Stephen Oliver’s Blog

Reflecting on OLA’s History in its 160th Anniversary Year

In the midst of the pandemic, there is a danger of forgetting that the school is in its 160th anniversary year. We are now hoping to celebrate this in 2021, once social gatherings become possible again. Our school has an extraordinary history and from time to time it is important to recall the journey it has taken over the decades and, sometimes, centuries.

I am sure if I asked any of OLA’s pupils whether the school features in the Domesday Book, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. I would expect nothing less, given that the school was founded in 1860. However, there is a part of OLA whose name really can be found recorded there and you can read about it if you’re prepared to take a short stroll down Audlett Drive.

Behind Sherwood Avenue, in the middle of a 1970s housing estate, you will find the ruins of an old building. This is Barton Court, built around 1554 and part of the ancient manor of the same name. The ruins are not particularly impressive but the story behind the estate that gave birth to them is a fascinating one for anyone associated with OLA. Historians have speculated that its origins go back to Roman times and even the Iron Age, and we do know that the place was one of the earliest granges of the Saxon Abingdon Abbey. The Domesday Book records that the manor contained 137 households, making it one of the largest in the country. It consisted of 200 acres and had land for forty ploughs, worked by ‘24 freedmen and two slaves’. As you might expect, it was assessed by the Normans as needing to pay a great deal of tax. By the 12th century it was providing the monks with 5,600 eggs a year and also supplied the straw for the Abbey refectory floor. The manor house served as the abbot’s palace.

All this came to an end at the Reformation. Following the destruction of the abbey, the manor was leased to John Audlett, the last of the monastery’s stewards, and was later inherited by one Thomas Reade (note all the familiar Abingdon names). Using stone from the ruined tower of the abbey church, Reade built a new house, Barton Court. The history of the house turned out to be brief but distinguished. In the Civil War the Reades, who were ardent royalists, entertained King Charles I there several times, the family having been given the right of royal hospitality by Henry VIII. It was from Barton Court that Charles said goodbye to his queen, Henrietta Maria, for the last time in April 1644, before going to fight the Battle of Newbury.

Only two years later the house was largely destroyed by parliamentarian troops and never rebuilt, leaving the ruins we still see today. A new house was constructed nearby later in the 17th century and survived until 1967. After this house was demolished, its stones were used for the foundation of Didcot Power Station, the towers of which have of course in their turn recently undergone demolition. So the wheel of history turns.

It was this house, along with 47 acres of land and various outbuildings, that the Sisters of Mercy purchased for the school in 1926. By this time the manor was no longer in the hands of the descendants of Thomas Reade, but owned by the Stonehouse-Bowyer family, relatives of the Sir George Bowyer by whose generosity the Sisters had been enabled to found the school seven decades before. The Sisters used their newly acquired estate to create hockey and cricket pitches and tennis courts, and it was also used for the annual sports day, a tradition continued to this day by the Junior School. The house was leased as a nursing home and a small dairy farm was set up, to the delight of the pupils.

Over the years parts of this land were gradually sold off and all that remains today is the sports field we continue to call Barton field, the last link with the ancient manor of Barton apart from the ruins behind Audlett Drive. If you do go down to see them, you will see a photograph on the information board of a wooden door. The caption reads: ‘This door was removed from Barton Court and is now used in the Convent’. The door is still there in the old convent building, a tangible reminder of the Barton estate and a chain of history reaching back to the Domesday Book and beyond.

Left: The ‘new’ Barton Court purchased by the Sisters in 1926. Right: Barton Court today



How Catholic is your school?

One of the questions I am most often asked by prospective parents is: ‘How Catholic is your school?’ Usually this comes from people who are not Catholic themselves, wondering whether a Catholic school is right for their children. My response is that we are welcoming to those of all faiths and none and that the school’s ethos is broad enough to accommodate all. The fact that less than a third of the pupil body is Catholic is testament to the fact that the education we provide reaches out and embraces children from a wide range of backgrounds. Yet ‘broad’ does not mean ‘insipid’ and I will argue here that there is a very distinct vision informing the way we do things.

Last year I attended the annual schools’ day in Basingstoke, where all the Catholic heads in the area came together for study and reflection. We were fortunate to be addressed by Professor Gerald Grace, probably the most influential British Catholic educationalist of his generation. Prof. Grace reminded us that our Catholic schools were founded for the wider benefit of society and not just for the Catholic community. Since the 1960s a great number of documents have come out of the Vatican on the subject of the nature of Catholic education, chief among these being the snappily titled The Catholic School (1977). Prof. Grace urged us to go back to this source, which is exactly what I’ve done.

‘A school,’ says the document, ‘is not only a place where one is given a choice of intellectual values, but a place where one has presented an array of values which are actively lived. The school must be a community whose values are communicated through the interpersonal and sincere relationships of its members and through both individual and corporative adherence to the outlook on life that permeates the school.’ Cutting through the Vaticanese, this means that Catholic schools, while being centres of learning, are first and foremost communities. The values of the community, if sincerely embodied by its members, will create an environment where children will flourish, academically, spiritually, morally and socially.

But this begs the question: What are Catholic values? People who know OLA well usually say that the school is a warm, welcoming community where children are nurtured and where the school’s motto, ‘whatever you do, do it well’, is actively promoted. Is the school like this because it is infused with a Catholic spirit? I believe that it is. Another key document, issued by the English Catholic Education Service in 2014, says: ‘Catholic education strives to offer students every opportunity to develop their talents to the full through their academic work, spiritual worship and extracurricular activities …. All students are valued and respected as individuals so that they may be helped to fulfil their unique role in creation.’ I would like to think we live up to that and that we at OLA therefore embody the best of Catholic education.

Critics of Catholic schools often use the term ‘indoctrination’ to describe the educational philosophy that underpins them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Genuine intellectual enquiry is at the centre of all our schools and drives the approach to academic work. In a world where blinkered dogmatism is on the rise, Catholic schools encourage pupils to look at all sides of a question in a genuine pursuit of truth. In a society increasingly subject to the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, as Pope Benedict famously put it, the unfashionable pursuit of beauty, truth and goodness remains the goal of the Catholic school. This means that the education offered is not just a narrow drive for academic results but a participation in a community of learners, where skills valuable for the whole of life are learnt. In our fragile, anxiety-ridden world this seems to me a philosophy to be treasured and passed on to the next generation.



Black Lives Matter

(Blog originally published 10 November 2016)

A defining moment of my childhood occurred when I was taken to watch my first county cricket match at Hampshire’s Northlands Road ground. A teacher at school had aroused my interest in the game and I had pestered my father for days to take me to a match. We arrived to find that Hampshire had won the toss and were batting. Approaching the boundary through the crowd at the turnstiles, I found that two of the greatest batsmen of the era, Gordon Greenidge and Barry Richards, had just arrived at the wicket. Both were in full flow. Greenidge cut his first ball, pitched short and wide outside the off stump, for four, and Richards majestically dispatched the first few balls of the next over to the on-side boundary. To say that I was captivated would be a major understatement. These two stars immediately became my heroes, kick-starting a lifelong devotion to cricket.

This image of my childhood came back to me earlier this week when I attended Chris Lubbe’s talk, advertised in our newsletter last week, at St. Edmund’s School. If you have never heard Chris Lubbe speak you should take the first opportunity to do so. He is a South African who seems to have met everyone who was anyone in the two decades after 1990, a time when he was working as Nelson Mandela’s bodyguard. Lubbe accompanied Mandela all around the world, meeting the Pope, the Royal Family, American Presidents and, much to his and his boss’s amusement, the Spice Girls. As well as name-checking a long list of celebrities, Lubbe spoke movingly of his and his family’s long suffering under South Africa’s apartheid regime, his mother nearly dying after being brutally thrown onto the pavement by the police after she had had the temerity to rest on a whites’ only bench. Lubbe himself was beaten up, tortured and imprisoned, becoming a political activist in the days when South Africa was fighting to emerge from its darkest period.

So how do my memories of seventies English cricket relate to this? What strikes me now about the scene is how I took it for granted that Richards, a white South African, should be playing together in an English setting with the West Indian Greenidge. The two of them opened the innings for Hampshire week in, week out at the height of the apartheid era. This seemed completely natural, the world of English cricket being populated as it was by players from all the great cricketing nations. Touring sides from India, Pakistan and the West Indies made an equally great impression on me and I idolised such mesmerising performers as Gary Sobers, Asif Iqbal and Bishan Bedi, as well as the English greats of the period. The idea that anyone would have made any distinction between them because of race, nationality or, indeed, religion would have struck me as bizarre, my only interest being in the skill they displayed and the individual touches they brought to the game. Yet in South Africa things were ordered differently.

Only a few years earlier Richards had been representing his country against Australia, his test career being tragically brought to an end when he was at the height of his powers by the sporting isolation that had enveloped his country. Greenidge, by contrast, became a key figure in the dominant West Indian side of the seventies and eighties as the South Africans looked on from afar. The horrors of apartheid involved far greater miseries than this – as Lubbe so graphically described – but the fact that a generation of South African players, both black and white, were deprived of the chance to represent their countries was indeed tragic. I am glad that so many members of the OLA community, staff, parents and teachers alike were able to hear Mr Lubbe this week and be reminded that the politics that brought apartheid about must never again be allowed to flourish.



Mother Clare Moore, Florence Nightingale and the OLA Connection

Most people who know something about the history of OLA are aware that the convent and school were founded by Mother Clare Moore, an Irish Sister of Mercy after whom our Clare Moore Auditorium takes its name. However, I do not think it is sufficiently appreciated what an extraordinary person she was.

At the time when she first came to Abingdon in November 1859, Mother Clare was superior of the Sisters’ Bermondsey convent, the first Catholic religious house to be built in London since the Reformation. She has been described by the historian Therese Meehan as a tall, slim, attractive young woman, very energetic and with a lively personality. This is despite the fact that for the whole of her life her health was poor. Her sister wrote of her when she died: She entered (religious life) when she was little more than sixteen, not without a severe mental struggle. How she lived so long is wonderful for her lungs were diseased when she was fourteen and continued so for many years after, I know, perhaps to the last.

In 1832, Clare spent an intensive seven-month period being trained as a nurse at the time of the first great cholera epidemic in Dublin, working long, hard days at the city’s Townsend Street Depot Cholera Hospital under the direction of Catherine McAuley. Since the Reformation and the tragic destruction of the system of medical and social services that the monasteries had provided, nursing in the British Isles had been practically non-existent. With no professional nurses to look after them, the sick and poor suffered appalling neglect for over three centuries.

It took the Crimean war of 1854-1856 to wake people up to how desperate things were. Newspapers caused a furore by reporting that hundreds of soldiers were dying in agony in hospitals in Scutari because of the absence of nursing provision for British servicemen. While French soldiers were cared for by skilled nurses provided by the Sisters of Charity, a British soldier was forced to write to The Times asking why his compatriots were being left without aid. Why, he asked, have we no Sisters of Charity?

As everyone knows, it was Florence Nightingale who stepped into the breach. Determined to do something, she had visited Paris and Alexandria to observe the nursing of the Sisters of Charity and had worked as superintendent of a London home for invalid gentlewomen. In 1854, at the request of the British government, she assembled a small group of 14 lay nurses, 14 nurses from Anglican sisterhoods and 10 Catholic nuns and travelled to the hospitals at Scutari. The work she did there showed the British authorities what professional nurses could do. Clare Moore and four other Sisters of Mercy made up half the contingent of Catholics, joining Florence Nightingale at the behest of the archbishop of Southwark, Dr Grant. The two women formed a close working relationship that quickly blossomed into friendship. Clare’s ability to remain calm during times of crisis was of immense support to Florence. As Therese Meehan has written:

During the day she assisted Florence with managing the hospital and at night she tended the soldiers on the wards. She advised Florence on a daily basis, mediated disputes, and helped her to stay calm during the immense stress of their work, for which Florence was very grateful.

I am not like my dear Revd Mother who is never ruffled, Florence wrote.’

The two women remained close friends until Mother Clare’s death in 1874. In a letter to her in 1863, reflecting on their work together in the Crimea, Florence wrote: How I should have failed without your help… I wondered so much that you could put up with me – I felt it was no use to say to your face, either then or since, how much I admire your ways. The editor of the women’s lifelong correspondence, Mary C. Sullivan, has written of Clare: Her governing powers were extraordinary…she was fit to rule a kingdom.

Jerry Barrett’s well-known painting ‘The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari’, now in the National Gallery, shows the two friends at the Barrack Hospital. A copy of it hangs in my office and I am reminded daily of the remarkable Mother Clare, who travelled to Abingdon one winter’s day in 1859 to begin the long and fascinating history of OLA.



Sufficient unto the Day

The almost febrile atmosphere of the last few months of 2019, as the Brexit saga drew to its tortuous close, now seems a lifetime away. I recently borrowed from the library Anthony Seldon’s book on the premiership of Theresa May, eager to read his well-reviewed account of her years in power. However, I have scarcely opened it, not just because I have a few other things to occupy my mind with just now, but also because the May era suddenly appears like ancient history. Where are all those things we used to worry about in the dim and distant days of the last decade? Gone with the wind that brought us the coronavirus, although apparently limping along somewhere in the background as negotiations with the EU continue remotely.

The use of the word ‘febrile’ to describe the current crisis seems even more appropriate, given that its root meaning is ‘fever’. The fever we are now experiencing is not just the medical effects of the virus, but the contagion that has affected every aspect of our lives, whether real or virtual. The media, never backward in stirring up a concoction of rumour and anxiety, has been in top form in recent weeks. On Sunday we were presented with the attention-grabbing headline that the government was planning to get pupils back into schools ‘in three weeks’. Further down the article, however, it appeared that this was only one of three options, none of which had actually been presented to the prime minister at that point. Later that day Gavin Williamson squashed all talk of a reopening of schools and we were back to where we started.

‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’ is a biblical maxim that, I believe, speaks powerfully to how we should be addressing these times. Rather than spending hours poring over news stories that turn out to be baseless, or worrying about the latest pronouncement from some government expert, we should simply focus on how to make best use of the opportunities each day brings. With the start of a new term, fresh challenges have presented themselves, and I hope that you will reach this afternoon feeling much has been achieved simply by taking each day as it comes. It is certainly a very different way of living from a normal school week, but there are rewards too and the advance in online learning has upskilled us all very rapidly.

My attention was drawn earlier this week to an article in the TES (Remote Learning Rivals Traditional Teaching) that appeared on first reading to be claiming that remote learning ‘produces results equal to or better than traditional teaching’. If true, this might not necessarily be good news for schools hoping to go back to ‘traditional teaching’ whenever the government lets them. However, as I read on, it became clear that the arresting headline needed a good deal of qualifying, especially as the research informing the article had not been based on learning during a global pandemic.  One thing that does come through loud and clear is that effective teaching – for example, clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when lessons are provided. In short, a good teacher is the key to successful outcomes, whatever the setting (see https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Covid-19_Resources/Remote_learning_evidence_review/Rapid_Evidence_Assessment_summary.pdf).

For many years there has been speculation that the traditional way of doing things in schools will one day come to an end and be replaced by an entirely remote way of learning, with physical classrooms giving way to online teaching. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly for all of us, that day has arrived. Where will this lead once a degree of normality is resumed and we can all meet one another again face to face? That remains to be seen, but I find it hard to believe that we will all just go back to operating exactly as before.

But this is to begin engaging in exactly the kind of speculation I have just been decrying. Instead, I’ll stop here and go back to preparing my next Latin lesson, hoping that my virtual clients really do make as much progress (or more) than if we were all together in Room 14.



A Level Success for OLA 6th

OLA one of the top 5% best performing schools in the country at A Level for 2019 results.

I am delighted to announce that OLA has been placed joint 4th best performing school for adding value at A Level out of 84 schools and colleges in Oxfordshire. This puts us in the top 5% of schools in England. We rate well above most of our major competitors, as the graph shows.

Our score, in the recently released Government league tables, is 0.42, placing us in the ‘Well Above Average’ category, the highest a school can achieve.


These figures explain how much progress students who studied A Levels made between the end of key stage 4 (GCSE) and the end of their A Level studies, compared to similar students across England.

The scores are calculated by comparing the A Level results of students at each school with the A Level results of students in schools and colleges across England who started with similar results at the end of the previous key stage – key stage 4.

A score above zero means students made more progress, on average, than students across England who got similar results at GCSE. A score below zero means students made less progress.

By this measure, OLA’s 2019 A Level cohort made much greater academic progress between their GCSEs and A Levels than those in other schools. This builds on the ‘Value Added’ many of them had already achieved at GCSE, where their performance exceeded baseline expectations. The results reflect our commitment to see every student achieve their very best throughout their time at the school.

The valued added at OLA is not, of course, solely limited to academic achievements. We offer opportunities for students to enjoy a huge range of co-curricular activities – all building confidence and developing character – whether it be team work in sports, drama productions like Grease, active service in the community or communication skills honed at public speaking events.

I would like to congratulate all our staff and students who brought about these remarkable results.

View the full league table.



The direct link between lack of sleep and academic success

How much sleep do your children get? Is it enough? Do you know if it’s enough? What are the main factors that go towards children having difficulty falling asleep? Lack of sleep is currently one of the major issues affecting children’s academic performance in schools, their sociability and even their ability to stick to a healthy diet. Reliable academic research has shown that if children do not get the sleep they need, all of the above can suffer. The problem has increased exponentially in the last decade but has not up to now received the same attention as other issues afflicting our children, such as stress and obesity resulting from junk food and lack of exercise.

Most parents are familiar with the sleepless nights that come with babies and the trouble some very young children have with establishing good sleep patterns. Eventually, however, things usually settle down and, as their children grow into toddlers, parents can finally enjoy an undisturbed night’s sleep. Or maybe not. It’s been shown that this won’t be the case if the child is exposed to an endless diet of television and entertainment on the iPad in the crucial hour before bedtime.

Mummy and daddy may think they are buying themselves a bit of time by plonking Junior down in front of his/her favourite cartoon, but they will pay for it later when the child resolutely refuses to fall asleep. A clear link has been established between the two events. Children who have been deprived of electronic devices in the run-up to bedtime not only fall asleep quicker but have been shown to perform better in school. Furthermore, they are even less likely to crave the wrong kind of food in the morning if they wake refreshed, having had the right amount of sleep for their age.

We all know that it’s best to avoid too much alcohol and caffeine if we want an untroubled night between the sheets, but how many of us ensure that we spend the last hour of the day away from our screens? In tricking the body into believing that it’s daylight, our devices prevent the release of the hormone melatonin, whose function it is to encourage the body to let go. If this is bad for adults, how much worse for growing children who are far less likely to be able to cope with sleep deprivation.

Reading about this recently, I reflected on the days when I was a Housemaster to forty Year 9 boarders. The highlight of the week was the Saturday night film on the big screen, which the boys would watch eating pizza and swilling fizzy drinks. When I look back at how difficult it was to get them to settle down to a good night’s sleep afterwards, I am not at all surprised. Fifteen years ago, however, I didn’t make the link between their evening routine and the problems in the dorms that followed.

What can we do about this? Many children like to keep their phones with them at night. They want to be able to read and respond to the texts their friends are sending and not to be left out of the discussion. Woe betide any parent that dares to step into this minefield. Yet all parents wish their children to do well at school and, if the science shows that there is a direct link between lack of sleep and academic success, not to mention a healthy and happy life, why don’t more take action to break the cycle?

As awareness of the problem grows things will surely begin to change, and indulgence in screen time before lights out may well be added to smoking, drinking and poor diet as the hallmarks of a troubled youth. If the research is right, we need to take this problem more seriously.



Why should students choose OLA 6th?

On Wednesday this week we enjoyed a very busy Open Morning for parents exploring both our Junior and Senior Schools. The sun even shone briefly through the clouds to welcome our visitors. Events like this always provide an excellent opportunity for us to take stock and define again what marks OLA out from other schools. At times I am challenged to spell out our ‘Unique Selling Point’ or, as schools generally prefer to call this, our ethos. In short, what is the special quality we have that would make parents want to send their children to OLA rather than somewhere else? 

This is especially relevant at the moment for our Year 11 pupils, who have all been meeting individually over the last few weeks with Dr Lawson and Mrs Sharkey to discuss what OLA’s Sixth Form has to offer them. What will they find in OLA 6th and what will encourage them to complete their school journey here rather than seeking another setting? Excellent teaching is one very important thing, but there has to be more to it than that. 

Perhaps the best word to sum up what our Sixth Form will give them is ‘enrichment’. While A Level is the core of Sixth Form study, our offering is a great deal broader. As they prepare for university, we want our senior students to develop their intellectual, social and leadership capacities in ways that will enrich them for the rest of their lives. To this end, a programme is provided to cater for these wider aspects of education, meaning that students are not simply left to fend for themselves. By doing this we avoid the excessive specialisation inherent in the A Level system and offer something more akin to the International Baccalaureate. 

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) forms part of this enrichment, giving students a chance to research a topic of their choice and develop their interest in it. This usually culminates in an extended piece of writing and a presentation to their teachers. Last year I very much enjoyed supervising two EPQ students, one of whom investigated the state of football refereeing in this country, while the other examined the rise of political correctness and restrictions on freedom of speech. Both developed some fascinating ideas and clearly gained an enormous amount from the chance this gave them to learn the skills of academic research. 

This year I am introducing a select group of Lower Sixth Formers every Monday to the western philosophical tradition and what it means to think philosophically. This is one of several courses that have been offered to this year group in addition to the A Level syllabus. My aim here is to help the students see that the intellectual disciplines they have been studying at school, and which they will go on to study at university, derive in large part from the remarkable insights of the ancient world and the thinkers influenced by them. 

Starting with the pre-Socratics and moving onto Plato and Aristotle, I encourage the students to consider the ideas of these great thinkers and the impact they have had on western civilisation over two and a half millennia. I have taught a similar course in other schools and always find that students know very little of this background unless they happen to study Classical subjects or Religious Studies. Scientists and mathematicians are generally unaware of how their subjects have developed from these beginnings and of the intellectual impetus that gave them birth.

Despite the intense focus on exam success that characterises our educational climate – contributing in part to the current crisis in our children’s mental health – there remains a place for the kind of broad intellectual formation that the best independent schools provide. By opening students’ eyes to the riches of this heritage, we can give them an impetus to life-long learning and promote a spirit of intellectual curiosity well beyond the examined curriculum. Our Sixth Form Enrichment classes and the wonderful ideas currently emerging from the EPQ programme show that this spirit is alive and well at OLA.



Freedom, the good, intellect and service – explaining the OLA ethos

Parents considering an OLA education for their children can sometimes be uncertain what we mean when we say that the school is Catholic. What difference does this actually make on a day to day basis? is the question most likely to be asked. People can even be worried that, if they are not Catholic, the school is not for them. Occasionally, the ugly word ‘indoctrination’ rears its head and concerns are expressed that children will be drilled to accept a set of values and doctrines with which they themselves disagree or, at the very least, will make them feel uncomfortable.

Nothing could be further from the reality of life at OLA. The very fact that more than 70% of our pupils do not come from a Catholic background is testament to this. When I meet prospective parents, they often want to know how our ethos benefits all our pupils, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, something I am very keen to explain. To do so, I sometimes quote what Pope Francis told a group of schoolchildren when asked to sum up what Catholic education means for him. As ever, he showed his ability to encapsulate in a few words what many people have struggled to express in whole volumes, stressing the holistic nature of the education we provide.

‘Our schools,’ he explained, ‘broaden not only your intellectual dimension, but also the human one. I would like to focus on two fundamental values: freedom and service. Before all else, be free persons! Freedom means knowing how to reflect on what we do, knowing how to evaluate which are the behaviours that make us grow. It means always choosing the good. Being free to always choose the good is challenging, but it will make you persons with a backbone, who know how to face life, courageous and patient persons. The second word is service. In your schools you participate in various activities that prepare you not to be wrapped up in yourselves or in your own little world, but to open yourselves to others, especially to the poorest and most in need, to work to improve the world we live in.’

This is so good that it practically absolves me from having to write anything else! Freedom, the good, intellect and service: these words put in a nutshell what it means to be a Catholic school. Our aim is, as Francis says, to set children free to be themselves, to release their potential and become the people their gifts and talents show that they can be. Cultivation of the mind goes hand in hand with developing the whole person, ensuring that our pupils develop a moral sense in an increasingly value-free world.

One of the many people who have been inspired by this vision is none other than Sir Michael Wilshaw, Britain’s former Chief Inspector of Education. In an interview Sir Michael, formerly head of a Catholic school, declared: ‘It doesn’t need me to tell you that we are living in an increasingly secular and materialistic society where young people can so easily have their heads turned and lose sight of what really matters.’ He went on to express his support for schools whose ethos focuses on what does ‘really matter’, this being in Sir Michael’s view far more than a narrow focus on league tables. Given some people’s perception of the school inspection process as being a dreary obsession with data and measurable targets, this was an interesting comment from such a source, to say the least.

Society does indeed run the risk of promoting a narrowly utilitarian approach to education, rather than embracing the holistic vision championed by Pope Francis. Intellectually curious young people, challenged to explore what makes life worth living, are far more likely to develop into balanced, well-rounded adults than those drilled in a more narrow philosophy. Schools such as OLA create environments that make this happen.



OLA at the heart of the Abingdon community

OLA’s Book Week, masterminded by our Librarian Megs Bowers and Head of English Kate Thompson, has been an undoubted high point of the school year so far. Open events, such as Wednesday’s visit by award-winning children’s author Jo Cotterill, have attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. Not only this, but Jo is a former pupil of OLA who greatly amused the assembled budding authors with tales of her attempts at story-writing at school. Anything that inspires children to write can only be good thing and I was delighted to see how well Jo’s talk was received. It is always a particular joy to welcome visitors to the school, many of whom are children and teachers from local primary schools. 

All this comes at a time when the contribution independent schools make to the wider community is in the spotlight as never before. At the Society of Heads’ Autumn meeting, which I attended in London last week, we heard two sobering talks focussing on the current political threats to the sector, one delivered by the Chief Executive of the Independent Schools Bursars’ Association, David Woodgate, the other by Julie Robinson, CEO of the Independent Schools Council. 

Their message was clear. The recent vote at the Labour Party Conference to move towards abolishing schools like OLA and the success of the anti-independent school campaign group Abolish Eton mean that the very existence of our schools is under threat. Schools such as OLA therefore need to redouble their efforts to engage with their local communities and ensure that people understand what an integral part of the local landscape we are, and indeed have been throughout our long and distinguished history. If OLA and the other Abingdon independent schools didn’t exist, not only would the local economy suffer but the whole educational landscape would be massively impoverished. 

Every year we at OLA conduct an audit of the ways in which we work in partnership with the state sector and the local community and it’s become clear how extensive these are. Book Week is just one of many examples of how events at OLA are opened out to local schools and the public at large, as is the use of our sports facilities and swimming pool by so many in the Abingdon community. We also have close historical links with the parish of Our Lady and St Edmund next door and raise thousands of pounds every year for local and diocesan charities. 

Our highly successful Open Morning last Saturday was an excellent opportunity for us to show off the outstanding education we offer to many who might never have been to OLA before. Independent schools come in many different shapes and sizes and not all have the vast resources of the larger public schools like Eton. I stressed in my Open Morning speech that, while we are a small school, we still succeed in delivering an excellent education to a whole range of pupils from many different backgrounds. We encourage pupils in Year 6 and Year 11 to apply for the many bursaries and scholarships on offer and, as a Catholic school founded on the principle of mercy, are acutely conscious of our duty to help those who find themselves in trouble.

In addition, OLA’s staff, including those in senior leadership, work as governors in the state system, developing through this an understanding of the things we have in common and the challenges we all face. As OLA’s Principal, I regularly attend meetings of my fellow Catholic head teachers in the Portsmouth diocese and share experiences with state school colleagues. The characterisation of independent schools as somehow remote from real life and unaware of the difficulties people have does not, therefore, bear close inspection. We have been developing partnerships over many years and the current political climate can only be seen as a challenge to do more. OLA has been at the heart of the Abingdon community since its foundation nearly 160 years ago and it is our aim to keep it that way!



A lesson from Sir James Dyson

We learned this week that billionaire businessman and inventor Sir James Dyson has donated more than £18 million to his old school, Gresham’s in Norfolk, to fund the building of a science and technology centre. The head of Gresham’s, whom I know from his time as a fellow member of the Society of Heads, is a very lucky man. It’s been my hope for quite a while that one of our alumni will come forward with a similar amount for OLA, but so far no such luck.

Sir James is quoted as saying: ‘Gresham’s isn’t wholly focused on exams. There are other things in life. I think it was that combination of being able to do those things in a creative, relaxed atmosphere that set me on the road of wanting to create and build things.’ He admits to having been something of a slacker at school, preferring to spend his time sailing, running, acting and performing in the orchestra. 

Schools today are incredibly wary of describing themselves as ‘relaxed’. They fear that parents will equate this with poor results and won’t want to send their children there. Creativity, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a good thing, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of achieving a string of Grade 9s. 

A few years ago a survey conducted by the charity TLG revealed some very troubling attitudes. A poll of more than 1,000 parents found that pressure to get good results meant most of them were more worried about their children’s academic progress than about their happiness or bullying:

Chief executive of TLG, Tim Morfin, commented: ‘There’s so much pressure now, it feels, around educational performance and how best to help our children succeed, and that’s getting harder as exams are getting more difficult. It feels like our kids have got to do really, really well [at school] to make a success of life.’

There is clearly something in what Morfin says. I have noticed myself that, even in the last few years, parents’ worries about academic outcomes have increased. This could be to do, as Morfin suggests, with a perception that exams are getting harder, but also with worries that employment prospects for graduates have shrunk and that the path to a good degree is more important than ever. In some ways this is ironic, given the eagerness of top universities in recent years to recruit the best students as tuition fees have risen.

The emphasis that policy makers and the media now put on league tables and academic results contribute to this trend. There is far more coverage of GCSE and A Level results in the press than ever before, and I recently read another article speculating that the pictures posted every year of students leaping in the air as they receive their results put subliminal pressure on parents to ensure that their own children achieve the same.

Schools themselves feel under constant pressure from government to improve results year by year and there is keen competition, especially among independent schools, to demonstrate this. The result can be highly stressful for teachers, with the danger that they pass on their anxieties to pupils and their parents. Surveys and stories about teenagers’ mental health currently abound and there can be little doubt that the pressure our children feel is real. We must not make this worse by fostering an environment where academic progress, important though it is, is prioritised over personal happiness and fulfilment. 

At OLA, well-being and attainment have always gone hand in hand. Time and again we have seen that good academic outcomes follow when students are comfortable in themselves. I am proud that our children have the kind of education enjoyed by Sir James, where the range of activities on offer and the encouragement of creative subjects like Art, Design and Technology and Textiles give pupils the chance to develop more naturally than in an academic hothouse. 

Our current most famous alumna, Bake Off star Rosie Brandreth-Poynter, is an excellent example of what an OLA education can bring you. Not only did Rosie go on to qualify and practise as a vet, she has also clearly found the time to cultivate the culinary talents that impress the Bake Off judges week after week. If she knows any alumni – or indeed anyone at all – who have £18 million to spare, we would be keen to hear from them.



What is education for?

As well as being a very important question, this is also the title of a book written by the former chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Dr Nicholas Tate. Dr Tate, who was also headmaster of Winchester College and director general of the international school of Geneva, is well qualified to address this topic. A few years ago he gave one of the most interesting talks I have ever heard at a Society of Heads conference, quoting from his book and challenging the heads present to consider the purpose of the education delivered in their schools. What he had to say was highly relevant to OLA. 

Dr Tate’s book is subtitled ‘The views of the great thinkers and their relevance today’. Starting with the ancient Greeks, he examines writers from Thomas Aquinas to Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt to see what common themes emerge from more than two thousand years of reflection on education. 

He identifies ten. These include:

• The need to see education ‘as a central part in a long chain of cultural transmission’

• The importance of promoting the values that have given us the freedom we enjoy in the West 

• The recognition that education must, first and foremost, engage with children’s minds and provide for them a vision to which they will wish to aspire. 

Without this vision, he says, ‘we are likely to end up with education systems distorted by an excessive concern for utilitarian considerations: the alleged needs of the knowledge economy and whatever priorities for social engineering governments have decided to set themselves at any particular time.’

Now, it is of course perfectly understandable that governments should wish to justify spending on education by pointing to how it feeds into the economy. We do not have the luxury of pouring millions of pounds into courses that lead students nowhere. It could, in fact, be argued that in the past not nearly enough has been done in the UK to promote vocational qualifications and that these are still undervalued. There will always be a need for courses specifically designed to educate students for work in the marketplace and these have a vital place in the educational landscape. 

However, says Tate, this must never be the whole story. An education purely devoted to utility is just as undesirable as one excessively concerned with, say, Science or Classics. Watching Boris Johnson’s visit to Pimlico Primary School last week, I heard him telling pupils that he had spent 20 years at school and university studying nothing but Classics. I couldn’t catch whether he went on to say what good he felt this had done him, but he is certainly on record as supporting the teaching of Latin in primary schools and is not alone among prime ministers in having studied Classics at Oxford. 

But even the most die-hard Classicist, passionate about the skills, knowledge and values that can be transmitted to pupils by teaching them the languages and culture of Greece and Rome, would be unlikely to support a return to the position enjoyed in the curriculum by classical languages in the 19th century, or even the one enjoyed by Mr Johnson at the Eton of the 1970s. 

Tate isn’t advocating anything like this either, but he does feel that ‘the best way to prepare for adult responsibilities and opportunities is never to lose our focus on the wholeness of the human beings we are educating, encompassing as such a focus does their character, virtues, values, intellect and culture.’ If the students who leave our schools and universities are mere technocrats, expensively educated robots who have not been given a vision of what it is to be a human being, the future will, says Tate, look bleak for society. We will have lost what is most precious in the western educational tradition, rooted as it is in the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and the authentic humanism of the Christian tradition. 

This is surely a position with which we at OLA can agree. In fact, the education we offer is fully signed-up to it. Our focus is on developing human wholeness and providing an education based on the nurturing of character and culture. The cultivation of such virtues as integrity, compassion and courage, placed within an intellectual formation that draws on the riches of the western tradition, is key to what we are as a school. When we celebrate our 160th anniversary in 2020 and hold our alumni reunion, I am fully expecting to meet a group of people embodying these values!

What is education for? I will leave the last word to Pope Benedict XVI, whose speech to Catholic schoolchildren at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham in 2010 still informs the vision we have of education at OLA: ‘A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.’ 

I wonder what Boris would make of this.