23rd October 2016

Last week was Bullying Awareness Week and I was impressed by the seriousness with which everyone contributed to a thought-provoking and stimulating week. My experience of St. Columba’s is that this is a very caring and kind community and I am convinced that there is no culture of bullying here at the school. However any principal would be naïve if he or she claims that they are running a school with no bullying at all and I am careful never to claim such. Any school, anywhere, is always at risk from an unwanted and potentially damaging episode of bullying, because wherever there are people living and working together tensions can arise, words can be said and emotions can boil over. Surely it is better to talk about these things out in the open than to pretend that they don’t exist. That is why I was pleased with last week, as there was a mature engagement from the whole community, both staff and pupils.

A school should not be judged on whether issues of bullying arise but on how they are dealt with when they do. Unless something hugely sinister has happened bullying can generally be dealt with by honest confrontation and conversation. Young people rarely set out to bully others but are sometimes drawn in to unkind behaviour by an insecure desire to be popular. In most cases they are surprised and horrified by the possibility that they have been bullying others and, when they are asked to look at their behaviour honestly, are open to correction and usually to apology. The strength of a boarding school is that it teaches young people to live together in close proximity with others, many of whom may not be their first choice of friends. In that environment one has to learn to get along with all sorts of characters, to be patient with people whom you may find irritating and to appreciate diversity and difference. That mirrors life itself, because, let’s face it, we all have to learn to live and work alongside people whom we may not choose as our friends. The sooner we learn to deal with it the better.

In 23 years in boarding schools, and running a boys’ house for eleven years, I have seen, time and time again, disparate groups of individuals become very close knit friends because they learned to appreciate and enjoy each other’s different gifts: the rugby player learns from the academic; the musician learns from the actor; the naturally loud character learns from the quiet one. The fact is though – and this must always be remembered – that living together and creating a safe place where young people can thrive and grow takes hard work and may involve some setbacks. But it is worth it.

10th October 2016

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!

23rd September 2016

On Monday night St. Columba’s lost one of its own. Orla McCooey left in 2015, a young lady who had bravely battled her illness for many years and finally lost the battle. Or perhaps she won it because she died with great dignity, with her family around her and she is remembered here with great affection. Orla’s family asked for her funeral to be held at St. Columba’s, because this school meant so much to her and all her family, so tomorrow we will welcome her family and friends to our beautiful chapel, which will not be big enough by any means. It will be full of Old Columbans, staff who knew Orla and many others, who will be visiting the College for the first time.

I hope that these first time visitors will realise what I have already recognised, that St. Columba’s is not just a school but a community and a family, just as much as a place of education. When one person suffers, all suffer, just as we rejoice in the successes of our pupils and staff. It speaks volumes about the school that the family want the College to host what will be a deeply moving and sad occasion. We will do our best but I cannot guarantee that we will control our emotions.

Also on Monday I heard from another battler, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have not met him but I had some dealings with in South Africa, as his mother was an old girl of the school which I was running. I had emailed him on behalf of St. Columba’s to wish all the best in his struggle with his recurring cancer and he replied with a message for St. Columba’s:

‘I want to wish you and all your school the very best for the future, to know that you and your staff are being given the opportunity mould the lives of your charges. We hope they will look back on their time at St Columba’s as having contributed to who they have become, eager to serve their fellow human beings to the best of their ability.’

I like his emphasis on service, because it matches my passion. We can turn out highly successful and impressive young people, but what good is that if they do not have a heart to serve their communities and our world? Tutu is not just a talker but a shining example, a lifelong fighter for justice and the upliftment of his people. Service in schools can be about projects and work in the community, but in a very busy place it is hard to add more to the programme. Instead service can be about a spirit that imbues all that takes place, be it in the classroom, the games field, the music school or the boarding house. It is a spirit that is always looking out for the needs of others and wanting others to succeed. It is a spirit that embraces the weak and the vulnerable and makes them feel that they belong just as much as the brightest and the fastest and the loudest.

From what I am seeing so far there is plenty of that spirit here and the ground is fertile for it to continue to grow.

9th September 2016

So, finally, 16 months after being appointed as Warden of St. Columba’s College, term has begun, the new pupils have arrived, and I have taken my place in the extraordinary study occupied by my predecessors. The packing boxes have been removed from our newly decorated house and my wife, Cathy, and I are starting to turn a house into a home. We are also thoroughly enjoying the chance to explore Dublin and walk up into the glorious hills that are directly behind the school.

New Wardens don’t arrive at St. Columba’s very often. I am only the fifth since 1949! My predecessor, Dr. Lindsay Haslett, was here for 15 years and he has left me a school that is full and one whose academic record is absolutely outstanding. Irish schools do not publish their Leaving Certificate results but if they did we would quite possibly be in first place, or, at the very least, the top few. It is a wonderfully solid foundation on which to build for the future and I consider myself very fortunate.

What are my initial thoughts? Well, I could go on at length, but my early impression is of a school which loves its tradition and yet which is offering an absolutely outstanding modern education…contrast, for example, our gowned pupils, attending daily worship in our beautiful chapel, with the new state of the art science block, whose classrooms would not look out of place on the Starship Enterprise. Both are relevant: the chapel speaks of the Christian values which are the bedrock of the school and which do not change, while the new labs speak of a world which is changing almost in front of our eyes. It is not an easy balance to strike but I have not felt any tension in the attempt to maintain that equilibrium.

In a similar way there is a balance to strike in being an Irish school and being an international one. We are totally Irish in character but we have plenty of students from Europe in particular. That is healthy in the Europe Community in which we, at least, still live and we gain enormous value from those who come here from abroad.

I spoke to the whole school yesterday about many things, two of which I want to highlight. Firstly the need to create leaders, young people who are prepared to stand up for their values and to stand apart from the crowd. Everyone wants to be a leader and all will be, in one form or another, and the best time to start taking those first steps in leadership is at school. And secondly I talked about the need to develop an attitude of service: service of others in our community, service of the community outside our gates and service of the wider world. Is it possible to be both inward looking and outward looking at the same time? I believe it is and, in fact, I believe it has to be.

I am enjoying myself so far, but the sun is still shining and the new Warden is still shiny and new. That will not always be the case! These are just some early thoughts and I will be blogging on a regular basis with more thoughts over the weeks and months ahead.