10th December 2016

It is time for a few thoughts on my first term here at St. Columba’s. If I leave it till next week it will get taken over by reports. The end of the Michaelmas is always a crazy time in the life of a school!

One of the things that I have started to vocalise for myself is the realisation that life here at St. Columba’s is very busy, but it is not mad. If that does not make sense what I mean is that while the children here are constantly engaged in activities from lessons to sport to music, they do not seem to be chasing their tails. Life at school in South East England was also very busy but there seemed to be more pressure, more living on the edge…and more mental health issues. Whenever I have articulated this to friends or colleagues who know the schools down there they have recognised what I mean. I have many friends running schools in and around London and there is a general feeling that many kids are only just hanging on amidst the pressures from society, from peers, from parents, from schools and even just from themselves. Perhaps it is Ireland, perhaps it is St. Columba’s, but the madness is not so mad, if you know what I mean….and that is a good thing.

The next thing that I have realised is that however good a school may be there is a danger of complacency. Just because we were good last year, it doesn’t mean we will be good this year; just because our systems worked last year, it doesn’t mean they don’t need reviewing this year; just because we are on top of bullying issues this year, it doesn’t matter we will remain so. Any school is only ever one incident away from dealing with something unsavoury, because schools are full of adolescents, who are unpredictable and sometimes behave stupidly or selfishly. There needs to be a constant commitment to search out ways to improve in every area of school life, be it academic, pastoral or spiritual. Just because we win the premier league one year, it doesn’t mean we are immune to relegation the year after (apologies to Leicester fans!).

Another thing that is on my mind is the need to engage more with parents. In boarding schools we see far less of our parents than in a day school and it takes a bit more effort to make sure that their own experience of their children’s school days is as good as it can be. Next term I am going to run some parents’ forums, while also taking a large group away to Rome for a weekend. 27 signed up for that within two days! Strange though it may be to say, most parents are actually very nice and reasonable and supportive! (Any parents reading this please take note…).

So there are some thoughts. I have no regrets about coming over here. There are certainly many challenges in keeping the school on an upward trajectory, but life would be boring if there were no challenges. When you run a business, or a school, you do not expect it all to be plain sailing and there will be occasions and days or spells when you shake your head and wonder what you are doing here. Recently I was at work in my office dealing with some heavy stuff when it came time to go and listen to ten instrumentalists playing pieces for their music scholarships….then I dropped over to see our junior girls win a very tight hockey match. How wonderful to get out of the office and remind myself of the best bit of doing this job…working with fantastic young people.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas season. Despite the over-commercialisation of it there is still something very special about it and much at which to wonder and be thankful for. I hope that I never lose that sense of wonder.

24th November 2016

Last week was the senior drama play, the Antigone. It was low key in some ways, because the cast was not huge, the set was very basic and the costumes were not flashy. However the production was outstanding, with some very good performances…and one or two really powerful ones. Theatre at its best has the power to challenge and no one could have left without being stirred, even if they did not have a nice warm glow. Greek tragedy doesn’t do that…it’s modern man who has invented the happy ending.

As a classics teacher myself I love the fact that a play written 2500 years ago is still so relevant and topical. The Greek tragedians, in this case Sophocles, used to take familiar stories and themes and give them a twist. The audience, familiar with the traditional telling of the story, would understand the author’s twist far better than we can. The underlying theme of all tragedy was always the belief that there are certain standards of right and wrong, eternal values dear to the gods…and we break them at our peril. Although everything we do is dictated by fate it does not absolve us from personal responsibility for our actions and there is always some flaw in the character of the tragic figure that causes the tragedy to come to pass. Put simply, it is a variation on the theme, ‘pride comes before a fall.’

In the Antigone Creon breaks a law of the gods in his desire to be seen as the strong ruler, while his niece Antigone defies him. After stubbornly refusing to see reason, and hurling abuse at all those around him, Creon finally backs down and rushes off to make amends for his actions. The audience breathe a sigh of relief in the expectation that the pending crises have been averted. However he is too late and before the play ends three of his family have killed themselves. Creon remains alive, broken by his own pride, shattered by his own ‘hubris’ (breaking the law of the gods) and in total despair. In good Greek style we leave the theatre challenged to look at ourselves and ensure that our own pride does not bring us into conflict with those eternal values of mercy and humility.

I can’t help feeling that the message of this 2500 year old play could not be more relevant than it is now and that is why those ancient plays are still put on year after year and have never been surpassed…they will always be in fashion because they deal with eternal conflicts in human nature. Leaders and rulers are still committing hubris, still setting themselves up as being above the law and the consequences are always tragic, for themselves and those around them, including the innocent.

In assembly on Monday I spoke to the school about leadership and how I could see so many potential leaders among them, particularly if they remember that leadership is about service and not about throwing their weight around. It is possible to be a leader even in the primary year, because leadership is about standing up for what is right even if it is unpopular. It is also about bringing the best out of the people around you, just as the captain of a team makes those around him look good, but doesn’t draw attention to himself or herself. I emphasised that the class bully or the noisiest boy in the playground is not the best leader, but sadly we live in a world where the class bully and the noisiest boy has just been elected as the most powerful man in the world. Sophocles would have been sharpening his quill. Hubris is inevitable.

I only ever directed one play, back in 2001. It was hard work and very stressful and I vowed never to do it again. And which play was it? The Antigone.

November 8th 2016

I am always moved by remembrance week, but my emotions are mixed. There is obviously the feeling of pride as I remember members of my family who died in the First World War and there is the sense of gratitude towards all of my countrymen who made the ultimate sacrifice. Here at St. Columba’s we will honour in particular the sons of the College who lost their lives, but I am also aware that we are not just remembering those who died in the world wars, but all who die in wars, wherever they be from, and that makes things a little more complicated.

Last March in South Africa I found myself addressing the school I was running at the end of an anti-racism week and I felt very uncomfortable. How could I, a white Englishman, talk to a church full of black children and teachers, whose lives are still affected by the after-effects of a cruel racist system, and a few white teachers, who were Afrikaans, about the evils of racism. After a few attempts to put together a talk I threw them all out and instead decided on a different tack. In the assembly I started by turning to the black people present, the vast majority, and apologising for the arrogance of my people in the way that we had treated them, causing untold amounts of suffering and humiliation. Then I turned to the Afrikaans teachers and apologised to them too, because we had caused a pointless war (the Boer War 1899-1902) in our greed for land containing gold and diamonds, to which we had no justifiable claim at all. And because the Afrikaans people put up an annoying display of resistance, we rounded up their women and children and stuffed them into concentration camps, where thousands died of disease and starvation. Memories are long and the Afrikaaners still remember those injustices. There was no point in pretending that I understood their suffering because that would be untrue and patronising. My people may not have invented racism but we are more guilty than most. Cecil Rhodes, the arch-colonialist, said that to be born British was to win first prize in the lottery of life. I love my country but an attitude like that led to us imposing British rule on half the countries of the world, thinking that we were doing them a favour and pitying anyone who was not ‘one of us.’

In April I visited Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, two famous sites of the Zulu Wars of 1879 and also Spion Kop, site of a major British defeat in the Boer War. I couldn’t help asking myself what on earth the British were doing there, so far from home, trying to annex someone else’s land in the name of the Great White Queen. Thousands of Welshmen from the town near where my family home is died at Isandlwana. Why? I have great admiration for those who died, in many cases very heroically, but that does not mean that I need to respect the desire for world domination that brought them there.

I am, of course, not decrying the role of my countrymen in numerous conflicts around the world, some of which were undoubtedly motivated by a desire to defend basic freedoms and stand up to tyranny. However it is good for me personally to remind myself that my own people have often been the cause of conflict. There is no room for anyone to be self-righteous when it comes to remembering the fallen. And just as I could not preach to black or white South Africans about racism, I need to be very careful speaking about my country’s heroic defence of freedom in the last century…not everyone may see it that way! Love of country is a fine thing, but it does not mean that one should be blind to its faults and failings.

We are now a very multi-racial school and all the better for it, because we are preparing our young people for a multi-racial society, in which they will rub shoulders with people of different beliefs, cultures and languages. We remember with great pride the young men from the College who fell on the battlefields of France and elsewhere in the world in the last hundred years, but we do so in order to look forward to a world where such conflicts are only in the history books. We at the College in 2016 need to pledge ourselves to promoting understanding and appreciation of our differences, so that we can play our part in that process.

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.