based learning’ represents a way of enabling children to develop skills in collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity. This approach is used alongside the teaching of key skills in reading, writing and math.


What is known as a ‘classical curriculum’ was being utilized for 4 to 18 year olds by Ad Fontes Academy in Centreville. This approach enables children to develop foundational skills in language, math, logic and writing and also to become independent learners with the ability to think for themselves.


What all of these approaches have in common is that they assist and encourage children to ‘own’ their own learning. Our observations of children benefiting from this approach revealed well motivated individuals, as a direct result of the value that was given to their thoughts and ideas. These approaches were supporting the development of academics, alongside the kind of skills the World Economic Forum (2015) acknowledges children will need to be effective as adults in the workplace, namely the skills of collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, innovating and creativity.

In those early childhood education centres where more than one culture was represented – for example, Auckland, Harlem, and Jerusalem – language was given a high priority. Each age group having teachers who spoke the languages enabled children to develop skills in speaking both languages fluently.


Where schools worked with a wide range of ages – i.e. pre-school to middle or high school – a great deal of thought had been given to what approach/es were most appropriate for the developmental needs of each age group.

What does this all mean to us?

In moving forward towards establishing a quality and inclusive school for 3 to 18 year olds, that is also affordable, we believe we need to:

  • decide on the teaching and learning approaches to utilize that most align with our philosophy, and support the development of academics alongside critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and creativity, and which recognise that children need to be active participants in their education and development
  • consider which approaches are most appropriate for the specific developmental needs of each age group
  • identify the languages of learning; languages that will be used in the early childhood education centre

Every school visited had high expectations of their children, who they saw as capable and intelligent. This was evident in the approaches that encouraged children to participate in their education, the way adults interacted with children, and the environment created for learning.
We will share more about ii) the built environment, iii) the staff team, & iv) community / home / parents, next time.

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A Celebration of History and Culture at Awhi Whanau, Auckland.

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How to establish a school with a culture / environment in line with one’s philosophy has been touched on previously (p21, p26) – a culture / environment that allows and encourages ‘the work’ that needs to be done by adults and children to happen – but what about the history of the place and people in which the school is located?

Located in a suburb of Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, Awhi Whanau is an early childhood centre that embodies the Reggio Approach developed in Italy, but in a way that is unique to their context. From the moment one enters the space the Maori culture at Awhi Whanau is obviously valued and respected; they seek to affirm and empower the Tamariki – children – in their identity, evident in so many of their practices:

  • we received a very warm traditional ‘Maori’ welcome; the adults – staff and people from the community – along with the children sang and greeted us in Maori
  • the outside space is culturally relevant and represents the Maori landscape
  • people from the community with a love for, and desire to work with children, are embraced and developed; often going on to study as teachers
  • each child has their own learning journal, which records their development – their form of documentation (right: a child shares another child’s journal)
  • Maori and English are spoken by staff, with children learning to speak English and Maori

The centre is ‘committed to nurturing every child and supporting their growth and development.’ A statement no doubt many an early childhood centre would claim as one of their aims, but it was the way this was worked out in the unique context of Awhi Whanau that was particularly interesting and inspiring – how the aim was reflected in the built and natural environments the respect and value of the culture, the languages being spoken.

The visit as a whole, especially the Maori welcome – which included an address by one of the elders – and particularly the extended dialogue with Centre Manager Huhana Winiata, and one of the founders Robyn Lawrence, was deeply challenging – in a good way – in particular in considering the unique cultural context of Africa, South Africa, KwaZulu Natal, eThekwini, Inner-City Durban, right down to the one square kilometre of wherever the school will eventually be located.
Awhi Whanau makes one wonder what cultures exist locally – what is common, similar or totally unique about these cultures, and how does one celebrate Durban’s rich heritage without focusing on narratives that – as a consequence of some of South Africa’s past ills – are ‘historical hostile’ by nature (McLaren 2012:117)

In researching the different and shared cultures, histories, languages and traditions that are represented locally there is a genuine desire to develop practices which appreciate, comprehend, respect and value the context/s of the families and community that will one day come to see the school as theirs, practices that develop levels of understanding that lend themselves to deep and meaningful relationships emerging, practices that see education as a joint collaborative democratic effort.

The hope is that this additional piece of contextual, cultural, historical research will inform the very nature of what and who ‘we’ are as a school; that through it, the school will gain fresher perspectives on how to work alongside the community, families and their children – in ways that respects and values all the cultures and histories that are represented.

Inquiry-Based Learning at Richmond View, Blenheim.

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Inquiry-based learning or IBL is a concept that is being embraced by New Zealand’s education department.

The leadership and staff recognise that IBL gives learners greater freedom of choice and supports children in developing skills in collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity – some of the skills that the World Economic Forum (2017) acknowledge that children need to develop to be effective as adults in the workplace.


Located on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, Richmond View School have developed an inquiry process that is appropriate to their context; a process that involves the following five well defined stages:

  1. curiosity – captivating and engaging interest / a provocation
  2. take stock – children considering what they already know about the area and starting to determine a path of inquiry related to their interest
  3. discovery – children thinking about the resources they have to find out information related to their interest and beginning the research process
  4.  communicate – children taking action and sharing what they have learnt in an appropriate format
  5. reflection – taking time to evaluate and reflect on learning, considering where to next

Teachers at Richmond acknowledge that they need to think and plan differently, especially to ensure that curriculum requirements are fulfilled at the same time as IBL is facilitated.
Rather than studying individual subjects – which can have the danger of them being viewed as unrelated – the IBL approach champions the ‘connectedness’ of learning. It also gives children the opportunity to extend their knowledge and understanding by going deeper. The whole approach is incredibly exciting, inspiring and stimulating – both for the observer, and for the children themselves, who are active participants in learning.

Having first read about and now being exposed to IBL first-hand in New Zealand, Soul Action believes that this approach to education will be well suited to any primary school that emerges from the Reggio-style preschool it is proposing to establish in Durban. IBL represents a way of continuing to support children as they develop the skills they require for the 21st century, by continuing that sense of wonder, inquisitiveness and collaboration nurtured in their early years, alongside the teaching of key skills in reading, writing & math.

Collaboration – ‘I am because we are’

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Throughout 10 weeks of research, the collaborative nature of teaching has been evident in many of the schools. At the heart of being collaborative is the belief that we are better together than we are on our own. In South Africa there is a saying: Ubuntu or ‘I am because we are’ – the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation, we cannot be without each other, but rather depend on connection, community and – I would add – collaboration.

Teachers at Whitney Street starting the school day in Blenheim, New Zealand

Practically speaking, collaborative schools have been shown to be participatory; they welcome contribution, dialogue, group work, sharing, teamwork, etc. Staff are encouraged to bring ideas, thoughts and knowledge, with the understanding that – as a result of sharing – a better, richer, fuller education can be provided for every child. They rights of children are valued and practiced.

  • In the infant toddler centres (0 to 3 year olds) and pre-schools (3 to 6 year olds) at Reggio Emilia, teachers work in pairs in one class, and then as part of a wider staff team to reflect, think and design projects. Teachers are referred to as ‘participants’ in the learning process – they grow and are being formed together, as they participate and encounter the different points of view, of adults and children
  • At the Blue School in Lower Manhattan, New York, children (from 2 to 13 years of age) are taught by teachers who work collaboratively in pairs with a class. The school’s leadership model collaboration by investing in teachers through facilitating joint reflection and planning meetings.
  • The Children’s Zone in Harlem has developed a ‘pipeline of best practice’ with programs that operate from birth right the way through to college; their leaders acknowledge that for this to be possible, a culture needs to be cultivated that is rooted in passion, accountability, leadership and teamwork.
  • The Oasis Academy, with 49 schools across the UK for children ranging from 3 to 16 year olds, value collaboration; they say ‘we’ are stronger together means sharing knowledge, mutual respect, forgiveness, believing the best in and for the other – all of which develop understanding and tolerance.
  • At the Malachim Preschool in Israel’s capital Tel Aviv-Yafo, three teachers work together with a class of children – they plan together, share the same space and have responsibility for the class.
  • Classrooms for 5 to 13 year olds at Richmond View School in Blenheim, New Zealand, are physically connected; an approach which encourages teachers to work in small teams for certain activities. Adults work as team within the classrooms; a class might have 4 adults – a teacher, two teaching aids and a parent helper, working together to facilitate math teaching and activities for varying abilities.
  • In the ‘Modern Learning Environments’ at Whitney Street – once again in in Blenheim, New Zealand – three teachers plan and work together to facilitate class teaching and small group work
  • At Grovetown School a ‘Modern Learning Environment’ for 5 to 11 year olds in New Zealand, two teachers share a space working with the five and six year olds, playing to one anothers strengths and working together to seek solutions to any challenging situations that might arise at any given time.
  • The staff team at Awhi Whanau Early Childhood Centre, a bi-lingual Maori school for children aged 6 months to five years in Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, work together as a team, sharing responsibility for the inside and outdoor spaces and constructing knowledge with the children.
  • Home-like environments have been intentionally created for children from 3 months to 5 years at the Mia Mia Child and Family Centre at the Institute for Childhood at the Macquarie University in Sydney. The staff work in teams of at least three people, providing high quality care and education.

The World Economic Forum (2017) recognises that children need to develop skills in co-operation and collaboration. If we are ever going to support South African children to develop these skills, then as adults we need to want to work with each other, we need to really value collaboration and to model how to do this well.

Collaboration works best when teachers value and respect the other, when people are not competing for power or status. Teachers within a collaborative context need to want to listen to each other, to be flexible and embrace change. We have seen that in order to create the kind of environment that encourages collaboration requires leaders who are intentional. There needs to be a shared understanding of the philosophy for teaching and learning with clear expectations in terms of how people will be required to work in teams.

Providing structures that support teachers that seek to work together, gives staff the opportunity to share what is working, as well as think / work through any challenges they face. Staff need to want to be part of a journey of creating a collaborative environment, being willing to try new things and work as a team towards the goal.

The overwhelming majority of schools visited during this research value the rights that every child has to inclusive and equitable quality education; one way we have witnessed schools achieving this is through teachers working collaboratively. By working together, valuing perspectives and ideas, finding joint solutions to problems it is our belief that we can provide a better education for the children in our care.

Prioritizing Quality for the sake of Peace in Jerusalem.

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The Peace Preschool was established in 1982 as part of Jerusalem’s International YMCA. Picture a school, as an inclusive space that is welcoming to Jews, Christians and Muslims; a peaceful environment where children from as young as 6 months old are safe to explore and develop in relation to others they share the city with.


The preschool is a space that values and practices equality, multiculturalism and tolerance, in a country where relations between different cultures and faiths can be tense. Experiencing the environment, meeting class-teachers, observing the children and in-depth conversations with the director (Alexandra Klein-Franke), reveals so many good practices that the preschool has put in place to provide bilingual and multicultural education:

  • each class at the Peace School has a Hebrew speaking and an Arabic speaking teacher – this gives the children a diverse experience and enables them to hear and speak both languages fluently
  • the three main languages – Arabic, English and Hebrew – are given equal validity, for example in the way they are written side-by-side (rather than top to bottom), and either all handwritten, or all typed
  • strong relationships are built with families by celebrating festivals through sharing stories, food and art
  • the role the director / principal plays is once again vital – she provides the environment and creates the culture for ‘the work’ to happen; staff are treated as equals; standards of behaviour are modelled by the director, and the director supports staff to work together (collaboration is discussed later)

Alexandra shares how parents choose the Peace School because they feel that it equips their children – from a very young age – to exist, develop, inhabit and thrive in a diverse society. Parents that want their children to have a natural sense of equality, contribute to the goal of multicultural and bilingual education; they value trust and partnership.

Through observations and conversations with locals, Israel is clearly an unequal and segregated society, and in this sense, resonates with the current South African context. Arabs appear to be treated differently to Jews; in Israel and particularly Palestine. In terms of education, Jews seem to have more opportunities and greater access to further study and training in comparison with Arabs, which includes teacher training.

Learning first-hand from the context in which the Peace School operates, through observation, listening to and appreciating their unique achievements and challenges, one begins to recognise that Soul Action is also going to need to prioritise as part of the process of establishing a school in the Inner-City which values amongst other things affordability, different learning styles, excellence, inclusivity, and strong leadership.

In taking the next step there is a sense, at least from the Peace School’s perspective, that to address the economic and / or racial differences that still divide Durban, the first need is to ensure that the provision of quality education on offer is the priority; this is to start – the ‘rest’ (inequality and integration) will follow.

What one takes away from the Peace School – like many of the schools operating in other different / similar contexts around the world – is that quality education relies on the leadership, leaders that are capable and committed to creating a healthy environment / culture where ‘the work’ that needs to be done can happen.

In remaining true to a philosophy, and the values attached to it, how these values work out in practice, i.e. the habits that develop – intentionally & naturally – are paramount in developing a culture for teaching & learning.