Independent Schools, Independent Thinkers
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The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 21 Nov 1996, p. 219-230


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Belash, Dr. Rachel, Speaker
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Speeches
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The speaker's background in education, even in her family life. Some aspects of independent education in Canada, as reflected in the speaker's experience at Branksome Hall. The speaker's belief that "Independence creates value." The benefits of independence. The challenges that emerge when schools are not totally free to govern themselves. Suggestions of lessons that emerge from this contrast. The exceptional quality of the educational experience that an independent school can provide, and the reasons for it. A brief history of independent schools. What an independent school can do for young women. A second benefit of promoting creativity among the faculty, teachers and administrators. Fostering creativity in programmes. A third important value of independence of creating a strong sense of community. Reaching out to involve parents. Personal attention in small classes. Providing friends for life. Paying attention to the whole child. Implementing Codes of Conduct. Placing a high value on physical fitness and athletics. Evaluation under the auspices of the Canadian Educational Standards Institute (CESI). A brief description of how that evaluation takes place. The speaker's enthusiasm about what independent schools achieve. A discussion of two forces which currently curtail creativity: the top-down control of the Ministry of Education and Training, and the current university admission process. Discussions in the public arena about charter schools. Independent schools as a model that demonstrably works and works well.
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21 Nov 1996
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Dr. Rachel Belash Principal, Branksome Hall
INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS, INDEPENDENT THINKERS
Chairman: Julie Hannaford, President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Douglas Todgham, Vice-President, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Third Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Joanne Sitarski, Head Girl, Branksome Hall; The Rev. Margaret Tandy, Chaplain, Bishop Strachan School; Joanna Campion, wife of Empire Club Past President and mother to Vanessa who attends Branksome Hall; Adam Zimmerman, Former Chairman, Noranda Forest and Past Chairman, Branksome Hall; Anne Libby, Coowner, Libby's of Toronto Art Gallery and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Joyce Kofman, Former Chairperson of the Board, Branksome Hall, a Past President, The Canadian Club of Toronto and Chairperson, The Conference of Independent Schools; and Anthony R. Graham, Senior Executive Vice-President and Managing Director, Levesque Beaubien Geoffrion and Chairman, Branksome Hall.

Introduction by Julie Hannaford

If there is a buzz word associated with industry today, it is globalisation. If there is a buzz word associated with education it is, regrettably, budgets.

Budgets, like the gallows, are a wonderful thing in that they tend to focus the mind. In Ontario the resultant budgetary planning and the pressure of the deficit has focussed our collective minds in the field of education on how to deliver high quality education, at the lowest possible costs. The pressures of globalisation and rapid advances in technological facilities has had the added effect of shaping what we mean by "quality" education.

And so, out of the popular media addressing the issue of education comes the demand that we equip our students for the global world in which they will be living. That means increasingly our educators are pressured to provide skill sets, to be teachers of practical skills, rather than educators in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Politicians who address the issue of education address the issue as though it were entirely involved with the delivery of a set of so many job skills in order to permit the products of our educational system to obtain jobs in today's ever-changing world. There are, however, voices of educators who are asking somewhat more difficult questions. Those questions involve the true cost of an educational system driven by budgets and focussed on the provision of skills rather than the development of intellect. Fortunately, those voices are beginning to coalesce into a stronger chorus which is telling us that if we do not concern ourselves with providing more than practical coping skills, if we do not understand education as something larger than simply a narrow training for a job market, then the products of our educational system will lurch towards the millennium unable to cope with a world of rapid change because their jobs skills and life skills so assiduously taught outdate themselves as soon as they are defined. Those voices associated with the delivery of a balanced, sane, and truly liberal education are telling us that if we are driven by the two pillars of budgetary restraint and skills delivery we shall produce a generation of students who are at best replete with skills, but empty of insight; brimming with cleverness, but lacking in vision; overflowing with ambition, but empty of motivation and mission.

It is perhaps unfair to ask ministries that govern education to look beyond budgetary constraints and skills delivery, at a time when those issues are what galvanised popular opinion. It may be, therefore, that principal change and examination of our educational system will come from the independent schools. We are therefore particularly fortunate to have our guest addressing The Empire Club of Canada today, for Dr. Belash is not only the principal and leader of an independent school, but has thought deeply and written widely on the subject of education and independent schools.

Dr. Belash was educated at Oxford University and received her Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from the University of Kentucky. She was the Co-ordinator of the Latin American Studies Program at Vassar College, and then became Vice-Chairman of Academic Affairs and Assistant to the Principals of the Milton Academy in Massachusetts. Dr. Belash became head of Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut in 1983 and in 1993 was appointed Principal of Branksome Hall, Toronto.

What Dr. Belash has to say about education is important not because she has held posts at distinguished academies, but because her academic career, and her business career speak to a broad and liberal participation in matters ranging from finance to literature. As an academic, Dr. Belash has been the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from Oxford University, the University of Kentucky, Vassar College and Columbia University.

As a participant in the business of education, Dr. Belash has worked as President and/or Director of institutes and schools including the Canadian Educational Standards Institute, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Coalition of Girls' Boarding Schools (of which Dr. Belash was the Founder and Co-Chair), and the National Association of Independent Schools Admissions Committee.

As a writer, Dr. Belash has enjoyed a publications career which included publications on Octavio Paz and Alfonsina Storni, to A Short History of Wills and Trusts, and in the field of education, she is the author of papers and articles, with provocative titles such as "Why Girls' Schools are Still Necessary," "Girls' Schools: Confessions of a Convert," and "Women and Power."

Dr. Belash addresses The Empire Club of Canada on Independent Schools and Independent Thinkers. If we are to survive in a global economy, in an environment where political, economic, and technological change are the order of the day, we will do so only if our educators provide our students with a comprehensive means of doing so. What Dr. Belash has to say today is critical to our educational future.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Dr. Rachel Belash, Principal of Branksome Hall, to The Empire Club of Canada.

Rachel Belash

It is appropriate that I speak to you about education, because education is in my blood.

I grew up in Wales, with a father who for many years was headmaster of what was then known as a "modern school." That was the place where the children who "failed" the 11-plus exam went. I should explain: at the age of 11 all children had to sit a national examination, the dreaded 11-plus, and how they did really determined their futures.

My father's goal for his students was to stop them from thinking of themselves as failures. So he introduced a great many innovations over the years and shaped a school that gained a reputation for being forward-looking and imaginative. The training children received there opened doors for them that otherwise would have been closed for ever.

So my father had a vision, a strong one. And since I have found myself, strictly against his advice, running schools I have often reflected on how much more freedom we who are heads of independent schools have to achieve our visions. So what I'd like to discuss today are some aspects of independent education in Canada, as reflected in my experience at Branksome Hall. The point I want to make is this: Independence creates value.

I'll elaborate that message by first talking about the benefits of independence, and then looking at the challenges that emerge when schools are not totally free to govern themselves. Finally I'll suggest some lessons that I think emerge from this contrast.

My fellow school heads in this room will agree, as I believe the parents of our students will, that the quality of the educational experience that an independent school can provide is exceptional. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, independence allows a school to focus on exactly the kind of education that a school wishes to offer and on the type of student who can best benefit from that focussed approach.

Historically, independent schools have come into existence to meet specific needs: Eton, for example, was founded by King Henry VI in 1440 to provide a feeder stream, as we would say nowadays, for King's College, Cambridge. He wanted to ensure that England's gilded youth be given mental, physical and spiritual training before they assumed the positions of power to which they had been born.

John Phillips founded Exeter Academy, New Hampshire in 1781 for the sons of the pious New England Puritans. He was interested in moral education and his goal was that "...the minds and morals of the youth under (the school's) charge will exceed every other care; well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character; and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind."

Of course, both King Henry and John Phillips were concerned only with the education of young males. But in 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published her "Vindication of the Rights of Women." This book was a passionate plea for girls to be allowed to receive an education at least equal to that given to boys. Wollstonecraft had founded a school that had failed because her revolutionary ideas of male-female equality were far ahead of her time. But she persisted in her belief, extremely radical for her day, that "Reason is absolutely necessary to enable a woman to perform any duty properly. Women have minds that demand to be rightly trained."

It took several decades for the first girls' schools to open in England, the United States and slightly later in Canada. But open they did. And these single-sex schools, like Branksome, can indeed focus on the overall development of young women, from their first appearance in kindergarten, their kilts held up by straps, to graduating year when the individual variations on how to wear the uniform and still be legal are quite mind-boggling.

We follow the latest research on learning, on gender differences, on pedagogy, and on female leadership styles.

We seek out ways to give them the life skills of self knowledge, self confidence, public speaking, and leading a healthy life. When we know they are bombarded by the glitzy world of media messages with their ice-pick thin models, we pay attention to their fears and self-doubts about body image, and about their futures. And in addition we give them a first-class academic education that everyone now takes for granted, as being the right of every girl and boy. So independence evolves from a vision, and that vision provides a focus that enables us to do amazing and wonderful things.

The second benefit of independence is that it promotes creativity among the faculty, teachers and administrators alike. The young teachers who apply for our openings nowadays are highly qualified and we have the freedom to hire brilliant people whose route to education has been a different, maybe even an unconventional one. Consequently, independent schools often have unusual teachers, people out of a different mould whose maverick tendencies would fit poorly in environments that demand more conformity. These are the teachers most of our students will remember best. Robertson Davies paints a somewhat exaggerated picture of this in the "Deptford Trilogy": "If a boy can't have a good teacher, give him a psychological cripple or an exotic failure to cope with; don't just give him a bad, dull teacher. This is where the private schools score over the state-run schools; they can accommodate a few cultured madmen on the staff without having to offer explanation."

Once again we are talking male, but I will assure you that the girls' schools I know have their share of colourful, charismatic characters who add spice and salt and sometimes sugar to our lives, and who become living legends among our alumnae.

Independence fosters creativity in programmes as well. A few such programmes I know of are a semester of marine biology and ecology on the coast of Maine or a city term using the resources of the metropolis to experience the justice system or urban planning. Independence allows the development of new courses tailored to fit the interests of a specific teacher or group of students. I myself have taught courses on modernism to extremely literate high school seniors, and on Black literature of the Caribbean to students in search of their roots.

The third important value of independence is that it creates a strong sense of community. Using Branksome as my example, let me say I have never seen parents more involved and committed than Branksome parents. Though we see less of them when their daughters hit ninth grade and presumably discourage their appearance at school, they are present to talk to teachers, to hear about the curriculum, and to anticipate what next year will bring. They come to social events with their daughters, they cultivate relations with other parents, and they serve tirelessly as volunteers in more capacities than I could have imagined.

We try to reach out to them too, most recently with a Parent Satisfaction Survey, so that it is not just those who are vocal who can make their opinions known. We have done some fine-tuning based on the results of that survey, and we shall follow up again next spring. We are also planning a version of that survey for our students. After all, if we, as a woman's institution are encouraging our girls to have confidence in themselves and in their own voices, then we adults must be prepared to hear those voices, colourful though the results may be!

Though I wish they could be even smaller, our classes are small enough to allow a tremendous amount of personal attention from each teacher to each student. This then creates a relationship most closely akin to friendship, which begins early, and grows and develops through the senior school. And when all is said and done, that is the essence of good education: a caring, challenging teacher and a student who responds to that person's knowledge and humanity.

The close community of an independent school, large or small, provides friends for life in our dispersed, complex world. Single-sex schools forge particularly strong bonds, but girls and boys in coed schools also create links that outlast university and career moves and are seen in the alumni/ae networks that provide so much of the strength of our independent schools. I have seen at first hand how much the alma mater counts in people's lives: many an alumnus who will tell you how much of a rebel she was, how much she hated the school's restrictiveness years ago; yet she is now our greatest supporter and the most thrilled with how we have responded to changing times. Much of the strength of our schools grows out of the partnership that we the educators enter into with our families, past and present.

With all these factors in place, it is easy, in fact inevitable, that we pay attention to the whole child. I constantly return to a great educational philosopher, John Dewey, who cautioned us not to neglect the hand and the heart in our emphasis on educating the head. And the habits of the heart are front and central in independent schools. Like John Phillips of Exeter, like Branksome's Miss Scott, our founders were idealists, with a very clear sense of education as an ethical pursuit. Public schools are educating the broad base of future citizenry and the agenda of public educators must be tailored to accommodate a broad range of different moral frameworks. Indeed, the uniformity of conditions necessary for public accountability must perforce raise the valleys but flatten the peaks to create a homogeneous educational landscape. Independence allows us clearly to articulate moral standards and to expect our families will respect them. This is the basis of the newly forged Codes of Conduct at Branksome, that for the Junior School is already in place, that for the Senior School is still in process.

We place a high value on physical fitness and athletics warrant a firm place in our curriculum and schedule. Likewise, when publicly funded schools have to retrench their spending on the arts, we can state, as we do, that education through the arts is crucial to the full development of our students' hands, hearts and heads and we can continue to allocate resources to keep our arts departments flourishing. We can take a stand on the value of community service and require it of our students. Most important of all, we can recognise that discussion of ethical issues occurs throughout our curriculum, both in classes and in co-curricular activities and we can make such discussion a part of our lives.

The sense of community I mentioned earlier reaches beyond the parameters of each individual school. Independent-school educators think of themselves as members of a nation-wide community and take very seriously the issue of quality control, so we have in place an excellent system of peer evaluation. Our evaluation process takes place under the auspices of our own organisation, the Canadian Educational Standards Institute (known as CESI). I'll briefly describe how evaluation happens.

Every seven years CESI member schools are visited by a committee of administrators and teachers from other such schools. This committee uses a comprehensive set of standards to look at everything that happens in the school under review, from governance to adequacy of plant and quality of teaching. Before the committee arrives the school has produced its own self-study, a reflective and extremely valuable process that takes months. Then the evaluating committee spends almost four days on its campus, making sure that what the school is doing is what it has said it does in its mission statement and in the self-study. The committee makes its recommendations, and the school either gets its membership renewed without qualification, or with the understanding that certain recommended improvements will be made. In very rare cases, membership is not renewed at all. CESI's mission is to ensure the highest educational standards possible for all children in its member schools and its process is painstaking and very effective.

Obviously I'm enthusiastic about what independent schools achieve, and I hope I've conveyed that enthusiasm to you. I know, however, that there is more we could do. In Ontario two forces currently curtail our creativity: the top-down control of the Ministry of Education and Training, and the current university admission process. Let's take each of these in turn.

We have many discussions at Branksome, and I hear many imaginative ideas both for individualising a student's path through the school and for expanding the curriculum in exciting ways. What I have noticed is how many times the phrase "the Ministry won't allow it" sidetracks the discussion. Too much time is spent by my colleagues seeking creative ways to best serve our students and still follow Ministry mandates. And the fact is that students are held back and dis-served by a number of inflexible and impersonal regulations.

Some examples have cropped up recently. Why should a Korean girl, strong in math and science, working extremely hard on English as a second language, not be exempted from grade-nine French--for her a third language and a real heart--breaker, since our grade-nine French students have all had years of French already? The Ministry fights exemptions, I am told.

Secondary education suffers too for several reasons. First, this approach to screening students grossly underestimates, or completely ignores, the issue of quality or the lack thereof in secondary education, which all of us should regard as an insult. Second, it creates pressure on students to work for the mark and forget the tough process of learning. None can persuade me it does not result in grade inflation. Third, it completely ignores the fact that grading is a subjective exercise, that each school creates its own standards and its own expectations, and that none can guarantee even that courses at Branksome will result in marks that are just like those at one of the other independent schools.

Why reject or accept our young people according to meaningless criteria? If the universities cannot select their students as they might prefer, why not have some objective measures of academic success? Britain has its O and A levels, the French have the Baccalaureate, the Americans achievement tests and the Advanced Placement, in addition to the SATs. Why don't Canadian universities lobby for a standardised system of national examinations to give them some fair measure of what students have learned? Or may we hope that they will gain independence through privatisation. Among other benefits, they could select the students they want in the way they consider most effective.

Given my own belief in the benefits of independence, I've been interested to see discussions in the public arena about charter schools. Launched in this country in Alberta, these are already thriving in Britain, New Zealand and the U.S. Charter Schools are publicly funded, and access is therefore open to all. But they are independently run, or to quote The Globe and Mail, they are schools which will "leave everything in place and open it up to some change." This is a curiously cautious statement, for I believe that charter schools will develop some of the characteristics of private schools and thereby produce amazing change, provided, of course, that provincial governments give them enough scope.

My purpose today has been to persuade you that independence does indeed create value, from which simple statement comes certain implications: For parents, I would suggest that any family that can should look seriously at independent schools and where necessary explore the financial aid available at these schools. If the expense is too high, keep watching for a charter school in your neighbourhood, and consider that option if you can. I think it will prove an exciting one. If your child remains in public school, then do all you can to make that child's education a partnership between family and school. Both the school and your child will benefit.

For educators and public policy makers and for university governors as well, independent schools offer a model that demonstrably works and works well. The public education system is currently undergoing much change, some probably feel for the better. Others may not agree. But in the midst of what looks sometimes suspiciously chaotic our schools sit, products of idealistic founders, filling specific missions, providing continuity, respecting tradition but embracing and adapting to the post-modern world in which we find ourselves. We are responsible for our own funding which helps us at times to bind the members of our community together. We are relatively small, cohesive, very different places each from each, with different cultures and flavours. What we demonstrate is the self-reliance that comes from being one's own master, or mistress, and the creative problem-solving that blossoms when people have the freedom to seek their own solutions. Our example should be a useful one in this time of educational re-thinking and in the meantime we shall continue to serve our people exceedingly well.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Douglas Todgham, Vice-President, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Third Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Independent Schools, Independent Thinkers


The speaker's background in education, even in her family life. Some aspects of independent education in Canada, as reflected in the speaker's experience at Branksome Hall. The speaker's belief that "Independence creates value." The benefits of independence. The challenges that emerge when schools are not totally free to govern themselves. Suggestions of lessons that emerge from this contrast. The exceptional quality of the educational experience that an independent school can provide, and the reasons for it. A brief history of independent schools. What an independent school can do for young women. A second benefit of promoting creativity among the faculty, teachers and administrators. Fostering creativity in programmes. A third important value of independence of creating a strong sense of community. Reaching out to involve parents. Personal attention in small classes. Providing friends for life. Paying attention to the whole child. Implementing Codes of Conduct. Placing a high value on physical fitness and athletics. Evaluation under the auspices of the Canadian Educational Standards Institute (CESI). A brief description of how that evaluation takes place. The speaker's enthusiasm about what independent schools achieve. A discussion of two forces which currently curtail creativity: the top-down control of the Ministry of Education and Training, and the current university admission process. Discussions in the public arena about charter schools. Independent schools as a model that demonstrably works and works well.