By SIGI HOWES (Principal at Centre for Conservation of Education, Wynberg)

Simon’s Town School is the oldest school in the Cape Peninsula and the fifth oldest in the Western Cape. (The oldest school is Mamre Primere Skool, established in 1808, followed by, Outeniqua High & Junior Schools (1812); Pacaltsdorp Hoër- en Primêre Skool (1813) and Swellendam Hoër- en Laerskool (1814).

The first attempt at establishing a school in Simon’s Town was in 1813. It was run by Mr B. van Duren from Holland, but was closed in 1820 due to a lack of support.

In 1815 the first English-speaking inhabitants of Simon’s Town decided to start their own private English-speaking school because they did not want to send their children to the Dutch District School that had been established at the Residency in 1813.  The school was for children of poorer families, without charge, under the administration of the Anglican Church.  The school was for both white and coloured children, and was called the Simon’s Town Free School.  The school was probably held in a hired room, but its exact location is not known.  Then permission was obtained from the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, for a school building to be erected on the property of the parsonage.  Luckily schools were small in those days, and plots were big!  The school moved into its new building – on the site where Patel Brothers is now – in 1817.  In 1826 the Free School was taken over by the Colonial Government and from then onwards called the Simon’s Town Government Free School.  This meant that the state was 100% responsible for the school: the teachers’ salaries; maintenance of the building; teaching equipment such as blackboards; and learning materials for the children such as slates, writing books and textbooks.

By 1861 many of the government free schools in the Cape Colony were not performing well, and were often out-performed by schools  started by the inhabitants themselves and drawing only a small government subsidy.  The Government appointed the Watermeyer Commission to look into the state of these schools.  One of the findings of the Commission, which was also given as the chief reason for their failure, was that they had no bond of connection with the townsfolk they served; they were too liberal; and they were badly administered.  This was not the case in Simon’s Town, where the school had been initiated by the community and it was functioning well under the principal, Mr Stephen Osler.  But most of the others cost the state a great deal of money and did not bring an adequate return.  In 1963 the Watermeyer Commission issued a report and made a series of recommendations which can be summed up as:

1.     The gradual abolition of the expensive government free schools.

2.     The creation of cheaper public schools that would be granted government aid on the ‘£ for £’ system.

The result was the Education Act of 1865 (Act Nr 13), where these recommendations were adopted.  The ‘£ for £’ principle of aid was introduced, which meant that the cost os running a school would be shared equally between the state and the community.  On the one hand it absolved the government from the financial responsibility of carrying the schools and passed some of it onto the community; on the other hand it gave the community more say in the running of their school

The act required all established government free schools to be technically closed on the resignation, retirement, death or dismissal of the principal, followed by the registration of the school as a state-aided un-denominational (not linked to or administered by any church) public school.  This ‘closure’ therefore mostly did not necessarily mean the end of a school.  Rather it was a process that allowed for the reclassification of a school on a different financial and management model.

Once this became known, there was talk in the community of Simon’s Town converting the Free School to a public school.  On the retirement of Mr Osler at the end of 1865, the school was technically ‘closed’ as a government free school.  At a public meeting on 7 January 1866 it was resolved to form a 2nd Class Public School, which went as far as the School Higher Exam (later the Junior Certificate) and which was less expensive for the state to run.  Other than that there was a new teacher, the pupils who returned to school at the beginning of the year would hardly have known the difference, as the school was still in the same venue.  Their parents would have felt the pinch, though, as they now had to pay school fees.  And so the school became the Simon’s Tow A2 Un-denominational Public School.

The school performed well and soon the community wished to have it upgraded to an A1 or High School, which went all the way to Matric.  The Department of Public Education welcomed this move, because it was keen to create more High Schools in Cape Town.  This meant the school needed someone who was qualified to teach up to Matric – a principal with a university education.  The new man was Mr Adam George MacLeod, who took over in 1894, and there is no doubt that this heralded a new chapter in the school’s life.  The school was reclassified and became the Simon’s Town High School.  Only 21 children enrolled at the beginning of 1894, probably because the school fees increased considerably.  But the numbers grew quickly.  In some sources, the school is described as having ‘opened that year’, and MacLeod as ‘the first principal’.   Considering the status that a high school had over a public school, it is understandable that this would seem like a new school.  However, it cannot be seen in the same light as a school closing its doors permanently and all its pupils being forced to go somewhere else.  In this case, the existing venue was retained and most if not all the pupils that registered would have been at the Public School the previous year.  It was therefore in essence the same school.

In 1897 the school moved to new premises in the building that is now the Public Library.  The school prospered greatly under Mr MacLeod.  By 1901 it was described as ‘the premier school in the Colony’.  By 1904 it was one of only 12 A1 high schools in Cape Town and the Peninsula.  and the only co-educational school.  the others were:

Bishops; Ellerslie Girls’ High; Good Hope Seminary; Observatory Boy’s High; Rondebosch Boys’ High; Rustenburg Girls’ High; SACS; Sea Point Boys’ High; St Cyprian’s; St Mary’s Convent; Wynberg Boys’ High (founded 1841; classified as a high school ±1893); Wynberg Girls’ High.  Some of them, like Rustenburg Girls’ High, was classified A1 from the start and others were only classified A1 much later.  All of them, Wynberg included, celebrate their year of establishment, not the year they were classified as a high school.

In 1953 it moved to its present site in Harrington Road, Simon’s Town.   Extensive expansions were made in the 1970s to cater for the school’s increasing population.  The school opened its doors to all races and cultures in 1991.  Although the mediums of instruction are English and Afrikaans, we accommodate many learners who speak other languages.  We take pride in being a truly integrated school, preparing our learners for a multi-cultural society.

We would also like to site the example of Muir College in Uitenhage.  It was established in 1822 as the Uitenhage Government Free School, but because of The Education Act of 1865 was forced to ‘close’ in 1873 after the principal resigned and to re-open as the Uitenhage Public School.  For a long time the school used 1873 as its founding date, even though it could prove that it could trace its education back to 1822.  Today Muir College has gone back to using 1822 as its date of establishment.

Like Muir and the schools cited above, Simon’s Town School wants to go back to its original founding, and not to use the date when the school became a high school, as we have in  the past.  As from 2015 we are therefore adopting 1815 as our founding year and will be celebrating the school’s 200th year of existence this year.  We believe that makes us the oldest school in the greater Cape Town area, and the oldest co-educational High School.