14th March 2017

I’m excited. On Saturday I am going to the Aviva Stadium to hopefully see England win the Grand Slam. Even though England have been playing very well and Ireland have been a little disappointing in this year’s six nations I think it will be very tight…Ireland would enjoy nothing better than spoiling the English party. On their day they can beat anyone, as they showed against the All Blacks last year. I am hoping that Saturday is not going to be their day!

I grew up with rugby and managed to play at university and club to quite a good level. My father played for England back in the 1950’s and a cousin of my mother’s played fourteen times for Scotland a little later. My father was a centre and won nine caps before giving it all up at the age of 24 to become a missionary. He was also playing first class cricket at the time so it was a big sacrifice, but of course in those days rugby was far from being a professional game. In 1952 the England v. Ireland game at Twickenham was postponed for the first time ever because of the death of King George VI. The day of the rearranged match was bitterly cold and no one would dream nowadays of playing a match in such blizzard conditions. Last year I found the Pathe News report on the match on YouTube and it is very funny to see the players skating around on an icy pitch. The commentary is priceless…if you listen carefully you will also hear that it was my father who scored the only try of the match, with England winning 3-0. In those days a try was worth three points.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhU8Iy2C8ac

I have been to quite a number of rugby internationals in my life, but the most unforgettable one for me was when I was in South Africa in 1994, working for the South African Cricket Board. Just after the first ever democratic elections in the country England were on tour and the first test was at Loftus Versfeld, the heartland of Afrikaans rugby in Pretoria. There was a mood of celebration with Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk present and all that was needed was the inevitable Springbok victory to round off a perfect occasion. I went with a group of 12 South Africans and there was barely a single Englishman in the crowd. After 20 minutes when England were 20-0 up the stadium was in stunned silence and we went on to win 32-15. Afterwards I ran into Dr. Ali Bacher, the president of the SA Cricket Board, for whom I was working, walking wistfully back to his car. He said, ‘that was the wrong result…it wasn’t meant to be that way.’ This is the match that is played out at the beginning of the film ‘Invictus.’ I was there and I loved every moment of it. Of course history shows that South Africa turned it round within the next year or so and went on to win the World Cup in 1995. Who can forget Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey presented to him by Francois Pienaar in that iconic moment of national celebration and reconciliation?

Last year I was up in Belfast for a meeting at the Belfast Royal Academy. On the wall of the board room was a tribute to old boy Jack Kyle, a great hero over here and in 2002 voted Ireland’s finest ever player. He was a contemporary of my father and I have his autograph. But what intrigued me most about this remarkable man was that at his funeral, attended by all the great and good of the rugby world, his rugby career did not even get a mention. After he retired this humble doctor went off and spent the rest of his life working in Africa and tributes poured in regarding his humanitarian work. He could have lived in the limelight in Ireland, but he chose to go and serve the disadvantaged. I recommend you look up and read the Irish Times obituary following his death in 2014. Now that is a real hero.

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February 28th 2017

People often remark to me that moving to Dublin from the far north of South Africa must be very strange. Until June last year I was running a school on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, just outside a ‘wild west’ town called Vryburg. The children at the school often came from abusive backgrounds, many from extreme poverty, many from totally dysfunctional families. The weather was 40 degrees in summer and the winter cold was biting, if brief. There was a huge drought when we were there, now broken by the fickle heavy rains, which are rarely in half measure. We had 1200 hectares of semi-desert farming land and a herd of cattle and no shortage of snakes, even if they were only seen on the odd occasion. Monkeys played in the vegetable garden and made sure that there was nothing left worth eating. On Saturdays the workers were often at funerals and I attended many in my time there or visited the homes of those bereaved who had connections with the school. Life is cheap. I was held hostage in my office for three hours, chased cattle rustlers through the veld with armed police, put out bush fires, witnessed staff brawling after a trip to Soccer City to watch the Chiefs v. the Pirates, the biggest game of the season…ok, so it was a bit different.

St. Columba’s is not like that. It is cold and windy and as green as you could imagine. The pupils here are – let’s be honest – relatively privileged and the facilities may not be perfect, but they are still wonderful by most standards. So you might have thought that there are really no similarities between this job and my previous employment or that nothing that I had experienced before would be transferable to where I am now.

That is not my experience. The environment may be totally different, but people are people and children are children. Parents in both schools want the best for their children; pupils all want to know that they are valued and safe; leavers are concerned about universities courses and what career paths to choose; staff want to feel supported by the man at the top and they genuinely care about the young people under their care. Human nature in Ireland is the same as that in South Africa…kids have the same capacity to come up with imaginative excuses whatever their economic background.

Perhaps one difference is the level of expectation. Here parents expect their children to work hard, get a good Leaving Certificate and go on to a good university. And that makes sense because the parents themselves did something similar and so did their grandparents and so on. But imagine that your parents never finished school and that no one in your family has ever been to university. Imagine that the height of ambition of those in your community is to wear a decent pair of trainers or to get a job as a security guard. Perhaps you aspire to more but you are told that no one from around that area has ever done that and to stop having unrealistic notions of what you can achieve. So you lower your expectations to fit in with those around you.

It is very hard for young people out there to achieve their dreams, but it is amazing when it happens and I have seen young people do astonishing things. I know a young lady who was an orphan from a poor community, who came to the school on a bursary. She got an opportunity to go on an exchange to the USA. Her host family were so impressed with her that they offered to pay for her whole tertiary education back in the States. She did her degree out there and then an MA at the London School of Economics. She is now back in South Africa and has set up a foundation to mentor young people, through a whole series of projects in remote rural areas. She is truly remarkable, but she does have detractors, people who think she has got above herself. It is not easy to aspire and to be different. People will always shoot you down.

Perhaps those experiences have given me a very high level of expectation of what the pupils of St. Columba’s can achieve, children who have been given every advantage and have had few battles to fight. It has certainly given me a lack of patience with those who waste their talents and opportunities. Happily I don’t think there are many of them here. This place is full of remarkable and talented pupils who are going to achieve great things. I make no apologies for setting the bar very high and I encourage all my staff to do the same. If we give your children a hard time it is not because we don’t love them. It is because we do.

14th February 2017

I think it is the job of the Principal (or Warden to be precise) to look at the big picture, to have dreams and then work towards realising those dreams. It is easy to have ideas. I have many of them every day and it is the task of those around me to listen and tell me bluntly when I am barking up the wrong tree. They often do. However occasionally I might stumble across something really good and something that will really add value to the experience of the pupils in the school.

There were two things that I was quick to pick up on when I arrived here, one because I noticed it myself and the other because it was mentioned to me before term even began. The first was that we are a mixed school and yet we do not provide any communal space for boys and girls to meet. It is incumbent upon the College to encourage wholesome and positive relationships between boys and girls but how can we expect that to happen when there is nowhere for them to meet except outside in the cold?

The second thing is that although we are a boarding school we have a significant number of day pupils. In some areas the accommodation for day pupils is fine but not universally and it is vital to make sure that their experience is as good as that of the boarders. Some early comments to me made it clear that the day pupils do not always feel as integrated into the College as much as the boarders. I would love to put that right. Of course if you board here you are bound to feel more involved with everything that is happening, particularly in the evenings and at weekends, but as a community I think we can do more for the day pupil component.

Bearing those two things in mind I am very eager to create a substantial space in the centre of the College that can serve as a social hub for the entire community, boys and girls, day pupils and boarders, staff and even staff families. It could also be a space for the Parents Association to meet or for visitors to be entertained. The idea would be that it would contain a café, not to replace or act as competition to the dining room, but for pupils to buy drinks and snacks (healthy ones!)…young people are always hungry! And of course it will provide a place to relax in the evenings and at the weekends.

The other thing that I like about this plan is that it is something from which everyone in the College will benefit. Building a new boarding house, for example, might be desirable, but it is only going to benefit a minority of the pupil body.

OK, so the theory is great. I have some plans, but now I need to persuade the Fellows that this is a worthwhile investment…oh, and find some money from somewhere too. Watch this space.

24th January 2017

Term is well under way. If I am honest it is not my favourite term, because the weather is gloomy and the days are short, but things have got off to a good start.

One of my earlier blogs mentioned the need to benchmark ourselves against schools from other countries, so that we can learn from other schools that are doing things well and differently from us. As a start on that project last weekend two teachers headed off to Scotland to spend a couple of days at Loretto School in Edinburgh. Their instructions were to shamelessly plunder all the best ideas they could and bring them back here! The feedback has been very positive and the truth is that even if we just pick up one idea then it will have been worthwhile. They will be sending two teachers back in our direction. Later this term we will also welcome two teachers from a school in Denmark and I am sure that there will be a queue of teachers offering to return that visit. It can only be good for us and I will be developing those relationships as well as looking for other schools to cultivate.

Last week on Tuesday we had a poverty lunch. It works like this: all of the pupils in TY ate in the Lower Argyle but they only found out when they turned up what sort of meal they were going to get. Eight of them were on the top table and were served a three course meal with waiter service. 24 ate the normal school lunch, while the remaining half were given bread and water and had to stand or sit on the floor. We were acting out real life…the majority of people have very little to eat and it is only a small minority who sit at the top table and it is largely a matter of luck or fate as to where we end up in life. It was amusing to see the crowd hanging around the top table hoping to grab some leftovers and scraps, but that only reflects real life. By acting it out I hope that the pupils involved were made to think a little bit about how lucky they are. One of those at the top table and one from the floor will be speaking about it in assembly next week.

Next Tuesday is the last day here for a College legend, Jimmy O’Connor. Jimmy started working here on the grounds in 1964 and his 52 years of service will surely never be seen again. There will be few Old Columbans who will not recognise him and be grateful for all the he has done. We will be honouring him in assembly on Tuesday and I will try and persuade him to say a few words. It is extraordinary to think that when Warden Argyle retired in 1974 Jimmy had already done ten years work here! I would imagine that he has seen a few changes!

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.