6th March 2018

I guess we will remember this academic year for Hurricane Ophelia, the Beast from the East and Storm Emma. It would be nice if we could also have a wonderful heatwave next term to round it off, but perhaps that is too much to ask. To be honest Ophelia was a bit of an anti-climax around here, bringing down a few branches and making a bit of a mess. However the Beast and Emma certainly did live up to their billing and last week was quite extraordinary. I think that it was the heaviest snowfall that I have experienced in my lifetime and, combined with the winds, we did have some remarkable conditions. Life in the College came to a standstill on the Friday, when the red alert was out, but other than that we ploughed on with our exams. The major issue was the lack of kitchen staff to prepare the food, but we managed, with a bit of ingenuity and a blitz spirit.

In times of adversity one finds out about community spirit. It was great to see the maintenance team still fighting their way into the College, clearing roads and gritting paths, while many of the kitchen staff also managed to walk in to make sure that the pupils were fed and watered. The house teams all pulled together and kept morale up, as was evident when I went round all the houses on Friday night and found the pupils cheerful and understanding.

A friend of mine runs a church in Rathmines and he has a wonderful story. On Saturday afternoon there was meant to be a wedding in the church, but the roads were so bad that most of the guests were potenetially unable to get there under their own steam. There was a danger that the big day would be a huge disappointment. So that morning he went onto local radio and made a plea that if there were any listeners living nearby who had 4×4’s and would be prepared to run around the city collecting guests could they please come to the church. 15 4×4’s turned up, the Armada moved out over Dublin and the wedding went ahead, starting with a whiskey reception in the back of the church, with prayers and readings down by guests in wellies. He said it was one of the most memorable weddings he has ever been to or officiated at.

Things here are slowly getting back to normal, although our Arts Week has taken a bit of a hit, with a couple of key events having to be cancelled. There is still a lot going on. The snow is still lying deep on the pitches and we are still catching up on exams but no harm has been done and the pupils, the boarders at least, will probably have memories of the last few days for the rest of their lives. Seeing them sledging and snowballing and generally behaving like children was a great sight and hopefully a good reminder to them that there is plenty of fun to be had without social media.


31st January 2018

When I was a young teacher I used to think that whether my team won or lost on a Saturday was all that mattered and I would be depressed for a week if my team lost. It was what defined me as a teacher. As a Liverpool supporter I quoted Bill Shankly:

Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. It’s much more important than that.

Happily I grew out of that. But what is the purpose of sport in schools? Is it to hire in all the Ireland Under 16’s into the 5th form in order to have an unbeaten season, to win at all costs, or is it to teach the importance of teamwork and to develop resilience of character? Does one develop resilience by being thrashed every week and getting demoralised? Or by trouncing the opposition every week and never losing a single game? How does one learn to treat the two great impostors of triumph and disaster the same if one only ever experiences victory or defeat? The Victorians who codified all the great team sports and introduced them to the public schools were under no illusions:

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame

But the captain’s hand on his shoulder smote

‘Play, play up and play the game.’

It was not about personal glory but about something much greater…the team, the honour of the school, playing the game in the right way, rather than just to win. Unfortunately the next verse makes it clear that this was merely the ideal preparation for young Englishmen going out to slaughter natives in the colonies, so let’s not get too idealistic about it:

The sand of the desert is sodden red

Red with the wreck of a square that broke

The Gatlin’s jammed and the colonel’s dead

The regiment’s blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks

And England’s far and honour’s a name

But the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks

‘Play up, play up and play the game.’

(Sir Henry Newbolt)

One could argue that nowadays we live in an age of professional sport that could never have been envisaged by the Victorians and it is our obligation as educators to prepare our pupils as best we can for whatever careers they wish to pursue, including professional sport. They need to learn that success does not come without hard graft, that there is no gain without pain. They need to have an outlet for their aggression and energy and where better than on the sports field. They need to learn to work with the limitations of others and to work to the strengths of their team. Is there a better feeling in life than being part of a really good team? And if they happen to be good enough to turn their passion into a professional career, then surely that is a good thing.

Yes. But there is an increasing tension in school sport. Gone is the schoolmaster who taught Homer till lunch time, practised with the choir after lunch, then put on a tracksuit and ran a training session till dinner. He was competitive but still viewed the sport as part of the whole picture of educating a young person. Winning was great, but losing was not terminal. Now all good sports schools employ external professional coaches. They are not school teachers, with a wider perspective, and they want to win at all costs. They are not looking at the bigger picture but at winning the next match. How their team behaves is less important than the result. The crucial role of sport as a creator of character has been outsourced. It is bound to make a difference.

Captaining a rugger team at school is no longer considered a prerequisite for governing a large part of India or Africa. However being a team player is still seen as vital in almost every career that I can think of and that is why public schools have always placed a greater emphasis on the team sports than the individual ones. Playing in a team teaches you to work with others. That is a great thing.

Even in a cynical age, which justifies cheating to win, everyone loves it when someone displays true ‘sportsmanship.’ It is as if we all know, in spite of ourselves, that there is a better way to do it. Bunny Austin, who was the last Brit to reach the men’s singles final at Wimbledon prior to Andy Murray, was a friend of my parents. He told a story about playing in a big match, when he hit the ball onto the sideline. The umpire called it out but his opponent graciously intervened and said that the ball had been good and the umpire changed the call. After the game Bunny was furious with his opponent, despite the call having gone in his favour. He was angry because his opponent’s action had undermined the authority of the umpire and made him look silly. Really. Don’t you love it when a golfer calls a foul on himself,  which no one else has seen, or when a batsman walks when he is given not out? And don’t we howl in derision when a penalty is given when the player dives. The TV pundit then says, ‘well he touched him, so he had every right to go down.’ We know what is right, even if we rarely see it. Just imagine if Thierry Henry had turned to the ref after his double handball against Ireland in that World Cup play-off and said that actually he had handled the ball and he did not want to win qualification in that way. He would have saved France total humiliation in the tournament and he would now be considered the greatest sportsman who had ever lived. But no…he didn’t. The end justifies the means.

So what is the end of school sport? I would argue that it is to play as hard as you can, to teach your pupils to respect the referee and the opposition, to be gracious in defeat and humble in victory, to make friends and to learn the importance of the team.

When I was taking the 1st XI cricket at Wellington College in the UK we played Rondebosch Boys from Cape Town. They were very strong and won comfortably. In the post-match speeches their coach said, ‘going on tour is all about beating people.’ I wanted to rebut him publicly but I was decent and gracious and congratulated him and his team. But he was wrong. Totally wrong. Going on tour is about making friends, having new experiences and learning.

One year I coached the 1st XI at Ivanhoe Grammar School in Melbourne. Before the first game there was a cap presentation ceremony and they were given out by a former Australian captain, Graeme Yallop. I can still remember what he said because it was so awful and so against everything that I believed in. He told these young boys that they should not let anyone get in the way of fulfilling their dreams…that they should elbow aside anyone who got in the way…that they should be utterly ruthless and selfish to get what they wanted, by whatever means. I wanted to object but as I looked around the room the parents were all nodding with approval and I was just a Pom on a gap year and I couldn’t afford to lose my job…so I kept quiet.

Sport at school is about many things, but above all it should be about teaching values, teamwork, resilience and respect for others. I may be very old-fashioned but I still think it is about learning to meet with triumph and disaster and to treat those two impostors just the same.

14th January 2018

Every time that we think that Donald Trump cannot get any lower we are proven wrong. It would be funny if it were not for the fact that he is the most powerful man in the world. This time he has described Haiti, El Salvador and various non-specified African countries as ‘shitholes.’ (I don’t see the need to use asterisks to tone down the language.) I rather enjoyed the response of the Botswanan government who contacted the US embassy in Gaborone to ask whether Botswana was one of the shitholes to which the President was referring. I know Botswana well…it is a wonderful country, full of fabulous people. I also spent New Year’s Eve with a very good friend from El Salvador.

No one needs to be told that there are many countries in the world which are full of poverty, poor infrastructure and corruption. Sometimes those failures are due to no fault of their own and sometimes they are self-induced. A bit like all of us really. However for the loudest bully in the playground to start abusing the weaker ones says far more about the bully than it does about the bullied. It is good to remember that the USA is a country of immigrants, who often fled from poverty and persecution in their own countries. They are the lucky ones to live in a great and prosperous country, from which the indigenous population was ethnically cleansed to make way for them. It is also important to remember that much of the wealth of the United States was built on the backs of slaves from those shitholes, carried far from home against their wills and abused for generation after generation. Only in the last fifty years has the ‘Land of the Free’ ascribed civil rights to African Americans but there are still huge inequalities in the USA.

America itself was not a colonial power, at least not in the manner of the European powers, but many of the problems of Africa are the legacy of colonialism: random borders uniting traditional rivals and splitting traditional friends, uneducated people left after independence to run their ‘liberated’ nations, resources exploited by foreign powers and an understandable brain drain which has resulted in many of the outstanding people from African countries, unable to make a good living at home, nor give their families the security they wanted to, moving abroad. Many work in top professions in the USA.

I am sure that I am not alone in seeing the USA as, in some way, the bastion and champion of the free world. I long to be able to look up to it and to its president. But what sort of America do I want to look up to? I want to see an America that is wealthy but does not want to horde that wealth for itself; I want to see an America that is confident in itself and what it stands for, but does not despise those who are different from her; I want to see her setting an example in the harmony of relationships between ethnic groups.

One day, probably quite soon, the American people will look back at this time as an excruciating aberration. For now though it is just simply embarrassing.



9th January 2018

‘There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.’ (John Adams, second president of the USA)

The best schools and colleges have always had a holistic view of education, believing that what goes on inside and outside the classroom are of equal importance in the development of young people. I am sure that one of the reasons why British and Irish boarding schools continue to be so attractive to parents and children from overseas is because in many developing countries the emphasis is all on academic performance, to the neglect of everything else. One hears stories of children in some places who get up early to study, attend school all day, come and home and have hours of tutoring before falling into bed and getting up to do it all again. Many parents want more for their children and that is what St. Columba’s and other such schools have always stood for.

I like the above quote by John Adams, who distinguishes between these different types of education. Academic achievement is of crucial importance in providing the tools for success. Public exam results open the doors to good university courses and university degrees equip young people either directly for a career, in the case of science or technology subjects, or indirectly, through the Arts, by enabling them to think clearly and understand and appreciate the world around them. Those exams are the markers that we have acquired the tools to earn a living and, however good our personal skills may be, without those markers it is harder to open doors to success later in life.

However, one can be successful in one’s career while failing in one’s life. As a wag once said, ‘on your deathbed no one ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”’ It is the experiences and relationships in life that give it value and also give value to the lives of other people. That is the other education, which St. Columba’s nurtures abundantly. Here we learn to live in community with other people, dealing with conflict, learning to respect others and learning to respect the differences in other people; we learn to play in teams, being part of something bigger than ourselves, knowing that in a team every member counts and that the strong need to look after the weak; we learn to appreciate art, music and other creative skills, which enrich life and give it beauty; we explore our faith, learning to serve those around us as an expression of that faith, as well as giving ourselves a foundation and a direction for our lives. Without that faith we can be like a rudderless ship, tossed about by every breath of wind and unable to steer itself.

Companies these days are keen to employ young people with a broad range of skills. It has long been an adage that those with third class degrees often end up employing those with firsts. Well I wouldn’t advocate settling for a third but it is true that those who get the best degrees have sometimes sacrificed the development of other skills in their pursuit of the prize and are less able to work in teams or lead others.

I am sure that in 2018 St. Columba’s will be providing two educations. As Aristotle said: ‘The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.’ What a great blessing education is.

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.

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.