Lalage Bown

8 December, 2009


  I was born before women in Britain had full voting rights, before education beyond primary schooling was available for the mass of people and when the majority of the British did not question the idea of Empire; so I have therefore had the inspiration of directly witnessing change in the status and role of women, the wider diffusion of education around the world and the dissolution of Empire, followed by the emergence of the Commonwealth.

 My basic academic training was in Modern History, so that my work has been informed by historical perspectives; this has made it easier to take a long view and not to expect instant change over night, but has encouraged me to persist in advocacy, knowing that ideas and actions can be transformed over time. Among causes I have been involved in have been gender justice (including as a founding trustee of Womankind Worldwide), equality in education (my professional concern) and the significance of the Commonwealth as an organisation with no military purpose and based on common values. My career was in university adult education, in Africa and Britain, and I gained leadership rather young (I was the first woman professor of adult education in the Commonwealth), which in my field meant constant political engagement, both inside and outside the institution.

 Three influences were fundamental to my life and career. First, my mother, who retained a lively and enquiring mind until her death at the age of almost 98 She had a good secondary education and passed the university entrance examinations of those days, but she had no chance of going further, because at that time, British girls were pushed out onto the marriage market. When my father proposed to her, she laid down one condition: that any daughters would have equal educational opportunities with any sons they might have. I owe it to her therefore that I had the chance of a good education, though as the eldest of four, I accepted that I had to help pay my way with scholarships etc.

 Secondly, I went to Somerville College, Oxford, in an era when  few people had any chance of a university education and among them only a very small number of women; there were 600 women compared to 6,000 men students at Oxford in 1945. This gave me an abiding sense of privilege and therefore of obligation, both to use my education for the benefit of others and to do my best to find ways in which the wider public could share in the services of universities. The atmosphere in the college (then for women only) was one in which the majority of us were motivated by ideas of social justice, including a rebalancing of society for gender equality.

 Thirdly, my father’s working life was in India and Burma – he passed out top in the Indian Civil Service exams in 1919 – and I spent my early childhood in Burma, so I grew up in the heyday of the Raj, respecting my father’s motives, but soon beginning to question the rationale of Empire. At the end of the Second World War, part of our quest for a fairer world was for one in which colonised countries regained their independence and I wanted to play a part in that process. I therefore applied to join the newly-established Extra-Mural Department of the University College of the Gold Coast and had my first taste of gender discrimination, when my fitness for the job as a woman was questioned. I was, however, appointed and lost no time in starting an extra-mural class for young women in basic political skills. When one of my students went to prison for taking part in an independence demonstration, she sent her jailer to keep up with the course on her behalf. Later, when I was in Uganda, as my then superior was sceptical about the idea, I took my own time to teach English, the official language, to groups of socially significant women, whose voices were muffled by not having that language. Towards the end of my formal working life, I had the chance of undertaking a major piece of research into the impact of literacy acquisition on adult women and my findings had an effect on British Government aid policy at the time.

 During my thirty African years, we in universities moved from engaging with the colonial authorities to dialogue with rulers of independent countries. The latter were sincerely enthusiastic about broadening the scope of primary education, but often not fully understanding of the value of access to relevant university knowledge by any citizen – and this is true in Britain also. Nevertheless, the new African universities were able to make various innovations. Among those for which I took some responsibility were: the first rural folk high school in Africa, in Ghana; radio listening groups in Nigeria in the 1960s, developed into a Voice of the University in Zambia and later a University of the Air in Northern Nigeria; and the study of current affairs linked to role education for such groups as army officers and women legislators in Zambia.

 When I returned to Britain and became head of adult and continuing education at the University of Glasgow, I consulted with colleagues and the local authorities on issues about possible lack of social justice; and as a result, we developed courses in race awareness, with a team deliberately chosen to have an equal balance of indigenes and new Britons and of men and women. I give this example, to show how to the end of my working life, I tried to apply my principles.

 Beyond professional activities, I have always tried to take an active part in public arenas and community organisations, partly with the motive of ensuring that women’s voices were heard. Such involvement helps one to understand social under-currents and to engage in various advocacy programmes. In Britain, I have been an elected vice-president of the Workers’ Education Association  (WEA) and nominated Vice-President (for 21 years) of the Townswomen’s Guilds. I am currently, among other things, a Trustee of the Britain-Nigeria Educational Trust and of BRIDGES, the Shropshire development education body, and patron of the African Families’ Foundation.

 In particular, I have in the last few years devoted myself to the Council for Education in the Commonwealth (CEC), having been a Board member from 2000 to 2007 and joint executive vice-chair between 2002 and 2006. NGOs have a vital part to play in the Commonwealth and I have a conviction that the CEC is well placed to advocate quality rather than just quantity in the educational expansion in many countries since 2000 and in working for continuing serious interchange between universities around the Commonwealth.

Nemata Majeks-Walker

7 December, 2009


The heights by great men (and women) reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight;
But they, while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.

I am happy to have this opportunity of sharing my life story for two reasons: the first is to illustrate that apparent disadvantages in one’s early life do not necessarily lead to an inability to achieve in later life; the second is to underscore the fact that in order to succeed one must be prepared to persevere and to strive for definite goals.

I was born in the east end of Freetown to a Muslim family. I was the only child of my mother who tragically passed away when I was only five years old, leaving me to be raised by my great grandmother, relatives and family friends. Of these people, I am particularly grateful to my aunt, Haja Memuna Kallay, who did her best to instil in me strong moral values and ethics.

I began school at the Amaraia and Hoy Trinity Primary Schools. Later, quite understandably, my great grandmother could not cope with the high-spirited teenager that I was, so after a brief spell at the Methodist Girls’ School I was dispatched to the Magburaka Secondary School for Girls in Mathora. Apart from the fact that I was a boarder where I was under stricter supervision, the move took me closer to my dad who worked in Kamakwie.

Our Principal was the late Mrs. Oredola Fewry. It was not long before she noticed this noisy girl from Freetown who found it so difficult to obey instructions. Probably at a loss as to what to do about me even as a senior girl, she set a precedence by appointing me Senior Prefect of the school. She rightly conjectured that doing that would keep me in check. And indeed her ploy played a significant part in helping me to become the first girl from the school to pass the General Certificate of Education Ordinary level Examinations.

After that it was back to Freetown where I was accepted at the Annie Walsh Memorial School to pursue sixth form work. I was also as a boarder there and that again helped me to acquire my A-levels. I have fond memories of my form teacher, the late Mrs. Margaret Greene and my English Language and Literature teacher, Miss Omojowo Lawson. I owe a lot to these two women for their patience and guidance.

The completion of my A-levels enabled me to acquire a government scholarship to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree. At FBC, I encountered tough lecturers like the famous Geography lecturer, Dr. Enid Forde, who was our Hall warden (Warden of Women Students), and Dr. Gladys Harding of the Department of Education.

I had a rather unforgettable encounter with Dr. Gladys Harding when I started teaching practice at the AWMS. On my first day, I didn’t realise that I should have prepared notes for the lesson I was going to teach. As my Observer, Dr. Harding needed to use those notes as a guide as she watched me teach.

As soon she entered the classroom she asked for my lesson notes. I just stood there, dumbfounded. Being the kind of no-nonsense person that she was, she began telling me off in front of the whole class in no uncertain terms. I don’t think I have ever been so ashamed of myself. There I was – me a high and mighty budding teacher all dressed up in my best clothes, looking elegant to impress the girls. I even wore tights in spite of the heat. Instead I was being told off in front of them! It was humiliating and I cannot now remember how I got through that lesson but I remember surreptitiously wiping away my tears and doing the best I could. What is important though is what followed.

Reader, what would you have done if you were in my place? What I did on my return home was decide that to pass my Teaching Practice, I must try to have her on my side. So I rang her up and apologised. She asked me to see her at her office the next day, which I did. There she explained all the Teaching Practice procedures which I had not followed even though she had painstakingly taught them in class. From then on Dr. Gladys Harding became my mentor. The happy ending of that story is that I ended up with a distinction in teaching practice!! The lessons I learnt:
Humility is a virtue!
Pride goeth before a fall!!!

At this stage also, I was blessed by senior friends, notably Professor and Mrs. Eldred Jones, who became my adopted parents and had a positive influence in my life, literally taking over the role of my aunt Haja Memuna Kallay in terms of chiselling my rough edges. In spite of the efforts of these three wonderful people I must confess that, as an undergraduate I was always a member of any group that was organising strikes on campus over one cause or the other. However, when I left Fourah Bay College as a student it was with a Bachelor of Arts Degree with Honours in English Language and Literature, which I earned in 1972 and a post-graduate Diploma in Education which I received the following year.

In 1973, I left for the United States where I did a Masters Degree in English as a Second Language at the University of Illinois, Champaigne-Urbana. I completed the course in 1975. I returned to Freetown in1976 and worked as a part-time lecturer in Foundation Studies at Fourah Bay College and as Teacher of English Language and Literature at AWMS. I was there till 1981 and during this time I was made Co-Head of the English Department. From there I went to work as a Curriculum Development Officer for English at the Institute of Education in Freetown, organizing in-Service Training for teachers of English, among other activities.

In 1983, I was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue a PhD. in Distance Education at University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. As part of the course I designed a Distance Education Course on the teaching of English as a second language. Upon graduating from University in 1986, I worked extensively as an Education Officer in London, up until the early 1990s.

In 1994 I was appointed by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on contract to the Government of Ghana as Adviser in English Communications Skills and Distance Education. My duties entailed providing professional assistance to the newly established University College of Education of Winneba, Ghana. During my time in Winneba, I successfully established the Ghana English Studies Association and a home reading scheme which enabled parents teach their children to read and (in the case of illiterate parents), school-going older siblings to teach reading to younger siblings.

By this time Sierra Leone beckoned, and I returned home. In 1998, I was appointed an Education Consultant for PLAN International in Sierra Leone. In this position I was responsible for strengthening the Education system through the rehabilitation, reconstruction and refurbishing of damaged school infrastructure and providing resources as required in PLAN’s operation areas. I was also responsible for drafting the Country Strategic Plan, including Country Program Outlines. This challenging appointment was brought to an abrupt end by the 1999 January 6 rebel incursion into Freetown.

From this time on, my pattern of operation changed in a marked way. I ceased working directly for any single organisation and I established the NEMAYA Education and Training Consultancy in 1999 which marked a significant change in my career. I turned my attention to freelance short-term national and international consultancies. As its Chief Executive, I have undertaken various consultancy assignments for the British Council and other international Agencies.

This new development kept me very active and culminated in vigorous participation in the formation of the 50/50 Group and the empowerment of women in Sierra Leone to become more emancipated and active in public life. The Mission of the non-partisan 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone is to campaign for more women in politics and public life through training and advocacy. We aim to change the public’s perception of women in politics and public life. The motivation for the formation of this group was the recognition, following the final end to our long civil war, that women were essential but missing players in the peace process.

In spite of all the efforts and recognition of the fundamental rights of women and men to participate in political life, in practice inequality in the area of power and decision-making still exists. What do we do to address this problem? The answer to this question is the reason why we are happy to be asking all schools to set up 50/50 clubs which we will sponsor and support. This will enable students to develop awareness of the fact that a woman’s place is as much in the kitchen as in GOVERNANCE and PUBLIC LIFE!! It will give students much needed political knowledge that is not in the schools’ curriculum.

In 2003, I was a Commonwealth observer in the Pakistan elections. In 2005, I was given a consultancy by the United Nations Mission in Liberia to help develop the Liberian Women’s Manifesto and train their candidates. Liberia has in fact produced the first female president in West Africa. I received another international recognition from the Commonwealth when I was sent as one of three experts to observe elections in Belize in February 2007. These exposures to comparable activities in other countries widen my experience and are of benefit to the 50/50 Group as I get new insights from each involvement.

It has not been “all work and no play”. My membership of the Rotary club in Accra, Ghana was transferred to the Rotary Club of Freetown. This is a 64-year old prestigious male-dominated service club in which I was privileged to serve as the first and so far the only female president in 2003.

Throughout the years, I have managed to balance my career and role as a wife and mother. I feel that my greatest achievement in life is the fact that I have been able to balance wife-hood/motherhood and an exciting career life with seeing my daughter and son almost single-handedly through to post graduate degree levels of education. These were very challenging tasks but with the help of God I have been able to succeed in playing the balancing act. The road to success is long; it is hazardous, with many pitfalls along the way. Sometimes I’ve stumbled, at other times fallen flat on my face. The secret was never to give up. When you fail or fall, get up, dust yourself down and keep on keeping on. I now look back with pride at the road down which I have travelled and see my footprints quite clearly on the sands of time.

Pilisiwe Lolwane

24 November, 2009

How was it possible?

Every time I visit my village outside the tiny home of Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, I stop to wonder, firstly how I have managed to ‘escape’, and then wonder how I have made it this far. I have gone over this question in my mind a million times and sometimes am able to come up with a neat and rational explanation for the inquisitive or even for myself.  I am not convinced that I understand how the universe works, how my own trajectory was put together and which parts of my life played a major role in making me the person I now am. You will have to judge if there is any explanation.

I was born on the 31st of December in 1950 in Balasi location in Qumbu. If you have never heard of this place, don’t worry, few people know of this place even in South Africa. I never knew my father but knew of him. This by itself was a cause of a lot of anxiety to a growing child like me who was forever speculating about all kinds of possibilities about my existence. You see, I was brought up in a home full of books, magazines and old newspapers. In my own explanation of how things worked out, I always single out the fact that I was brought up surrounded by plenty of reading materials as the most and single important factor that saw me and my siblings rise above and away from the village life. As a last born, with a mother who was a grade 1 and 2 teacher, I was able to read quite early. When I was in grade 3, I read a book that was more than 500 pages long, in Xhosa – Ingqumbo Yeminyaya (The Wrath of the Ancestors) by A.C. Jordaan. Reading to me was a way of figuring out how the world outside my village worked.  Whilst my peers who did not read as avidly as me could not imagine a world outside our village, I started to develop a vey wild imagination at an early age. I was convinced that there was a mistake – I really did not belong to my village as I identified with the worlds described in the books I read. My household was not any better than others around it as there were no class issues in the village. But I still think that my mother was determined to give us education as a passport to a better world. She would find out about bursaries and any other assistance we could get beyond our primary school. This provided a first step of separation from other children who ended their education at the end of primary school.

I was twelve when I was able to step out of my village to a boarding school where I saw white people for the first time. Even though the boarding school was in a mission school in a village, it was certainly a step above my village because it was a high school. Not only that it firstly provided a reprieve from the daily chores that only girls had to endure in a village, like fetching water, cooking and washing dishes daily; and secondly it provided a space where I could meet with students from all over South Africa, who came to the boarding house by train. For me what was most important was the number of books available to read.

I had started my schooling right at the beginning of Bantu Education in South Africa, and had my older brother, mother and my teachers instilling in me the uselessness of the education we were receiving. So, I was not going to pay much attention to a ‘not so good’ education but would just get the ‘papers’ that come with it – useless or not. I also went through school convinced that I did not have to pay much attention to teachers because I had so much confidence in my own abilities to find out the answers from the books.  I was, after all, such a ‘prolific’ reader.

I still went through my education with little motivation. I was just a passenger in the education train where learning was not difficult. During my final year of high school we had a strike in our school and I was one of the students who were expelled early on in the year and could only return to write my examinations. I was shocked when I failed my end of high school examinations; this was the first failure for me in my not so illustrious education career. My brother and sister had earlier on distinguished themselves as very bright individuals.  In order to proceed I would have to be in a position to attract bursaries and scholarships, like my older siblings. But my school performance was dismal. I had to return to my village with my tail between my legs as I had nothing to show for the time I had spent away from home.

During the first year after I failed my ‘matric’, I worked for a couple of months in a wholesale store in Flagstaff, another small town in the Eastern Cape. As blacks, we were expected to refer to all whites in the store as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ irrespective of their age and even though all of them had much less education than me. But the racism was unbearable – where we could eat, the salary gaps, and how we were generally bullied around. I was fired after 5 months for insubordination. I had to go back to my village again. The year I spent in my village trying to study and rewrite my high school examinations as a private candidate was very instructive. At 19, I now realised how my life would be if I had to spend the rest of it in that village. It just was not going to work for me. I put all my might to memorise the subjects I had failed so that I could rewrite this examination. Education took a whole new meaning for me as I now knew for sure that it was my only chance to escape a destiny of poverty and hardship.  Whilst I was preparing for a rewrite, I also applied to Teachers’ colleges as these were the only institutions that would now give me a shot at post-secondary education. Was I interested in being a teacher? Not at all, but being a teacher was much better than the life of village chores.

For the first when I went to the Teachers’ College at Lovedale, I was determined to be amongst the top achievers, and I was. Looking back now, it really was a strange period in my life. Although I was not really interested in being a teacher I was putting a lot of effort into being the top achiever in my class.  When I first went out for my practice teaching, the principal of the school wanted me to come back and teach in his school, and I did. The students, principal and the inspectors liked me a lot because I put all energies in whatever I did. I was still not sure that I wanted to be a teacher, but it was OK.

A new life opened up 5 years later when I transferred to be close to a university that had opened in the Eastern Cape.  This offered classes in the evening which I attended.  I was now married, with a child and needed a change from teaching. I discovered enjoyment in education for the first time when I registered with the University of Transkei, now Walter Sisulu University. I liked everything about the university – the kind of knowledge that was taught, the debates with lecturers and fellow students, assignments and even examinations. I just flew. I also think that I was surrounded by so many lecturers who saw how thirsty I was for education. I was one of the first eleven students to graduate, in record time, and the only female student. I had a number of distinctions under my belt. I majored in psychology, partly because the subject intrigued me and partly because I was still figuring myself out.

During my first post-graduate degree, my faculty at the university recruited me as a junior researcher. By the time I was doing my masters in the 80s, I was sure that I liked the university environment better than schools, but I was still a junior and that I did not like that. I successfully applied for a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in the USA and relocated with my family. Studying and working part-time in the USA was easier than holding a teaching job and doing undergraduate studies at home. A master’s degree grew to a Ph.D. in psychology as I now wanted to be the best.

My dissertation was completed in record time after the release of Nelson Mandela prompted a desire to return home to South Africa.  Although I was adequately armed with a Ph.D. from the USA to get a job –  I was employed by the University of Witwatersrand soon after I arrived back in South Africa – what I did not know was how long it was going to take for blacks and women to find their place in this new society. It was hard and painful. I could never tell whether the problem was a race or a gender discrimination issue. Power in academic circles in South Africa was in the hands of white men. As women we were also not adequately prepared to take over this power. However, I was prepared to learn how to play the game.

I endured years of tutelage under different masters during the years that followed. Unlike my peers who have not managed to distinguish themselves, I was motivated to continue learning and progressing.  Since my return from the USA I have held many positions in different organisations include being a Director for Policy Research in an Independent Examination Board; Director for a Central Organisation for Trade testing of the Department of Labour; Chief Executive Officer of the South African Certification Council (SAFCERT) and my past recent job was that of a Chief Executive Officer at Umalusi: Council for General and Further Education Quality assurance, a statutory body I established. I am now a visiting associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand, where I am establishing a research and teaching centre for post-school education. I continue to play a critical role in the education development process of this country. I have received several awards in the education field.

It has been a long road that has taken some detours from my village to here. I know that it helped that I attended church schools as a child. The mission schools moulded me and ensured that I travelled a narrow and straight road even when my morality was still under developed. Growing up surrounded with books was extremely helpful in my life. I could transport myself beyond my local situation and from an early age my world was much bigger than my village. Even though I started with not such a shining school performance, along my educational path I had a number of individuals who believed in me. I always knew that my talent was in education, even when my performance was mediocre. It has been through and in education that I found my niche. I am spending this time to help those young people who maybe like me – from humble backgrounds, not really focused at the beginning and who have started at a wrong footing – to still have many other second chances in the education system of this country. I am no longer in the classroom, but education remains an important instrument for me through which I have chosen to change the world in which I live.

Zandile Kunene

24 November, 2009

Sadly,  Zandile died on 11 February 2010 after a long battle with a rare form of cancer called choriocarcinoma. Zandile had continued to carry out her duties with style and aplomb even while enduring bouts of  chemotherapy following surgery. It was while attending an MBA class at the University of London in September 2009 that Zandile fell ill and was rushed to the Charing Cross Hospital. She underwent intensive treatment there and appeared to be rallying, but shortly after returning home to South Africa, she succumbed to her illness.  At her funeral service in Pietermarizburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, tribute was paid to her vision, her soft spoken yet firm and powerful leadership style, and her ability to work with people at all levels. A representative of the Minister of Higher Education expressed the regret of the government at the loss of a talented and highly regarded woman.


I am proud to be a Zulu women.  My life is lived according to Zulu ubunfu philosophy and social rules.  This means I treat others with respect and compassion. I believe it important that we are always sincere in what we do, share with others and remain positive irrespective of external pressures.  I try to ensure my leadership is democratic, which for me means involving others and motivating them though consultative and collaborative efforts. 

The meaning of ubuntu is encapsulated in the following phrase:

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – translated as ‘we are who we are because of others’. 

Clearly the focus is on the communal, the responsibility, recognition, reciprocity and respect that arises from dignified interactions and roles within a group.  When chairing a very difficult meeting, I try to reconcile opposing views.  By firmly pointing out the necessary corrective actions I hope that people leave the meeting feeling affirmed but also having a clear sense of direction and purpose.

I think my upbringing was instrumental in determining the sort of person I have become.  I was born and brought up in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, of parents who were relatively well off compared to many black South Africans. My father was a trader and my mother a nursing sister. However, I travel far to school each day, by taxi and train, along dusty roads,.  I often reflect on how disturbing I found it to have to pass schools that were closer to my home, because they were reserved for white pupils, under the iniquitous apartheid laws.

I first was taught in English when I entered secondary school.  This was a Catholic convent and boarding school called Montebello High School, governed by strict rules of conduct and with high standards. I encountered the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, John Keats, the Brontes and Charles Dickens. I was puzzled at the disjunction between the circumstances depicted in the novels, plays and poems I was studying and the reality of life as a young Zulu girl growing up in apartheid South Africa of the nineteen sixties and seventies.  I do think that confronting those contradictions has helped me integrate the two disparate and distinct worlds that I continue to move between.

After school I went on to obtain a teaching qualification, which led me to want to study for a degree. However, at that time I needed ministerial permission to enrol at the whites only University of Natal (black students were expected to attend the University of Zululand). Having got my place at the University of Natal I went on to achieve my goal of a Bachelor of Arts degree, and then a post-graduate Bachelor of Education qualification.

These qualifications opened up opportunities for me.  I worked with the Independent Examinations Board as a Materials Developer/Trainer, followed by a stint with the Gauteng Department of Education as a Learning Integration Officer.  I was also employed as a tutor at the University of Natal and spent a period as a lecturer at the E.C. Mango College of Education. It is pleasing to note that some of the variety of educational and teacher development materials that I helped develop are still in use today.

Following these teaching institution posts I became Deputy National Director of a leading educational management non-governmental organisation, the Management of Schools Training Programme (MSTP).

In the complex world of foreign-funded projects, provincial power plays, numerous partner organisations and the huge distances covered I successfully managed a 15 million rand project in the Northern Province – success judged by the many project indicators, including significant change and improvement measured in the project schools.  Personal success came too, as my management and leadership within the project was rewarded by subsequent appointments, culminating years later in public recognition and awards (more below).

For some years I was the Executive Director of the Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance (MGSLG). This institution was established in August 2003 by the Gauteng Department of Education, offering leadership training and support for school principals, deputy principals and heads of department. MGSLG also offers training to District Officials as well as to School Governing Bodies. In the few short years since its establishment, MGSLG has made a considerable impact in terms of the numbers of school leaders and governors trained. It has also established innovative programmes, such as a popular gender programme which combines gender-specific leadership issues with the opportunity for school leaders and aspirant leaders to obtain a formally accredited qualification as well.

During my period of leadership I have encouraged the organization to venture into training municipal officials in financial management skills. Large scale projects funded by external agencies and business have also been sought, in order to move the organization onto a sound financial footing.  This has contributed to raising the profile of MGSLG in South Africa and abroad.  All of us in the organization have worked together in developmental and collaborative efforts which have resulted in the establishment of partnerships with institutions across the continents.  A good example of this – and for which I am most proud – is my role as a founding member of Leadlink, a network of organisations in seven countries working across Africa in a collaborative educational leadership partnership.  A further networking role I undertook was as president of the Education Management Association of South Africa (EMASA).

Obviously success in any large project, programme or organisation is not determined by any one person, but my leadership role was positively judged by my peers. It was a great honour to be nominated as one of South Africa’s ‘Most Influential Women in Business and Government’ as well as for the ‘Outstanding Women in the Public Sector and State Owned Enterprises’ Awards, for which I was a finalist in 2006.

After the years in leadership roles in educational institutions I have now been honoured with the Presidency of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management (CCEAM).  For the first time, South Africa is the hosting country for the Presidency. This is a huge honour for the country, and for me. The following aims are central to what I wish to be achieved during my period as CCEAM President:

  • Create a distinctive African footprint 
  • Move beyond maintenance to development activities
  • Increase the exposure of the CCEAM
  • Increase activity levels
  • Capitalise on the opportunities offered by the CCEAM presidency to win projects that can benefit SA schools and, ultimately, learners
  • Increase the membership of CCEAM to include more countries
  • Capitalise on the diversity within the commonwealth
  • Initiate projects related to the empowerment of women
  • Improve communication amongst and between members
  • Develop a more interactive approach
  • Explore new ways of doing things
  • Embark upon a broad programme of collaboration
  • To share knowledge of best practice in education management and administration

Ultimately, the African presidency of the CCEAM signifies an era of hope through expanded opportunities for engagement.

Now I am lucky enough to have a place at the Institute of Education in London and am studying for a MBA in educational leadership.

Maris O’Rourke

15 November, 2009


‘How to Break the Glass Ceiling Without Cutting Your Wrists!’

Some would argue there is no longer a glass ceiling. However, you only have to look at the difference between the average salaries paid to men and women; the number of women appointed to directorships especially in private companies; and the number of women holding senior positions in business, or tertiary institutions, to know that there still is a glass ceiling.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time; to be one of the exceptions.  But there have been times when I thought cutting my wrists wasn’t a bad option – especially as slitting the throat of some of my colleagues wasn’t an option!  Of course there are always alternatives to cutting the wrists and I’ll share some of those that have worked for me.

I was born on a small island on the southwest coast of Scotland. My mother was a local girl, a teenager, and my father was an Aussie serviceman. We had a strange, violent, uncertain, insecure, peripatetic childhood – moving all the time wherever my father got posted. It wasn’t until we went to Gibraltar when I was 11 that I got an education rather than just schooling. I went to a Loreto Convent for my secondary school years and those Irish nuns took me up as a cause. They wormed their way into my brain, my psyche, my life. Somehow I grasped that I could learn something now that might be, could be, would be useful later – or even just interesting in its own right. It was the first time I had been treated as an intelligent person and really challenged intellectually. It was hard and gave me a grounding in learning that stayed with me all my life. The nuns had high expectations and I think we often meet the expectations others have of us, whether they are low or high, which is why teachers are such crucial people.

We were a working class family. The ethos was you left school and got a job as soon as you could, which is what I did at 16. I did move up the aspirations ladder a bit as I got O levels and got an apprenticeship with an engineering firm. After that I wandered around – working (and not working) in Europe, Canada, USA, Australia and finally NZ where I fell in love with the country and a real kiwi guy. I knew this was my place of being, my place of standing, my turangawaewae as soon as I saw it. It was the first time in my life I felt at home. It was as if I had come home, and that has never changed despite the many places I have been to since in the developed and developing world. I am a ‘born again’ kiwi.

It was through the women’s movement and having my own children that I got interested in education. I was at the University of Auckland as a mature student in the 1970’s. There were petitions, protests, processions and populist movements. Women’s rights, equal pay, equity, sexism, racism, abortion and childcare were all hot topics, hotly debated.

I was a young wife and mother trying to balance everything in my life at once and I could see exactly what they were getting at. However, when I tried to find childcare for my own children I saw some dire situations – mostly untrained people in sub-standard buildings and no curriculum to speak of. It seemed to me we couldn’t have rights for women without quality early childhood education for our children. These two things went hand in hand. It took many years of work to improve that situation. To achieve this we had to work on all fronts – the professional, practical and political and be very, very, very persistent.

Like a lot of things in my life none of this was easy. And I guess I am like that – I just love a challenge – I like to ski out of bounds, sky dive, climb mountains, sail hard on the wind, tramp over passes and into remote places and best of all I like to take people with me to do all that, especially my family and friends. You could say that my physical and personal life has been an analogy for my professional and political life. I am a change agent, an implementer – I like to DO stuff. Suffice to say you need to be strong and brave with excellent coping strategies to be an implementer. You need courage.

When I first came to Auckland Teachers College they had a Dean, Mrs Wiren, and I always wanted her job. This had traditionally been a woman’s job and was the glass ceiling in the college – it was as high as a woman could go then. Years later she retired and I applied along with many others. It got down to two – me and a guy. He got it and I was bitterly disappointed but it gave me a shove. Next thing you know I was Regional Senior for ECE putting in place the first of the changes for the early childhood sector and moving the administration from the Departments of Social Welfare (DSW) and Health into Education. What I didn’t know was that this was a sort of test run for what would be the ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ reforms coming out of the Picot Report ‘Administering for Excellence’. I was asked me to become one of six Executive Directors to implement the reforms and to take responsibility for ‘Education to Be More’ and implementing ‘Before Five’, which I did.  This was 1988 and the beginning of a fast, fulltime, roller coaster ride of a professional life that I only got off about five years ago. Now I only ride it part-time as I’m busy trying lots of other stuff in my life.

I was commuting between Auckland and Wellington and, as usual, juggling everything in my life with a lot of help from my partner, my children and my women friends. The job I really wanted in the new structure was running District Operations in Auckland. However, what I got was the job as Secretary for Education – it was probably the toughest thing I have ever done especially the first two years. They were turbulent political times in NZ. During my time I had four Prime Ministers – David Lange, Jeffrey Palmer, Mike Moore and Jim Bolger and I had three Ministers – David Lange, Phil Goff and Lockwood Smith. Each had incredibly different ways of working and personal styles. But also they had things in common – all three cared deeply about education, they were incredibly hard working and they were very knowledgeable.

The Ministry started in 1989 and from the beginning was coping with substantial work pressures due to the speed of the reforms; an education system in flux where everything had changed at once; and the task of bringing together a number of disparate and separately organised activities into a coherent whole and creating a workable organization.  I found when I took up the job that I was running three different and difficult organizations with a demoralised, disillusioned and bitter staff largely opposed to the reforms.

The complexity of all this was vastly under-estimated. Add to this mix an election coming up in 1990 and a new Minister of Education Phil Goff. I was responsible for implementing the most extensive administrative reforms ever to occur in NZ education and in the run up to the 1990 election this generated much negative energy and what appeared to be muddle and chaos. All this at a time when the Minister, the government and the party wanted positive energy and a smooth running system.  It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t possible. And there were certainly times when a little wrist-slitting looked attractive. Labour lost the 1990 election, we had a new government and I had a new Minister Dr Lockwood Smith for the next 5 years.

I have always felt that success in a job is when no-one notices you have gone and the transition is smooth but the things you have implemented, the things you have DONE stay in place and last.

So by 1995 I had been in Wellington for almost seven years and had vaguely begun to feel it was time to move and that message went into the cosmos. I was head-hunted by the World Bank to be their first Director of Education. As a farewell my three ex Ministers had their photo taken together on the stairs and presented it to me with an award for bravery and courage under fire plus a copy of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak.

So off I went to one of the top five jobs in Education in the world: there’s UNESCO, UNICEF, OECD, the Commonwealth Secretariat and The World Bank. The Bank had a new and charismatic President, an Australian Jim Wolfensohn who wanted to reform the Bank and get new blood, more ‘down unders’, more women, more ethnic others and generally a greater range of staff. I had apparently been spotted by World Bank people at the Commonwealth Ministers Conference in Islamabad, Pakistan. I was NZ’s representative; the only contigent of one person; the only woman leader; and one of only three women at the conference. I hadn’t wanted to go but the Minister asked me to take his place and, as always, I threw myself into it with enthusiasm running workshops, chairing groups, writing reports, making submissions – even visiting schools accompanied by my three Pathan guards with machine guns who went with me everywhere. You can never know what will create exciting future opportunities and catapult you right through that glass ceiling and, in my case, to be the first Director of Education for the World Bank. So what’s the lesson? Do a quality job whatever you are doing.

Education is small beans in the Bank – only 10% of lending though that is 3 billion US dollars a year and an ongoing portfolio of over 200 projects and 13 billion US dollars so I had plenty to do. There are 10,000 people in the Bank, 7,000 of them with PhDs. Of those about 350 are education staff and almost every one seemed to be a prima donna who thought they should have my job and didn’t think it should have been given to ‘some unknown woman from an unknown tin pot little country who hadn’t even been to a real University’ as one of them said to me.  If you take things like that to heart you would slit your wrists but how lucky I was to have had a tough childhood; those Loreto nuns and a trial by fire in Wellington.

Meanwhile despite all these clever people I found that the Bank had no Education strategy; the portfolio had abysmal performance; there was no quality control to speak of; there was no knowledge sharing across the Bank of what worked; the staff training seemed to be on things people knew how to do already (albeit in nice places like Paris and Hawaii); and as far as I could see all external agencies and many of the clients hated us. So I had plenty to do getting those people, outputs and systems in place and focusing everyone on the Bank’s mission ‘a world free of poverty’. For me that mission made the challenges worthwhile – if you are excited by something, if you believe in something it sees you through the tough times – and from cutting your wrists. So even though we still don’t have ‘a world free of poverty’ every little bit helps and any successes move people closer to thinking it is possible.

So here I was in yet another high profile job where I was trying to make changes and being challenged on every front. I have thought a lot about what sees you through times like that. Reading has always been an important learning tool for me. And so is writing. I have always written journals but only for myself. They are my way of surfacing things, dealing with issues, talking with myself, asking unanswerable questions, clarifying things and so on.  And of course I had learned a few things along the way which I was able to apply in Washington

  • Use the sexism – they will vastly underestimate you initially so out-manoeuvring is possible;
  • Get a team with the talents you don’t have e.g. to work with me (and watch my back) I got myself the top thing you can be in the World Bank – a French, male, economist with many years of experience in developing countries and in the World Bank – I had done something similar in the Ministry so I knew it worked;
  • Give the enemies and blockers something very hard to do – something public, measurable and with deadlines; help them achieve it; and celebrate that publicly too e.g. union negotiations;
  • Book holidays a year in advance with non-refundable tickets;
  • Train someone to do your job – you can’t be promoted if you can’t be replaced;
  • Laugh a lot – humour goes a long way;
  • Try to cry, scream and rage in private then move on;
  • Because others behave badly doesn’t mean you have to – try to be unfailingly polite;
  • Be loyal and trustworthy and keep confidences e.g. someone in the Ministry was leaking information to the opposition thinking they would get the CEOs job if the opposition became the government. The opposition did become the government but the Minister never trusted that person again;
  • Ensure people have Mana and money – especially if you are making them redundant;
  • We all make dreadful mistakes – just ‘fess up and fix it;
  • Share knowledge and give a hand up to those still trying to break through especially women and different ethnic groups – its not easy and I haven’t always done it well but the more of us who try the easier it becomes;
  • Know yourself and know other people – let others soar with their strengths and try to work around their weaknesses. In the Ministry and the Bank one of my first actions was to personally run workshops for all staff in groups of 20/30 people until I had met everyone;
  • Times of change are times of opportunity especially for women who are often given the ‘hard’ jobs and/or put in charge of new organisations/reforms – so give it a go if you get the chance;
  • Be aware that ‘what goes up must come down’ and when you are journeying upwards remember that being able to find your way back is critical. Ensure you have the maps, pathways and guides to do that.  Crucial for me has been good relationships with family and friends. So be a good family member and be a good friend and never lose your women friends – they see you through all the 3D stuff (death, doom, disaster, divorce) and those inevitable periods of psychic despair when you want to cut your wrists.
  • Don’t be afraid to dream, risk, try, fail, succeed; and
  • Never give up, never give up, never ever give up on the task at hand.

In 2001 I decided to leave the World Bank. Why? I saw many rootless people in the World Bank. They didn’t belong in their own country any more and they didn’t belong in the USA. They had lost their place of standing – their turangawaewae as we would say in NZ. They had lost their friends, their networks, their whanau and their way of being. I felt they had lost themselves. I knew my place of being was NZ and I didn’t want to lose that.

Well that’s all well and good you may say but what do I actually DO now that I have moved from ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ to being a ‘pane of glass’? Have you noticed that? People look straight through you if they don’t think you are ‘important’ – I call it the ‘pane of glass’ phenomena. Well I had to accept that I’ll always be obsessive whatever I’m doing so I’ve moved from workaholic to playaholic. I have a list of adventures, consultancy contracts and creative projects at home and away that I’m working my way through. The good thing about this move is that all the behaviours and skills you have acquired as a workaholic serve you well as a playaholic, but now its way more fun. This is important because fun keeps you in a state of wellness and wellbeing that means you may age but you won’t get ‘old’. There’s nothing like going outside your comfort zone, whether at work or play and getting that adrenalin rush, that sense of achievement that keeps you vibrant, alive and possibly wrinkle free.

I want to encourage you all to give it a go and go forth and be ‘brave adventurers’ and Ko te pae tawhiti, whaia kia tata!Ko te pae tata, whakamaua kia tina! Reach for those distant horizons and cherish all those you attain.

 Did I do that? Absolutely. Was it all worth it? Absolutely. Was it difficult? Absolutely. Would I do it all again knowing what I do now? Absolutely.  It’s like childbirth – the results are worth it.