St Peter's Prep Schools: The Difference... Part 2

  • June 26, 2020 | Greg Royce: Rector

St Peter’s – The Difference …


The enormous effect of environment on intelligence in the early years is one of the main drivers for the opening of our own St Peter’s Pre-Prep.  Early Childhood Development (ECD) encompasses physical, socio-emotional, cognitive and motor development between 0 to 8 years of age. 

The often uninformed view that sees ECD facilities or Pre-Prep schools as glorified Daycare Centres, with some structure to a programme, which provides the children with simple activities to keep them occupied - could be nothing further from the truth.

The Abecedarian Project, conducted in the 1970s, remains one of the most promising pieces of evidence for ECD.  It differed from more current research in that it provided intensive intervention from birth to age 5 and then tracked the students into adulthood.  The participants in the intervention programme did amazingly better than the control group, including being four times likelier to graduate from university, five times less likely to have received government welfare, significantly reduced chances of being arrested or charged with a crime and significant improvements in adult maths and reading ability. 

Numerous subsequent studies have confirmed these findings.  The return on investment on ECD has been quantified by the distinguished economist and Nobel laureate, James Heckman. Heckman’s research shows a return on investment of between $7 for every dollar invested in ECD, over double the return on an investment in post-school job training and tertiary education.

Advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and genomics now give us a much better understanding of how early experiences are built into our bodies and brains, for better or worse.

The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through a process that begins early in life and continues into adulthood. Simpler circuits come first and more complex brain circuits build on them later. Genes provide the basic blueprint, but experiences influence how or whether genes are expressed. Together, they shape the quality of brain architecture and establish either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health, and behaviour that follow. Plasticity, or the ability for the brain to reorganise and adapt, is greatest in the first years of life and decreases with age.

St Peter’s pupils are taught how the brain works. We believe that once they understand this, they can increase their intelligence and ability by trying harder at mental tasks.


  1. This is how we explain it:
  2. The brain comprises billions of nerve endings called neurons.
  3. The neurons communicate with electro-chemical impulses.
  4. These impulses travel along links between the neurons.  The links are called synapses.
  5. The more we think and use a particular set of neurons, the greater the growth of the synapses.
  6. The more synapses we have, the cleverer we become.


Explaining this process helps them to understand that intelligence is not fixed.  When faced with a mental problem, they should not stop thinking. We liken the process to fitness training: the more one runs, the fitter one becomes.

Schools as we know them

The schooling system with which we are familiar, was developed by Frederick the Great, in the 18th Century.  The invention of machines which could do the work of many men required a more sophisticated labour force than that which had serviced what was a largely agrarian economy. The German chancellor, Bismarck, designed a schooling system which set out to produce such a labour force for the owners of the factories.  The owners of the factories were educated in the ‘Classics’ e.g. the long established ‘public’ schools such as Eton and Harrow in the United Kingdom. 

The system reflects its Prussian and industrial origins with children grouped according to: 

  • age (not ability)
  • desks ordered in neat rows
  • communication between pupils strictly forbidden
  • a curriculum which must be ‘covered’ irrespective of whether or not all the children have grasped it
  • subjects taught according to a timetable which takes no account whether or not children are receptive to learning,

all culminating in the transmission of ‘knowledge’ (facts) from the teacher (the sage) to the students.

Moreover, the method used to assess the progress of students largely comprises questions demanding the recall of the facts taught.  Thus, to a large extent, only one component of intelligence was tested:  memory.

In large part, therefore, those able to recall the facts correctly were rewarded with high marks and a reputation for being clever.  Little recognition was bestowed on those who displayed reasoning power, logic, problem-solving ability, creativity, analytic ability, perceptual speed and other factors constituting intelligence in the many theories describing intellectual ability. 

History is peppered with examples of highly successful people who struggled at school or university including Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Whoopi Goldberg and our own Bonang Matheba, Charlize Theron, Priven Reddy and Max Lichaba.

The above individuals succeeded despite their schools and universities where they received messages suggesting that they were without ability.  How many others simply accept the same messages, shrink their self-image and confidence to fit the latter and just proceed through life accepting what fate dishes out?

The St Peter’s definition of success is not restricted to financial achievement.  For us it includes many more aspects of human fulfilment, including the ability to be a great parent, spouse, friend, citizen, as well as accomplishment in sport, the arts and all similar fields.  Most importantly, we include the ability to make the world a better place, if only for one other person.

To achieve such success, the traditional school system is almost wholly ineffective.  Let’s start with a central concept:  the teacher as the font of knowledge transferring it to the child as the receptacle, who then repeats from memory the ‘facts’ what the teacher has taught. 

In the first place, the method tests only memory and in the second, one has to ask which facts should be taught in order to contribute to the future successful performance of the child?  In 1982, futurist and inventor, R Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years.  By 1982, it was doubling every 12 to 13 months.  Experts now estimate that in 2020, human knowledge is doubling every hour.  Moreover, we need also to consider the ‘Knowledge Half-Life’ concept introduced 50 years ago by the former president of the International Economic Association, Fritz Machlup.  Knowledge Half-Life is the amount of time it takes before half the knowledge or facts in a particular area are made obsolete or superseded by new facts.  As complexity scientist and Harvard fellow, Samuel Arbesman, points out, facts change all the time:  The earth was flat, smoking was once doctor-recommended and Pluto was a planet.  (CIO Africa, 2019).

Many parents continue to want the comfort of a written list of facts which their children can memorise and reproduce in an exam.  The question is, how useful are the facts to the child’s future performance and what if the child does not have a good memory?  One of the most oft-mentioned skills required for success in the 21st Century is the ability to work collaboratively.  This recognises that human beings learn from the environment and from one another.  Sharing of ideas leads to better solutions, more refined concepts, and improved creativity. The traditional school system discourages this crucial element.