11th December 2017

I always enjoy Christmas and most things that go with it. I love the music and I love singing Christmas carols. I love the food, particularly the turkey and the pigs in blankets, and I have soft spot for the much-maligned brussel sprout, although it does need to be cooked right. I love the gathering of the family and I mostly enjoy the games, although there is only so much monopoly you can play. We have quite a wide selection of family games, which keep us all amused. I am keen on word games. And I love getting presents too…who doesn’t like getting presents? Yes, of course Christmas is over-commercialised, but I don’t let that upset me.

One thing that does annoy me, however, is the prevalence of Father Christmas everywhere. An alien dropping down on the local high street could be forgiven for assuming that the Christian faith is based on an elderly fat man with a long white beard wearing a silly red and white costume, with a sack over his shoulder and mindlessly laughing at everything. Not that I have a problem with Father Christmas per se, just that he isn’t what Christmas is all about.

There is a magic about the Christmas story and a sense of wonder, which can be lost because of over-familiarity. Christians believe that God came to earth in the form of a helpless baby and that in itself is extraordinary. However the circumstances of that arrival that are equally amazing. In a very conservative society he was born to a young unmarried mother, in squalid conditions, so undoubtedly he would have been the subject of gossip. He was born in a country that was occupied by a ruthless military power and the king, who was a collaborator with the Romans, set off a massacre of young children in an attempt to kill him. His family had to flee into exile to survive, so Jesus was a refugee. When he was born the religious authorities ignored the signs and missed it altogether. There were only two groups of people who came to visit, one a bunch of shepherds, uneducated and simple peasants, and the other a group of weird foreign travellers, who did not share the Jewish faith and relied on astrology to show them the way.

Surely if you or I were making up the story of the birth of the long-expected Messiah we would put him in a palace, surrounded by fanfares and worshipped with great homage by all the religious leaders and political dignitaries. Despite his lowly background, throughout history Jesus has been expropriated by governments and leaders to keep people in their place, yet he is a character to whom, right from his birth, the marginalised can relate more easily than the ‘respectable’: those of questionable parentage, the homeless, the refugee and asylum-seeker, the foreigner, the uneducated…and of course the children, whom later he welcomes when his disciples try to keep them away, along with the sick and deformed who were rejected by society.

Jesus grew up to become a troublemaker, who tipped the social order on its head. He was a nuisance and a revolutionary whom the religious authorities could not handle and whom the military governor had executed in place of a convicted terrorist and murderer. I would suggest that all this makes him still a highly relevant figure and a rather more interesting and thought-provoking character than Father Christmas! I hope I never lose my sense of wonder over the real Christmas story.

Have a great holiday. And I hope that Santa visits you this Christmas.

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5th November 2017

Last week my oldest son went to a meeting in the centre of London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which was the first step to the founding of the state of Israel. It was not a celebration but a public forum addressed by a variety of eminent politicians and rabbis and Palestinian campaigners from many different perspectives. I was delighted he went along and he was fascinated by it.

One of the things that I feel strongly about is making sure that Columbans do not live in a bubble, where the issues in the world and the suffering and injustice experienced by so many are not ignored. On one level I do want our pupils to be protected from the harsh world beyond our privileged gates, because childhood is precious and children need to feel safe…but on another level it must be right to take an interest in the wider issues in the world and I have written often about wanting to prepare children for a life of service as well as a life of success.

This week is a good example of the world coming into the school and I hope that the pupils will develop a fascination with the wider world. Tomorrow our Transition Year have a whole day of presentations on China, which will hopefully give them an understanding of the importance that China plays in the world today and the influence that it will increasingly have during their lifetimes. If they are like me I suspect that they are very ignorant of so many aspects of Chinese life and it will be good to at least get them thinking. Maybe it will inspire some to study Mandarin at university, as many of my friends did. That would indeed be a very good strategic move for their careers.

On Thursday we have a visit in the evening from the Mexican ambassador to Ireland, who will talk to the senior pupils in our latest ‘fireside chat.’ I also wonder what our pupils know about Mexico…what is it like to be a neighbour to the USA, to be told by Donald Trump that your country is full of rapists and that he intends to build that famous wall? I am sure it will be interesting to get a perspective from Mexico. It is an extraordinary country but I realise that I myself know almost nothing about it at all.

Then of course this week culminates in Remembrance Sunday, which will remind us again, in ways that I always find very moving, that many Columbans made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us from fascism and brutal racialism and anti-semitism. On Tuesday I’m going to a talk on the role of Ireland in the Great War, something else that I know very little about. We have to embrace the world and take time to understand those different from ourselves because so many of the conflicts in the world are caused by ignorance of other people…and ignorance leads to fear and fear leads to hatred. It is much harder to hate people when you really know them. Our school is very international and that is a great thing because it is preparing our young people for an international future where they will rub shoulders with people from every possible culture and ethnicity.

I wish I had taken more of an interest in the world when I was at school, but I want to make sure that at least some of the present day Columbans have their eyes opened to the needs of the world while they are still here.

9th October 2017

Last week I was at the annual conference of HMC, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, attended by the heads of all the top private schools in the UK and many from elsewhere too. UK schools are dominated by the necessity to ‘perform’ in the league tables and the pursuit of those higher places, based entirely on public exam results. While here at St. Columba’s we get frustrated by the league tables being based on entry to Irish universities, it is at least a relief not to be in thrall to the exam tables. Here are some thoughts on diversity and intelligence and league tables, perhaps more relevant to the UK than Ireland:

Diversity is the latest buzzword. Schools are keen to use it in their vision statements and make it clear that their doors are open for everyone, whatever their gender, race, religion or orientation. And that of course is entirely right and proper, because young people are diverse. Schools are much more accepting places than they used to be. Can you imagine nowadays a school refusing to allow a child into the senior school just because they are black? Or telling a Muslim pupil that they cannot continue with their chosen subjects half way through the course because they are Muslim? It simply wouldn’t happen and we would be horrified if it did.

I presume we all agree on that. All schools agree with that don’t they?

Well yes, unless of course the child in question isn’t quite so academic and might affect that school’s exam performance and league table position. Then schools that like to tell us how diverse they are decide that they only believe in diversity when the pupils concerned are intelligent.

When a weaker child slips through the net (oh, those troublesome siblings) there are schools that bar them from certain subjects or from continuing with a subject without an A pass, or create excessively high tariffs for entry into the upper school that were invented after the pupil enrolled; that enter them as private candidates so as not to damage the school exam performance…they can sit in the same exam hall but they will essentially be external candidates; that create fictitious new schools through which to enter weaker candidates (yes, really), and therefore their results don’t count in the real school’s results.

In other words schools believe very strongly in diversity until it affects their results, because diversity of intelligence is really very inconvenient. Diversity is great when they all have an IQ of 150 but woe betide the less academic pupils who might not get a string of top grades and places at one of the best universities. Let’s block them, kick them out or make them feel like they don’t belong by not allowing them to represent the school.

I am not really talking about selection of pupils entering a school…of course every school wants to have the brighter pupils coming to the school (UK private schools can be selective as they are not government funded at all) and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. What I am saying is that once a child is in a school, he or she should not be humiliated by being made to feel stupid or unwanted. Is that a lot to ask?

Perhaps I am deliberately being provocative, but I do think that exam league tables, while they may have driven up standards in some respects, indirectly have a lot to answer for in creating mental health issues among young people…and many schools are unfortunately complicit.

22nd September 2017

Earlier this week we hosted a small team from the Boarding Schools Association, a British based but international network, who oversee the standard of boarding provision in a huge number of schools. As an Irish school we do not sit under their jurisdiction in the sense that they cannot pass or fail what we do, but they are the best people to advise on boarding and that is why I invited them in to give us the once over. As I have made clear before I don’t want to benchmark ourselves against other Irish schools but rather against the very best anywhere. There is no boarding inspectorate in Ireland and that could be a dangerous thing, so we need to be proactive in seeking out the best practice.

I am still awaiting a full report but the initial feedback has been very positive. While there are known weaknesses in some of our provision of facilities, which will be addressed by our development plan over the next few years, it was obvious to them, just as it is to me, that we are blessed with some outstanding pastoral leaders in the school and the team were very impressed by the obvious dedication and care that is provided in our houses. I will feed back more in due course, when I have received a fuller report, but please be assured that our pastoral provision is excellent already and I hope to make it even better as we go forward.

It has made me think about the benefits of boarding and to try to verbalise what we mean when we talk about a ‘full boarding experience’.  I think we in the College know what it means because we live it, but for an outsider, someone unfamiliar with boarding schools and who has perhaps never contemplated sending their child to one, it is probably not at all obvious. In Ireland there are few boarding schools and many of those that do exist are five day a week boarding, with a very limited weekend programme for those few who remain in. When we at St. Columba’s talk about a full boarding experience we are talking about something that we offer that is unique in Ireland and therefore is not easy to sell to people since they don’t see it elsewhere. Let me try and explain what I mean by it and why I think it is of value.

In my mind boarding gives young people the experience of learning to live alongside other people. In that environment they learn to appreciate those who are very different from themselves, people who may not share their interests, even people whom they may not naturally like. That is a great lesson for life, because in the future they will not always work or live with those they find easy or who are like themselves. And in that situation it so often happens that young people learn to find value in others, to respect their differences and ultimately to enjoy those differences. The rugby player appreciates the musician, the serious academic learns that others don’t find things as easy as she does, the gregarious extrovert comes to see that there is value in the quiet one. Friendships are formed and – and this is undoubtedly true and borne out by my experience and that of many others – they often last a lifetime. They will be at each other’s weddings, be godparents to their children and continue a lifelong journey together. A recent reunion of Columbans who left 20 years ago was very well attended by a large percentage of those who left in 1997. Say no more.

Our boarding is very full time and cannot be compared to the boarding provided by most Irish schools that have a relatively small number of boarders. That means that our boarders do not go out much, they have six days of school, six days of sport, they have things to do on a Saturday evening and often on a Sunday too, quite apart from chapel. And you can add to that something else that is unique to St. Columba’s in the Irish context, that the majority of our staff live on site, not just the boarding staff. That means that they are around in the evenings and at weekends, that they are seen with their wives and husbands and their children and their dogs. So the College is not just a school but a home for many, and that creates a very different atmosphere. There is a great African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and I think that that is what is great about boarding at its best. I also believe that the village atmosphere provides a very different experience for our day pupils too, as they absorb many of the same things that the boarders do. I think that the creation of a deep sense of community is what is special about what we do here and why we will remain committed to the full boarding experience, even in changing times and whatever other schools may choose to do.

23rd June 2017

How to be the best small mixed boarding school in Ireland the World.

Year one has flown by. I would be lying if I said I am not looking forward to a holiday but I am also already looking forward to next year. I have absolutely no regrets about moving to Dublin and taking over this wonderful, quirky little school. I am fortunate to have inherited a great school…but how to make it even better? It is easy to be the best mixed boarding school in Ireland…there is no competition. What would it take to be the best in the world? Surely that is the aim and it cannot be just about resources or money, because, although we are healthy we are not a wealthy foundation and we do not want to raise our fees and price people out of the market. How can we be the best without huge investment and be innovative while remaining true to our values? Here are some thoughts, something to contemplate over the holidays: Fellows, parents, Old Columbans, staff, both academic and support, and pupils:

  • Staff in Ireland tend to stay put. When the opportunity comes to hire new staff it is essential to get the best, but since most staff will be here for a majority, if not all of their career, it is important to make this a great school to work at and create in the staff a sense of pride in their place of work. They need to love working here and feel that they are valued and stretched. This cannot always be done through promotions, but it is still possible to give staff a chance to do what they feel passionate about and what gets them leaping out of bed in the morning. I want every teacher here to be given the chance to do what excites them and to feel appreciated. As it happens they deserve it because they are truly outstanding.
  • Related to this we must constantly be looking at what others are doing in academic matters to try and learn from the very best. Is our curriculum adequate for the 21st Century or do we just teach the same syllabus and subjects year by year without questioning? Academically we are doing very well as a school, but we can do better and we need to be having an ongoing conversation about how to make those famous ‘marginal gains’ that keep us moving upwards. Teachers who are learning new things, even after 30 years in the classroom, stay fresh and keep growing.
  • It is equally essential to value the many other non-teaching staff who keep this place going and work behind the scenes as cleaners, caterers, maintenance, grounds, finance, office etc. I cannot speak highly enough of this group of people, who help to create the home environment for our children and have such very high professional standards. They must feel very proud to work here or we are doing something wrong.
  • Our pastoral care must be exceptional. UK boarding schools are in the middle of an arms war when it comes to boarding facilities, with every new house edging closer to the standard of a five star hotel. But great facilities are only a part of boarding and it is possible to feel uncared for in the most perfect physical environment. What is crucial is making sure that every boarder feels special and able to thrive in their home away from home. The fact that we are a small school means we can keep an eye on everyone in an exceptional way. No one should get lost or slip through the cracks. All must have the confidence which will enable them to flourish here and nothing should disrupt a sense of acceptance and the celebration of difference.
  • We need to strike a balance with our pupils of having the highest expectations of what they can achieve and yet allowing them time to be young and enjoy their friends. I am hoping to establish a social hub in the middle of the school that will be a great place for all to meet and relax. In a world in which young people are more and more prone to mental health problems and societal pressures we must remember that they are children and that childhood is sacred. Let’s prepare them for the fullest life possible, but let’s make it fun.

Innovation alongside tradition, fun alongside the serious business of hard work, the unexpected and adventurous next to the predictable, the creation of a strong community while making sure that each individual is given the chance to thrive. Ultimately it is deep care for the children and the staff which makes a school great, not catch-phrases or policies or ten year plans or vision statements or expensive rebranding.

That is all…then we will be the best in the world.

26th May 2017

Educating the next generation is the most serious and weighty responsibility that anyone could possibly engage in. However, as in every profession or vocation, it is important not to take oneself too seriously. When you are working with young people laughter and absurdity are never very far away and in my experience most teachers are good at laughing at themselves. A staff room is a place of great camaraderie and mutual support. There is always something around the corner to bring you down to earth and more often than not your colleagues are responsible. Or something entirely unpredictable.

Let’s take yesterday as an example. We had our annual confirmation service in the afternoon, a happy and enjoyable affair with plenty of visitors. During the service I left my two dogs in my study because I feel sorry for them being locked up at home all day when my wife is away. I was outside the chapel afterwards talking to a parent when a girl came up to me and told me I needed to come back to my study quickly. It transpired that the younger dog, still a puppy, had found a blue biro, chewed it up, walked in the ink and then run all over the light brown carpet leaving footprints everywhere. It is hard to believe that such a small dog could cause so much mess. It was a scene of mayhem. Today I have to receive some visiting parents who are contemplating making a serious investment to send their children to my school…let’s hope they aren’t too alarmed by a warden who cannot control his own pets, let alone a school.

A couple of weeks ago, while walking with gravitas through the assembled children after chapel I stumbled and nearly fell down the stairs in front of everyone, to general delight. In the same week I managed to come into a hymn in chapel a beat too early. You know those moments when someone comes in early and everyone smiles and turns to look at the culprit…only this time the culprit was the warden. Oh well…no danger of taking myself too seriously in those circumstances.

Every teacher will remember those moments in class or in a boarding house when a pupil has done something against the rules, but which is actually very funny. With great difficulty you keep a straight face and read the riot act, then go into the staff room and share the story with your colleagues: the child who has given you the most ridiculous excuse for wearing the incorrect uniform or told you that he smells of cigarette smoke because he was with others who were smoking, but he didn’t smoke himself. I was once talking to a boy in house who wanted to go out for the weekend and while he was asking he pulled his hand out of his pocket and a packet of fags accidentally fell out and landed at my feet. The boy whom I caught walking down the corridor with a half empty bottle of wine, which he claimed was not his, but someone else’s, who had left it in his room. He was just returning it. Then there was the boy who managed to rack up a £12,000 mobile phone bill on another boy’s phone, downloading movies which he thought were free. (Don’t worry, these things didn’t happen at St. Columba’s. Obviously such things would never happen here!)

Occasionally a quiet and good-natured boy or girl, who has never been in trouble before, does something stupid and cops the consequences. I can almost feel a sense of relief, as if to say, ‘I am so glad that they have got it wrong at last. I was beginning to worry.’ Obviously it would be better to stay out of trouble but we learn from making mistakes and testing the boundaries and getting it wrong may not be a bad thing. Young people must be allowed to make mistakes.

So running a school is a very serious business. However the laughter in the staff room and the antics of the pupils can brighten many a rainy day and we are all better for that.

By the way the carpet cleaner is coming this afternoon.

May 5th 2017

I have just come back from a few days at the Boarding Schools Association heads’ conference in York. As a boarding school in Ireland we are rather unusual and as there is no such network on this island it is helpful to be engaged in a wider boarding conversation. It is no good if we are the best boarding school in Ireland but fall well behind the standards of the best boarding practice elsewhere.

When surrounded by people who see as much value in boarding as I do it gets one thinking: what is it about boarding that means that it still survives, and indeed flourishes, in the 21st century? Here is my list, though certainly not exhaustive:

  • Boarding creates a wonderful sense of community, in which everyone should feel valued and accepted;
  • Living in a boarding house with others creates a sense of belonging and identity, as well as often a great sense of pride;
  • It is of great value for young people to live alongside others in close proximity. Often their housemates or dorm-mates are very different and would not naturally become friends, but one learns to appreciate those who are different from oneself and to get on with all sorts. That is a good preparation for life beyond school;
  • Pupils learn to be independent and make decisions for themselves away from their parents;
  • No time is wasted travelling to and from school…time that can be spent on work or activities for the children…and it frees up parents from the daily ferrying to school and other activities and clubs;
  • Boarding schools typically provide and encourage a huge amount of extra-curricular activity and pupils have the time to engage in that programme in a fuller way than if they were day pupils;

I have worked in boarding schools for 23 years and I envy the friendships and bonds that are created between those who spend their formative years together. That is not my experience of day schools…I went to a day school and have kept no friends from those days, even though my school experience was largely positive. The boys who went through my boarding house will be at each others’ weddings, be godparents to each others’ children, spend holidays together and even give the addresses at their funerals.

I would say all these things, wouldn’t I…after all I do run a boarding school and if I didn’t believe in it then it would be a bit worrying. I also understand that boarding is not right for everyone and I am too well aware that not everyone’s experience of boarding has been a happy one. There was a time when bullying was ignored and boarding schools were harsh places for the sporty and popular. Of course no school, however good, can ever claim to have no bullying, because young people, like adults, have a tendency to be unpleasant to each other. Nevertheless I do think that a really good boarding education is for many a fantastic start in life and all good boarding establishments nowadays are attuned as never before to those who are battling and struggling to fit in.

I am back at my desk now…school is over for the day and children at day schools have gone home for the weekend. For us we have sports practices, cricket matches, Saturday school, a fund raising dinner and a Green Awareness day, chapel on Saturday and Sunday, a beautiful environment to enjoy. I love it.