There is no doubt that St. Columba’s is an excellent school, but our uniqueness in the Irish landscape is both a strength and a weakness. St. Columba’s is the only mixed full boarding school in Ireland, north or south. Of course there are other schools that have boarding but it is usually as a minority of the school, or, in a few cases, boys only. It is also true that we have a significant number of day pupils, but they are members of boarding houses, who stay late, come in at weekends and are, in many ways, indistinguishable from the boarders. Our unique set up is a strength, which, combined with our outstanding academic performance, makes us a very attractive option.
However there are dangers too in being different from other Irish schools. Although we pride ourselves on the excellence of our pastoral care, how do we know that we are doing it as well as we can when there is no other similar school around against which to benchmark ourselves? Standards and expectations evolve and develop and what was considered best practice changes over the years. Therefore we need to make sure that we keep pace with the best in boarding elsewhere.
Similarly there is a danger in being at the top of the tree academically. There is always a possibility that complacency can creep in, that we start to believe that the way we do things is better than others and we cease to maintain a learning spirit in our staff and in the community as a whole. Personally I think we need to benchmark ourselves against the best schools around, even if those schools are not on this island. St. Columba’s should be looking to be a great world school and not just a great Irish school.
Last week I was at HMC, the annual conference for Heads of private schools in the UK and Ireland. We are one of only three HMC schools in the south of Ireland, there are eight in the north, while the vast majority are in England and Scotland. It was a stimulating time, but what is most valuable is the opportunity to talk to other heads and to form links or partnerships which will help us to learn from the very best over there. However there are good schools everywhere and I am also keen to establish links with schools in Europe and the USA, from whom we can learn.
My experience is that good schools believe in sharing good practice and do not want to keep things to themselves out of some sort of selfish parochialism. If one school has developed a new approach to teaching and learning or pastoral care or technology, then it tends to be the case that they are delighted to think that others are following where they have led. Certainly I would be more than happy to think that other schools are looking at us to see what we are doing and doing likewise. So I am going to be looking around myself to see what I can learn as well as sending staff out to visit schools at home and abroad, so that we can bring back to St. Columba’s the very best in what is going on elsewhere. No one has outlawed educational espionage and there is no shame in getting out there and stealing other people’s best ideas!