This is quite a personal and nostalgic entry.
Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, was my school, where I spent 5 years of my life. To misquote a famous saying of the Jesuits, they took the boy from my parents, and handed them back a man. Whether it’s subliminal or not, those long five years have had a major impact on my life; it’s only now I’m realising just how much.
I’ve not really engaged with the college since. Always reactionary, and leaning towards the English ethical socialism of Cobbett and Tawney, I’ve taken a different path to some of my contemporaries, eschewing the old boys’ networks and clubs, determined to do my own thing. Like many left-leaning teenagers of the 1980s, I wanted to prove that Mrs Thatcher was wrong, that her prescription for our country was poisonous.
Which is possibly why I’m working in inner-city Liverpool, and a headteacher myself.
In my headteacher role, I visited Stonyhurst on Friday with my friend and colleague, Dr John Patterson from St Vincent’s School for the Blind, to develop further ideas about how the three schools can work together for the mutual benefit of our pupils. Think of the mix. Primary school children from Anfield, blind children from all over the UK, and privately educated young people from all over the world.
And so it dawned on me that, unwittingly, I am following in a Jesuitical tradition with my own school’s vision and mission.
During half-term, I will accompany five our our teachers to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for a week of teacher training with our partner schools out there. In the Easter holidays, I will visit a new partner school in Rouen, a link instigated by one of the teachers at All Saints. Our Chinese partner school, featured in another area of this blog, is now very much part of our life, as is the Belgian school also featured. And I’ll never forget taking our Community Band from Anfield to play their instruments in the Plaza Nueva in Sevilla, Spain.
None of this is done to tick a box. Nor is it done for political correctness, or for self-interest. It’s because for me, it’s synonymous with Catholic education.
In the technocratic and legalistic world of education, I am aware of the criticism that could be thrown at such a vision/ethos. That it is self-indulgent, more for the adults than the pupils. It’s too ephemeral, a fleeting moment of fraternal merriment that lacks sustainability.
I can almost hear the scorn of the technocrats. Yes, it’s all very nice that pupils visit a beautiful private school together with their blind pupil friends so they can handle Mary Tudor’s prayer book, but that’s hardly going to assist the economy, is it?
To which I have no answer.
The current headmaster of Stonyhurst, Mr Browne, reminded me of a core Jesuit saying. It comes from a Jesuit with the crazy name of Fr. Jeronimo Nadal. He famously attempted to sum up the ideals of a Jesuit education when he said, ‘The world is our house!’ This ethos now resonates across the world through the example of Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit priest. Francis urges collaboration between communities, and service to them, through what he calls a ‘culture of encounter’.
It was only on our return from Stonyhurst, and the chance to reflect on Fr Nadal’s words again, that I realised; that’s what I’ve been trying to do as a headteacher for the last sixteen years.
That Jesuit tattoo, branded thirty years ago, is very much there, maybe on my back where I’ve not been able to see it. And it’s permanent.