In December 1998, Woodmead School, the first fully multi-racial school in South Africa, closed its doors after twenty-eight years. Employees who had served the school faithfully were evicted from their houses on the property. Some had been there from the beginning. Most had nowhere to go. To exacerbate matters the school's Board breached numerous tenets of the National Labor Laws. It withheld information. It 'fobbed off' concerned parents. In the end, several members of the Board fraudulently 'donated' Woodmead's Preparatory School to a spurious company. It was then secretly sold to Crawford College for a fraction of its value. The people who closed Woodmead School didn't understand its unique place in South African history. What occurred was a tragedy. Why did it happen?

When I arrived at Woodmead in 1981, Steyn Krige was still the Headmaster. He had pioneered much of what was unique about Woodmead the Tutor System, the Tier System, its democratically elected Student Council and Integrated Studies. He particularly liked to discuss Integrated Studies, one of the school's shining lights, and he would periodically announce that it was time for a conference to assess the current progress of the subject. In theory, Integrated Studies replaced English, Geography, History and Social Studies, but in practice it encompassed a great deal more. Emphasis was placed on themes rather than topics. Each theme was approached from different directions and students were encouraged to explore the theme along a range of pathways. Skills were emphasized and independent learning encouraged and fostered. The students were enormously enthusiastic and supportive. There were classes of fifty but the strength and breadth of the subject offset the disadvantage of large classes. What emerged from the Integrated Studies program were highly motivated students who approached their final years of secondary school with confidence and enthusiasm. In 1982, I conducted a series of interviews with Standard 8 (Grade 10) Integrated Studies students who, without exception, spoke in glowing terms about the value of the subject, its significance in the school curriculum and the positive way it had influenced their academic progress.

There was one Integrated Studies conference, held at Woodmead in 1982, that I remember well. As usual, Steyn Krige spoke enthusiastically about the subject, but some staff members wanted to remove English as one of its key components and revert to a more conventional and conservative timetable. The proposal was that if English became a separate subject and Integrated Studies became a type of diluted Social Studies, the students would be better off and Woodmead would be more attractive in the marketplace. However, one teacher warned that not only was Integrated Studies an enormously powerful learning tool and a proven success in its own right, but that all successful pillars of the Woodmead philosophy, had to be maintained and nurtured. Woodmead, she argued, was unique not only because it was multi-racial in a racist society but also because it was innovative in numerous other ways. If the school surrendered Integrated studies and other key components of its philosophy in pursuit of short-term security, an end to apartheid would make Woodmead just another private school in a highly competitive marketplace. The warning was ignored.

In 1982, Steyn Krige retired as Headmaster of Woodmead and became the school's Director. Peter Nixon, a politician and former teacher, took his place. Nixon was a skilled and efficient administrator and an extremely capable educator, but he was deeply concerned about the image of the school. It had always suited South Africa's education establishment to portray Woodmead as an experimental, alternative school where undisciplined students worked when they felt like it and could do and say anything in the classroom. It was a myth that people believed and it concerned Nixon. Those who tried to confront the myth or to turn the image around failed to comprehend that it was intertwined with the fact that Woodmead was a multi-racial school. Decades of political indoctrination had promoted the notion that multi-racialism was alternativism and that alternativism was a potential threat to the state. Even in the land of apartheid, it was an irrational and simplistic formula, but it dogged the school throughout its life and played a significant part in its final demise.

Nixon believed that Woodmead's future could only be secured if it appealed to a greater cross section of society. Burying negative images about the school was crucial. Credibility in the community was the catch cry. A revamped philosophy was to be backed up with new facilities that would eventually enable Woodmead to compete with other private schools on a level playing field. Part of the solution was more money and so the school embarked on an intense fund raising program. Donations were secured from corporations and foreign governments eager to secure a place on the anti-apartheid bandwagon. Those same corporations and foreign governments had made fortunes doing business with the apartheid government. A flicker of conscience and the hedging of bets for the future meant a small windfall for the school. Woodmead was able to use the money in a constructive way for buildings, equipment and bursaries, but by following a conservative path and focussing more on emulating the mainstream and less on innovation, the seeds were sown for the school's final collapse.

When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the South African government was no longer needed to counteract the communist bogeyman in Africa. Apartheid could now be dispensed with. What had set Woodmead apart its multi-racial make-up was about to become the norm. Then, in the early 1990s, as the National Party's grip on power began to slip and the African National Congress loomed as its obvious successor, the management of Woodmead School made four fatal mistakes.

Firstly, it still failed to comprehend that Woodmead had been different mainly because of its multi-racial character. The political changes in the country meant that it was no longer unique in this respect. 'White' schools were introducing blacks, Indians and coloureds into their classrooms. Instead of concentrating on some of the other unique ideas that had set the school apart, and using them in a new marketing strategy, Woodmead's management attempted to compete on the open market with more established, wealthier private schools. Woodmead was placed in a dangerous position. It was critically important that the school again set itself apart through innovation, but although the essential mechanisms were in place, it failed to seize the opportunity.

Secondly, the management failed to adequately comprehend that companies and governments that had previously donated money to the school would take advantage of the changing political circumstances to scale back their philanthropy. For some reason, Woodmead's decision makers believed that the school could ride on the back of past glories and that there would be rewards for its contribution to the anti apartheid crusade. However, the vast majority of people who had supported liberation received nothing for their efforts. Indeed, powerful western financial institutions quickly made it clear to the ANC that if South Africa wanted to be accepted back into the global market place, it would have to abandon notions of fundamental social reform and instead fulfil the economic and political requirements of a different agenda. For a while, members of the political hierarchy basked in the post-revolutionary honeymoon. They called each other 'comrade' and talked of a utopian rainbow nation, but secretly and insidiously, generous tax concessions and exclusive benefits to multi-national corporations became the priority. Privatization of public assets and savage cutting of proposed government expenditure were to become the order of the day. At a time when the ANC should have placed education and social reform at the forefront of its policy platform, it chose to scale back expenditure from areas where it was most needed. What was left for the masses was the illusion of the so-called 'trickle down effect'. Moreover, the same old elites the people and companies who had benefited under apartheid were allowed to go on as before, amid a swell of white-collar crime and political expediency. In such an environment, an institution like Woodmead was not about to reap any rewards just because it had challenged the old order. Instead it was left with a legacy of bursary students whose financial support had evaporated.

The third mistake Woodmead made was to go heavily into debt at an ill-chosen time. Towards the end of the 1980s, some members of the school community decided that Woodmead's long-term future would be more secure if it had a Preparatory (Primary) School and could therefore accommodate students from early infancy through to matriculation. The Prep School would also serve as a feeder institution for the Senior School. Market research was carried out and an area near Craighaven (near the current Fourways Shopping Mall) was identified as a suitable location. The 'Friends of Woodmead' (who had previously set up a trust Woodmead Holdings in 1970 to ensure the ongoing viability of the Senior School) donated money to the cost of land and buildings. There are differences of opinion on precise financial details, but it appears that the Senior School also helped fund the Prep School by taking out a bond on its property for 1.8 million Rand and by cashing in a 900,000 Rand investment policy. Again, it is unclear how much of the total amount was loaned to the Prep School.

In theory, the idea of a Prep School had merit and the motives of the decision-makers were undeniably noble. However, in the late 1980s, the situation in South Africa was volatile to say the least. No one knew what changes were ahead. One problem was that there was no blueprint for how the Woodmead philosophy would be introduced into a Prep School environment, and the decision makers failed to think through the potential impact of political, social and economic circumstances on their plans. Flaws in the planning process became evident over and over again during the period 1990 to 1998. Certainly, the changing political landscape and spiralling interest rates hurt Woodmead, but ironically the most significant threat to emerge was a growing ideological rift between the Senior School and the Prep School.

When the Prep School began operations in 1990, Woodmead's general administrative arrangements and financial processes were adjusted to accommodate the changed circumstances. Woodmead Holdings (originally owned by the Woodmead School Association) had three levels of management the Board of Governors (of which there were originally ten but reduced to three by 1995), the Executive Committee of the Board and the Woodmead Board (consisting of Prep School and Senior School parents). After the establishment of the Prep School, the Board of Governors appears to have become less involved in day to day management. According to one former governor, some governors were becoming concerned that the Prep School was not committed to the Woodmead philosophy and that the existing Board wanted to take over the full running of the school. According to the former governor, late in 1996 the existing governors were informed that the Board intended to do away with them and rewrite the constitution. A meeting was called for November but the governors were not invited. There is conjecture as to whether any meeting ever took place. It appears however, that because both schools fell under the auspices of one trust, a management team known as the Board of Woodmead Holdings was set up to manage their affairs. There soon developed a strained relationship between the two schools over their respective financial standing. In 1995, the Prep School appointed a bursar to control its records. A full audit was then made to identify the assets and liabilities of each school.

According to the Woodmead School Board constituted at the time, the financial statements pertaining to the 1.8 million Rand bond, the 900,000 Rand investment policy and the exact amount of money owed by the Prep School to the Senior School, were lost, misplaced or stolen. There was then a difference of opinion about how much money the Prep School owed the Senior School. Eventually, it was agreed that the Prep School owed Woodmead Holdings 600,000 Rand (although information on dates, the parties involved in the decision and who agreed to what, is unclear). However, according to the Steyn Krige Crisis Committee (formed in 1998 to save the Senior School) and at least one other reliable source, the Prep School owed the Senior School significantly more (perhaps as much as 2.5 million Rand). At the time of these events, the Prep School was considering withdrawing from Woodmead Holdings and operating its own financial affairs, but eventually it decided that there were advantages in maintaining a joint operation. Moreover, the money owed to the Senior School prevented the Prep School from going it alone. At a meeting in late 1998, between members of the Senior School staff and Mr Bob Glenister (Deputy Chairman of the Board of Woodmead Holdings), Mr Glenister was asked about money taken from the Senior School, or borrowed on the Senior School property, to finance the Prep School. Mr Glenister replied that he was unclear about the amount of money that had been borrowed from the Senior School at the time, but he did make the claim that 500,000 Rand had been stolen from the school sometime in 1994 and that the money could not be traced. He said that all relevant documents had vanished.

In October 1996, the Prep School finally agreed to the consolidation of both schools as one entity. However, it initiated an arrangement whereby each school would run separate accounts and operate semi-independently. To achieve the consolidation, it was proposed that a single Board with equal representation from both schools be established. In late 1997, the Woodmead Board, by then dominated by Prep School parents, appointed Wayne Marais, an independent accountant, to analyze the school's financial position. His report indicated that the Senior School was in serious financial difficulty. Eventually, in July 1998, the Board decided to close the Senior School citing debt as the main reason. Although the figures are the subject of disagreement, it appears the Senior School had an overdraft of between 700,000 and 800,000 Rand and a debt of 1.8 million Rand secured by the property valued at around 6 million Rand. It also seems that the Prep School investigated the possibility of breaking away from Woodmead Holdings altogether and forming a separate company. Under such an arrangement, it would have been absolved from paying the money owed to the Senior School. Yet, had the Prep School repaid the money owed to the Senior School, the latter's overdraft would have been reduced to a manageable level. According to the Steyn Krige Crisis Committee, the financial status of the Senior School was not as bad as the Board had suggested. Crisis Committee members had examined the financial affairs of the school from 1991 (although the critical documents from 1995 were missing) and had concluded that even though the Senior School needed to take steps to increase its numbers, it had broken even in 1997 and was economically viable.

The fourth mistake was to allow a situation to develop whereby the Board (representing both the Prep School and the Senior School) was dominated by Prep School parents who had little understanding of, or empathy with, the philosophy of the Senior School. The Board that closed the Senior School came together in January 1997, only eighteen months before the announcement of closure was made. In November, 1997, Dick Sorensen, the Board's Chairman, wrote that the "board has a deep commitment to keeping the high School operating", and again in March 1998 he wrote to "Parents, teachers, staff and students" to "emphasise our commitment to the Woodmead School community". Significantly, after it announced it was closing the Senior School, the Board entered into discussions with 'interested' parties with a view to re-launching the Senior School in some other form. In a letter to school parents, dated July 31, 1998, Sorensen wrote that the Board would be "working diligently to build a viable plan that may permit us to relaunch a new school with a new image". The words "new school with a new image" are of enormous significance in terms of understanding what was happening. By implication they refer to the need to establish a 'normal' school with a conservative image, clear reference to the Board's dissatisfaction with the philosophy of the Senior School. At the end of the letter, Sorensen was careful to "re-emphasise that the closure of the high school will in no way affect the prep school". One of the 'interested parties' Sorensen referred to in his letter of July 31 was Jeff Wiggill, co-founder of the Crawford College 'school chain' and head of a group called The Forum.  In a document headed 'URGENT NOTICE TO ALL PARENTS OF WOODMEAD SCHOOL' dated October 6, 1998, Wiggill claimed the new look Woodmead Forum "will offer (in [the] grand tradition of Carl Rogers) person-centred education which will aim to uncover, reveal and nurture unique intrinsic strengths and talents within the individual". Wiggill went on to quote Plato and to espouse terms like "visionary education" and "respectful of diversity tradition" and he suggested that the new Woodmead might be the "best 'specialist' private school in Southern Africa, if not the Southern Hemisphere". Wiggill promised, somewhat ironically, that the new Woodmead would be "driven from a platform of integrity, enhancement of self-esteem, respect for diversity and the maintenance of dignity". He didn't seem to know that the original Woodmead had operated on such a foundation for almost thirty years. Eventually, Wiggill and the other 'interested parties' turned out to be 'fly-by-night' opportunists who promised the world but whose real intention had more to do with economic self-interest than idealism. Their involvement testified to the fact that the Woodmead Board had little genuine understanding of the Woodmead philosophy or of the school's proud twenty-eight year history, or indeed of education in general.

The Board (in particular the Executive of the Board) excluded concerned Senior School parents from the entire process, and despite commitments to the contrary, did not make available all the relevant information on its decision to close the Senior School. Moreover, the decision was made in the perceived interests of the Prep School only, and in a way that disabled any possibility of the Senior School surviving in its existing form. In the process of closing Woodmead Senior School, the Board also treated the Senior School staff in an appalling manner. In a letter to Senior School employees dated July 24, 1998, Dick Sorensen wrote to advise that "for financial reasons a decision had been taken to close Woodmead Senior School" and moreover, that "the services of the teaching and other staff employed at the school will be terminated at the year end". Sorensen advised that a meeting would be held with staff on July 27 "for the purpose of commencing a process of consultation". In the same letter, he promised that "details of the school's finances will be shared during the course of consultation together with all relevant information, so that informed decisions may be taken". Yet, on no occasion did Sorensen or any other member of the Board of Woodmead School share the full details of the school's finances with the staff and at no stage was all relevant information made available. The Senior School staff repeatedly requested access to these details and other important material but their letters were ignored and the information deliberately withheld. In a letter dated November 1998, to the "Staff of Woodmead High School," Sorensen asked that the Board and Senior School staff "continue to work together in a spirit of co-operation and trust". Yet, when the Woodmead Board finally abandoned the Senior School, it exploited the shadowy world of industrial law by using the traditional corporate techniques of procrastination, evasion and silence to sap the staff's capacity to fight for their rights. As Woodmead was sacrificed to the money gods, the Senior School staff teachers, administrative staff, groundstaff and kitchen staff were shut out of the process. Black staff members in particular, some with twenty-eight years of loyal service to the school, were treated shamefully. It was impossible not to notice that as the Board sought to avoid its obligations and absolve itself from responsibility, it contravened virtually every tenet of the Woodmead Charter.

Two final ironies somehow served to place everything into perspective. The Prep School was sold to Crawford College. Crawford was renowned for running its stable of schools along slick business lines and it seized the opportunity to pick up a cheap acquisition. The exact process whereby Crawford picked up its 'cheap acquisition' is currently the subject of an investigation, but what is currently known is that members of the Woodmead Board secretly 'donated' the Preparatory School to a bogus company called 'Craighaven Schools'. 'Craighaven Schools' then secretly sold the Preparatory School to Crawford College for 1.7 million Rand, a fraction of its true value. The money supposedly paid by Crawford has not been accounted for and details obtained from the Deeds Office suggest that numerous aspects of the sale process were at best seriously flawed and at worst criminal. At this stage, the people on the Board who were involved in the swindle are relying on the fragility of anonymity and the beleaguered state of the South African judicial system to protect them from exposure. The Senior School's land and buildings were leased to a dubious institution calling itself Woodmead Student City whose educational philosophy and school practice were about as far away from that of the original Woodmead as it was possible to get. From the information that is available, Student City appears to have paid no rent. It folded after several months.

The great tragedy of Woodmead School is that it had so much to offer post Apartheid South Africa. Despite the promise of a brave, new, outcomes-based system, education in the country remains shackled to the past. Although the Government claims that education is an important priority, state education is badly under resourced. Class sizes are ludicrously inflated. There aren't enough good teachers to make class sizes manageable, and those teachers who survive in the system, are under paid, over worked and in some cases demoralized. Private schools have survived relatively unscathed, but most seem unable to decide whether to fall back on the familiarity of conservatism or to embrace the challenges of the future. The South African education system is crying out for change but it is slowly being strangled by the cost cutting of economic rationalism, and there are very few principals with the courage to venture beyond the mainstream. Woodmead could boast almost three decades of innovation. It was perfectly positioned to show the way. Instead, it was abandoned, initially by the distractions of political and social upheaval and then by a group of illiberal opportunists who were oblivious to the real opportunity of the moment.
What Happened to Woodmead School?
Woodmead School choir singing at the local primary school in December 1982
The indomitable Viv Henry with Peter Nixon in the background, 1982
Assembly at Woodmead to remember the fifth anniversary of the death of Stephen Biko 1982
Articles about Woodmead