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.
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.
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.
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.
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.