It is a great pleasure to see so many of you here this morning, and an even greater pleasure for me to be enjoying my first St Edmund’s Sunday, at the end of what has been a glorious week of all things Edmundian.
Our two Remembrance Services on Sunday and Monday were everything they should be: moving, dignified and taken very seriously indeed by the pupils, and then of course we were into the Triduum, with a decade of O’Beate being sung on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning. I have to say as a newcomer there is something wonderfully quirky about even having a school hymn which is thirty verses long, but the idea of it being sung to different tunes on different days, and with some lines being repeated on Tuesday and Thursday, but different lines being repeated on Wednesday, has got to be unique in the public school world. I found myself saying, as indeed I have already done on several occasions this term, ‘only at St Ed’s.’
And I mean that in the very best of ways. This wonderful school really is unique. You don’t have to have been here for long to appreciate that there is something very special going on here. Whether it is to do with our Catholic way of doing things, or our 451 year history which one can almost feel seeping from the walls, or whether it is simply a reflection of the exceptional students and staff we have here at the moment, there is no doubt that there is an atmosphere here which is not like every other school. I noticed it when I came for interview and stood here at the end of the Ambulacrum during the changeover between lessons, and I have noticed it every day since. There is a sense of calm, purposefulness in the air, but also one of tremendous cheerfulness and positivity, which I have found infectious. Every morning I walk up the drive and as I come through the front door, I feel a smile coming across my face and many other have said they feel the same way.
And this translates itself into so much success. Academically we are consistently achieving remarkable results at A Level and GCSE, especially given that we have a wide ability range here, and although we remain selective, we are determined to select not purely on academic ability, but just as much on the basis of pupils’ wider interests and personality.
The arts also continue to flourish. I don’t think anyone could fail to have been impressed by the Schola’s singing in Mass just now, led by our new Director of Music James Woodhall, and as we speak, rehearsals are underway for the next all singing all dancing extravaganza at the Broxbourne Theatre, which is going to be Me and My Girl, to be performed next term, and I hope that many of you will want to come along and support that.
Over the last few weeks I have met a number of OEs, and they are always quick to ask me about sport. I’m well aware that there is a feeling out there that sport at St Ed’s is not as strong as it once was. And I am going to be completely honest with you, I do think this is an area to look at, and intend to do just that. Boys sport in older years has, I think, lost its mojo a little, and I would be keen to see more participation, a better fixture list and a lot more going on on Saturdays, and although that’s not realistically going to happen overnight, I promise it will happen in time.
BUT, and it is a very big BUT, reports of the complete death of St Edmund’s sport, and rumours that we are failing to match up to even our weakest opposition, are completely incorrect and very unfair. The girls in particular have been enjoying great success, and in fact our U18 netballers have just been crowned county champions, so no-one can say that they are falling behind. And the great news is that our teams in all sports in the younger years are also doing really well, especially our rugby teams in Elements through to Syntax. I’ve watched all of those teams several times this term and there is some real quality there, and some real promise for future years. And meanwhile the sport in the Prep School has probably never been stronger. So please spread the word – sport at St Ed’s is very much on the up.
And of course, underpinning everything we do is the Catholic life of the College and Prep, and, dare I say it, I think we do it really well. As you may know, I have spent the last few years as Deputy Head of another Catholic School, and a couple of years ago there was a magazine article about the place which said that it was good to see that, words to the effect of, ‘this last bastion of Catholic brutality was nowadays presenting the faith in a much gentler and more attractive way.’ And I was contacted by one old boy who said how disappointed he was to hear this as he had sent his son to the school precisely because he wanted a bit of good, old fashioned, Catholic brutality. Well there is none of that here. Catholicism is a gentle, generous, welcoming faith, and we exist not to IMpose the Catholic way of life on our children, but to PROPose it as a way of life which can bring one great happiness, comfort and stability in what can be a tough old world. And that is why I am also proud of the fact that a large number of our pupils are not Catholic. We exist not simply to provide a Catholic education service to Catholic families, but, just as importantly, to offer the benefits of a Catholic life to those who are NOT already familiar with it.
But if I have one overriding aim for the next few years it is to ensure that St Ed’s takes it rightful place in the firmament of British public schools, because if there is one slight frustration I have had so far – and it really is the only one – is that we as a school, and even you as alumni, I think sometimes underestimate the quality of what happens here, and the importance and seniority of St Ed’s within the public school world. I can say this because I am new and can therefore claim no credit for it, but be in no doubt, the quality of education being provided here at St Edmund’s is, in my judgement, as good, perhaps even better, than in any of the other schools I have worked in, and I have worked in three of the most famous schools in the country. And let’s not forget, we are not just the oldest CATHOLIC school in England, we are in fact one of the oldest SCHOOLS in England, Catholic or non-Catholic. And let us not forget that we are not only an HMC school, which in itself is a badge of honour which singles out the top schools in the UK and abroad, but we are actually one of the more senior schools in the HMC, having been a member for nearly fifty years. And if people really want to get hung up on academic league tables, then let us not forget that whilst there are indeed plenty of highly selective schools who achieve better headline figures than us, there are an awful lot more schools below us on the table than above us, and amongst independent Catholic schools I think we can claim with some confidence that we are academically the strongest of them all.
Amongst my friends and family there were all sorts of reactions to news of my appointment as Headmaster, ranging from astonishment, to hilarity in some quarters, but the one thing that so many of them had in common is that they went away and googled St Edmund’s and found out more about it, and then came back to me and said: ‘what a fabulous school. Why is it not better known?’ And I think they are right. In so many ways we are a hidden gem in the public school world, and I suppose there is something quite attractive about that, but on balance it’s not right. It’s not fair on the students, staff and alumni who have made this place great over the centuries. It is time for St Ed’s to stop hiding its light under a bushel and to tell its own incredible story with confidence, pride and ambition, and I for one look forward to being a part of that. AVITA PRO FIDE.