The Warden’s latest thoughts, on racism and diversity:

It is very worrying that in the last year or two we have seen a rise in racist attitudes around Europe and in the USA. It is staggering that once again premier league footballers are being subject to racist chants and having bananas thrown at them. This kind of behaviour is redolent of the dark days of hooliganism in the 1970’s, but I guess it reflects a rise in nationalism in many countries, aided and abetted by the increase in migration and the toxic rhetoric of Brexit. When things are not going well the solution is easy: blame migrants and foreigners, or at least people who look different from the majority.

Today there were two news stories that illustrate my point. Firstly the non-white players of the Boston Red Sox, who recently won the Baseball World Series, are refusing to go to the traditional reception at the White House, because they think that the President is a racist. The last couple of years in the USA have, of course, seen the rise of players ‘taking a knee’ during the national anthem, in protest at what they see as a failure to root out racism in the police. It does not help when the President refuses to condemn far-right racist groups. The other incident today was the sacking of Danny Baker from the BBC after he tweeted a picture of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex with their new baby, who had been substituted for a chimpanzee! Yes, really! And he claimed it was just a silly error of judgment and that it was absurd to sack him. Having worked for four years in an all black school in South Africa, in a rural environment where there were many with ‘old-fashioned’ attitudes, I am more sensitive than most to anything that smacks of racism. Actually my closest encounter with racism was when I played a season of cricket in Australia and was stunned by the way that the locals spoke about the indigenous people of the country and also by the abuse that was hurled at the English players of West Indian origin.

Racism comes from ignorance, from not knowing the culture and context of the other person and not being prepared to find out by actually getting to know people outside one’s own ethnic group or social circle. I often say to parents who are contemplating boarding that there is no better preparation for life in the real world than living in a boarding house full of people who are different from oneself. A boarding house is a melting pot, in which young people learn to appreciate each other, those who have totally different interests, often those whom one might not naturally like! In work we all have to work with people who are different and who approach things in their own way, and that is not easy. However, we do it, like it nor not, and in doing so we learn to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of those others. I don’t know how many nationalities are represented at St. Columba’s, but our racial diversity is a strength. I would be devastated if any person of a different colour or culture did not feel fully accepted and cherished in the school. However, in a world in which tolerance is a rare commodity, we cannot take it for granted and we need to keep our antennae sensitive to anything that might creep in and seek to divide.

 

Mark Boobbyer, Warden, 9thMay 2019.

 

 

 

 

One of the things that I have mentioned from time to time in my blog is my desire to impart into the Columban DNA an ethos of service, as opposed to an attitude of entitlement. I know I have written about this before, but someone said to me recently, ‘I am not sure that people know what you mean when you talk about service.’ In other words, it sounds good but it is in danger of being meaningless without some clarification.

Let me start by looking at entitlement, because the positive will make more sense in the light of the negative. Now I am not saying that I think our pupils here at St. Columba’s feel entitled, but it is a charge that is sometimes levelled at children from private schools in general. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant because it is still out there and maybe, sometimes, there is some truth in it. In the UK it is an accusation that is sometimes made against those from certain schools and backgrounds who seem to think that the world owes them a living, that they should get into the best universities and have the best of everything, simply because of their background and their education. It causes people to look down on others who are not from the ‘right school’ or do the right kind of work or wear the right kind of clothes. Now I obviously don’t think that there is anything wrong with having a fantastic education, but I do object if it instils arrogance. A great education is not about a string of top grades but about the development of character. It has been said, rightly, that ‘education is what you have left when you have forgotten everything you were taught.’ In other words it is about who you are, not what is on your CV.

Entitlement says, ‘what can other people do for me,’ or ‘why am I not appreciated as much as I deserve?’ It is the attitude of an American President who says, ‘I did not receive the appreciation I deserved for the John McCain funeral,’ as if somehow acting decently deserves a special mention. It says, ‘it doesn’t matter if I leave a mess because someone is paid to clear up after me.’ It says ‘there is no point in trying to do the right thing if no one is going to notice and thank me for it.’ It is unattractive and makes other people feel like second class citizens.

The spirit of service is very different. It says, ‘what can I do to make the life of other people better,’ or ‘how can I help other people to cope with the stresses and strains of life. How can I help them bear their burdens and their worries?’ It means one serves because it is the right thing to do, not because it gets one noticed. Service is not just about helping old ladies across the road, but rather an attitude to life. One of the great prayers in chapel says that we should ‘labour and ask for no reward, save that of knowing that we do Your will.’ Doing the right thing is its own reward. Character, as they say, is how you behave when no one is watching.

That is what I mean by ‘service,’ but because it is an impossible thing to measure it is also very difficult to instil. We do need to talk about it, but perhaps it is caught rather than taught. Our children here don’t have time to get involved in numerous service projects, although there is perhaps room for more, particularly in the ‘Transition Year.’ I hope, however, that they are developing an attitude that means they look out for those around them in their immediate community, while also taking a keen interest in the wider world. They should hurt when they see people being gunned down in New Zealand or trapped in floods in Mozambique. They should figure out how they can live a more sustainable lifestyle, rather than leaving it to others to make the changes needed to protect the future of the planet.

That might all sounds a bit woolly, but actually it is the most important thing our children can learn.

We use the word resilience a lot more now than we used, perhaps because we see less of it in young people. To put on my Latin teacher’s hat, the word comes from the verb resilio, which is a compound of salio, meaning ‘I jump.’ So resilience, literally, is the property of someone or something to jump or bounce back to its original state. You suffer a setback and you need to bounce back, you respond to failure by learning a lesson, in the hope that maybe you can avoid the failure the next time. It’s obvious really…and of course each time you bounce back and learn a lesson you are a little bit stronger for the experience.

To learn resilience in life you need to be allowed to fail, which is a problem for some educational policy makers who would rather ensure that no one fails, in case their self-esteem suffers and they are deflated. Hence those politically correct school sports days on which there are no winners and losers. I remember one year in the UK when the pass mark for a C at GCSE Maths was 15%. But if you are never allowed to fail, to come second, to fall over, to get a low mark, then you can never learn resilience. I don’t believe that young people nowadays are snowflakes, as some would have it, but I do believe that they are sometimes deprived of the chance of learning from failure and that is not their fault. If they have not learned to fail from an early age, then the first time it happens – as happen it must in the big world – their self-esteem takes a hammering and it can take a long time to pick up the pieces.

We learn resilience from a very young age. Toddlers fall over and get up again and it would be odd if parents refused to allow their children to walk just in case they fell over and got discouraged. Schools are no different and need to provide opportunities for failure rather than remove them. We get better at Maths by getting the question wrong and being told how to do it correctly. If we persevere we will get it right and then we can go on to the next question. If we are told that the wrong answer we have come up with is actually right, or close enough, then we don’t need to strive to be better. We need resilience in every single aspect of life: in our academic work, in our relationships, in our search for a job, in our sport, in learning an instrument, even in personal sadness and disappointment. Those last two are part of life, whether we like it or not, and we deal with those major setbacks much better if we have had experience of dealing with minor setbacks along the way.

Some schools have even put resilience lessons on the timetable, which sounds to me like a scandalous misuse of teaching time, as if resilience is an academic subject which can be learned outside of the rough and tumble of life and without anyone’s feelings being hurt. You cannot remove opportunities to fail from the everyday life of a school and then try and reintroduce them in theory in the classroom. Some children have to be in the first team and everyone should experience the frustration of being dropped…it feels like the end of the world, but actually it isn’t. Some children will get lower marks than others because that is what happens when pupils are gifted in different ways. Some can turn a cartwheel, others can run fast. Please don’t patronise children by removing their chance to fail or their chance to shine. In the grown up world you won’t get the first job for which you apply, you will get passed over for a promotion, you will make a poor decision in a relationship or at work, you will not be able to benchpress 100 kgs first time and you will at some point turn up to a function in totally the wrong outfit. You will be better for it and you will make sure you check the invitation better the next time.

Recent statistics tell us that if you do an Arts degree you will end up earning considerably less in your lifetime than those who have done degrees in Science or Economics and those who have done a degree in the performing arts are right at the bottom of the ladder. So that means that an Arts degree is a mistake and a waste of money. Pupils should be advised to choose only those degrees that will maximise their lifetime earnings and they should be steered away from fluffy degrees in music, art, literature, languages and history, which will disadvantage them. Right?

Wrong! I did a classics degree, so you can work out where my sympathies lie. I had the privilege of studying some of the greatest literature of the western world, poets such as Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, historians like Herodotus and Tacitus; I dabbled in Plato and Socrates (not very successfully), two of the greatest philosophers of any age and I immersed myself in Latin and Greek, the languages that give us 50% of all words in English, the language that is now the most widely spoken and influential language in the world, the language of Shakespeare, of the King James Bible, of Austen, Dickens, Byron, Keats, Yeats, Joyce…I could go on and on and you can will be able to add your own names to the list.

I remember talking to some parents of a boy in my boarding house (who shall remain unidentifiable), who asked me what degree I had done. Classics, I replied. With a look of derision they replied that their son was going to do Business, ‘a proper degree!’

Is it the job of a school to maximise its pupils future earnings or to educate them? Western education has always given great weight to the study of the Arts in general, disciplines that train the mind, feed the spirit and help to give life meaning. Reading great literature, for example, gives one an empathy for the human condition and an understanding of love, despair, heroism, folly…and creates a sense of wonder and adventure. History gives us a context and helps us to understand our place in a much bigger context. It is also absolutely fascinating. Sir Seretse Khama, the first President of Botswana, said ‘a country without a history is a country without a soul.’

The Irish system, like the International Baccalaureate, insists on the need to keep studying a broad range of subjects right through school. The scientist has to study literature, the artist has to study calculus, the economist has to learn a language. I like that. It is a better system than the A Level, the system that I was brought up on and in which, in my last two years at school, I studied only three languages, no Science or Maths or Economics.

How can it be a mistake to develop a love for the great Renaissance painters or the great classical composers, or the modern artists and musicians who still explore the frontiers of creativity. Such people are rich indeed.

Of course I have no issue with Science or Maths or Business degrees…that would be silly. But let’s not pretend that the value of a discipline can be reduced to its earning potential. As far as I am concerned I pity you if you do not know the foundation myths of Greek civilisation and you cannot scan the elegiac couplets of Virgil’s Aeneid. You are much the poorer for it.

From the Warden, 6th November 2018 (see below post for photographs of the Tiger Kloof expedition).

I have just returned from a week in South Africa, together my wife, Sean Duffy (Head of Geography), and 18 pupils from the 4thand 5th Forms. It was my first return to Tiger Kloof, where we spent four amazing years, and it was wonderful to see old friends. South Africa is a troubled country and it is a land of huge contrasts, with the worst and the best of everything: great wealth and great poverty, often side by side; great hope for the future and great fear of the future; increasing corruption and huge personal sacrifice and generosity.

The main purpose of the visit was to expose the Columbans to a side of life which they have probably never seen and to spend time working on service projects in the informal settlements which are the closest neighbours of Tiger Kloof and from where many of the children come. We spent three days in the soup kitchens, cooking and serving meals, as well as taking food out into the shacks. We also ran activities in the disabled centre in the township and taught in the primary school. But it is not fair to visit a country and see only the problems and the ugly side of life, so we also spent time on a farm, we visited a small game lodge and we went to the African market in Johannesburg. We also went to the Apartheid Museum, albeit too briefly, which is a very sobering experience.

On most evenings we spent time debriefing and talking through our reactions to what we had seen and I was so impressed to hear the pupils talk at some depth and with real mature response to what they had seen and experienced. It is that response that is actually the most important thing and the real reason for taking such a trip. There is always a possibility going on a service trip to a disadvantaged community that one can be accused of voyeurism, of making oneself feel good without making any difference to anyone. So were we just ticking the box so that we can move back into our cosy lives with a slightly clearer conscience? I hope not.

I also used to say to the schools that came to visit Tiger Kloof from around the world that service is not a week on a project, ‘doing Africa’, or wherever it may be, but service is actually a way of life and should permeate everything that one does. I said that their week at Tiger Kloof should not be the end of their service experience but the start of it and that they should inculcate and maintain that sense of service throughout their lives, in whatever profession they find themselves. It is the same for me…having spent four years out there it is tempting to pat myself on the back and say that I have done my bit, but how do I hold on to that spirit of service in the hustle of this relatively privileged existence?

I have written about service before and about the challenge of inculcating a service ethos in a school that is so busy. Where do we find the time? Well I guess that if we think it is important then we need to make time for it, but being a servant need not start in Africa or in an old age home or homeless shelter in Dublin…it can start right where we are now in our jobs, in our boarding houses and in our relationships. That is where to start and to build muscle, but I know that many of the pupils here have servant hearts and would thrive on the chance to get their hands dirty in a more practical way. Let’s see where we go from here. Tiger Kloof is a school known for its spirit of service. Wouldn’t it be nice for St. Columba’s to have a similar reputation?

In any profession, and teaching is no exception, one stays fresh by learning new things and taking on new challenges. I was 18 years at Wellington College in England but in that time I took on many different responsibilities. I then moved from a very enjoyable and comfortable existence there to a considerably more challenging environment in South Africa, Tiger Kloof, an old mission school serving a disadvantaged community in the boiling heat of the North West province. There I learned about abuse and rape and dysfunctional families and poverty and anger and the pain of history, including having to confront the fact that my own country had played a complicit role in that history. I also learned what a beautiful country South Africa is, with so many fantastic young people of all races. In the school there everyone had a story and many were heart-breaking to listen to. In a tough world where only the most resilient survive and thrive it is not easy to be vulnerable and so people bottle things up and live with their pain, which may result in their passing it on to the next generation. I decided to employ a counsellor, who came from Soweto two weeks during each term and made herself available to listen and support. She is an outstanding woman with a tough story of her own. Many pupils took advantage of her being around to have the chance to talk to someone for the first time in their lives. She used to stay with us and without breaking confidentiality in the evenings she used to tell us some of the things that she had heard during her day. It made one want to weep.

St. Columba’s is very different from Tiger Kloof and the socio-economic profile is definitely not the same. However in some ways young people are the same the world over, with the same hopes for life and the same insecurities. Domestic security certainly helps create confidence in young people but it is not a barrier against the pressures of being a teenager. I remember at Wellington, probably about ten years ago, when we employed a counsellor for the first time. She worked initially for just 8 hours a week – this in a school of 1000 pupils – but it was not long before she was full time and being supplemented by another one, such was the demand from the pupils to talk to someone about their problems, their angst about identity, their battle with relationships and the increasing pressure that they were feeling from school and home about their work. When I left Wellington mental health issues were increasingly on the agenda and that was at a time when social media usage was not at the level that it is now…all experts agree that social media puts huge pressure on young people, with the pressure to fit in and look the part, together with the vastly increased occurrence of online bullying and cowardly gossip, from which one cannot escape any more simply by going home.

I became a teacher because I loved coaching sport, enjoyed my subject and got huge satisfaction from seeing young people grow up through adolescence to make a positive contribution in society. It is the best profession in the world. I did not however learn about mental health in my teacher training and most teachers would I am sure say that are having to work beyond their comfort zones and their original professional training in the way they are needing to support children with mental health issues.

All pastoral leaders in schools, whether heads or housemasters or housemistresses, or even just form teachers, are needing to become experts in mental health issues, afraid that if they don’t make the right diagnosis or report things correctly to the right person or fail to recognise certain signs, that it will reflect poorly on them and could even have much more far-reaching consequences. It can be quite a heavy burden to carry.

Don’t get me wrong, we are not in a crisis here, but the mental health agenda is on the rise and we are having to adapt and learn. We have a fabulous team of very caring staff who support our pupils wonderfully well. As a school we are no different from all other schools in Ireland and the UK but because of our support networks we are probably better off than most. What does worry me however is the fact that an increasing number of young people are needing to seek help in the first place. What sort of society are we creating in which so many young people are brought to the point where they cannot cope? It makes me more determined than ever that here at St. Columba’s we create a community in which all the pupils feel cherished and valued and where their self-esteem can be built up. I am sure that all parents would agree that while they want their children to achieve as highly as possible both inside and outside the classroom they want them even more to be self-confident, to love themselves as well as loving their neighbours, to be supportive of others, to be kind and to develop the tools to cope with the slings and arrows of life without risk of breakdown.

That seems to be the greatest educational challenge of this generation.

Term is well under way and settling down into its rhythm. All seems to be going well…a few wobbly new boarders but that is nothing new! The weather is just about holding up, but the great memories of a long hot summer are fading.

On Saturday I was excited to be able to welcome to speak to the school one of my past pupils from South Africa. She is studying in the UK and she has a remarkable story to tell, one of resilience and faith and single-minded determination. She will go far. I was going to quote a few excerpts from her talk but it was all so good: you can read it all here or at the bottom of this page. Please take the time…it is worth it.

I am very excited that my wife and I are going to be taking a group of eighteen Form IV & V pupils back to Tiger Kloof over the October half term. Of course I am excited to be seeing old friends, but also excited to be able to introduce some of our amazing Columbans to some extraordinary young South Africans, both of whom have plenty to learn from each other. Many top schools from round the world have visited Tiger Kloof over the last 23 years because it is one of the iconic schools of South Africa: a producer of statesmen since 1904, alma mater of two national presidents and many struggle leaders, a school that chose to close itself down in 1955 rather than compromise with the racist educational policies of the apartheid government. The prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, the chief architect of apartheid, gave orders for the buildings to be bulldozed, but most of them survived and were restored when the school reopened in 1995. It is a great story.

The school now prides itself on its service of the local community, with its own soup kitchen and involvement in many other social projects and that is why other schools come to visit. Imagine a school having a reputation not for rugby or music or academic results, but for service. So our young Columbans are going to have a full immersion experience in serving other people, while at the same time spending lots of time with the young Tigers, many of whom come from very challenging backgrounds and from homes where the level of expectation and aspiration is very low. I hope that it will leave them a little shaken and uneasy…in a good way!

I spoke a lot when I first came here about service and about how it is not a box to tick for the Gaisce Award, or an experience that one can have on a one-off project, but about how service is a way of life, a thread that should run through everything. Last Friday we hosted a conference for 40 or so senior prefects from around Ireland on the theme of leadership and I was delighted that the team which facilitated the day focused on the idea of service leadership, which chimes with the ethos that I want to try and instil in our Columbans.

I love what Malebogo says in her talk when she challenges the pupils: ‘All of you seated here are so blessed to be equipped with the tools that will lead you exactly where you want to go. But what a lot of people fail to understand about education is that it’s a service. A service to yourself and the world you in live. We live to serve and we learn to serve people and to pursue a purpose that is bigger than ourselves. How are you using your gift of education and how do you intend on using it? Are you fulfilling the responsibilities that come with it?’

A challenge for all of us, for parents, teachers…a challenge for me.

July 3rd 2018

Somewhere way back, when we were first putting together the plans to celebrate 175 years since the foundation of St. Columba’s College, I had the idea that after all the balls and receptions and drinking and partying we should finish it all off with something that reminded us of our very beginnings back in 1843 and take a pilgrimage to Iona, the place most closely associated with Columba himself, after whom the College is named. It all seemed like a good idea at the time!

Some people will know all about Columba, one of the three patron saints of Ireland, along with St. Patrick and St. Brigid. Many will not. Born into a royal family in 6thcentury Ireland, he gave up his royal position in order to become a monk at a time when Ireland was, for the only time in its history, the centre of scholarship, learning and spirituality in Europe, following the collapse of the Roman Empire. However, in 563 AD, a battle was fought following a copyright dispute over the ownership of a Bible, and Columba, ashamed that he had not prevented the bloodshed, imposed on himself a penance, to go into exile from his beloved Ireland and take the gospel to Scotland, then inhabited by the pagan Picts.

The story goes that he set off in a leather coracle from the north coast, probably from somewhere near Derry, where he had established a monastery, accompanied by a band of fellow-monks. He landed initially either on Islay or the Mull of Kintyre but as he could still see Ireland he decided to carry on and reached Iona, a tiny island off the shore of Mull. Here he was granted land to establish a new monastery, which became the epicentre of outreach into Scotland, where the monks travelled to convert the Picts and ultimately brought their faith right down into the north of England, where they founded settlements such as that on Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland. As they say, the rest is history.

The plan therefore is to retrace the exile of Columba and sail from Ireland to Iona, where we will celebrate our heritage with a service in the Abbey, tour the island and experience a tiny slice of what inspired Columba and his early followers. As it happens, before anyone tells me that our voyage is not following the original route, we are sailing directly to Iona from Tory Island, on the northernmost tip of Donegal, a distance of about 100 miles and 24 hours, weather dependant…it could be shorter or a lot longer! When we arrive we will be met by a group of 25 fellow pilgrims, a mixture of staff, Fellows, Old Columbans and parents, who will be travelling by the land route, leaving on the following morning: fly to Glasgow, bus to Oban, ferry to Mull, bus to Fionnphort, ferry to Iona.

I am grateful to a few people as mad as myself for making this trip possible. My wife Cathy for planning the overland trip and the stay on Iona; Ted Sherwood, who has been just as enthusiastic about this caper as I am; and Dr. Michael Brogan, a wild-eyed doctor from Donegal, whose boat, the MacDuagh (named after Saint Colman MacDuagh – a contemporary and apparent friend of Columba), a 40 foot Galway hooker, is our own leather coracle for our exile. Luckily he is skippering the boat and bringing his own crew to guide us across the Atlantic.

Let me introduce my merry band of monks, 2018 style:

  • Ted Sherwood (Former Head of Geography at SCC)
  • Jenny Bulbulia (Old Columban and Current Fellow)
  • Trish Dunlop (Current Parent)
  • Ian Dunlop (Current Parent)
  • Jane Caldwell (Wife of the Chairman of the Fellows)

We meet tomorrow morning, Wednesday 4thJuly, at 9.30 a.m. to drive up to Donegal to meet the MacDuagh. In my luggage I will have three items: a bottle of whiskey to present to the King of Tory Island, who will then bless our voyage, a leg of lamb, to be roasted on the journey (don’t ask me how…), and the Mioseach. This last one needs an explanation.

In 1843, when the College was founded, one of the founding Fellows presented the College with the Mioseach, a very early Celtic Christian artefact, a book shrine, for holding a Bible or psalter. This box was so valuable that it was loaned to the National Archaeological Museum, where it still sits, while a perfect copy was made, which sits in the Warden’s study at the College. The original was sold to the Museum in 2004 for 1.5 million euros! The copy will be on board, not the original!

So there we are. I will send updates whenever possible and a few photos.

July 6th 2018

We meet at 9.30 a.m. by the sports hall for the off. Wonderful to be presented with a pennant by Terry and Rosie Johnson, with SCC 1843 on it, to be attached to the mast of the Mac Duagh. The drive through Donegal is glorious and we arrived at the Tory Island ferry in good time. We are met on Tory not only by the Mac Duagh and its crew but by the King of Tory himself. He does not disappoint. He has been King for 50 years and regales us with endless tales. He is delighted with his bottle of whiskey but disappointed that we are not staying for the craic in the evening, which is due to start at 10.00 p.m.

The Mac Duagh is a fantastic boat. Originally built about 140 years ago it was fully restored in the 1970’s by Dr. Michael Brogan and is one of the small remaining class of Galway hookers. He and the older two of his companions have negotiated the north west and the north east passages together so we are not in the hands of amateurs! As it turns out that is a good thing.

We set off at 7.00 p.m. and are soon joined a school of porpoises, who have come to check us out. At that point I begin to feel distinctly nauseous and continued to do so for the next 15 hours! My visions of sipping a cool drink on deck, while watching the sun set were dashed! It was not a happy night. Those early Irish monks must have been made of stern stuff and I am delighted that I did not follow through on my early plan to row a leather coracle across the Atlantic. In the morning I am told that the crossing has been surprisingly rough and I am not the only one to have been struggling. Perhaps everyone is trying to make me feel better! By the time I am feeling vaguely human again we are approaching Iona and for the last two hours it is a sheer joy to sit on deck watching the islands slide by and cruising gently into Iona. We arrive at about 1.00 p.m. but stay on board for a further three hours cooking the lamb and snacking on crabs claws and lobster. Thankfully they stay down.

Meanwhile the larger party meet at Dublin Airport in the wee hours and everything goes like clockwork. They arrive at about 4.45 p.m. on Iona and we are there to welcome them. We are staying in the St. Columba Hotel just by the Abbey, a hotel with a fantastic view of the sound. What a place this is! A lovely dinner, then an introduction to Columba himself from our very own Adomnan (Columba’s biographer), Richard Brett, who has set the scene for the two days ahead.  Then impromptu music for a couple of hours in the lounge, with Michael Brogan on the fiddle, another of the crew on the squeeze box and one of the waiters joining in with his fiddle! A few contributions from the floor are also added. A great night and much to look forward to in the days ahead.

July 7th 2018

We meet mid-morning for a tour of the island, strolling off to the other side of the island. Some then choose to carry on to the far south to St. Columba’s Bay, where the saint is said to have first landed back in 563. Small green stones on the beach are said to be the tears of Columba, weeping for his beloved Ireland. Others return to the pier to have a ride out in the MacDuagh. A great day with lots of leisure time too. One of the dinghies coming in from the boat is accompanied by dolphins at touching distance. Another good dinner and then a singing competition between the tables. We rope in a couple of visitors to act as judges, much to their own astonishment and good humour. My table was definitely the best but some misses out on the big prize. The evening then turns quite lively and noisy and goes on and on…I am not sure when or if everyone gets to bed. Happily with a group of adults that is not my problem.

The next morning we meet early and get the boat to Staffa, a small island about 30 minutes up the coast, the home of the extraordinary Fingal’s Cave, immortalised by Mendelssohn. Again we are investigated by dolphins. The island has the most amazing basalt columns and massive caves, with nesting puffins as well. I hate to say it but it is much more spectacular than the Giants’ Causeway! A truly memorable visit in the most serene conditions. Wow, this place is beautiful! We can see north to Skye and south to Islay, west to Tiree and Coll, while everything to the east is Mull. But we could return a hundred times and never get the same benign conditions. We are truly blessed. In case one gets the impression that being a monk in the 6thcentury was a piece of cake in an idyllic paradise, it is worth remembering that for much of the year this place is bleak in the extreme and not for the faint-hearted. For now we are not complaining.

After lunch we all traipse off to the Abbey for a service of thanksgiving. The Abbey dominates the community, watching over the sound, while on the way one passes the graveyard which supposedly contains the graves of many of the kings of Scotland as well as some of the Norse kings. Macbeth is said to be buried there although it is impossible to know. A simple service, magical, simple, profound, a really special time, led by Daniel Owen, a short talk by Ninian Falkiner, lovely hymns. It has been good to remind ourselves of our spiritual heritage and our spirits have been uplifted and fed.

A few of us slope off to watch England beat Sweden in the World Cup quarter final…another spiritual experience.

There is a new question that prospective parents ask me almost without fail as I am taking them on a tour of the school: ‘What is the school’s approach to mobile phones and social media?’ When I go to conferences now there are speakers on the effects of social media and internet addiction. More and more studies are being done on the effects of obsessive gaming, the decline in ‘real’ communication due to social media, the release of dopamine that happens every time our phones ping. I am now reading ‘The Cyber Effect’ by cyberpsychologist Dr. Mary Aiken and apart from being a very good read and very interesting it is also extremely scary. It should be compulsory reading for all parents.

When our children were young my wife and I had discussions about how much TV time we should allow and when they should be allowed to watch videos. We disagreed at times as I was always inclined to be more lenient than she was, but at least we knew what they were watching and it was usually a choice between Disney videos or Thomas the Tank Engine. I think I can still recite the Disney version of Robin Hood off by heart. Those were discussions and challenges that our own parents did not have to face but ultimately we felt we had the tools to make those judgements, even though we made some mistakes. We learned to parent to a large degree by taking a cue from the way that we were parented ourselves. However what is true now is that the challenges facing parents are challenges that have never been faced before and they are not in the old textbooks. It is one thing to discuss whether to put on Robin Hood or Thomas the Tank Engine, another to feel totally as sea in a world of endless social media, internet pornography, cyber bullying, sexting, Netflix and trolling. Who knows who your children are talking to, who is grooming them, what sites they are on, when everyone has an extraordinarily powerful computer in his or her pocket and 24 hour access. As someone said, ‘if you want to teach your children to be safe on the road you can’t ban the cars. You have to teach them how to cross the road.’ True, but it is a very difficult road to cross.

Earlier this week I was interviewed on Newstalk, following an article in the Irish Times about boarding, in which St. Columba’s got some good coverage. I was asked why parents choose boarding nowadays and of course there are many different possible answers. I chose however to concentrate on the most topical one, that of being able to provide a safe space from the constant demands of the online world. It would not have figured in the past as a major consideration, but suddenly parents are looking for a place where their children can be children and escape the addictive demands of an online culture which is exposing them to goodness knows what and sleep-walking them into a mental health epidemic. Boarding school suddenly looks like a bit of a safe haven and we want to keep it that way.

At St. Columba’s we are still formulating our approach to all these things and it will continue to evolve, but what is true at present is that the youngest pupils are not allowed their phones at night, nor are any of the pupils allowed phones around school during the day. The 8.15 a.m. start and the busy day, running to at least 8.00 p.m. means there is very little time for smart phone usage and none for gaming. Pupils talk to each other and are not seen staring at screens as they interact with each other.

I have always been a big fan of boarding but I now have a new reason to champion the cause. For busy parents, who work hard and are not always around to monitor their children’s screen use of all kinds, it might be a blessed relief to delegate some of that responsibility to a school that limits such access and encourages genuine communication and relationships in a world where that is increasingly rare. We may not ban all the cars but we are trying very hard to teach the children how to cope with the traffic.

Yesterday we celebrated the 175th anniversary of the day when St. Columba’s College actually opened in 1843. At the time there was a Warden and a few Fellows, but there were no pupils at all and the College was located in Stackallan House in County Meath. Things have changed. We had a relaxed and fun day, with a late rising, a special chapel service and the creation of a ‘175’ figure by the pupils on the cricket pitch, photographed by drone. Despite chilly conditions the arrival of an ice cream van after lunch was a major highlight! We finished off with a barbecue and a dance in the evening. (A collection of photos from the day’s activities are below). In the morning I and a group of Columbans, together with Mr. McCarthy and the Chaplain, buried a time capsule behind the chapel, to be opened on 25th April 2118. In it I enclosed a letter to those future Columbans:

Dear Columbans of 2118

I earnestly hope that this letter is being read for the first time on 25th April 2118 and that the box has not been opened in advance of that date.

Greetings to you from April 25th 2018, the year that Ireland won the Grand Slam in the 6 nations rugby and the country was brought to a standstill by extraordinary snow in early March. It has been a long, cold, wet winter and we are longing for the warmth of spring.

St. Columba’s is currently a school of 320 pupils, 75% of whom are boarding, 60% are from Ireland and 40% from overseas. While we have very high academic standards and expectations of our pupils we prefer to be known as a school which has the highest standards of pastoral care, where young people are nurtured and encouraged and where they learn to live together in a caring and supportive environment. Everyone here matters.

As the Warden of this College I have a vision of producing young people who aspire to be successful, while remembering that they are privileged and blessed to be receiving such a good education. They should always try to be servants to those around them at school, at university, in their families and in the jobs they get in the future. The world of 2018 needs unselfish and servant-hearted young people, who will make a positive difference in a troubled world. I am sure your world will be no different.

The Columbans of 2018 are special young people and I believe in them and their future. As the Warden I send my greetings to you, the Columbans of 2118, and urge you all to be true to the Christian values of this great College.

Floreat Columba et floreant Columbanenses!

We are nearly at the end of what has been quite a strange term. The term was short enough already, with plenty to pack in, without the flu epidemic in the first half and the Beast from the East, together with Storm Emma, after the mid-term break. That caused great disruption and broke the continuity of teaching and exams, but at least we managed to keep going, albeit in a limited way. I am very grateful to house staff and their tutor teams for managing to keep their charges happy, as well as fed and watered, in part due to the heroic catering staff who trudged through the drifts when they could easily have stayed at home, because they were concerned about the welfare of the pupils. One of the maintenance team even came into work on his own tractor to help clear paths. On the Friday evening I went round all the houses to see how everyone was getting on and to make sure that everyone had enough to eat. Everyone seemed very happy and they had all fed well, even if there was a large emphasis on pasta. No one went hungry and I think most appreciated the efforts of the staff to look after them. A lot of the house staff also had their own children running around at home unable to get to school, to add to their stress.

I guess it would have been easy to moan and we all have a tendency to that at times. It made me think about the importance of being grateful for what we have as individuals and also as a community. If anyone doesn’t agree with me just turn on the news and see the suffering and the injustice out there. We are very blessed here.

There is a story in the gospels where Jesus meets ten lepers, outcasts from their community. They would not just be disfigured but they had to ring a bell wherever they went so that people could avoid them and they had to live in colonies outside of towns, so the disease destroyed every aspect of their humanity. These ten men came to Jesus begging for him to heal them. He sends them off to the high priest and as they go they all realise that they are healed. However, while nine of them rush off home, only one of them bothers to turn round and return to Jesus to thank him for having mercy on him. What is more it turns out that that one is a foreigner. The locals obviously didn’t think that they owed any anything to Jesus at all or even if they did they did not think to thank him. It is almost as if Jesus is saying that physical healing is one thing but unless your heart is also changed that healing is incomplete. Being grateful makes us better people and that is where the real healing happens.

My parents always made me write thank you letters after Christmas and, although I cursed them for it at the time, it was a vital lesson for me to learn. I think it is very important that our Columbans learn to be grateful for what they have and also to express it. We all know how it makes us feel when we are thanked, because it makes us aware that we are not being taken for granted. So I want to make a point of reminding the pupils to thank their teachers, the office staff, the catering staff, the cleaners, the nurses, the bus drivers, even the staff at Lidl’s. It does something to people when they are thanked and it does something to us too when we thank others.

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 potentially 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.

Latest Thoughts from the Warden:

29th 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 supported 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 16s 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 give 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.

The Warden’s second blog-post of 2018 is about recent events in the world:

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 hoard 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.

Mark Boobbyer.

The Warden’s thoughts as the new term and year start:

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.

Mark Boobbyer

The Warden’s final blog post of 2017 might also be titled “It’s not all about Santa”…

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 a 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.

 

Mark Boobbyer, Warden.

 

 

 

 

 

6th 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. Today 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.

Mark Boobbyer

 

 

 

Earlier this week we hosted a small team from the Boarding Schools Association, a British based but international network, who oversee the standard of boarding provision in a huge number of schools. As an Irish school we do not sit under their jurisdiction in the sense that they cannot pass or fail what we do, but they are the best people to advise on boarding and that is why I invited them in to give us the once over. As I have made clear before I don’t want to benchmark ourselves against other Irish schools but rather against the very best anywhere. There is no boarding inspectorate in Ireland and that could be a dangerous thing, so we need to be proactive in seeking out the best practice.

I am still awaiting a full report but the initial feedback has been very positive. While there are known weaknesses in some of our provision of facilities, which will be addressed by our development plan over the next few years, it was obvious to them, just as it is to me, that we are blessed with some outstanding pastoral leaders in the school and the team were very impressed by the obvious dedication and care that is provided in our houses. I will feed back more in due course, when I have received a fuller report, but please be assured that our pastoral provision is excellent already and I hope to make it even better as we go forward.

It has made me think about the benefits of boarding and to try to verbalise what we mean when we talk about a ‘full boarding experience’. I think we in the College know what it means because we live it, but for an outsider, someone unfamiliar with boarding schools and who has perhaps never contemplated sending their child to one, it is probably not at all obvious. In Ireland there are few boarding schools and many of those that do exist are five day a week boarding, with a very limited weekend programme for those few who remain in. When we at St. Columba’s talk about a full boarding experience we are talking about something that we offer that is unique in Ireland and therefore is not easy to sell to people since they don’t see it elsewhere. Let me try and explain what I mean by it and why I think it is of value.

In my mind boarding gives young people the experience of learning to live alongside other people. In that environment they learn to appreciate those who are very different from themselves, people who may not share their interests, even people whom they may not naturally like. That is a great lesson for life, because in the future they will not always work or live with those they find easy or who are like themselves. And in that situation it so often happens that young people learn to find value in others, to respect their differences and ultimately to enjoy those differences. The rugby player appreciates the musician, the serious academic learns that others don’t find things as easy as she does, the gregarious extrovert comes to see that there is value in the quiet one. Friendships are formed and – and this is undoubtedly true and borne out by my experience and that of many others – they often last a lifetime. They will be at each other’s weddings, be godparents to their children and continue a lifelong journey together. A recent reunion of Columbans who left 20 years ago was very well attended by a large percentage of those who left in 1997. Say no more.

Our boarding is very full time and cannot be compared to the boarding provided by most Irish schools that have a relatively small number of boarders. That means that our boarders do not go out much, they have six days of school, six days of sport, they have things to do on a Saturday evening and often on a Sunday too, quite apart from chapel. And you can add to that something else that is unique to St. Columba’s in the Irish context, that the majority of our staff live on site, not just the boarding staff. That means that they are around in the evenings and at weekends, that they are seen with their wives and husbands and their children and their dogs. So the College is not just a school but a home for many, and that creates a very different atmosphere. There is a great African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and I think that that is what is great about boarding at its best. I also believe that the village atmosphere provides a very different experience for our day pupils too, as they absorb many of the same things that the boarders do. I think that the creation of a deep sense of community is what is special about what we do here and why we will remain committed to the full boarding experience, even in changing times and whatever other schools may choose to do.