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.

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

Dear Columbans of 2118

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

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

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

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

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

Floreat Columba et floreant Columbanenses!

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

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

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

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

I guess we will remember this academic year for Hurricane Ophelia, the Beast from the East and Storm Emma. It would be nice if we could also have a wonderful heatwave next term to round it off, but perhaps that is too much to ask. To be honest Ophelia was a bit of an anti-climax around here, bringing down a few branches and making a bit of a mess. However the Beast and Emma certainly did live up to their billing and last week was quite extraordinary. I think that it was the heaviest snowfall that I have experienced in my lifetime and, combined with the winds, we did have some remarkable conditions. Life in the College came to a standstill on the Friday, when the red alert was out, but other than that we ploughed on with our exams. The major issue was the lack of kitchen staff to prepare the food, but we managed, with a bit of ingenuity and a blitz spirit.

In times of adversity one finds out about community spirit. It was great to see the maintenance team still fighting their way into the College, clearing roads and gritting paths, while many of the kitchen staff also managed to walk in to make sure that the pupils were fed and watered. The house teams all pulled together and kept morale up, as was evident when I went round all the houses on Friday night and found the pupils cheerful and understanding.

A friend of mine runs a church in Rathmines and he has a wonderful story. On Saturday afternoon there was meant to be a wedding in the church, but the roads were so bad that most of the guests were potentially unable to get there under their own steam. There was a danger that the big day would be a huge disappointment. So that morning he went onto local radio and made a plea that if there were any listeners living nearby who had 4×4’s and would be prepared to run around the city collecting guests could they please come to the church. 15 4×4’s turned up, the Armada moved out over Dublin and the wedding went ahead, starting with a whiskey reception in the back of the church, with prayers and readings down by guests in wellies. He said it was one of the most memorable weddings he has ever been to or officiated at.

Things here are slowly getting back to normal, although our Arts Week has taken a bit of a hit, with a couple of key events having to be cancelled. There is still a lot going on. The snow is still lying deep on the pitches and we are still catching up on exams but no harm has been done and the pupils, the boarders at least, will probably have memories of the last few days for the rest of their lives. Seeing them sledging and snowballing and generally behaving like children was a great sight and hopefully a good reminder to them that there is plenty of fun to be had without social media.

Latest Thoughts from the Warden:

29th January 2018

When I was a young teacher I used to think that whether my team won or lost on a Saturday was all that mattered and I would be depressed for a week if my team lost. It was what defined me as a teacher. As a Liverpool supported I quoted Bill Shankly:

Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. It’s much more important than that.

Happily I grew out of that. But what is the purpose of sport in schools? Is it to hire in all the Ireland Under 16s into the 5th form in order to have an unbeaten season, to win at all costs, or is it to teach the importance of teamwork and to develop resilience of character? Does one develop resilience by being thrashed every week and getting demoralised? Or by trouncing the opposition every week and never losing a single game? How does one learn to treat the two great impostors of triumph and disaster the same if one only ever experiences victory or defeat? The Victorians who codified all the great team sports and introduced them to the public schools were under no illusions:

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame

But the captain’s hand on his shoulder smote

‘Play, play up and play the game.’

It was not about personal glory but about something much greater…the team, the honour of the school, playing the game in the right way, rather than just to win. Unfortunately the next verse makes it clear that this was merely the ideal preparation for young Englishmen going out to slaughter natives in the colonies, so let’s not get too idealistic about it:

The sand of the desert is sodden red

Red with the wreck of a square that broke

The Gatlin’s jammed and the colonel’s dead

The regiment’s blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks

And England’s far and honour’s a name

But the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks

‘Play up, play up and play the game.’

(Sir Henry Newbolt)

One could argue that nowadays we live in an age of professional sport that could never have been envisaged by the Victorians and it is our obligation as educators to prepare our pupils as best we can for whatever careers they wish to pursue, including professional sport. They need to learn that success does not come without hard graft, that there is no gain without pain. They need to have an outlet for their aggression and energy and where better than on the sports field. They need to learn to work with the limitations of others and to work to the strengths of their team. Is there a better feeling in life than being part of a really good team? And if they happen to be good enough to turn their passion into a professional career, then surely that is a good thing.

Yes. But there is an increasing tension in school sport. Gone is the schoolmaster who taught Homer till lunch time, practised with the choir after lunch, then put on a tracksuit and ran a training session till dinner. He was competitive but still viewed the sport as part of the whole picture of educating a young person. Winning was great, but losing was not terminal. Now all good sports schools employ external professional coaches. They are not school teachers, with a wider perspective, and they want to win at all costs. They are not looking at the bigger picture but at winning the next match. How their team behaves is less important than the result. The crucial role of sport as a creator of character has been outsourced. It is bound to make a difference.

Captaining a rugger team at school is no longer considered a prerequisite for governing a large part of India or Africa. However being a team player is still seen as vital in almost every career that I can think of and that is why public schools have always placed a greater emphasis on the team sports than the individual ones. Playing in a team teaches you to work with others. That is a great thing.

Even in a cynical age, which justifies cheating to win, everyone loves it when someone displays true ‘sportsmanship.’ It is as if we all know, in spite of ourselves, that there is a better way to do it. Bunny Austin, who was the last Brit to reach the men’s singles final at Wimbledon prior to Andy Murray, was a friend of my parents. He told a story about playing in a big match, when he hit the ball onto the sideline. The umpire called it out but his opponent graciously intervened and said that the ball had been good and the umpire changed the call. After the game Bunny was furious with his opponent, despite the call having gone in his favour. He was angry because his opponent’s action had undermined the authority of the umpire and made him look silly. Really. Don’t you love it when a golfer calls a foul on himself, which no one else has seen, or when a batsman walks when he is give not out? And don’t we howl in derision when a penalty is given when the player dives. The TV pundit then says, ‘well he touched him, so he had every right to go down.’ We know what is right, even if we rarely see it. Just imagine if Thierry Henry had turned to the ref after his double handball against Ireland in that World Cup play-off and said that actually he had handled the ball and he did not want to win qualification in that way. He would have saved France total humiliation in the tournament and he would now be considered the greatest sportsman who had ever lived. But no…he didn’t. The end justifies the means.

So what is the end of school sport? I would argue that it is to play as hard as you can, to teach your pupils to respect the referee and the opposition, to be gracious in defeat and humble in victory, to make friends and to learn the importance of the team.

When I was taking the 1st XI cricket at Wellington College in the UK we played Rondebosch Boys from Cape Town. They were very strong and won comfortably. In the post-match speeches their coach said, ‘going on tour is all about beating people.’ I wanted to rebut him publicly but I was decent and gracious and congratulated him and his team. But he was wrong. Totally wrong. Going on tour is about making friends, having new experiences and learning.

One year I coached the 1st XI at Ivanhoe Grammar School in Melbourne. Before the first game there was a cap presentation ceremony and they were given out by a former Australian captain, Graeme Yallop. I can still remember what he said because it was so awful and so against everything that I believed in. He told these young boys that they should not let anyone get in the way of fulfilling their dreams…that they should elbow aside anyone who got in the way…that they should be utterly ruthless and selfish to get what they wanted, by whatever means. I wanted to object but as I looked around the room the parents were all nodding with approval and I was just a Pom on a gap year and I couldn’t afford to lose my job…so I kept quiet.

Sport at school is about many things, but above all it should be about teaching values, teamwork, resilience and respect for others. I may be very old-fashioned but I still think it is about learning to meet with triumph and disaster and to treat those two impostors just the same.

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

Every time that we think that Donald Trump cannot get any lower we are proven wrong. It would be funny if it were not for the fact that he is the most powerful man in the world. This time he has described Haiti, El Salvador and various non-specified African countries as ‘shitholes.’ (I don’t see the need to use asterisks to tone down the language.) I rather enjoyed the response of the Botswanan government who contacted the US embassy in Gaborone to ask whether Botswana was one of the shitholes to which the President was referring. I know Botswana well…it is a wonderful country, full of fabulous people. I also spent New Year’s Eve with a very good friend from El Salvador.

No one needs to be told that there are many countries in the world which are full of poverty, poor infrastructure and corruption. Sometimes those failures are due to no fault of their own and sometimes they are self-induced. A bit like all of us really. However for the loudest bully in the playground to start abusing the weaker ones says far more about the bully than it does about the bullied. It is good to remember that the USA is a country of immigrants, who often fled from poverty and persecution in their own countries. They are the lucky ones to live in a great and prosperous country, from which the indigenous population was ethnically cleansed to make way for them. It is also important to remember that much of the wealth of the United States was built on the backs of slaves from those shitholes, carried far from home against their wills and abused for generation after generation. Only in the last fifty years has the ‘Land of the Free’ ascribed civil rights to African Americans but there are still huge inequalities in the USA.

America itself was not a colonial power, at least not in the manner of the European powers, but many of the problems of Africa are the legacy of colonialism: random borders uniting traditional rivals and splitting traditional friends, uneducated people left after independence to run their ‘liberated’ nations, resources exploited by foreign powers and an understandable brain drain which has resulted in many of the outstanding people from African countries, unable to make a good living at home, nor give their families the security they wanted to moving abroad. Many work in top professions in the USA.

I am sure that I am not alone in seeing the USA as, in some way, the bastion and champion of the free world. I long to be able to look up to it and to its president. But what sort of America do I want to look up to? I want to see an America that is wealthy but does not want to hoard that wealth for itself; I want to see an America that is confident in itself and what it stands for, but does not despise those who are different from her; I want to see her setting an example in the harmony of relationships between ethnic groups.

One day, probably quite soon, the American people will look back at this time as an excruciating aberration. For now though it is just simply embarrassing.

Mark Boobbyer.