I would expect that all parents would agree that, even though they want their children to get excellent grades and take advantage of all the other opportunities here, the most important things that they can learn at St. Columba’s are values that will underpin their life, their relationships and the decisions they make. I told you last term that we were going through a process of selecting the values that we think are the most important ones in the College, as chosen by pupils and staff. So here is the big reveal, the ones that came out top and are now recognised as being the ‘College Values’:

Kindness

Compassion

Inclusion

Responsibility

Determination

OK, so they are hardly unexpected and you might think that they are so obvious that putting them in a list is rather absurd, as if we have made a new discovery. Aren’t these values that every school should be striving to instil in its pupils? Well, yes they are, but my experience is that it is much harder to talk about shared values, and hold pupils to them, if those values are not articulated in a clear way. By selecting these values it enables us to start a conversation in house, in the classroom, or in the corridor. It enables us to talk about what is important in assembly and to use them as a framework for talks in chapel. It requires staff and pupils to think intentionally about what is right and wrong, rather than just assuming that we are all in agreement about it.

Young people learn their values in three ways. The first is by what they are taught, be it in the family, the classroom or perhaps the church or equivalent. That puts great responsibility on teachers of all kinds. What are we teaching our children? The second is by watching and imitating adults and what we do. By that reckoning, all of us bear a huge responsibility, whether we are teachers or not. What example are we setting?

If we don’t get this right, either in school or in the family, children will learn in a third way, from the media, from celebrity culture, from the behaviour of those who are often very poor role models. Do we want to outsource the values that our children learn to social media influencers, be they pop stars or politicians?

I have come to the conclusion that the teaching of values in school is by far the most important thing that we do and it cannot be left to chance, or the winds and tides of social media.

I worked for a cricket season in Australia, coaching a school first team in Melbourne. Before the first match a former Australian captain came to talk to the players and I was looking forward to it, assuming that he would have some wise and gentle words of wisdom. He didn’t, and the fact that I can remember it now is telling. He told them that in order to achieve their ambitions and dreams they should not be afraid to crush the weak and push aside those in their way. It was their own life and they were not responsible for the failures of the weak. He urged them to look after themselves and to have no care for those around them. I looked around in horror at the teachers, parents and pupils, assuming that they would be equally horrified, but to my surprise they were all nodding in agreement. I wanted to scream, but I was just an Englishman on a gap year and I needed the job, so to my shame I kept quiet! But I have never forgotten his words. Teachers and parents bear a great responsibility…young people are listening!

THE VALUES OF ST. COLUMBA’S COLLEGE

The pupils and staff of the College have adopted the following 5 principles that we think best sum up the ethos and values for which Columbans should strive:

  • Kindness
      • We build others up with the words that we use and we don’t spread gossip
      • We look for opportunities to do acts of kindness for others
      • We always try to see the best in other people
  • Compassion
    • We seek to understand the lives of those around us and to ‘walk in their shoes’
    • We celebrate each other’s achievements and share their disappointments
    • We are slow to judge and quick to forgive
  • Inclusion
    • People are different from each other in many ways, but of equal value
    • We show respect to all members of the community and celebrate our common humanity
    • All should be made to feel welcome at St. Columba’s College
  • Responsibility
    • We take responsibility for our own work and our own behaviour
    • We are responsible for the well-being of our school community
    • We are responsible for the future of the world that we all live in and the sustainability of its resources
  • Determination
    • We work hard and take full advantage of our opportunities
    • We try to develop resilience and not give up at the first failure
    • We always strive to be the best version of ourselves

Matthew 7:12 – ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.’

 

 

 

My focus has been largely occupied this term by how to keep the school open, how to keep it free of infection and how to stop everyone from going mad in the process. However, the other issue that has been constantly bubbling away in the background has been the College’s response to the issues of racism that were raised in May and June. We held a review, which was published, and we have committed to making sure that we learn from past mistakes. So, what has that entailed this term and are we making progress?

To begin with, I met with a group of prefects, staff and parents to look at some of the recommendations of the review. We discussed what the priorities were and how some things could be implemented. We discussed workshops and speakers and films and there was a determination to make sure that we did not just put the review in the top drawer, from where it could occasionally be pulled out and waved around for PR purposes. It was a good start and we will be meeting again next term to assess what we have done and see what more we can do.

It has, of course, not been easy to carry out a programme of talks and workshops at a time when we have been unable to meet in large numbers and there have been very few visitors to the College at all. Nevertheless, these days it is possible to do many things online and we have managed to do a few. The staff started the term with a two hour talk and question session with Dr. Ebun Joseph, who provoked plenty of discussion and addressed many relevant topics. We also had a talk from Dr. Livingstone Thompson, who had been involved in formulating the recommendations of the review in the summer. Some of the staff then led some discussion groups with the 6th form, which looked directly at how we had done things as a school and what we could do to improve things. It is encouraging to see how staff and pupils are growing in confidence when addressing issues concerning racism. The more we talk, the more we share ideas, the more articulate we will become in expressing what we think is important. This means that rather than shy away from difficult issues, we will be more comfortable at dealing with them. That has to be good.

Over the course of the term there have been a number of ‘fireside chats’ on current affairs, where race has been a recurrent theme. Dr. Roberta Hunte from Portland State University talked about the racial climate in the USA leading up to the elections, two speakers addressed the lead up to and the aftermath of the USA elections and the part that race played in that, and Lori Gatsi-Barnett, who was born in Zimbabwe, moved to the USA and has now settled in Belfast, spoke of her experiences of racism in those different environments and also about how she sees thing going right now in Ireland.

The fireside chat programme is only for older pupils and it is also voluntary, so it does not hit everyone, so, in this last week I asked Lori Gatsi-Barnett to do two live interviews with me, which were shown in all the classrooms in the schools, one for juniors and one for seniors. I thought this was excellent because we dealt with the kind of everyday questions that pupils here could relate to: what is systemic racism? What is unconscious bias? What is the origin of the ‘n’ word and why is it so offensive? What does the term ‘micro-aggression’ mean and what are good examples that we might come across? We also looked at ‘taking the knee’ and discussed the purpose behind that and whether it is effective. The feedback I have had from these two sessions has been very positive, from both staff and pupils.

One thing that struck me in the summer was the need for us as a school to be more explicit about the values that we think are important in the school. We might assume that everyone knows what the College believes in, but if it is not spelled out then we cannot refer pupils to it and hold them to a certain standard. As a result, the staff and the pupils have gone through the process of selecting the values that they think best represent the kind of school that we want to be. We have come up with a choice of five, which will be revealed next term. These values will be visible around the College and will hopefully become part of the fabric and conversation of the school. In fact, you might get bored of hearing about them!

So, we have made a start and for the rest of the year we will be building on that, not least with our week’s celebration of cultural diversity next term. We have about 38 nationalities in the College and every one of them is to be cherished and admired.

I am aware that I run the risk of counting chickens too soon, but I have to say how proud I am of how the whole College community has managed this term. Before the term began I had envisaged that at any one time there would be teachers out of school having to isolate, with lessons having to be covered by their colleagues; and pupils either at home, having tested positive or as close contacts. I had envisaged that teachers would be teaching classes that were not full, while keeping a constant eye on who was absent and how to deliver material to them and keep those absentees up to speed with their work. The fact that that has not happened is a testimony to the plans that we have put in place and the enormous hard work of staff over the holidays, the good-natured cooperation of the pupils (largely!) and the evidence, that is incontrovertible, that schools, full of lively young people, are not hotbeds of transmission.

I am someone who tends to see the glass as half full, but even I have had a fairly empty glass these past few months. Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as news of a variety of effective vaccines emerges, and I am optimistic that during next term we will start to see some things return to normal. Yes, I am sure we will all have to continue to take precautions for some time, but I am hopeful that we will be able to do much more than has been the case heretofore. And, as the prospect grows, it has set my mind to thinking about the things that really are most important, both personally and in College. What have I missed most and what am I most looking forward to?

Personally, the last few months have made me yearn for many things that I have always taken for granted. It is not the “spectacular” that I am looking forward to but the everyday: giving friends a hug; ordering a pint of Guinness at Taylor’s; being able to go over the water to see my family on the odd occasion (I just missed my mother’s 90th birthday); watching sport on TV with an actual crowd instead of fake noise! I wonder if it will make us all more grateful for what we have in the future, grateful for the myriad of things that give us joy and yet which we have missed over the course of this year.

At school there are many things that I miss and the prospect of their return fills me with an absurd sense of anticipation: the whole school swelling the chapel with boisterous singing…this year’s new pupils have never heard the sound of a packed chapel singing fit to burst; watching the pupils play matches; listening to our fantastic new musicians performing in the BSR…and, most strangely of all, seeing the pupils’ faces without a mask on. There are some pupils whose faces I have barely seen this year because they are always covered up. Maybe we should have a bonfire to burn our masks, while we dance around and recite incantations. OK, that is not so sensible, but the chief memory of 2020 will always be the sight of people in masks and, while they have been necessary, they are no less abhorrent for that.

I wonder what you are most looking forward to.

As I said, I am very proud of how we have coped with this year and very grateful to so many people for their hard work. I am aware that I may be premature in my musings in some ways, though it is the prospect of a return to normality that keeps us all going in these dark times and I am surely not the only one who is looking ahead to 2021 with a sense of hope.

Today, November 11th, is Remembrance Day. Traditionally, the entire school congregates in Chapel Square formally to acknowledge and remember the members of the College community who lost their lives in the World Wars of the 20th century.

This morning, a smaller than usual group of pupils and staff gathered (distanced, and wearing face coverings) for the regular commemoration of those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, including the 96 former pupils and staff who died in the First and Second World Wars. The Warden has recorded a short video message to mark the event.

Pictured, the Senior Prefect lays the wreath. Following this, there was the two-minute silence, and then Konstantin Kühne played ‘The Last Post’ and the ‘Reveille’. The Chaplain concluded with a prayer.

I am welcoming you to St Columba’s College in unprecedented times. We return to an altered reality, where rules and social interaction are different. As Coronavirus infiltrates our lives, this is a time for us to stay close together as a school, as colleagues and as friends. As a group, we need to be united and be attentive to each other, and especially to the vulnerable amongst us and to our extended families and the wider community.

The coronavirus will continue to impact on our lives, but we should keep in mind that the problems and issues we grappled with before lockdown have not gone away, in fact, most have been exacerbated. Every day more people slip into poverty, our planet continues to get sicker and our society is becoming more divided.

Here at St Columba’s, I believe we can make a difference, and we should all welcome the recent external review of racism as the first step towards positive change. I hope you will all join me in making a commitment to embrace the changes proposed in this review, but also to go further and to stand up against all forms of discrimination and prejudice. Let us do this with open hearts and a willingness to see what we can do individually, and as a community, to make Columba’s a place we are proud to call our school, and a microcosm of the world we want to live in.

This year, more than any other, it’s imperative at St Columba’s that we are kind to each other, that we are inclusive, that we value and enjoy each other’s company and make the most of the year ahead.

St Columba’s in 2020 can be a school at the forefront of change in Ireland, and I am very proud to be invited to lead you on this exciting journey.

Éile Ní Chíanáin, Senior Prefect 2020 / 2021

We are alive and well in spite of the times, determined to carry on and enjoy ourselves. Please do share this video with any friends who may be looking at schools for their children at the moment.

August 21st 2020

If you are not willing to keep learning then it is time to give up. I have learned a lot in the last few weeks. At the start of June the school was subject to a number of allegations of racism from former and present pupils and it was obviously a difficult time. I am very proud of the level of pastoral care at the College and it was not easy to have to confront the evidence that, when it came to dealing with matters of racism, the College had a lot to learn. We immediately set up an independent review into how we had done things in the past, in order to make recommendations for the future. That process has been a challenging one, both for the College and for me personally.

I want to share with you three things in particular that I have learned through this.

The first is that I thought I understood racism. I used to run an all-black school in South Africa, a society still largely shaped by the monster of Apartheid. The legacy of that racist ideology is easy for all to see. Too easy perhaps, as South Africa stands as the most unequal country in the world. The current debate, and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, has exploded since the death of George Floyd, as if black people are saying ‘enough is enough.’ The foundations of the USA were built on racism and those effects remain to this day. We can all be experts on the glaring injustices that are evident in South Africa or the USA and we will have strong opinions about them. It can be reassuring to look at ‘that racism over there.’ However, I have learned that it is much harder to spot the issues of racism that might be carrying on under one’s nose, the subtle, undermining and corrosive instances that wear people down and sap their self-esteem. That requires a new way of looking at things, honest listening and a commitment to not ignoring the ‘micro-aggressions’ that are the lived experience of many black people in this country.

Secondly, I realise how inadequate the current school curriculum is to teach young people about the history of racism. Again, I have made myself very conversant in the history of colonialism and in particular the part my country, the United Kingdom, played in that extraordinary period of history. The British History curriculum is hot on the Tudors and on 20th Century dictators, but there is nothing concerning Empire and its legacy. However, I have come to realise that the modern world is impossible to understand without an understanding of colonialism. The reason that my country is full of immigrant communities is because of Empire. Or, to put it as others have, ‘we are over here because you were over there.’ This summer I read Black and British by the British Nigerian historian David Olusoga. It was challenging and uncomfortable and made me realise, similar to my first point, that it is one thing to be an expert in the problems of other countries, but another to know the history of one’s own country. I knew everything about Apartheid and a fair bit about the history of race in the USA. To my shame, I knew nothing about the history of black communities in my own country, let alone in Ireland. In both Ireland and the UK, for sure, there is a need to adapt the curriculum to educate young people in such matters. And, as adults, we are all responsible for informing ourselves about why things are as they are and I would recommend everyone to read up on it. Don’t parrot the opinions of other people…develop your own opinions through reading and study.

Thirdly, I have learned about the importance of creating a culture within a school in which young people feel comfortable to talk about their experiences. If we have failed to provide that sort of environment then that is my fault…and it is my responsibility to do something about it. There is always a danger that pupils keep things bottled up inside themselves until there is a crisis, rather than feeling free to express themselves and air their frustrations. It is no good talking about it without intentionally creating the conditions for such honesty to flourish. That is one of the big challenges for me personally this coming year.

I hope that we will be a better school at the end of this process than we were at the beginning. No one likes to be shown up and admit shortcomings, but, as I often say to the pupils who have misbehaved and been brought into my office, making a mistake is not the end of the world…how you respond is what is important. I am determined that we as a school respond in such a way that we can set an example to other schools of how to build a community in which everyone feels welcomed and cherished.

Mark Boobbyer.

 

 

Last Wednesday the Warden, Mark Boobbyer, interviewed Rajmohan Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi) via Google Meet.  In a wide-ranging and fascinating interview, Mr Gandhi speaks of his memories of his grandfather and the lessons he can still teach us about navigating the complex world of the 21st century. The full video is available here but below is a short clip on Rajmohan Gandhi’s advice on leadership for the pupils of St. Columba’s College.

Rajmohan Gandhi is a biographer and a research professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois. In the photograph below, Rajmohan is pictured with his grandfather and sister Tara in New Delhi in 1942.

Again, the full interview is available to view here.

From the Warden: 10th May 2020

So, there are not going to be any Leaving Certificate exams this year. It is probably the right course of action, but I cannot bring myself to feel any satisfaction about the cancellation, even if it simplifies my summer and that of all our teachers. It does mean that once this term ends and we have tried to interpret the criteria for awarding Leaving Cert grades, we can put it to bed and not have to spend an extra couple of months keeping the 6th form bubbling along until the exams finally begin at the end of July. I won’t have to fret about whether our overseas pupils will be able to get back into the country to sit the exams. We will not have to administer the exams right the way through August and that means we might actually get a holiday. Not that anyone can go anywhere, of course. Overall then, for the staff it is probably a relief.

However, schools are about young people and that is why I am not feeling satisfied. The last couple of months have been hugely stressful for the 6th Form, not knowing whether they are coming or going. I am sure there is a sense of relief that there is at least a clear course of action, but feelings will definitely be mixed. Imagine spending your whole secondary schooling psyching yourself up for the famous Leaving Cert, that semi-mythical beast that lurks as a rite of passage to devour every teenager in Ireland. Your siblings have done it, your parents did it, even your grandparents. People swap stories about it: the stress, the all-nighters, the celebrations when they finished and the results. You may be dreading it, but there is also a feeling of excitement, the facing of a necessary evil, via which one will burst forth into adulthood. Then suddenly it is snatched away. There has to be a feeling of anti-climax. The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis without that last desperate struggle to break free. Yes, it is a relief, but it doesn’t feel quite right.

These 6th Formers will always be the ones who never got to sit their final exams. Yes, they will get the results, and those results will be as fair as possible, but they will be the ones who never got to finish school properly. They won’t have the satisfaction of walking out of their final exam and burning their Maths notes. Well I guess they can still burn them, but it won’t have that same sense of catharsis. They have been cheated, not by the school, or by politicians, but by fate. That is why I cannot feel any satisfaction.

But then again, I wonder whether I am forgetting what true education is all about and why I got into teaching in the first place. I believe very strongly that terminal exam results, while necessary, are an appalling yardstick for measuring the worth of anyone, and certainly not that of a young person emerging from school after 13 years of education. Does all that time in school really come down to a piece of paper with a few numbers on it? That flies in the face of everything that I believe is the purpose of education. To think I nearly forgot myself. Education is about building character. It is about who you are becoming and the values on which you choose to build your life.  And so I am going to look at things differently.

I want to say this to my 6th Formers, now, in writing, in case it doesn’t come across very well when I try and articulate it in some impersonal virtual assembly later in the week. ‘You did finish school properly. You finished properly, because, over the course of the last few years at St. Columba’s, you bought into the values of the College and you have turned into deeply caring and thoughtful young people. You have had a fantastic and privileged education in many ways, but you have taken an interest in the world around you and become compassionate and humble. You have celebrated the strong, but you have also looked after and cherished the weak, which is a wonderful thing to say about any group of people. I know you want to be successful (whatever that really means) but you also want do good and generous things with your lives. I know that because I have talked with you. You are very good company, with a great sense of humour, and I have always enjoyed spending time with you. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me what I already know…that you are a group of young adults of whom I and the College can be very proud. Proud of who you are, regardless of your ‘results.’ The chrysalis was not the Leaving Certificate, but the whole of your education. And you have emerged with dazzling wings.’

 

 

The Warden is sending a letter to Sixth Form, preparing for their Leaving Certificate. Here it is:

Dear 6th Formers

I hope this letter finds you in decent spirits. It is very hard to maintain morale at this time and I hope you are managing to stay positive.

Let me start by saying how much I and all the staff here miss you all at the moment. Yes, it is holiday time right now, but it has already been a while since you all left and the prospect of an extended break from school is really depressing. The school grounds can feel very peaceful in holiday time but it doesn’t feel like that right now…instead it just feels very empty.

I am sure that you are following the various pronouncements from the Irish government every day. As things stand there is a determination to proceed with the Leaving Certificate exams in June, but how realistic that is I don’t know. It may just be bravado, although one cannot rule out the possibility that in two months’ time the worst will be over and that conditions will allow you to come in each day for exams. There are arguments from some saying that it would be unfair to make you sit exams in the present environment, while there are others who say it would be unfair to deprive you of the opportunity to sit those exams. I don’t know who is right, but we have to be prepared for either eventuality.

What I can say with certainty is that the College will be here to support you fully through whatever happens. If exams need to be sat, then we will make sure that, if you live a long way away, or even abroad, and we are not allowed to accommodate you in school, the wider Columban community will help out in every way possible. We will do everything that we possibly can to ensure that you end up with the grades that you deserve and get into the courses at the universities on which you have set your hearts. I know how unsettling and stressful it must be for you, having to carry on with your revision, while being unsure as to whether the exams are actually going to take place or not.

This is Easter week and, although my biblical interpretation may be a bit contrived, it could be seen to mirror the current situation. On Palm Sunday Jesus rides into Jerusalem, acclaimed by the crowds, who hail him as the king. By Thursday he has been deserted by everyone and betrayed by a close friend and everything looks as dark as it can be. On Friday Jesus dies on the cross, his disciples flee and he is mocked and despised by passers-by. However, that is not the end of the story and on Sunday he rises from the dead, the culmination of the Christian story.

You may or may not be very religious but you will still agree it feels now like we are going through a very dark time. The excitement of the approaching summer term, with its sunny weather, sports day, prize-giving, graduation and emotional farewells to friends, has given way to a sense of betrayal and huge anti-climax. I imagine that that is how you feel. However, I do believe that we will get through it, as a College and as individuals. I can tell you now that, if we are not able to have a graduation ceremony in late May, we will still find an opportunity, when the time is right, to invite you all back to the College to celebrate your time here and to say goodbye in a fitting manner.

On Sunday we will be recording a short Easter service in chapel. Please do listen to it and join in where you can. In the meantime take care of yourselves and support each other in every way you can.

Best wishes,

The Warden.

 

 

The Warden’s first blog-post of 2020 is a personal one:

16th January 2020

I want to tell you about Brian. He was a great man and he died last Sunday, so he has been on my mind all week.

Brian du Toit was the estate manager at Tiger Kloof, the school I used to run in South Africa (above the picture is of the St Columba’s expedition there in 2018). It sits on the edge of the Kalahari Desert just outside a town called Vryburg, which you never go to unless you are heading north to Botswana or west to Namibia. The missionaries built it there 120 years ago because it sits astride Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo railway, which made it accessible to the children of the Batswana elite, coming down from the north. It became one of South Africa’s greatest African schools, educating the first two presidents of Botswana and all but one of its first cabinet. Desmond Tutu’s mother was a girl there and so was Mama Ruth Mompati, Nelson Mandela’s secretary and head of the ANC women in exile. She was on the board until she died in 2015.

In 1953 the South African apartheid government passed the Bantu Education Act, making it illegal to teach academic subjects to black children. The missionaries pulled out rather than compromise and the school was passed over to the local authority, who quickly ran it into the ground. The final ignominy came when the area in which the school lies was declared ‘Whites only’ in the Group Areas Act. All non-whites were forced to leave, the school was abandoned and the buildings and land sold off to a white farmer. He was given instructions by Prime Minister Verwoerd to destroy all the buildings and he started to do so before stopping. Nevertheless the beautiful buildings, built by the missionaries from the hard rock hewn out of the quarry in the kloof (valley) below the school, were left to rot or used as store houses and barns for livestock. It remained abandoned for 35 years.

David Matthews was a headmaster in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, but he lived on the Garden Route on the southern coast of South Africa. His route north took him past Tiger Kloof and he always used to wonder at the beautiful church and dining hall that sat by the side of the road two hours from the Botswanan border. He asked questions and learned the history of the buildings, of the school that had once thrived and sent forth leaders into Botswana and into the struggle for liberation in South Africa. After Nelson Mandela was released from jail in 1990 he got together a group of Old Tigers, raised some money and set to work rebuilding and restoring the school. Before the school reopened in 1995 he moved on site into the old principal’s house to oversee the work. It was a mammoth task and he needed someone to be in charge of the daunting physical work, so he hired someone, who moved into the house with him a year or two before the school reopened. That man was Brian.

Brian knew every inch of Tiger Kloof and he personally oversaw the restoration or building of every almost building on the site. It is a work that still continues to this day. He loved a project, something to get his teeth into, and his standards of workmanship were high. He kept his large team of men up to the same standard and was tough on them when they cut corners. But he was fiercely loyal to them too and they respected him for it. He didn’t have favourites and he treated everyone the same, myself included. Occasionally he felt that I had not been fair to his crew and he was never afraid to let me know, respectfully but directly…he usually had a point! He was not looking for favours, just for fairness. I admired him greatly for it. If David Matthews was the Nehemiah, who had the vision to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls and repair the breaches, Brian was his right hand man who put words into deeds. He was not a man of speeches but rather someone who was happiest doing a job and doing it well, with his team around him.

South Africa is a country of contradictions and it is hard to understand if you haven’t lived there. As a ‘coloured’ (mixed race) South African, he had grown up with a love of rugby. However, like most non-whites, he could not bring himself to support the Springboks during the apartheid years and supported the All Blacks instead. Old habits die hard and to his dying day he could not bring himself to support the Bokke…he was even supporting England in the World Cup Final last year

By the way David Matthews, the man with the vision to reopen Tiger Kloof, did his teacher training in Dublin and spent a year doing his placement at a quaint little boarding school on the edge of the Dublin Hills, none other than St. Columba’s College.

Go well Brian. You were an example to everyone of faithfulness, dedication and loyalty. You deserve a rest. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

I have spoken a lot about service over the last three years and about how to develop an ethos of service amongst our pupils. I am not going to repeat myself now. What I have perhaps spoken about less is leadership, which is actually the other side of the same coin. It is certainly not contradictory or paradoxical to talk about service and leadership in the same breath, because the best leaders are also servants, prepared to sacrifice on behalf of their followers and determined to get the best out of other people. A good leader should not be afraid to empower others, to give opportunities to them and enjoy seeing them grow in confidence and stature. A poor leader will happily see his or her followers stay dependant on the boss and wait for instructions. Ultimately that style of leadership saps initiative and leads to resentment. Of course, giving people responsibility is risky, because they might fail, but there is nothing wrong with failure, as long as you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and learn from it.

When it comes to developing leaders I am thinking right now of the pupils, rather than the staff. How do we help our pupils to become leaders, to take initiative, to be prepared to stand up and not be afraid to fall down? My concern is that when it comes to choosing prefects, for example, those who will lead the pupil body in their final year, we go on hunches and pick those who we think will be good role models, but we have given them precious little in the way of actual training, or encouraged them to stretch themselves prior to their final year. Surely leadership training should not be something that begins in the 6th form, or at the end of the 5th form, but something, a bit like service, that we try and inculcate into our pupils from the 1st form onwards.

What do I actually mean by leadership, particularly in the school context? Well, let’s examine that by looking at what an aspiring young leader at school might look like, divided into being and doing, who they are first and what they do second:

So who are they?

  • They are prepared to stand up for others and to speak out when they see something that they think is wrong;
  • They are not easily influenced by the crowd or their peer group;
  • They don’t mind being a little bit different, because they are thinking about the bigger picture of who they want to become rather than being popular right now;
  • They lead when others are not looking, not just to get attention.

And what might they do?

  • They might volunteer to run or help run activities;
  • They might act as mentors for younger or new pupils;
  • They might put their hand up for jobs that are not very glamorous;
  • They will look out for those around them who are struggling and not be afraid to bring it to the attention of the appropriate people;
  • They might have a quiet word with someone who they think is behaving poorly or making someone’s life unpleasant;
  • They will take on tasks or responsibilities that stretch them, rather than always doing things with which they are comfortable.

And what should the teaching staff do?

  • Allow pupils, right from the earliest years, to take responsibility and then support them…and praise them and lift them up when they fall;
  • Encourage them to take initiative, rather than wait for a member of staff to suggest something.

These are just some initial thoughts and I am sure that it would be easy to flesh them out a lot more. Although prefects in the 6th form are necessary, actually all 6th formers should be leaders and, in fact, all pupils should be encouraged to see themselves as leaders, whatever year they are in. I want to see how we can do that better than we have done, so be prepared for me to be speaking a lot about leadership in the months to come.

I feel challenged by young people around the world marching in protest against world governments failing to take action to prevent or counter the environmental catastrophe that we are facing. I let pupils in our Transition Year go, with their parents’ permission, drawing the line there, since gathering written permission from parents at the last minute in a boarding school is potentially problematic. Whether they felt strongly about the issue or merely wanted a day off school, is not for me to judge but it seems to have been a big event and it will certainly have attracted the attention of politicians. Let’s hope they have the courage to act. Momentum is building and it is exciting to see young people at the heart of such a powerful and positive movement.

In reality, I do have a problem with the idea of pupils missing school to make such a protest because disrupting education is rarely the right thing to do, but if those in government sit up and take notice it may not be a bad thing. However, what our own pupils need to understand is that marching and waving banners is actually the easy bit because it places the responsibility on other people to affect change. The harder challenge is for us all to make the changes in our own lives and in our own community, which will, slowly but surely, start to make a difference right here at St. Columba’s College. We cannot wait for politicians to legislate.

Yesterday in assembly I threw out a challenge to the pupils, namely that they, as a pupil body, should come up with a pledge, a manifesto, if you like, something concrete and practical, as to how we can make a difference right here in our own backyard. It might be about recycling, electricity, litter, water, traffic, clothing, food. We all like the idea of making a difference until it affects what we put on our plates, don’t we? We would prefer, I suspect, to believe that it is up to others, to politicians, to Greta Thunberg, to fight the battle, to address the United Nations, while we stand in the wings and applaud. But ask us to make personal sacrifices for the future of our planet…that is another thing altogether!

Personally, I have started to think about these things a lot more. I remember when I was at school and we had a visiting speaker on the strange topic of ‘ecology.’ He had long hair and an earring (we all had crewcuts and tight trousers and jackets) and we sneered at him and thought he was a bit of a weirdo. He spoke about the need to live sustainably and to look after the resources of the planet and it made a lot of sense, but we were all too cool to admit it to each other. Shame on us, but rather than engage with him and take him seriously we preferred to laugh at him. I don’t think anyone is laughing any more.

We are living in an increasingly divided world. These divisions, which have always existed, are being exacerbated by the Twitter world that we now inhabit, to such an extent that civilised debate and respectful disagreement are now a rarity. Cowards, who would not enter a serious forum where they might have to listen to opposing opinions, stand anonymously in the shadows and whip up hate and resentment. At the same time faceless bots – so I am led to believe – are collecting our data from social media platforms and plying us with the news that we want to hear. Whatever your political or world view might be, you are being bombarded with rhetoric and news feeds that reinforce your suspicions and increase the gulf between you and those who may have the temerity to hold a different opinion.

In July we were staying with friends near Boston, Massachusetts and their oldest daughter was very keen to go to a campaign rally for one of the many potential Democrat candidates for the presidential race in 2020. The candidate was Kamala Harris, a lady of African American background and the Attorney General of California. She came across very well indeed and I enjoyed the experience of seeing the process at work to select the challenger to the current president. However, there was no disguising the immense divisions in US politics and it was not easy to see how that chasm could be bridged.

If I look across the Irish Sea I am dismayed by the increasingly extreme positions held by politicians on both sides…goodness only knows how that is going to turn out…while in many countries across the world you see more and more populist leaders, often preying on the prejudices of people in order to create a climate of fear against immigrants or foreigners. I experienced something similar living and working in South Africa, where occasionally shops and businesses of foreign nationals were attacked because they were ‘taking our jobs.’ On one occasion two people were killed in the local community, one of whom was a baker. A few days later I was told that the locals were complaining that there was a lack of bread. It is happening again now. Last week a girl from Zimbabwe, whom my wife and I are putting through university, told me that she could not travel back to South Africa because things were too dangerous for foreigners. Desperate and perhaps worrying times.

I am not really a party political animal and I am not trying to cast blame on left or right, liberal or conservative, East or West. But I was brought up to believe that fear and hatred were usually the product of ignorance. In other words, if I don’t know someone personally it is much easier to hate them or to give credence to the fearmongers. People like to cling on to their prejudices, but if I take the trouble to get to know people who are different from me I will find that they are mostly ordinary, decent people and that they may have good reason for their opinions. I am not suggesting that disagreements will vanish, but the violent rhetoric and the insanity of social media is currently driving us further apart and there has to be another way.

I remember in South Africa inviting some groups of staff to dinner, both black and white, we made sure there was a mix. We thought it was a fairly normal thing to do and it went well. But I was told subsequently by both a black and a white colleague, both in their 40’s and 50’s, that it was the first time that they had ever sat round a dinner table with a person of a different colour.

St. Paul says in one of his letters that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile. Those distinctions should mean nothing. 2000 years later we seem to have learned very little. People still seek to divide each other by means of religion, gender, race. I follow premier league football closely and just this new football season a number of black footballers, who have made errors in matches, have been subject to racist abuse on social media by anonymous trolls. Outrageous! Shockingly, anti-semitism is on the rise again across Europe and America. We seem to be regressing and going back to an era of intolerance and hatred. It is disheartening, but it is not good enough stand on the sidelines and shake our heads without doing anything about it.

Which brings me to St. Columba’s College. We cannot change the entire world overnight, but within our own community we have the ability to do things differently and be a model for others to copy. We need not follow the standards of the world but we must set our own standards, which are actually the standards of the New Testament, modelled by Jesus in the way that he treated people whatever their class, nation or gender. We are an international community, with many different languages and racial profiles, and inevitably there will be pupils here with different politics, different stances on social matters, different religious beliefs. Yet, we can learn to appreciate those around us who are different and ensure that every member of this school feels equally accepted and cherished, whatever their background. That does not mean that difficult discussions will not take place or that we should ‘no-platform’ those whose views we find unpalatable, as many universities have recently done, stifling debate and deepening divides between ‘us and them.’ I would hope that Columbans would not take their cues or views from the shrill voices on social media, sadly modelled by people who should know better. Rather, I hope they will listen to each other respectfully, engage in honest and robust debate, disagree amicably and learn to celebrate the diversity of beliefs, opinions and races that make up our community.

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.