Q&A with Jonathan Clark

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The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the thirteenth interview in the series. Dr Jonathan Clark is the director of both the Schools Development Unit and the Schools Improvement Initiative at UCT.

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

After I finished my science degree I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was offered a job at Rossing (a mine in Namibia) and took it. It was a great experience but I knew from the outset that I wasn’t cut out for a life in steel-capped boots. So I spent two years saving money and then took off for the Middle East and Europe. A year into my travels, no closer to having a clue about what I should do next, a friend took me for a walk in a park in London and convinced me to become a teacher. I returned to South Africa and after completing my teaching qualification started working at a rural school called Nchaupe High in the village of Makapanstad, north of Pretoria. Three years later I moved down to Cape Town and Luhlaza High in Khayelitsha. I taught science, worked as a departmental subject advisor and ran a school (COSAT) in the township over the next 16 years. I moved to UCT to head up the Schools Development Unit (SDU) in the School of Education towards the end of 2007.

2)   What does your average week look like?

It’s quite long! I’m trying to juggle two jobs in one at the moment – my substantive post is as Director of the SDU and I’m also heading up one of the Vice Chancellor’s strategic initiatives – the Schools Improvement Initiative (SII). So it’s a bit of a challenge to fit everything in. I’m essentially in an administrative post, so I spend a lot of time in meetings and struggle to find time to do any research. There’s a lot of people management involved and the SDU is soft-funded so finding money and managing budgets keeps me busy too. Rather late in life I’ve found that I quite enjoy the financial side of things, so it’s not a strain but certainly a pre-occupation.  The multi-tasking keeps me on my toes and stops me getting bored!

I don’t get out into the field very often, but when I do it’s invariably back to Khayelitsha where the SII is working.  I feel quite an affinity with the township having spent (as mentioned early) so much time there.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

That’s a tough question. I’ve wide interests in education and I’m a bit of a magpie in my reading. More recently, I was most taken by Diane Ravitch’s ‘The Life and Death of the Great American Schooling System’. The writings of Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves, individually and together have always made a deep impression on me; Fullan’s ‘The new meaning of educational change’ remains a favourite. When I was doing my doctorate, a book by Harber & Davies called: ‘School management and effectiveness in developing countries: The post-bureaucratic school’, had a huge impact on my thinking, particularly their notion of school ineffectiveness.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

Richard Elmore’s work on school reform and the long shadows of Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves continued collaboration – they might be getting on in years but still write passionately about the need to transform education.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

For all what we think we know about teachers’ actual classroom practices, I think we actually have very little understanding of what really goes on at the chalk/whiteboard face. Particularly when it comes to working class urban and rural schooling, I think we tend to under-estimate the degree to which the pedagogic practices of teachers are forged in context and strongly influenced by their own lived experiences of schooling.  I’m of the opinion that many teachers operate in what are essentially ‘closed-loop’ systems which are very, very resistant to change.

How to support and enable teachers’ to bring about meaningful improvements in teaching and (critically) student learning in such contexts is, ‘the rub’ (so to speak)…

6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

 Evidence, evidence, evidence – particularly when engaging in qualitative research, the challenge lies in backing up your knowledge claims.

7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

Firstly, we have to build the content, pedagogic and classroom organisational skills of teachers and capacitate school managers – we have no choice but to invest heavily in teacher professional and school organisational development.

Over a second drink, I might loosen up a bit and share with her my thoughts about the tensions between accountability and support which I believe permeate through all levels of the education system; and muse on the dilemmas we face in this regard. For how (I would ask her rhetorically) can we hold teachers and school managers to account unless we have in place functional support systems at levels from circuit through district to provincial and national levels?

I’d share some of my own experiences in the field, but seek to be humble – I’ve never under-estimated the immense complexity of (say) trying to run a large, under-resourced working class school in a community mired in poverty. It’s almost ironic isn’t it? The settings which require the most skilful practice, are inevitably the ones with the least ‘curriculum and organisational capital’ (as I like to think of it).

Then there’s the need to build the expertise of the technical core of the State so that it can play a more decisive supportive role.

By the third drink I would probably be saying something totally inappropriate about the power of the majority union…

8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

I’d be an archaeologist; I’m fascinated by our past; or a meteorologist – but not one of those working on complex mathematical modelling, one who spends his time staring at clouds…

 9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

A fan, I think technology has immense potential to positively impact on teaching and learning. For a start, just think of the amount of paper we would save if we didn’t have to print millions of textbooks each year! But I definitely don’t see technology as some kind of panacea which will automatically improve things. I’m too much of a traditionalist I’m afraid, I think the teacher as mediator of learning still has an absolutely central role to play in the educational process.

And that’s what perturbs me, I don’t know how we are going to transform our ‘low skills’ base teaching corps into more effective users of educational technology – do you know how many un-used electronic whiteboards there are littered around the country? From the view of a typical working class school, the ‘flip classroom’ seems a paradigm away…

10) If you were given a R5 million research grant what would you use it for?

 A ten-year longitudinal study focusing on the unfolding narratives of practice of young teachers entering the profession and finding their ways in township schools.


Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

One response to “Q&A with Jonathan Clark

  1. Marlene Whitehead

    Dear Nic

    I’m an avid reader of your weekly Q&A posts and there is no doubt that many other readers have been as inspired by so much of what has been shared by your interviewees. There are also many meaningful stories to be told by professionals who work in small pockets of our educational landscape and, for this reason I would like to recommend the following educationists for interviews which your readers would find interesting:




    Tessa Fairbairn

    Director King’s College in Jordan

    Principal St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town

    Sindiswa Lingela

    Education Officer Historic Schools Restoration Project in Cape Town

    Deputy Director-General Education in Western Cape and Gauteng

    Tim Nuttall

    Rector St Stithian’s College in Johannesburg

    Principal Somerset College in Somerset West

    Thank you for all you do to bring relevant information alive and accessible to those of us who don’t always search more deeply ☺

    Warm regards

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