A new year, new plans, new expectations, new teachers…lots to look forward to. I always look forward to a new school year and this one is full of promise. It is our 175th anniversary, we are hoping to start a new building project and the school is bulging. And we have a handful of new, eager young teachers who will bring fresh ideas and energy.

There are many topics I could choose to look at in my first ‘Warden’s Blog’ of the year, but the one most on my mind right now is student leadership, because this coming Friday we are hosting an all-Ireland senior prefects’ conference, for schools north and south of the border. It is the first such conference to be held so I am very keen for it to have an impact and be seen as worthwhile by all those who come. About 45 delegates will be coming to discuss what it means to be a leader at school, what it means to take on responsibility and how to face some of the inevitable challenges that they will undoubtedly face. I will welcome them all and then disappear along with any other adults who may be hanging around and for the rest of the day they will be on their own, facilitated by an external team. After all what they don’t need is a principal or a crowd of well-meaning teachers telling them how to be good prefects. Apart from anything else it would be very dull.

It seems to me that heads like me choose fine young people to act as senior prefects each year but they get precious little training or preparation in how to fulfil the role. Then when they are disappointing or let us down we complain that they are not as good as they should be. The question ought to be asked ‘what tools were they given to carry out what can be a difficult and confusing role?’ Let’s hope that at the very least Friday’s conference will help them to think things through and perhaps find a support network of other students who are undertaking similar positions in other schools.

So what is leadership at that level? Is it just making a fine speech on the odd occasion, organising the lunch queue and sitting in the seats of honour in chapel. No, it has to be more than that. It is surely about being the right sort of role model for the younger children in the school, exemplifying the values of the school, looking out for those who are weak and struggling and bringing various issues to the attention of the school management. I would never expect a senior prefect to be seen as a sort of snitch, looking out for trouble and immediately reporting it to me. On the other hand there are bound to be occasions when the office-holder could be caught in a dilemma, expected to act in a certain way by the management and yet not wanting to isolate themselves from their friends and peers. And yes, there could be tough and brave decisions to make from time to time…and that is not easy. What I don’t expect is perfection and if mistakes are made then I can deal with that, as long as there is not a deliberate attempt to undermine the values of the school or turn a blind eye to things that are blatantly unacceptable.

I believe strongly that school is a crucible for creating leaders, at least in embryo. It is the time of life when one develops character, which is formed by making tough personal choices and standing up strongly for the things that one believes to be right. We are often made to think that young people are irresponsible and that we should not expect anything sensible out of them until they have wasted their time their teenage years in frivolities. I don’t believe that at all. On the contrary I think they are full of idealism and respond eagerly to a challenge, even a difficult one. I have a book on my shelf called ‘Do Hard Things,’ a decent title in itself, but it has a better subtitle: ‘a teenage rebellion against low expectations.’ I love that and it is also a challenge to me and other school leaders not to set the bar too low. Far from being mere window-dressing for the schools they come from I am sure that the young leaders who are coming on Friday are capable of extraordinary things and showing genuine leadership.