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

Last week was the senior drama play, the Antigone. It was low key in some ways, because the cast was not huge, the set was very basic and the costumes were not flashy. However the production was outstanding, with some very good performances…and one or two really powerful ones. Theatre at its best has the power to challenge and no one could have left without being stirred, even if they did not have a nice warm glow. Greek tragedy doesn’t do that…it’s modern man who has invented the happy ending.

As a classics teacher myself I love the fact that a play written 2500 years ago is still so relevant and topical. The Greek tragedians, in this case Sophocles, used to take familiar stories and themes and give them a twist. The audience, familiar with the traditional telling of the story, would understand the author’s twist far better than we can. The underlying theme of all tragedy was always the belief that there are certain standards of right and wrong, eternal values dear to the gods…and we break them at our peril. Although everything we do is dictated by fate it does not absolve us from personal responsibility for our actions and there is always some flaw in the character of the tragic figure that causes the tragedy to come to pass. Put simply, it is a variation on the theme, ‘pride comes before a fall.’

In the Antigone Creon breaks a law of the gods in his desire to be seen as the strong ruler, while his niece Antigone defies him. After stubbornly refusing to see reason, and hurling abuse at all those around him, Creon finally backs down and rushes off to make amends for his actions. The audience breathe a sigh of relief in the expectation that the pending crises have been averted. However he is too late and before the play ends three of his family have killed themselves. Creon remains alive, broken by his own pride, shattered by his own ‘hubris’ (breaking the law of the gods) and in total despair. In good Greek style we leave the theatre challenged to look at ourselves and ensure that our own pride does not bring us into conflict with those eternal values of mercy and humility.

I can’t help feeling that the message of this 2500 year old play could not be more relevant than it is now and that is why those ancient plays are still put on year after year and have never been surpassed…they will always be in fashion because they deal with eternal conflicts in human nature. Leaders and rulers are still committing hubris, still setting themselves up as being above the law and the consequences are always tragic, for themselves and those around them, including the innocent.

In assembly on Monday I spoke to the school about leadership and how I could see so many potential leaders among them, particularly if they remember that leadership is about service and not about throwing their weight around. It is possible to be a leader even in the primary year, because leadership is about standing up for what is right even if it is unpopular. It is also about bringing the best out of the people around you, just as the captain of a team makes those around him look good, but doesn’t draw attention to himself or herself. I emphasised that the class bully or the noisiest boy in the playground is not the best leader, but sadly we live in a world where the class bully and the noisiest boy has just been elected as the most powerful man in the world. Sophocles would have been sharpening his quill. Hubris is inevitable.

I only ever directed one play, back in 2001. It was hard work and very stressful and I vowed never to do it again. And which play was it? The Antigone.

Mark Boobbyer

 

[photo: Anthony Brouwer]

I am always moved by remembrance week, but my emotions are mixed. There is obviously the feeling of pride as I remember members of my family who died in the First World War and there is the sense of gratitude towards all of my countrymen who made the ultimate sacrifice. Here at St. Columba’s we will honour in particular the sons of the College who lost their lives, but I am also aware that we are not just remembering those who died in the world wars, but all who die in wars, wherever they be from, and that makes things a little more complicated.

Last March in South Africa I found myself addressing the school I was running at the end of an anti-racism week and I felt very uncomfortable. How could I, a white Englishman, talk to a church full of black children and teachers, whose lives are still affected by the after-effects of a cruel racist system, and a few white teachers, who were Afrikaans, about the evils of racism. After a few attempts to put together a talk I threw them all out and instead decided on a different tack. In the assembly I started by turning to the black people present, the vast majority, and apologising for the arrogance of my people in the way that we had treated them, causing untold amounts of suffering and humiliation. Then I turned to the Afrikaans teachers and apologised to them too, because we had caused a pointless war (the Boer War 1899-1902) in our greed for land containing gold and diamonds, to which we had no justifiable claim at all. And because the Afrikaans people put up an annoying display of resistance, we rounded up their women and children and stuffed them into concentration camps, where thousands died of disease and starvation. Memories are long and the Afrikaaners still remember those injustices. There was no point in pretending that I understood their suffering because that would be untrue and patronising. My people may not have invented racism but we are more guilty than most. Cecil Rhodes, the arch-colonialist, said that to be born British was to win first prize in the lottery of life. I love my country but an attitude like that led to us imposing British rule on half the countries of the world, thinking that we were doing them a favour and pitying anyone who was not ‘one of us.’

In April I visited Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, two famous sites of the Zulu Wars of 1879 and also Spion Kop, site of a major British defeat in the Boer War. I couldn’t help asking myself what on earth the British were doing there, so far from home, trying to annex someone else’s land in the name of the Great White Queen. Thousands of Welshmen from the town near where my family home is died at Isandlwana. Why? I have great admiration for those who died, in many cases very heroically, but that does not mean that I need to respect the desire for world domination that brought them there.

I am, of course, not decrying the role of my countrymen in numerous conflicts around the world, some of which were undoubtedly motivated by a desire to defend basic freedoms and stand up to tyranny. However it is good for me personally to remind myself that my own people have often been the cause of conflict. There is no room for anyone to be self-righteous when it comes to remembering the fallen. And just as I could not preach to black or white South Africans about racism, I need to be very careful speaking about my country’s heroic defence of freedom in the last century…not everyone may see it that way! Love of country is a fine thing, but it does not mean that one should be blind to its faults and failings.

We are now a very multi-racial school and all the better for it, because we are preparing our young people for a multi-racial society, in which they will rub shoulders with people of different beliefs, cultures and languages. We remember with great pride the young men from the College who fell on the battlefields of France and elsewhere in the world in the last hundred years, but we do so in order to look forward to a world where such conflicts are only in the history books. We at the College in 2016 need to pledge ourselves to promoting understanding and appreciation of our differences, so that we can play our part in that process.

 

Mark Boobbyer, November 8th 2016.

Last week was Bullying Awareness Week and I was impressed by the seriousness with which everyone contributed to a thought-provoking and stimulating week. My experience of St. Columba’s is that this is a very caring and kind community and I am convinced that there is no culture of bullying here at the school. However any principal would be naïve if he or she claims that they are running a school with no bullying at all and I am careful never to claim such. Any school, anywhere, is always at risk from an unwanted and potentially damaging episode of bullying, because wherever there are people living and working together tensions can arise, words can be said and emotions can boil over. Surely it is better to talk about these things out in the open that to pretend that they don’t exist. That is why I was pleased with last week, as there was a mature engagement from the whole community, both staff and pupils.

A school should not be judged on whether issues of bullying arise but on how they are dealt with when they do. Unless something hugely sinister has happened bullying can generally be dealt with by honest confrontation and conversation. Young people rarely set out to bully others but are sometimes drawn in to unkind behaviour by an insecure desire to be popular. In most cases they are surprised and horrified by the possibility that they have been bullying others and, when they are asked to look at their behaviour honestly, are open to correction and usually to apology. The strength of a boarding school is that it teaches young people to live together in close proximity with others, many of whom may not be their first choice of friends. In that environment one has to learn to get along with all sorts of characters, to be patient with people whom you may find irritating and to appreciate diversity and difference. That mirrors life itself, because, let’s face it, we all have to learn to live and work alongside people whom we may not choose as our friends. The sooner we learn to deal with it the better.

In 23 years in boarding schools, and running a boys’ house for eleven years, I have seen, time and time again, disparate groups of individuals become very close knit friends because they learned to appreciate and enjoy each other’s different gifts: the rugby player learns from the academic; the musician learns from the actor; the naturally loud character learns from the quiet one. The fact is though – and this must always be remembered – that living together and creating a safe place where young people can thrive and grow takes hard work and may involve some setbacks. But it is worth it.

Mark Boobbyer

There is no doubt that St. Columba’s is an excellent school, but our uniqueness in the Irish landscape is both a strength and a weakness. St. Columba’s is the only mixed full boarding school in Ireland, north or south. Of course there are other schools that have boarding but it is usually as a minority of the school, or, in a few cases, boys only. It is also true that we have a significant number of day pupils, but they are members of boarding houses, who stay late, come in at weekends and are, in many ways, indistinguishable from the boarders. Our unique set up is a strength, which, combined with our outstanding academic performance, makes us a very attractive option.

However there are dangers too in being different from other Irish schools. Although we pride ourselves on the excellence of our pastoral care, how do we know that we are doing it as well as we can when there is no other similar school around against which to benchmark ourselves? Standards and expectations evolve and develop and what was considered best practice changes over the years. Therefore we need to make sure that we keep pace with the best in boarding elsewhere.

Similarly there is a danger in being at the top of the tree academically. There is always a possibility that complacency can creep in, that we start to believe that the way we do things is better than others and we cease to maintain a learning spirit in our staff and in the community as a whole. Personally I think we need to benchmark ourselves against the best schools around, even if those schools are not on this island. St. Columba’s should be looking to be a great world school and not just a great Irish school.

Last week I was at HMC, the annual conference for Heads of private schools in the UK and Ireland. We are one of only three HMC schools in the south of Ireland, there are eight in the north, while the vast majority are in England and Scotland. It was a stimulating time, but what is most valuable is the opportunity to talk to other heads and to form links or partnerships which will help us to learn from the very best over there. However there are good schools everywhere and I am also keen to establish links with schools in Europe and the USA, from whom we can learn.

My experience is that good schools believe in sharing good practice and do not want to keep things to themselves out of some sort of selfish parochialism. If one school has developed a new approach to teaching and learning or pastoral care or technology, then it tends to be the case that they are delighted to think that others are following where they have led. Certainly I would be more than happy to think that other schools are looking at us to see what we are doing and doing likewise. So I am going to be looking around myself to see what I can learn as well as sending staff out to visit schools at home and abroad, so that we can bring back to St. Columba’s the very best in what is going on elsewhere. No one has outlawed educational espionage and there is no shame in getting out there and stealing other people’s best ideas!

On Monday night St. Columba’s lost one of its own. Orla McCooey left in 2015, a young lady who had bravely battled her illness for many years and finally lost the battle. Or perhaps she won it because she died with great dignity, with her family around her, and she is remembered here with great affection. Orla’s family asked for her funeral to be held at St. Columba’s, because this school meant so much to her and all her family, so tomorrow we will welcome her family and friends to our beautiful chapel, which will not be big enough by any means. It will be full of Old Columbans, staff who knew Orla and many others who will be visiting the College for the first time.

I hope that these first-time visitors will realise what I have already recognised, that St. Columba’s is not just a school but a community and a family, just as much as a place of education. When one person suffers, all suffer, just as we rejoice in the successes of our pupils and staff. It speaks volumes about the school that the family want the College to host what will be a deeply moving and sad occasion. We will do our best but I cannot guarantee that we will control our emotions.

Also on Monday I heard from another battler, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have not met him but I had some dealings with in South Africa, as his mother was an old girl of the school which I was running. I had emailed him on behalf of St. Columba’s to wish all the best in his struggle with his recurring cancer and he replied with a message for St. Columba’s:

‘I want to wish you and all your school the very best for the future, to know that you and your staff are being given the opportunity mould the lives of your charges. We hope they will look back on their time at St Columba’s as having contributed to who they have become, eager to serve their fellow human beings to the best of their ability.’

I like his emphasis on service, because it matches my passion. We can turn out highly successful and impressive young people, but what good is that if they do not have a heart to serve their communities and our world? Tutu is not just a talker but a shining example, a lifelong fighter for justice and the upliftment of his people. Service in schools can be about projects and work in the community, but in a very busy place it is hard to add more to the programme. Instead service can be about a spirit that imbues all that takes place, be it in the classroom, the games field, the music school or the boarding house. It is a spirit that is always looking out for the needs of others and wanting others to succeed. It is a spirit that embraces the weak and the vulnerable and makes them feel that they belong just as much as the brightest and the fastest and the loudest.

From what I am seeing so far there is plenty of that spirit here and the ground is fertile for it to continue to grow.

Mark Boobbyer

The new Warden, Mr Boobbyer, will be blogging about his impressions of the College in future, and here are his first thoughts as term begins:

So, finally, 16 months after being appointed as Warden of St. Columba’s College, term has begun, the new pupils have arrived, and I have taken my place in the extraordinary study occupied by my predecessors. The packing boxes have been removed from our newly decorated house and my wife, Cathy, and I are starting to turn a house into a home. We are also thoroughly enjoying the chance to explore Dublin and walk up into the glorious hills that are directly behind the school.

New Wardens don’t arrive at St. Columba’s very often. I am only the fifth since 1949! My predecessor, Dr. Lindsay Haslett, was here for 15 years and he has left me a school that is full and one whose academic record is absolutely outstanding. Irish schools do not publish their Leaving Certificate results but if they did we would quite possibly be in first place, or, at the very least, the top few. It is a wonderfully solid foundation on which to build for the future and I consider myself very fortunate.

What are my initial thoughts? Well, I could go on at length, but my early impression is of a school which loves its tradition and yet which is offering an absolutely outstanding modern education…contrast, for example, our gowned pupils, attending daily worship in our beautiful chapel, with the new state of the art science block, whose classrooms would not look out of place on the Starship Enterprise. Both are relevant: the chapel speaks of the Christian values which are the bedrock of the school and which do not change, while the new labs speak of a world which is changing almost in front of our eyes. It is not an easy balance to strike but I have not felt any tension in the attempt to maintain that equilibrium.

In a similar way there is a balance to strike in being an Irish school and being an international one. We are totally Irish in character but we have plenty of students from Europe in particular. That is healthy in the Europe Community in which we, at least, still live and we gain enormous value from those who come here from abroad.

I spoke to the whole school yesterday about many things, two of which I want to highlight. Firstly the need to create leaders, young people who are prepared to stand up for their values and to stand apart from the crowd. Everyone wants to be a leader and all will be, in one form or another, and the best time to start taking those first steps in leadership is at school. And secondly I talked about the need to develop an attitude of service: service of others in our community, service of the community outside our gates and service of the wider world. Is it possible to be both inward looking and outward looking at the same time? I believe it is and, in fact, I believe it has to be.

I am enjoying myself so far, but the sun is still shining and the new Warden is still shiny and new. That will not always be the case! These are just some early thoughts and I will be blogging on a regular basis with more thoughts over the weeks and months ahead.

Mark Boobbyer