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

Dear Columbans of 2118

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

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

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

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

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

Floreat Columba et floreant Columbanenses!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latest Thoughts from the Warden:

29th January 2018

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

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

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

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

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame

But the captain’s hand on his shoulder smote

‘Play, play up and play the game.’

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

The sand of the desert is sodden red

Red with the wreck of a square that broke

The Gatlin’s jammed and the colonel’s dead

The regiment’s blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks

And England’s far and honour’s a name

But the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks

‘Play up, play up and play the game.’

(Sir Henry Newbolt)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Boobbyer.

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

9th January 2018

‘There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.’ (John Adams, second president of the USA)

The best schools and colleges have always had a holistic view of education, believing that what goes on inside and outside the classroom are of equal importance in the development of young people. I am sure that one of the reasons why British and Irish boarding schools continue to be so attractive to parents and children from overseas is because in many developing countries the emphasis is all on academic performance, to the neglect of everything else. One hears stories of children in some places who get up early to study, attend school all day, come and home and have hours of tutoring before falling into bed and getting up to do it all again. Many parents want more for their children and that is what St. Columba’s and other such schools have always stood for.

I like the above quote by John Adams, who distinguishes between these different types of education. Academic achievement is of crucial importance in providing the tools for success. Public exam results open the doors to good university courses and university degrees equip young people either directly for a career, in the case of science or technology subjects, or indirectly, through the Arts, by enabling them to think clearly and understand and appreciate the world around them. Those exams are the markers that we have acquired the tools to earn a living and, however good our personal skills may be, without those markers it is harder to open doors to success later in life.

However, one can be successful in one’s career while failing in one’s life. As a wag once said, ‘on your deathbed no one ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”’ It is the experiences and relationships in life that give it value and also give value to the lives of other people. That is the other education, which St. Columba’s nurtures abundantly. Here we learn to live in community with other people, dealing with conflict, learning to respect others and learning to respect the differences in other people; we learn to play in teams, being part of something bigger than ourselves, knowing that in a team every member counts and that the strong need to look after the weak; we learn to appreciate art, music and other creative skills, which enrich life and give it beauty; we explore our faith, learning to serve those around us as an expression of that faith, as well as giving ourselves a foundation and a direction for our lives. Without that faith we can be like a rudderless ship, tossed about by every breath of wind and unable to steer itself.

Companies these days are keen to employ young people with a broad range of skills. It has long been an adage that those with third class degrees often end up employing those with firsts. Well I wouldn’t advocate settling for a third but it is true that those who get the best degrees have sometimes sacrificed the development of other skills in their pursuit of the prize and are less able to work in teams or lead others.

I am sure that in 2018 St. Columba’s will be providing two educations. As Aristotle said: ‘The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.’ What a great blessing education is.

Mark Boobbyer

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

11th December 2017

I always enjoy Christmas and most things that go with it. I love the music and I love singing Christmas carols. I love the food, particularly the turkey and the pigs in blankets, and I have a soft spot for the much-maligned brussel sprout, although it does need to be cooked right. I love the gathering of the family and I mostly enjoy the games, although there is only so much Monopoly you can play. We have quite a wide selection of family games, which keep us all amused. I am keen on word games. And I love getting presents too…who doesn’t like getting presents? Yes, of course Christmas is over-commercialised, but I don’t let that upset me.

One thing that does annoy me, however, is the prevalence of Father Christmas everywhere. An alien dropping down on the local high street could be forgiven for assuming that the Christian faith is based on an elderly fat man with a long white beard wearing a silly red and white costume, with a sack over his shoulder and mindlessly laughing at everything. Not that I have a problem with Father Christmas per se, just that he isn’t what Christmas is all about.

There is a magic about the Christmas story and a sense of wonder, which can be lost because of over-familiarity. Christians believe that God came to earth in the form of a helpless baby and that in itself is extraordinary. However the circumstances of that arrival that are equally amazing. In a very conservative society he was born to a young unmarried mother, in squalid conditions, so undoubtedly he would have been the subject of gossip. He was born in a country that was occupied by a ruthless military power and the king, who was a collaborator with the Romans, set off a massacre of young children in an attempt to kill him. His family had to flee into exile to survive, so Jesus was a refugee. When he was born the religious authorities ignored the signs and missed it altogether. There were only two groups of people who came to visit, one a bunch of shepherds, uneducated and simple peasants, and the other a group of weird foreign travellers, who did not share the Jewish faith and relied on astrology to show them the way.

Surely if you or I were making up the story of the birth of the long-expected Messiah we would put him in a palace, surrounded by fanfares and worshipped with great homage by all the religious leaders and political dignitaries. Despite his lowly background, throughout history Jesus has been expropriated by governments and leaders to keep people in their place, yet he is a character to whom, right from his birth, the marginalised can relate more easily than the ‘respectable’: those of questionable parentage, the homeless, the refugee and asylum-seeker, the foreigner, the uneducated…and of course the children, whom later he welcomes when his disciples try to keep them away, along with the sick and deformed who were rejected by society.

Jesus grew up to become a troublemaker, who tipped the social order on its head. He was a nuisance and a revolutionary whom the religious authorities could not handle and whom the military governor had executed in place of a convicted terrorist and murderer. I would suggest that all this makes him still a highly relevant figure and a rather more interesting and thought-provoking character than Father Christmas! I hope I never lose my sense of wonder over the real Christmas story.

Have a great holiday. And I hope that Santa visits you this Christmas.


Mark Boobbyer, Warden.






6th November 2017

Last week my oldest son went to a meeting in the centre of London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which was the first step to the founding of the state of Israel. It was not a celebration but a public forum addressed by a variety of eminent politicians and rabbis and Palestinian campaigners from many different perspectives. I was delighted he went along and he was fascinated by it.

One of the things that I feel strongly about is making sure that Columbans do not live in a bubble, where the issues in the world and the suffering and injustice experienced by so many are not ignored. On one level I do want our pupils to be protected from the harsh world beyond our privileged gates, because childhood is precious and children need to feel safe…but on another level it must be right to take an interest in the wider issues in the world and I have written often about wanting to prepare children for a life of service as well as a life of success.

This week is a good example of the world coming into the school and I hope that the pupils will develop a fascination with the wider world. Today our Transition Year have a whole day of presentations on China, which will hopefully give them an understanding of the importance that China plays in the world today and the influence that it will increasingly have during their lifetimes. If they are like me I suspect that they are very ignorant of so many aspects of Chinese life and it will be good to at least get them thinking. Maybe it will inspire some to study Mandarin at university, as many of my friends did. That would indeed be a very good strategic move for their careers.

On Thursday we have a visit in the evening from the Mexican ambassador to Ireland, who will talk to the senior pupils in our latest ‘fireside chat.’ I also wonder what our pupils know about Mexico…what is it like to be a neighbour to the USA, to be told by Donald Trump that your country is full of rapists and that he intends to build that famous wall? I am sure it will be interesting to get a perspective from Mexico. It is an extraordinary country but I realise that I myself know almost nothing about it at all.

Then of course this week culminates in Remembrance Sunday, which will remind us again, in ways that I always find very moving, that many Columbans made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us from fascism and brutal racialism and anti-semitism. On Tuesday I’m going to a talk on the role of Ireland in the Great War, something else that I know very little about. We have to embrace the world and take time to understand those different from ourselves because so many of the conflicts in the world are caused by ignorance of other people…and ignorance leads to fear and fear leads to hatred. It is much harder to hate people when you really know them. Our school is very international and that is a great thing because it is preparing our young people for an international future where they will rub shoulders with people from every possible culture and ethnicity.

I wish I had taken more of an interest in the world when I was at school, but I want to make sure that at least some of the present day Columbans have their eyes opened to the needs of the world while they are still here.

Mark Boobbyer




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Warden writes:

How to be the best small mixed boarding school in Ireland the World.

Year one has flown by. I would be lying if I said I am not looking forward to a holiday but I am also already looking forward to next year. I have absolutely no regrets about moving to Dublin and taking over this wonderful, quirky little school. I am fortunate to have inherited a great school…but how to make it even better? It is easy to be the best mixed boarding school in Ireland…there is no competition. What would it take to be the best in the world? Surely that is the aim and it cannot be just about resources or money, because, although we are healthy we are not a wealthy foundation and we do not want to raise our fees and price people out of the market. How can we be the best without huge investment and be innovative while remaining true to our values? Here are some thoughts, something to contemplate over the holidays: Fellows, parents, Old Columbans, staff, both academic and support, and pupils:

  • Staff in Ireland tend to stay put. When the opportunity comes to hire new staff it is essential to get the best, but since most staff will be here for a majority, if not all of their career, it is important to make this a great school to work at and create in the staff a sense of pride in their place of work. They need to love working here and feel that they are valued and stretched. This cannot always be done through promotions, but it is still possible to give staff a chance to do what they feel passionate about and what gets them leaping out of bed in the morning. I want every teacher here to be given the chance to do what excites them and to feel appreciated. As it happens they deserve it because they are truly outstanding.
  • Related to this we must constantly be looking at what others are doing in academic matters to try and learn from the very best. Is our curriculum adequate for the 21st Century or do we just teach the same syllabus and subjects year by year without questioning? Academically we are doing very well as a school, but we can do better and we need to be having an ongoing conversation about how to make those famous ‘marginal gains’ that keep us moving upwards. Teachers who are learning new things, even after 30 years in the classroom, stay fresh and keep growing.
  • It is equally essential to value the many other non-teaching staff who keep this place going and work behind the scenes as cleaners, caterers, maintenance, grounds, finance, office etc. I cannot speak highly enough of this group of people, who help to create the home environment for our children and have such very high professional standards. They must feel very proud to work here or we are doing something wrong.
  • Our pastoral care must be exceptional. UK boarding schools are in the middle of an arms war when it comes to boarding facilities, with every new house edging closer to the standard of a five star hotel. But great facilities are only a part of boarding and it is possible to feel uncared for in the most perfect physical environment. What is crucial is making sure that every boarder feels special and able to thrive in their home away from home. The fact that we are a small school means we can keep an eye on everyone in an exceptional way. No one should get lost or slip through the cracks. All must have the confidence which will enable them to flourish here and nothing should disrupt a sense of acceptance and the celebration of difference.
  • We need to strike a balance with our pupils of having the highest expectations of what they can achieve and yet allowing them time to be young and enjoy their friends. I am hoping to establish a social hub in the middle of the school that will be a great place for all to meet and relax. In a world in which young people are more and more prone to mental health problems and societal pressures we must remember that they are children and that childhood is sacred. Let’s prepare them for the fullest life possible, but let’s make it fun.

Innovation alongside tradition, fun alongside the serious business of hard work, the unexpected and adventurous next to the predictable, the creation of a strong community while making sure that each individual is given the chance to thrive. Ultimately it is deep care for the children and the staff which makes a school great, not catch-phrases or policies or ten year plans or vision statements or expensive rebranding.

That is all…then we will be the best in the world.

Mark Boobbyer, June 23rd 2017.

Educating the next generation is the most serious and weighty responsibility that anyone could possibly engage in. However, as in every profession or vocation, it is important not to take oneself too seriously. When you are working with young people laughter and absurdity are never very far away and in my experience most teachers are good at laughing at themselves. A staff room is a place of great camaraderie and mutual support. There is always something around the corner to bring you down to earth and more often than not your colleagues are responsible. Or something entirely unpredictable.

Let’s take yesterday as an example. We had our annual Confirmation service in the afternoon, a happy and enjoyable affair with plenty of visitors. During the service I left my two dogs in my study because I feel sorry for them being locked up at home all day when my wife is away. I was outside the chapel afterwards talking to a parent when a girl came up to me and told me I needed to come back to my study quickly. It transpired that the younger dog, still a puppy, had found a blue biro, chewed it up, walked in the ink and then run all over the light brown carpet leaving footprints everywhere. It is hard to believe that such a small dog could cause so much mess. It was a scene of mayhem. Today I have to receive some visiting parents who are contemplating making a serious investment to send their children to my school…let’s hope they aren’t too alarmed by a Warden who cannot control his own pets, let alone a school.

A couple of weeks ago, while walking with gravitas through the assembled children after Chapel I stumbled and nearly fell down the stairs in front of everyone, to general delight. In the same week I managed to come into a hymn in Chapel a beat too early. You know those moments when someone comes in early and everyone smiles and turns to look at the culprit…only this time the culprit was the Warden. Oh well…no danger of taking myself too seriously in those circumstances.

Every teacher will remember those moments in class or in a boarding house when a pupil has done something against the rules, but which is actually very funny. With great difficulty you keep a straight face and read the riot act, then go into the staff room and burst out laughing: the child who has given you the most ridiculous excuse for wearing the incorrect uniform or told you that he smells of cigarette smoke because he was with others who were smoking, but he didn’t smoke himself. I was once talking to a boy in house who wanted to go out for the weekend and while he was asking he pulled his hand out of his pocket and a packet of fags accidentally fell out and landed at my feet. The boy whom I caught walking down the corridor with a half empty bottle of wine, which he claimed was not his, but someone else’s, who had left it in his room. He was just returning it. Then there was the boy who managed to rack up a £12,000 mobile phone bill on another boy’s phone, downloading movies which he thought were free. (Don’t worry, these things didn’t happen at St. Columba’s. Obviously such things would never happen here!)

Occasionally a quiet and good-natured boy or girl, who has never been in trouble before, does something stupid and cops the consequences. I feel a sense of relief, as if to say, ‘I am so glad that they have got it wrong at last. I was beginning to worry.’ Obviously it would be better to stay out of trouble but we learn from making mistakes and testing the boundaries and getting it wrong may not be a bad thing. Young people must be allowed to make mistakes.

So running a school is a very serious business. However the laughter in the staff room and the antics of the pupils can brighten many a rainy day and we are all better for that.

By the way the carpet cleaner is coming this afternoon.

I have just come back from a few days at the Boarding Schools Association heads’ conference in York. As a boarding school in Ireland we are rather unusual and as there is no such network on this island it is helpful to be engaged in a wider boarding conversation. It is no good if we are the best boarding school in Ireland but fall well behind the standards of the best boarding practice elsewhere.

When surrounded by people who see as much value in boarding as I do it gets one thinking: what is it about boarding that means that it still survives, and indeed flourishes, in the 21st century? Here is my list, though certainly not exhaustive:

  • Boarding creates a wonderful sense of community, in which everyone should feel valued and accepted;
  • Living in a boarding house with others creates a sense of belonging and identity, as well as often a great sense of pride;
  • It is of great value for young people to live alongside others in close proximity. Often their housemates or dorm-mates are very different and would not naturally become friends, but one learns to appreciate those who are different from oneself and to get on with all sorts. That is a good preparation for life beyond school;
  • Pupils learn to be independent and make decisions for themselves away from their parents;
  • No time is wasted travelling to and from school…time that can be spent on work or activities for the children…and it frees up parents from the daily ferrying to school and other activities and clubs;
  • Boarding schools typically provide and encourage a huge amount of extra-curricular activity and pupils have the time to engage in that programme in a fuller way than if they were day pupils;

I have worked in boarding schools for 23 years and I envy the friendships and bonds that are created between those who spend their formative years together. That is not my experience of day schools…I went to a day school and have kept no friends from those days, even though my school experience was largely positive. The boys who went through my boarding house will be at each others’ weddings, be godparents to each others’ children, spend holidays together and even give the addresses at their funerals.

I would say all these things, wouldn’t I…after all I do run a boarding school and if I didn’t believe in it then it would be a bit worrying. I also understand that boarding is not right for everyone and I am too well aware that not everyone’s experience of boarding has been a happy one. There was a time when bullying was ignored and boarding schools were harsh places for the sporty and popular. Of course no school, however good, can ever claim to have no bullying, because young people, like adults, have a tendency to be unpleasant to each other. Nevertheless I do think that a really good boarding education is for many a fantastic start in life and all good boarding establishments nowadays are attuned as never before to those who are battling and struggling to fit in.

I am back at my desk now…school is over for the day and children at day schools have gone home. For us we have sports practices, cricket matches, Saturday school and a parents’ fund-raising dinner tomorrow night, chapel on Saturday and Sunday, a beautiful environment to enjoy. I love it.

Mark Boobbyer

I’m excited. On Saturday I am going to the Aviva Stadium to hopefully see England win the Grand Slam. Even though England have been playing very well and Ireland have been a little disappointing in this year’s six nations I think it will be very tight…Ireland would enjoy nothing better than spoiling the English party. On their day they can beat anyone, as they showed against the All Blacks last year. I am hoping that Saturday is not going to be their day!

I grew up with rugby and managed to play at university and club to quite a good level. My father played for England back in the 1950’s and a cousin of my mother’s played fourteen times for Scotland a little later. My father was a centre and won nine caps before giving it all up at the age of 24 to become a missionary. He was also playing first class cricket at the time so it was a big sacrifice, but of course in those days rugby was far from being a professional game. In 1952 the England v. Ireland game at Twickenham was postponed for the first time ever because of the death of King George VI. The day of the rearranged match was bitterly cold and no one would dream nowadays of playing a match in such blizzard conditions. Last year I found the Pathe News report on the match on YouTube and it is very funny to see the players skating around on an icy pitch. The commentary is priceless…if you listen carefully you will also hear that it was my father who scored the only try of the match, with England winning 3-0. In those days a try was worth three points.

I have been to quite a number of rugby internationals in my life, but the most unforgettable one for me was when I was in South Africa in 1994, working for the South African Cricket Board. Just after the first ever democratic elections in the country England were on tour and the first test was at Loftus Versfeld, the heartland of Afrikaans rugby in Pretoria. There was a mood of celebration with Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk present and all that was needed was the inevitable Springbok victory to round off a perfect occasion. I went with a group of 12 South Africans and there was barely a single Englishman in the crowd. After 20 minutes when England were 20-0 up the stadium was in stunned silence and we went on to win 32-15. Afterwards I ran into Dr. Ali Bacher, the president of the SA Cricket Board, for whom I was working, walking wistfully back to his car. He said, ‘that was the wrong result…it wasn’t meant to be that way.’ This is the match that is played out at the beginning of the film ‘Invictus.’ I was there and I loved every moment of it. Of course history shows that South Africa turned it round within the next year or so and went on to win the World Cup in 1995. Who can forget Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey presented to him by Francois Pienaar in that iconic moment of national celebration and reconciliation?

Last year I was up in Belfast for a meeting at the Belfast Royal Academy. On the wall of the board room was a tribute to old boy Jack Kyle, a great hero over here and in 2002 voted Ireland’s finest ever player. He was a contemporary of my father and I have his autograph. But what intrigued me most about this remarkable man was that at his funeral, attended by all the great and good of the rugby world, his rugby career did not even get a mention. After he retired this humble doctor went off and spent the rest of his life working in Africa and tributes poured in regarding his humanitarian work. He could have lived in the limelight in Ireland, but he chose to go and serve the disadvantaged. I recommend you read the Irish Times obituary following his death in 2014. Now that is a real hero.

Mark Boobbyer, Warden.

People often remark to me that moving to Dublin from the far north of South Africa must be very strange. Until June last year I was running a school on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, just outside a ‘wild west’ town called Vryburg. The children at the school often came from abusive backgrounds, many from extreme poverty, many from totally dysfunctional families. The weather was 40 degrees in summer and the winter cold was biting, if brief. There was a huge drought when we were there, now broken by the fickle heavy rains, which are rarely in half measure. We had 1200 hectares of semi-desert farming land and a herd of cattle and no shortage of snakes, even if they were only seen on the odd occasion. Monkeys played in the vegetable garden and made sure that there was nothing left worth eating. On Saturdays the workers were often at funerals and I attended many in my time there or visited the homes of those bereaved who had connections with the school. Life is cheap. I was held hostage in my office for three hours, chased cattle rustlers through the veld with armed police, put out bush fires, witnessed staff brawling after a trip to Soccer City to watch the Chiefs v. the Pirates, the biggest game of the season…ok, so it was a bit different.

St. Columba’s is not like that. It is cold and windy and as green as you could imagine. The pupils here are – let’s be honest – relatively privileged and the facilities may not be perfect, but they are still wonderful by most standards. So you might have thought that there are really no similarities between this job and my previous employment or that nothing that I had experienced before would be transferable to where I am now.

That is not my experience. The environment may be totally different, but people are people and children are children. Parents in both schools want the best for their children; pupils all want to know that they are valued and safe; leavers are concerned about universities courses and what career paths to choose; staff want to feel supported by the man at the top and they genuinely care about the young people under their care. Human nature in Ireland is the same as that in South Africa…kids have the same capacity to come up with imaginative excuses whatever their economic background.
Perhaps one difference is the level of expectation. Here parents expect their children to work hard, get a good Leaving Certificate and go on to a good university. And that makes sense because the parents themselves did something similar and so did their grandparents and so on. But imagine that your parents never finished school and that no one in your family has ever been to university. Imagine that the height of ambition of those in your community is to wear a decent pair of trainers or to get a job as a security guard. Perhaps you aspire to more but you are told that no one from around that area has ever done that and to stop having unrealistic notions of what you can achieve. So you lower your expectations to fit in with those around you.

It is very hard for young people out there to achieve their dreams, but it is amazing when it happens and I have seen young people do astonishing things. I know a young lady who was an orphan from a poor community, who came to the school on a bursary. She got an opportunity to go on an exchange to the USA. Her host family were so impressed with her that they offered to pay for her whole tertiary education back in the States. She did her degree out there and then an MA at the London School of Economics. She is now back in South Africa and has set up a foundation to mentor young people, through a whole series of projects in remote rural areas. She is truly remarkable, but she does have detractors, people who think she has got above herself. It is not easy to aspire and to be different. People will always shoot you down.

Perhaps those experiences have given me a very high level of expectation of what the pupils of St. Columba’s can achieve, children who have been given every advantage and have had few battles to fight. It has certainly given me a lack of patience with those who waste their talents and opportunities. Happily I don’t think there are many of them here. This place is full of remarkable and talented pupils who are going to achieve great things. I make no apologies for setting the bar very high and I encourage all my staff to do the same. If we give your children a hard time it is not because we don’t love them. It is because we do.

Mark Boobbyer, Warden.

I think it is the job of the Principal (or Warden to be precise) to look at the big picture, to have dreams and then work towards realising those dreams. It is easy to have ideas. I have many of them every day and it is the task of those around me to listen and tell me bluntly when I am barking up the wrong tree. They often do. However occasionally I might stumble across something really good and something that will really add value to the experience of the pupils in the school.

There were two things that I was quick to pick up on when I arrived here, one because I noticed it myself and the other because it was mentioned to me before term even began. The first was that we are a mixed school and yet we do not provide any communal space for boys and girls to meet. It is incumbent upon the College to encourage wholesome and positive relationships between boys and girls but how can we expect that to happen when there is nowhere for them to meet except outside in the cold?

The second thing is that although we are a boarding school we have a significant number of day pupils. In some areas the accommodation for day pupils is fine but not universally and it is vital to make sure that their experience is as good as that of the boarders. Some early comments to me made it clear that the day pupils do not always feel as integrated into the College as much as the boarders. I would love to put that right. Of course if you board here you are bound to feel more involved with everything that is happening, particularly in the evenings and at weekends, but as a community I think we can do more for the day pupil component.

Bearing those two things in mind I am very eager to create a substantial space in the centre of the College that can serve as a social hub for the entire community, boys and girls, day pupils and boarders, staff and even staff families. It could also be a space for the Parents Association to meet or for visitors to be entertained. The idea would be that it would contain a café, not to replace or act as competition to the dining room, but for pupils to buy drinks and snacks (healthy ones!)…young people are always hungry! And of course it will provide a place to relax in the evenings and at the weekends.

The other thing that I like about this plan is that it is something from which everyone in the College will benefit. Building a new boarding house, for example, might be desirable, but it is only going to benefit a minority of the pupil body.
OK, so the theory is great. I have some plans, but now I need to persuade the Fellows that this is a worthwhile investment…oh, and find some money from somewhere too. Watch this space.

Mark Boobbyer, Warden.

Term is well under way. If I am honest it is not my favourite term, because the weather is gloomy and the days are short, but things have got off to a good start.

One of my earlier blogs mentioned the need to benchmark ourselves against schools from other countries, so that we can learn from other schools that are doing things well and differently from us. As a start on that project last weekend two teachers headed off to Scotland to spend a couple of days at Loretto School in Edinburgh. Their instructions were to shamelessly plunder all the best ideas they could and bring them back here! The feedback has been very positive and the truth is that even if we just pick up one idea then it will have been worthwhile. They will be sending two teachers back in our direction. Later this term we will also welcome two teachers from a school in Denmark and I am sure that there will be a queue of teachers offering to return that visit. It can only be good for us and I will be developing those relationships as well as looking for other schools to cultivate.

Last week on Tuesday we had a poverty lunch. It works like this: all of the pupils in TY ate in the Lower Argyle but they only found out when they turned up what sort of meal they were going to get. Eight of them were on the top table and were served a three course meal with waiter service. 24 ate the normal school lunch, while the remaining half were given bread and water and had to stand or sit on the floor. We were acting out real life…the majority of people have very little to eat and it is only a small minority who sit at the top table and it is largely a matter of luck or fate as to where we end up in life. It was amusing to see the crowd hanging around the top table hoping to grab some leftovers and scraps, but that only reflects real life. By acting it out I hope that the pupils involved were made to think a little bit about how lucky they are. One of those at the top table and one from the floor will be speaking about it in assembly next week.

Next Tuesday is the last day here for a College legend, Jimmy O’Connor. Jimmy started working here on the grounds in 1964 and his 52 years of service will surely never be seen again. There will be few Old Columbans who will not recognise him and be grateful for all the he has done. We will be honouring him in assembly on Tuesday and I will try and persuade him to say a few words. It is extraordinary to think that when Warden Argyle retired in 1974 Jimmy had already done ten years work here! I would imagine that he has seen a few changes!

Mark Boobbyer, Warden.

It is time for a few thoughts on my first term here at St. Columba’s. If I leave it till next week it will get taken over by reports. The end of the Michaelmas is always a crazy time in the life of a school!

One of the things that I have started to vocalise for myself is the realisation that life here at St. Columba’s is very busy, but it is not mad. If that does not make sense what I mean is that while the children here are constantly engaged in activities from lessons to sport to music, they do not seem to be chasing their tails. Life at school in South East England was also very busy but there seemed to be more pressure, more living on the edge…and more mental health issues. Whenever I have articulated this to friends or colleagues who know the schools down there they have recognised what I mean. I have many friends running schools in and around London and there is a general feeling that many kids are only just hanging on amidst the pressures from society, from peers, from parents, from schools and even just from themselves. Perhaps it is Ireland, perhaps it is St. Columba’s, but the madness is not so mad, if you know what I mean….and that is a good thing.

The next thing that I have realised is that however good a school may be there is a danger of complacency. Just because we were good last year, it doesn’t mean we will be good this year; just because our systems worked last year, it doesn’t mean they don’t need reviewing this year; just because we are on top of bullying issues this year, it doesn’t matter we will remain so. Any school is only ever one incident away from dealing with something unsavoury, because schools are full of adolescents, who are unpredictable and sometimes behave stupidly or selfishly. There needs to be a constant commitment to search out ways to improve in every area of school life, be it academic, pastoral or spiritual. Just because we win the premier league one year, it doesn’t mean we are immune to relegation the year after (apologies to Leicester fans!).

Another thing that is on my mind is the need to engage more with parents. In boarding schools we see far less of our parents than in a day school and it takes a bit more effort to make sure that their own experience of their children’s school days is as good as it can be. Next term I am going to run some parents’ forums, while also taking a large group away to Rome for a weekend. 27 signed up for that within two days! Strange though it may be to say, most parents are actually very nice and reasonable and supportive! (Any parents reading this please take note…).

So there are some thoughts. I have no regrets about coming over here. There are certainly many challenges in keeping the school on an upward trajectory, but life would be boring if there were no challenges. When you run a business, or a school, you do not expect it all to be plain sailing and there will be occasions and days or spells when you shake your head and wonder what you are doing here. Recently I was at work in my office dealing with some heavy stuff when it came time to go and listen to ten instrumentalists playing pieces for their music scholarships….then I dropped over to see our junior girls win a very tight hockey match. How wonderful to get out of the office and remind myself of the best bit of doing this job…working with fantastic young people.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas season. Despite the over-commercialisation of it there is still something very special about it and much at which to wonder and be thankful for. I hope that I never lose that sense of wonder.


Mark Boobbyer