The most powerful weapon

'Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world'. Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

The death of two iconic world leaders, poignantly separated by almost exactly half a century, has focused our attention once more on the personal resonance of truly great leadership.

I wasn't born when Kennedy was assassinated. But my parents told me about it. For  them, as for millions of others across the world, it was a defining moment. They were at a works 'do'. Time stopped. Everything stopped.

JFK John F Kennedy

Fifty years on you could feel it stop too. You could feel it through those flickering black and white images. Images that captured individual and collective grief of lost hope.

I was a child of the age defined by those images. Kennedy's image. The historical jury still of course remains out on JFK and his legacy. His tragically early death and short presidency mean that historians continue to debate whether this leadership was more characterised by style than by substance. But there is absolutely no doubt that his death in Dallas on 22 November 1963 was a defining moment.

Nelson Mandela's passing last Thursday evening was of course expected. Unlike Kennedy's, his death - despite the circumstances of much of his life - was not brutal. If Kennedy's death symbolised hope lost, Mandela's celebrated it regained. But what unites them in their death is the moment's impact on – and  beyond - a generation.

I didn't 'know' Kennedy. but I did know Mandela. I grew up with him. My personal and professional life overlapped with the timeframe defined by Mandela and his release from 27 years of captivity; my leadership responsibilities in schools coincided with the first public steps of what had been his very long walk to freedom.

For any educationalist Mandela's leadership has a special resonance. Very poignantly as it now transpires, I used his words to open my briefing to Iraqi Headteachers just a few weeks ago in Erbil:

'Education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world.'

As a Sports College Headteacher, Mandela's understanding of the power of the relationship between sport and education to change young lives was also very special. He articulated this in his words:

'Sport has the power to change the world... It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in the way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language that they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.'

Nelson Mandela meets Francois Pienaar

And also by his actions. Most iconically in wearing the green Springbok Rugby jersey, for so long the symbol of Afrikaner supremacy and oppression, to present the Rugby World Cup to South African Captain, Francois Pienaar. At that moment a Rainbow Nation was born.       

I also feel Mandela's death personally because I have been privileged to see at first hand just what he means to his people, and how his leadership has shaped that of South African Headteachers - whose wider role within their local communities is an inspiration.


I've been fortunate to visit our partner school - Sithengile High School - in Durban on two separate occasions. Once with a group of other Headteachers in 2004 and, on the second occasion, with fourteen students - West Berkshire's Young Ambassadors - in 2010. If the former was a professionally defining moment for me, I know that the latter was an equally life changing experience for the students as they worked with their South African counterparts to develop the concept of an 'International Values Passport'.  I can't think of a better affirmation of Mandela's belief that sport 'speaks to youth in a language that they understand'.

Sithengile High School Durban

I have been thinking about Sithengile, the school, the students and their inspirational Headteacher, Mr Thusi over the last week. They have lost their Tata; their father. They are not alone. But, thanks to Mandela, they - like us - won't have lost their passionate commitment to the role of education as the 'most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world'.