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Drawing together the threads of experience ... 2019 reflections on a life in education

What follows has been written as part of my studies and relection in a doctoral programme, and was not conceived of as a blog post. But in this time of COVID everyone seems to reflecting on their lives and sharing the fruits of those reflections, so I have decided to share these thoughts, composed almost entirely in summer 2019, but which are still a work in progress. I hope that they will be of interest to those who know of me and my work and that noone is too offended by any of the anecdotes or remarks I include. I ask God to bless anyone who may read this, and to bless me also.

Ferdi McDermott, July 2020.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam


My Quest for the Educational Holy Grail


Ferdi McDermott



“Not all those who wander are lost.”

 J.R.R. Tolkien,

Above: participating in a debate with my Year 11 English class, 2019.

Below: Oedipus with his children for the last time. (From our 2018 summer play, directed by me.)

My Quest for the Educational Holy Grail

a personal narrative

presented in partial fulfilment of the Practitioner Doctorate in Education of the University of Buckingham



The recipient of the Buckingham Doctorate in Education is supposed to be able to demonstrate the he or she has done four things to a very high level:

Acquired and applied knowledge, in general, and specifically in the field of education.

Having first studied other models, I have created an educational magazine, a publishing house, a language school, a magazine teaching its readers about culture, a boys’ boarding school, a girls’ boarding school, a university college, a Bachelor’s programme and a Masters programme. Following language and literature studies at university, I have taught English and French literature and language successfully, assisting a series of pupils into Oxford and other top universities, as well as speaking and writing about themes in literature and education in peer-reviewed publications in English, Swedish and French. I have also sought to put into practice within the real-life context of my school the insights acquired during my MEd studies.

Pursued a commitment to continuing professional development

As well as visiting other schools around the world (Latvia, Italy, France, UK), I have also followed a PGCE, then a Masters programme in Educational Leadership. I have actively promoted CPD in my school and sponsored staff on PGCE and Masters programmes through Buckingham, constantly since 2009. As a former Fellow of the College of Teachers (since 2007) and now a Founding Fellow of the College of Teaching, I keep abreast of debates and developments in Education by reading their publications.

Shown an ability to work with others in teams and partnerships

In all my main activities ( MENTOR magazine, Saint Austin Press, St Cyprian School, St Austin Review, Chavagnes International College, La Bonne Nouvelle, Chavagnes Studium) I have recruited a dedicated team of full and part-time employees and volunteers and have successfully worked with them, motivated and led them, with a high degree of delegation. On an institutional level, I am on various boards of advisors and editors where I work with others and have successfully maintained relationships with institutions such as the local Institut Catholique d'Études Supérieures.

Demonstrated mobility in being able to operate in different contexts, countries and networks to enable consistent education standards across nations

I have been at the cutting edge of compliance with authorities in the UK and France and have successfully negotiated all sorts of hazards and obstacles, especially in setting up and running schools in France. In my own school I have had to plan curricula in such a way that our teaching, whilst distinctive, is pegged to UK and French standards in key subjects and the national curricula of both countries. 

As a good linguist I have also made use of my language skills in visits to schools and attendance at conferences in various countries. Pupils whom I have coached have been admitted to and successfully completed courses at prestigious universities in England, Wales, France, Spain and the United States. Through my work I am familiar with the requirements of UK A-levels, the IB, French baccalaureate, Spanish bachillerato and US SATs.

In what follows, I will tell the story of how all of this happened and how I have been able to build up my confidence and skills in education over the last twenty-five years, often learning the hard way, or at least in the school of hard knocks.

γνῶθι σεαυτόν : Know thyself!


In the spring of 2018, at the behest of Max Coates, my tutor on the Buckingham EdD programme, I took an Enneagram test, as a way of getting me to think about my personality traits before attempting the task of tracing my personal and professional development over the last 25 years.

Interestingly enough, the test came up with the following statement about me, or people like me: “I have a strong tendency to compare what is real with what would be perfect. I have a tendency to evaluate things  closely. I think it is important to do good work in everything I do. I have high standards for myself and for others, too. I can get irritated when people don't meet or even have standards. People need some kind of moral compass. Sometimes I am clearer about what I ought to do than what I really want to do. I have a strong sense of social responsibility and social order. I always try to do my best and the world would be a better place if everyone did.” It was accompanied by an illustration (reproduced here) suggesting very much a commitment to tradition and orthodoxy.   There was also the label: “CRITIC”.

Because I am cautious about the demands of Deuteronomy 18:10 (against spells and divination!)  I did actually take the trouble to ask an elderly nun who has been doing the psychological assessments for the Archdiocese of Dublin (for the priesthood) for 50 years (!) what she recommended. She was skeptical about the Enneagram, but recommended the 16-personality test, which she said she used along with detailed interviewing. She is 91, and very mentally sharp. So I did that test too and, perhaps not surprisingly, came up with a very similar result:  the CAMPAIGNER. When I dug further, I found the new age gurus tell us that the Enneagram comes from astrology and that the Type 1 personality is a MERCURY (hence 'mercurial temperament’, I suppose) and that the archetypal mercury would have to be a Virgo born of two Gemini, which is what I am. I decided to stop there, as my religious alarm bells were ringing. But I certainly retain from that bit of research the fact that we are all a chip off the old block; heredity and environment strongly forge our personalities and although we might sometimes wish we were a different kind of person, the truth is that to live fulfilled lives, and to help others to do so in the setting of a school, we need to be comfortable in the driving seat of the personality that God or chance has given us. As with a car, understanding its strengths and weaknesses helps the driver ensure a smoother ride for all concerned.

On the basis of similar Myers Briggs tests and long interviews over a week, this assessment of my personality is more or less what the selectors told the Portsmouth Catholic Diocese in 1995 when I was applying to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood, something I had thought about on and off since about the age of seven.  On that occasion, the verdict of the selectors ran something like this: this man is very idealistic and has high standards, which he applies to everyone including himself. He is something of a lone crusader …. And yes, we think that he has a vocation, but perhaps not for this diocese. He is either going to be a great success or a great disaster.  It was a confidential report, but the Vocations Director for Portsmouth read it out to me anyway, warts and all. After that I was sent to be a “pastoral assistant” in a parish in Reading, with special responsibilities in the school and the prison. I argued incessantly with the incumbent, a bored priest in his middle age, busy trying to invent his own new religion. I lasted two weeks; after which time I shook the dust from feet and went back to Scotland, where I had laid plans, while still in my final year at university, for a magazine for Catholic schools. I called the Bishop of Portsmouth who apologised profusely when I gave him chapter of verse of what I had discovered about his diocese’s way of handling vocations.  After that, the sense of a vocation remained, but its exact nature was more mysterious to me.

A different kind of call

As I child, my favourite games were “church” or‘“school”, where I was the priest or the teacher, or “armies” where I was the captain or the general, and I suppose that it was a feeling that I wanted somehow to combine leadership and service, in imitation of the various historical and mythical heroes of my childhood reading, that led me first to try the priesthood, and then to turn to education. In fact, during the last Easter vacation from university, I managed to visit my senior school and talk to the teachers there and one conversation sticks in my mind as having had a lasting impact. “When you go into the priesthood, Ferdi, I hope you can do something about the state of Catholic education,”  was the plea of my favourite teacher, Mr Braga, a convert to Catholicism, who had taught me French for seven years. A personal motivation was that I had been to a good Anglican school and kept, and even cultivated,  my Catholic faith, whereas a female friend had been to a Catholic school and ostensibly lost hers.

I took Mr Braga’s request seriously, and already began doing something about it while I should have been revising for my finals. I had founded a student magazine, with a run of 5,000, called CAMPUS, which was sold, like the Big Issue (though not as successfully) by young vendors on several university campuses. It looked like a student magazine, it felt like a student magazine … it even had original interviews with Nick Park (the creator of Wallace and Gromit), and with Alex Salmond of the SNP ... it was even packed with vouchers for ‘free stuff’ and adverts for student bars. But the articles included one on the dangers of addiction to cannabis, another on the horrors of STDs, another on the importance of defending traditional academic disciplines in the face of “mickey mouse subjects”; anyone reading between the lines could see that there was a young fogey discreetly but firmly positioned at the helm. We produced six issues in two years, but then decided to call it a day. It was my first company directorship, and a very useful experience, as we shall see. And so in partnership with Ireland’s and the publishing trade’s answer to Arthur Daley, a Kerry man called Danny, I set up MENTOR:the Catholic Education Journal. I was to run it from my computer at the presbytery in Reading, and then from the Seminary … while he sold the ads and managed the printing from his Glasgow office.

In the event, it was just as well that I fled the presbytery in Reading, and the clutches of the oddly named Monsignor James Joyce. I did not want to be corrupted like that other artist as a young man. My version of Stephen Daedalus was going to tread a different path. I resolved to hang on to my faith, be my own boss and make my own fortunes in the world. So I decamped to Glasgow, rented a tiny office on Hope Street, next to Danny,  and found a freezing cold and insalubrious flat around the corner from St Aloysius College; its disputed ownership and run-down condition made it easy for me to negotiate a pseudo-tenancy on very favourable terms. And in this new life, I set myself up as the agony aunt of Catholic education for all of England, Wales and Scotland. Nobody bothered to ask if I had the qualifications to do so, which is just as well, because all I had was degree in Celtic Studies and a collection of bees, buzzing around in my bonnet. I had kissed the Blarney Stone and that proved sufficient.

We found a company that sold complete sets of one-use labels for all the Catholic schools, maintained and independent, in England and Wales; for Scotland, I just bought the Scottish Catholic Directory and started typing the addresses. Before using the English labels, I photocopied them, so that I would have them typed up ready for the second issue, thus saving the exorbitant fee. The company that sold them already published a monthly Catholic Teachers’ Gazette, which is why it had the addresses. Their gazette only contained job adverts, so they were not real competition. But I was competition for them, as I had an eye on the revenue their job adverts must be bringing in.

In the first issue, we published an interview which I had conducted with Carl Rogers’ associate, Dr William Coulson. It dished the dirt on “values clarification”, one of the untouchable idols of the 1960s. There was also a review of the English Catholic Bishops’ new RE programme which we damned with exceedingly faint praise; and most memorably, a  piece of writing by a Scottish RE teacher, Des Dillon. It was his first real piece of published writing, and he probably imagined it would be anonymous, given that he stated that teaching religion in his Catholic school was about as easy as teaching flower-arranging in Bosnia (where a war was raging at the time). He lost his job, or rather “pulled a sicky”, then resigned, the day after his headteacher summoned him to explain himself. Des is now a famous writer whose work has been given prizes and serialised on Radio 4. I am sorry to relate that there were other casualties of my early days in Catholic education; not all of them bounced back as well as Des Dillon.

The first issue of MENTOR (September/October 1995) came out rather late, but was received with seriousness. Some thought it bad news; others thought that “it was about time that someone did something” about the failure of Catholic schools to do anything useful for the organisation paying their capital costs (the Church).  I received some very enthusiastic support from people in high places. Dr (later Professor) James A. was a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church College and he called me to congratulate me on MENTOR and to offer me a job. He had just published his doctoral thesis, The Ebbing Tide, on the slow but sure abandonment of Catholic teaching by Catholic schools. (I reviewed it in the second issue of the magazine.) He had a budget for a research studentship, and wanted me to take it up and do a doctorate with him on Catholic Education policy. He suggested that this would be a means of support for me, while I developed MENTOR into a serious journal. I was thrilled. I wrote an abstract, focusing on parental involvement in Catholic education and skim-read a couple of books on education research which he recommended. The day before the interview James, who was not to be on the panel,  called me and reminded me that although he personally was OK with my being a “one-nation Tory”, I had to remember that everyone in educational academia was on the left and would also be suspicious of my Catholicism. I promised to be a red as I could. 

On the day of the interview, there were three professors ready to grill me. I presented myself as a hard left Labourite with a commitment to Catholic orthodoxy. I thought they would be intrigued … but although the letter eventually came back to me suggesting that I do a Masters elsewhere and then come back to them, as my commitment to education was not yet proven, the real reason was communicated to me in a very distressed phone call from James A. the next day: “I told you to pretend to be left-wing! What have you done? I am now in a very difficult position.” The problem was that I had failed to understand that he wanted me to be pretend to be a heretic as well as a socialist.

The first year of MENTOR brought me into contact with CATSC, the newly formed Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges, whose committee were amused but not surprised to discover that many of MENTOR’s articles were written by me under a range of pseudonyms.  It did not stop me being invited to their launch, in Cardinal Hume’s posh parlour. The organisation was launched, with the Cardinal in attendance, at a “liturgy” presided over by a lady bearing a bowl of wet sand and several wet candles. Predictably, my relationship with CATSC did not flourish. They sponsored the magazine for a while, and I handed over the editorship to Peter, a recently retired headteacher of good northern Catholic pedigree but with the kind of hippie views I did not share.  When we did not quite go their way, the MENTOR marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce, with a sad falling out between the new editor, his wife and me.

Out of the ashes, in 1997, a newer, even more feisty MENTOR arose like a phoenix from the ashes, with Eric , a Headmaster at the point of retirement, and ISI inspector, at its head. He wrote a hilarious column on the fictitious Diocese of Bogshire and its ‘Learning the Kids Commision’ led by Sr Kath O’Ketics and Father Blimey-O’Reilly, with its showcase Blessed Karl Marx Comprehensive under the visionary Mr Stu Pid. It was all laughs, for several years, and noone who disagreed really knew how to take us on, so it did have an effect. I know now from my membership of CISC (Catholic Independent Schools Conference) that although MENTOR ended after eight years in 2003 it certainly entered into the folklore of Catholic education in the UK. My relationship with Eric proved to be a kind of personal and professional mentorship, on many levels

Mass education: an ambitious programme of publishing

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Meanwhile, in 1996, I had created a new registered charity, The Saint Austin Trust, with a publishing imprint, Saint Austin Press. The idea was to launch this in time for the 1400th anniversary of the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury on the isle of Thanet with his band of Anglo-Saxon boy monks, purchased at the slave market in Rome, on the inspiration of Pope St Gregory the Great, who had observed, on seeing the fair-haired youths: “Non angli, sed angeli, si christiani ..” (Angles, but they’d be angels if Christians.) We published about sixty books over the next seven years, all selected and edited directly by me, or under my direction, with the aim of promoting Cardinal Newman’s dream of  “an educated laity”. I also organised a series of conferences at Plater College in Oxford and started a monthly cultural magazine in 2000. It still exists today, with six issues per year. Its early contributors, all solicited personally and largely acting pro bono, included several Cardinals (one of them, the future Benedict XVI) leading UK writers and researchers, and even Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

A number of other initiatives, all my own idea, were by now running side by side, especially after the Saint Austin Press’s move to London in 1997. The focus was on education of the Catholic and general population through publishing books and magazines. From 1997, we had a London shop selling books (including second-hand ones rescued from closing-down monasteries); in 2000 we opened another one in Glasgow, run on similar lines. In 2000 I also begun a new magazine of literature and culture, StAR (St Austin Review) meant as a successor to The Month, which we tried to buy from the Jesuits, but which they preferred to close. StAR is still going strong, nearly 20 years later. It is a very important work of popular education, published six times a year.

A Catholic summer school, St Cyprian’s School of English,  teaching groups of up to fifty French and Spanish boys at a time began in 1998 in a rented church hall. They studied English language and culture during the morning, with sightseeing and sports in the afternoons. The essential idea was copied from an experience I had when aged 16-18, when I was employed as an English teacher for a summer school of Italian boys and girls from Pavia, near Milan, who arrived all together in Southampton each summer.They were hosted by about a dozen families in our Catholic parish.  I simply remembered what I had been asked to do for the Italian groups, then designed a preliminary test, a curriculum, timetable and activities along similar lines. An additional challenge was finding the right teachers and host families, but my judgements about competence and suitability were mostly right, and we had, thank God, no child protection nightmares.

With St Cyprian’s, there was also an element of retreat about it; as well attending Mass with their Catholic host families, we organised a special Mass for them and had the local priests call in as informal chaplains. We also took them to the Tower of London and Tyburn Convent and told them all about Henry VIII and St Thomas More. It was a positive experience for them and many returned for a second or third session. Parents often wrote to me to say their boys came home to them after just 2-4 weeks, more enthusiastic about English, more fervent in their faith, more mature …  Years later, in 2004, a group from Chavagnes was staying at the Abbey of Fontgombault. One of the younger monks came to greet my colleague, Robert Asch (who had worked with me first in London, then in France). He told Mr Asch that he owed his vocation to his month with us in London.

The final (Highland) fling of St Cyprian’s was a one-week camp in Scotland for seven older teenangers, myself and a seminarian friend with a driving licence: Glasgow, the Highlands, Pluscarden Abbey, swimming in the North Sea and in Loch Ness. The following year one of those boys, Guillaume, came and stayed with me, plus two other teachers and a random group of French and and Canadian youths, spending the summer cutting down trees, painting classrooms and generally getting ready for the opening of the new school. A year later he joined the Communauté Saint Martin to study for the priesthood, but died a few months later in a car accident. His younger brother, Louis, came to Chavagnes, a few years later, for his Year 11 and we are all still good friends. 

 French connections

It will perhaps be clear how I slowly became interested in the idea of running my own school. I had been doing bits of teaching (English as a foreign language and  parish catechesis mainly) while in school, through university and while publishing, and the enjoyment I got from the St Cyprian’s experience convinced me that as well as (or instead of) publishing a magazine telling others how to run their schools, I might be better off running my own. The French connection (first, the development of a French network that helped me find hundreds of French Catholic boys needing English classes, then the idea to start a full-time school in France) came from my attendance at a conference on the Catholic liturgy held in 1996 by a group called CIEL (Centre International d'Études Liturgiques). I ended up joining the founding committee of CIEL UK in the same year, together with Julian Berkeley, the son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley, and the radio announcer Tony Scotland. What we all had in common was an interest in the Latin Mass and a certain love of France.

I ended up translating parts of the 1997 conference held in France and editing an English version of the proceedings, which brought me to the attention of the Catholic and Anglican reading public as, so one reporter wrote, “ a dynamic, traditionalist twenty-something”. The reviewer of some of our books in New Directions, the newspaper of the Forward in Faith movement, described us as “slick and well-financed.” The main investment that was going into all this was the almost voluntary work of four of five young men and the occasional young-lady. But my increasing contacts with France led me to believe that France was the place - oddly enough - for my new English Catholic school.

Just to bring a bit of extra spice to 1997, as well as moving up to London, I also stood in the General Election as a candidate for Southampton where I had been back since August 1996. It was for the Pro-Life Alliance, and my paternal grandmother was my agent. I got 99 votes, and the drunken Mayor of Southampton announced on local television that  I was from the Profile (sic) Alliance. The party had sent me a very attractive temporary ‘campaign wife’ who did her duty following me around: jumper and jeans for the student halls of residence at LSU (where my mother had studied to be a teacher) and twin set and pearls for the old peoples’ homes, ‘Churches Together in Southampton’ and other public meetings. I was sorry not to be able to keep her, although I made a failed attempt to get her on a date. My commitment to the Pro-life cause was mainly due to my schooling at King Edward VI School, Southampton, where life issues were faced honestly and openly in a Christian spirit. As teenage boys, we were pretty much all ‘pro-life’. I have stuck with it.

Thinking about curriculum, method and mission statement

When people heard I was planning to start my own school, I was invited by my friend Eric to join a special committee of CIVITAS/IEA where Robert Whelan, John McIntosh (he of the London Oratory School) and a host of other conservative (reactionary?) worthies were planning to do the same thing. It proved an interesting experience. I had first met Robert Whelan when I was a student at Edinburgh and I was attending a student conference of SPUC, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, in sunny Morecambe. He was giving a talk on issues only tangentially related to the Pro-Life cause: population control, global warming, nuclear power, etc. It was the first time that I became aware of a fairly large network of conservative thinkers (there were even one or two Tory MPs at the conference) which was trying to revive a forgotten kind of conservatism in the UK, that of Edmund Burke, a man whose ideas I had already begun to hear about from other channels. 

In the end, Eric and I left the committee on conscientious grounds. The thinking went something like this: (1) even the atheists among us feel that a school needs a religious frame of reference or else it cannot communicate spirituality, values, tradition and a sense of community, (2) the only religion which would seem to allow for this without pushing adherence to any particular set of  doctrines would be the Church of England, (3) we therefore need to make sure our new schools are Anglican in their religious character. I could not really associate myself with such a conclusion, especially as this approach of reducing everything to the Lowest Common Denominator if applied systematically to every other part of a school’s life and work, would merely reproduce the same kind of schools we already have. In the end it seemed to me that the IEA was more interested in making an economic and political point about education (that it could be done better without the State) than in making any real declaration of commitment to transmitting our cultural patrimony to the young. Their supposed Burkean conservatism had slipped its moorings and risked morphing into something more resembling libertarian capitalism, more concerned with economic stability and the growth of wealth than with cultural continuity and values; or maybe, unlike with Burke who was a believer in the Divine law and in salvation through Christ, there was a feeling in this project that religion and God were a means to an end. For me, and for Eric too, God is our end. He is the ultimate reality.

The experience convinced me that to write about the school that I was planning before it actually existed was a very important step. I needed to put down in black and white my aspirations about curriculum, timetable, philosophy and goals. So I began to write about my ideal school, first in MENTOR, then in articles and prospectuses about the future school. The current website and prospectus of Chavagnes still contain swathes of text I composed before the school existed, in an attempt to describe, and thereby create its mission. It was to be “a school for Catholic heroes”, built on “a strong sense of community,'' rooted in the humanities with a life of prayer at its heart. Although I did not realise it at the time, I was trying to do what Newman had once attempted at the Oratory School in Reading: to create an Eton as if the Reformation had passed it by.

Lessons learned young

I had a good idea of the kind of school I was trying to oppose, but what was my guiding idea for my new school? The only first-hand experience I had of a school that I thought was very good was the one I attended from 1983 to 1990, King Edward VI School, Southampton. It had given me something approaching a classical education, a good range of O-levels and GCSEs, 4 good A-levels and a great love for music, literature and language, plus a certain loyalty to sporting values, a love of institutional life, a love of camaraderie. In short, although I knew that the religion of Edward VI was not my own, in his foundation I had experienced a purposeful, humane and cultured community; and I wanted to recreate something similar, but perhaps more self-consciously based on late medieval collegiate models.  

At the age of 10 or 11, my parents had sent me to take the full (all expenses paid) scholarship examination for Eton. While other boys had been coached for it over many years, my parents saw the advert in the Hampshire Chronicle a few days before the deadline, and applied for it on impulse. I came about 15th out of 50 boys, but there were only seven scholarships on offer. But staying in the house of the Kings’ Scholars in Eton, being tended to by the stern but kindly Matron, waited on by butlers in spacious halls, drinking regular cups of tea and biscuits with cups and saucers, and overwhelmed by the sense of history of it all,  going back to the 1440s; all this definitely made a lasting impression on me. My parents bought me my first tweed sports jacket for the exam and I have been wearing them ever since. 

Most of my peers at the village primary school were off to the dreadful local comprehensive with its broken windows and foul-mouthed children who were only allowed in shops two at a time.   At that time  I now wore my sports jacket and tie every day, and spoke a little like the present Queen at about the time of her coronation. (Listening to cassette tapes of those days makes me cringe.)  I won all the reading prizes, poetry prizes, and the like, and was singled out for individual mention in the local newspaper for a solo I sang in a school concert. I finished every new reading scheme introduced by the progressive new headmistress who came to the school when I was nine  (I even completed all the stupid worksheets for each book, with their smiley and sad faces to indiciate my appreciation of the stories) and then got on to ‘free reading’: a jumble of original Dickens, Enid Blyton, Henry Treece, Rosemary Sutcliffe, and other books from a proper children’s library, oddly interspersed with the kind of “teen fiction” that adults (such as the new headmistress) thought useful in those days but which still gives me nightmares.  I could easily tell back in those days which books were classics. And I preferred them. At home, on our little small-holding, with no television, the family listened to Radio 4, with its round of plays and serialised readings of similar works.

At 10 I remember asking the only male teacher at the school what he thought of the new sex education programme which had come to disturb our rural idyll. It involved watching films of naked children our own age and older, wandering around a swimming pool. We all knew it was very odd.  “I disapprove of it all: lock, stock and barrel,” said Mr Flavin. I had to ask him to explain the phrase, but I instinctively agreed with him. At 10, it struck me that education - as I was experiencing it - was lost and had absolutely no idea where it was going.  This was heightened by the impression that whereas the old headmistress had been someone I could see was wise and kind, as well as strict, the new one was just distant, strict and ideological. Apart from the ridiculous box-ticking of the reading scheme, also in terms of curriculum, for example, I clearly remember the stress I went through when I changed schools at 7, then lived through a change of school leadership at 9 or 10. For me, it meant no times tables or learning poetry from 5-7, then in a new school learning that I was “backward” and did not know my tables at 7 (but quickly catching up, with help from my mother), then disappointment when the competitive and interesting challenge of learning of poems stopped (for the whole school) when I was 9 or 10.  It was, I suppose, being like a child whose parents are in the midst of an acrimonious divorce. And as I got older I became more aware of it. And Mr Flavin, who disapproved of all newfangledness, encouraged me, and my parents, to find a way of avoiding the local comprehensive.

The posher children had been lifted out of state education at 7 or 9 and sent to prep schools. My mother had been educated by nuns, then Trinity College Dublin,  then La Sainte Union teacher training in Southampton; my father had been a chorister in Wimborne Minster, a grammar school boy and a Royal Marine. They investigated the nearest Catholic school, in Portsmouth, but found it to be very dreary. There seemed to be no way out. Until they discovered Mrs Thatcher’s Assisted Places scheme. 

At first the primary school headmistress I have mentioned refused to sign the forms. Then my father threatened her with the law, and she complied. I passed the entrance exams for the two nearest HMC schools with an assisted place at each. I had to choose one, between Portsmouth Grammar or King Edward VI in Southampton, so I chose King Edward’s as it was the older foundation, and that obviously impressed me as a willing disciple of Mr Flavin and my deeply loved former headmistress, Mrs Turrell. They were both proud of me, and told me so; Mrs Turrell, in a letter sent from her in retirement, including a book as a gift.

The Liberal Education I was afterwards given at KES (including a good grasp of history,  a good level of Maths, Physics and Chemistry, a love of literature and a very wide experience of it, expertise in music, working fluency in Latin, excellent French and a good knowledge of the Old and New Testaments) convinced me that this kind of education ought to be made available to anyone who was able for it, especially as I was painfully aware that it had almost been denied to me; I could so easily have become another Jude the Obscure, no doubt filled with all the bitterness and disillusionment of Hardy’s pathetic would-be scholar. And I almost did fall into that trap again at nineteen, rejected by Jesus College, Cambridge.  But I went on to find my niche in Edinburgh after all. 

So, later, in founding my own school, I wanted to put the kind of education I had received back together with the Christianity which had inspired it. Not the conservative Anglicanism I had experienced at school, as that was in any case now vanishing from this world, but the Catholicism of my family; for my adult reflection had persuaded me that this was not only true in itself, but also Europe’s best hope for saving itself from the sea of anger and filth that must surely precede some kind of cataclysm; either another world war, or something worse. My morning reading of the papers each day does nothing to persuade me that things are getting any better. People are getting nastier everywhere.

My headmaster, Colin Dobson, had been a counter-revolutionary in his old age, I now realised. He was another Mr Flavin. He had reintroduced compulsory BCP services, taught us wonderful 19th century hymns, with 1,000 boys singing in harmony, made all pupils in the school watch Dr Bernard Nathanson’s “The Silent Scream” (which would convert even the hardest pro-choice advocate from supporting abortion), lectured the Sixth Form on the benefits of saving sex for marriage, and shared with us the graces he had obtained from a happy married life. And when someone attempted to flush a Bible down the toilet, a thousand boys had to listen to a tirade against blasphemy. He was a charming man, full of humour, full of song, and a proper leader. I wanted to be like him. In my last year at school, when I got closer to him, I discovered he was a proper drinker too, but that did not damage by admiration for him. 

His entry in Who’s Who stated his interests were “wine, women and song”.  I did not know it at the time, because I had not read enough books to see it, but Mr Dobson was deeply Chestertonian. I knew that if there were more men like him, we would all be leading better, kinder, gentler lives.


Going back to school

And so the first boys at Chavagnes International College looked almost exactly the same as I did at 12, with the same uniform and many of the same traditions. The teachers wore gowns. Even hoods. And, in my case, a mortar board for special occasions.

I had not set out on a strict course of reading to develop my educational philosophy before starting the school, although I had picked up a lot in a random manner. Now, in explaining my views to enquirers and to future recruits for the teaching staff, I was often directed to the great thinkers on education whose thought my customers imagined I must be deeply familiar with. As time went on, I built up my own synthesis of what a school ought to be, and a list of writers to whom one should go for inspiration in such an endeavour.

The list included John Henry Newman, Thomas Arnold, Matthew Arnold, Baden Powell, John Senior (an American teacher and writer), Roger Scruton[4] and latterly Anthony O’Hear[5]. John Seymour, the self-sufficiency writer beloved of my parents, together with William Cobbett, GK Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and CS Lewis found their way into the McDermott canon also. Dorothy L Sayers’ essay on the “Lost Tools of Learning” was also photocopied and distributed to all new teachers for the first few years. The system of St John Bosco (“love rather than fear”), coupled with the wisdom, humanity and erudition of the Jesuits in their 17th century “Ratio Studiorum” were also very influential.[6]

The only way forward is the way back. That was the essential idea, although - of course - there was an awareness that any tradition worth saving has to adapt … a desire to continue a tradition by somehow reinventing it.; in a way, it had to change in order to stay the same. And so our version of the English public school system was a kinder, broader and even more modern thing, even if every journalist who has ever passed through the door wants to paint the whole endeavor in a palette inspired by the sepia of old photographs.


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Above: the choirboys of our first year. (2002-203).

Below: with a headmaster friend and teacher friends in Sicily, 2008.

Image may contain: 4 people


The reality of boys …


 Of course, as theory met practice, I discovered that perhaps a certain amount of child-centeredness is only natural in a tiny school, that perhaps there is such a thing as dyslexia after all; most importantly, that managing children is mainly about getting the knack for it, so that it is difficult to make a one-size-fits-all theory.

In March 2003, I was invited to Rome to meet Cardinal Ratzinger; he was a keen reader of (and even a contributor to) our magazine, St Austin Review. My colleague Robert and I invited him to Chavagnes, unaware at that time that two papal legates who had been in Chavagnes before both became popes themselves (Clement V and John XXIII). In the event, he was elected pope anyway, too soon to be able to arrange a visit. He blessed rosaries for the boys, and when he was elected pope, the boys were ecstatic. It was if their team has won some important sporting contest.

In 2004 an Telegraph article entitled “Hogwarts meets Colditz” opened a window for the world on to what we were doing, with a heavy dose of Harry Potter. It was taken up in the Weekly Telegraph too, which meant it was read all over the world. It set the tone for the dozens of press articles there have been since, and inevitably thereby contributed to the way in which the people in the school see themselves. Later, in studying for my Masters in Educational Leadership, I was taught about the importance of keeping control of the narrative. To a certain extent, though, in the early days of the school it was the narrative that was in control of me. I was riding the crest of a wave, and enjoying it.


What about the girls?


In September 2004, at the behest of the parents of four girls whose brothers were in the boys’ school, I opened a school for girls, Notre Dame de la Bonne Nouvelle, in a château behind the school campus; three rooms in the château were offered to me for free, with boarding accommodation in a nearby summer-let where I got a special price for September to June  (a charming gîte rurale).

 I took a break from teaching in the boys’ school, and taught all the History, Latin and English the girls needed in about 10 hours per week. My mother began and ended each day with a kiss, a prayer, a few stories and perhaps some embroidery. Various other teachers came up from the boys’ school and taught a willing audience of four girls, spread over Years 7 and 8 rising to 7 by the end of the year. Like the first year of the boys’ school, it was idyllic. But with my wanting to get back and concentrate on the boys’ school, and numbers threatening to plummet to three again in the girls' school, I took the decision to close it. In the event, Mr and Mrs Lloyd (a couple who have been teaching for me since 2003 and are still around) asked to take it over; this they did - rather heroically - for seven years, but never had more than four pupils. We discovered that parents don’t send their girls away quite so easily.

Still, I loved the experience and it convinced me beyond any doubt that teenage girls and boys are very different and ought to be taught separately. To do otherwise, in my view, is a disservice to them, and quite unnatural.

The photo (above) shows a reunion of boys and girls from both schools. The boys and girls were always friends, and respected each other. But they maintained a respectful distance most of the time. We were often together at Mass, for school plays, concerts and the like. And that was a wonderful thing. Many of the girls have kept in touch with me, even though after 2005 I was just a kind of uncle, with nothing to do with the day-to-day running of the girls’ school.

In 2005 our temperamental handyman left my employment muttering all sorts of curses, and at about the same time, (possibly in league with the chaplain) another parent complained to the Mayor that the children were starving, which - incidentally - was not true in the slightest. Somehow, some nasty rumours must have got back to the ‘Procureur’, a sort of judicial official for the whole county of the Vendée, who wrote me a very succinct letter: “J’ai l’honneur de vous annoncer la fermeture immédiate de votre établissement scolaire,” continuing only to offer me the assurance of her profound consideration, etc, etc.

Shaken, I called a neighbour who is a leading local ‘avocat’. He advised me to write to the Procureur in these terms:”Madame le Procureur, Your interesting letter retained my attention and I will proceed to act upon it once you have explained to me whether your decision is an administrative or a judicial one, on which text of law it is based and what the relevant means of appeal might be. Please also send me, by return of post, a copy of all information you hold on me or on my school, pursuant to the freedom of information legislation currently in force.” Nearly fifteen years later, I am still waiting for an answer.

The truth is that during our first few years here, we were initially welcomed because the rumour was that the McDermotts were millionaires. They were quickly disabused of this notion and then some of the local civil servants went on the attack. I even received a letter telling me that all of our teachers needed Masters degrees (which incidentally most of them had). I wrote back and asked them to show me a copy of the relevant law, and of course received no response. After a few scrapes with various branches of the state, the local bishop and the President of the Vendée Council (Phillipe de Villiers, an arch-conservative Catholic who governed the Vendée invincibly for about twenty years) both let the authorities know to leave us alone, and since about 2010 things have been rather quiet. But we were not there yet; a few more years of rollercoaster ride were still about to happen.


The Dangerous School for Boys (right): I was at this time a willing accomplice at attempts to parody what we were trying to achieve at Chavagnes. I really bought into the idea that there was no such thing as bad publicity, so was happy to play ball and give the journalists what they wanted, which was just a willing victim.

The most dramatic trauma for us was actually self-inflicted, by myself. I allowed myself to be talked into allowing a television journalist to be a fly on the wall, on and off, for the best part of a year. With about 400 hours of filming and no editorial control, the whole thing was bound to be a disaster. And it was a stressful year too. Conservative viewers might have enjoyed the focus on Gregorian chant, Morris dancing and endless Latin lessons. But when the film crew talked me into slaughtering a rabbit live on film (for the first time … I do it more efficiently now), it drew a lot of fire. Various correspondents threatened to come and do to me what I had done to the rabbit. But the boys enjoyed every minute of it, and laughed til they cried when they saw the documentary. The usual obsessions of the secular world filled the show: I was even asked, with the camera rolling, about whether the boys were allowed to commit self abuse; what an awful post-modern mess we are in, I thought, for a journalist to ask such a rude question, but I handled it with a straight bat. The boys congratulated me on what I said. And for weeks, there were rabbit jokes. It probably, in the long run, cost us a few dozen pupils from the UK. But the way in which it ended up rocketing our name and website up to the top of the ratings has probably had a contrary effect that cancels out those losses. And most of the letters I received were positive, in a ratio of  2 to 1. I received about a hundred, from all over the world (as the documentary was widely syndicated)  including from an 18-year-old girl in Australia whose message was especially gushing in its admiration.

Here is what Roland White, TV critic at The Sunday Times thought:

“Ferdi McDermott - who sounds like a bit part in Father Ted - founded Chavagnes International College in Nantes, northern France, to provide a deliberately old-fashioned Catholic sort of education, with no mobile phones, no iPods and certainly no nonsense about political correctness." The review only went downhill from there.

Thankfully, my core audience (the boys) thought it was all hilarious, and we were relieved at least that nobody complained to the French authorities.

In September 2007 I signed up for the Independent PGCE at the University of Buckingham, stung by the comments of the narrator of the Channel Four documentary, who described me as possessing only a TEFL qualification; in fact, I had a Master of Arts degree from Edinburgh, but nothing else - it was true -  apart from school exams, music exams and my Cycling Proficiency Badge.

I felt that I needed a few letters after my name, and in fact I acted swiftly enough to be able to reply to some of the people who wrote in to complain about my Dangerous School, armed with MA, FCollT, FRSA, MCIL after my name. I discovered that the venerable College of Preceptors (become, less exotically, Teachers), the Chartered Institute of Linguists and the Royal Society of Arts would let most people join, for a fee, as long as they had some impressive accomplishments to demonstrate, which of I did, by this stage.

This, and the prospect of the PGCE buoyed me up from the crisis that followed the documentary. African parents were especially impressed by the array of certificates in frames on the wall behind my desk. But they actually reflected something real and increasingly useful: experience, reflection, on-the-job learning ...

One of the issues highlighted, or rather unearthed, by the journalist in the documentary was that the chaplain at that time was keen for me to leave the school I had created, so that he could take it over. Even the boys were surprised to hear him say this and it did put an additional strain on an already fraught relationship. In the end, my old friend Eric gave me the courage to extract Father’s resignation, and to get him to swear an oath on his knees, invoking all his patron saints, never to speak ill of the school or of me. “He won’t be able to keep his promise,” said Eric, “but it will probably buy you a few months”. In the event, he only took two pupils with him to his next appointment, a tiny Catholic school in Ireland. And though he had survived four years at Chavagnes, he only stayed 6 months in Ireland. He wrote to me a few years later to tell me that his four years at Chavagnes were the best of his life. I did not feel the same, but it was nice to hear. He has more recently sent us two pupils. And I would say that we are now even friends.

With that priest, and with the other chaplains we have had here at Chavagnes, there has always been a very special relationship about which one needs to be very careful. In a school such as ours, the staff, the children and the parents will go to the priest as an alternative to going to the Head. Without realising it, and by degrees, it is easy to arrive at a situation where a parallel narrative is being delivered; crossed wires, in that context, are almost impossible to avoid.

This sort of problem in a school is extremely common, and perhaps especially in an intensely religious one. Not just priests, but anyone with strong religious views, will have strong views about everything and anything in a religious school. It can be a nightmare to reconcile them.

I was relieved to hear all the harrowing case studies on the Masters degree I followed subsequently. It made me feel I was not alone.  But the guidelines for new teachers published by the US-based National Association of Private Catholic Schools are full of warnings about talking down the school and forming kabals, so fledgling Catholic schools must get this kind of thing all the time; one of the main lessons I retained from my studies on the Buckingham MEd in Educational Leadership which I started in September 2009, and finished in January 2012, was that a Head needs to keep control of the narrative. Realising that, and making sure that I do keep telling the story that I want people to hear, has made my life a lot easier since then.

The other key lesson was that one needs to identify one’s weaknesses and either turn them into strengths or create a safety net that means people are not constantly confronted with the weaknesses of the Head. One also needs to walk the halls, to be present, to embody the spirit of the school. I have been working constantly on all of this since it ‘clicked’ with me during the Masters residentials, even if every so often I forget thst I need to be keeping this issue of "narrative" as a top priority.

Listen very carefully: I shall say this only once …

Some time in the spring of 2009, I received a call from a certain Monsieur Alabâtre, who wanted a private interview. He turned out to be from the French equivalent of MI5, the widely feared Renseignements Généraux, set up by Pétain in the Second World War and still going strong as a source of “the low-down” for the Président or any Préfet who wants to know something about a political opponent. He was a charming gentleman, and we talked for an hour. Was our Mass in Latin? Was it pre-Vatican II or post? Did I know Benedict XVI personally? Did I have any unusual views about aspects of World War II? Did I have any links with the Lefebvrists? In the end, all my answers seemed to satisfy him; so much so, that he let slip that he would put in his report that we were normal and mainstream, whereas at the beginning of the interview he had said that he was not on any kind of mission, but just making a courtesy call. All of his questions were way beyond what an English government official might have asked, and two particular aspects of his visit still leave a little frisson when I remember them.

He counselled against making daily Mass obligatory in the school, or at least ever saying that it was obligatory. Then, at another point in the conversation I told him that British open-mindedness was the best medicine against extremism; I cited the case of a boy who came here at 13, and left us at 16. At first he was always harping on about Maréchal Pétain and sometimes saying he wished he had been born a German, and perhaps in the 1930s … (the poor boy was slightly crippled, with some kind of birth defect that made sport very tough for him).

After sounding off and getting reasonable answers from caring and sensible teachers (instead of sanctions, which would have been the standard French response in a French école publique), he ended up enjoying his History GCSE and moderated his views in an admirable and mature way. “I would say,'' I told the Inspector, “that while he came to us as a boy suffering with various complexes, he left us a normal and very talented young man, with a bright future, and a strong Catholic faith.”

“What was his name?” asked Monsieur Alabâtre. Without thinking, I blurted it out. The Inspector wrote it down in his book, ensuring that the poor boy would now be “fiché” (listed) and thereby making of me an informant of the first class.

(Left: With my counterpart as head of local Catholic secondary “Collège”, and prize-winning runners from both schools.)

(Left: With my counterpart as head of local Catholic secondary “Collège”, and prize-winning runners from both schools.)

In November 2010 I gave a substantial lecture, in French, at the Institut Libre de Formation des Maîtres in Paris as part of a teacher training course for students aiming to teach in the private sector.  My theme was the work of Tokien and Lewis and my argument was that Catholic teachers needed to make use of the power of literary works made famous through recent cinematic versions to explore religious and ethical themes through the allegories in these tales. To do this well, one needs to read and understand the works through the lens of the writers’ life and times. It was very well received and I was asked to speak on a similar theme at a girls’ school in Nantes a few months later. I also received a string of invitations to speak on various radio stations about themes as diverse as Shakespare and discipline. I was by now fully adapted and immersed into the French scene. 

Also during that year I asked myself seriously the question of whether I ought to be looking for a wife. A few eligible young ladies had made their interest in me plain enough over the years at Chavagnes, and there had been some heart-ache and heart-searching over it. I am sure that, privately, I caused some unnecessary suffering over this. That is a cause of regret.

But since an eighteen month relationship at university, which came to an end over my ambitions to be a priest, I had mostly tried to block the question out, or had been too engaged in fire-fighting to think of the bigger picture of my life. But now I was nearly forty. An American girl, a few years’ younger than me, was on the staff that year and we went out a few times.  I was bewitched by her but thought her out of my league. She was what one might call “a bit New Age” as well as being a real American beauty. Under my and the school’s influence, she was increasingly identifying as a Catholic, although she was heavily into the more 'spiritual' side of yoga (in which she was a real expert). Then she asked me pointedly one day when we were out having lunch, if I would ever marry a non-Catholic? I thought for a moment, and had to admit that although I had no principled objection, I thought it would be too much trouble and would probably end in disputes. Two or three times in my life, I have been left wondering if, remembering Robert Frost’s poem I took the wrong “path in the wood”,  but in the end, the path less travelled is the one I have chosen every time, for better or for worse.

Then I fell off the roof in January 2011, broke my hip, and spent two months on my back in hospital,  during which many interesting things happened in my absence; most interestingly, a poorly- thought-out attempt to buy out the school by a parent who in the end did not have the money.

The fall gave me an excuse to ask for an extra year to finish my MEd thesis, and also gave me some time-out to take stock of my situation. The process of reflection involved in the thesis threw up one truth in particular: that as leaders, we need to embody the positive change that we wish to see. I knew that if ever my school felt stuck-in-a-rut, it was because I was. I emerged from my convalescence with a determination to re-energise my school and get it up to a decent number of pupils (we had been hovering around 30 for years, with all the financial stress one can imagine from such low pupils numbers and revenue). I was also, people told me, “a more loving person”, after this experience of physical pain, isolation and reflection.

I led a successful choir trip to Rome in February 2012, and in 2013 a 110 km hike from Tui to Santiago de Compostela, with four teachers and seven boy scouts singing polyphony in an evening concert every day for a week. With a group of our boys, I was also an extra in a film,

In short, I was back on form (photo below: Sports day, June 2013). And this was just as well, because the local council had decided that they wanted to compulsorily purchase our school yard and build a road through it, which would have spelled doom for the school. I was amazed at the number of parents of present and former pupils who wrote (over a hundred of them) to the Mayor and the Inspector in charge of the public enquiry in support of our unique school. It was a real example of the Dunkerque spirit, where people come together in a crisis. Thankfully, our efforts paid off and the project was dropped. I had called the Mayor a liar in public, and he had said, angrily and off-topic, to a crowded meeting, that I didn’t care about health and safety. We both apologised to each other when things calmed down.  In June 2013 we marked these stormy times (which ended, happily, in the road project’s abandonment) with a performance of The Tempest in which I played the Sea Captain. (See below).

The period of 2011-2013 was so extremely busy that it is astonishing to relate that I also had time to experience a kind of midlife crisis during this period. I lost weight (or rather strove not to put it on again, after I had lost it in hospital), went for frequent walks, trying to stave off middle age, and I can see with hindsight that I got perhaps too close to some young colleagues who began by idolising me as their hero but probably got a bit tired of me by the time they left.  So it was a relief, to be honest, when after several great years here these young men moved on in 2013 and 2014 to take the world by storm. The College certainly had helped them, but at the same time they were so extremely devoted to their work that they too transformed lives. I am grateful to them for their dedication and friendship. I need to record my special gratitude to our chaplain at that time. He was the most gifted and genuinely humane priest we have ever had here in Chavagnes and his personal loyalty to me and his unstintinting and universal care for the boys was exemplary.  That sound partnership between the spiritual and temporal in the College made life easier for everyone. It was quite a golden age.

In the autumn of 2014 whilst also busy with all the usual business of school, but no doubt perhaps trying to fill the social void left by the departure of those young teachers, I began to wish that I were back studying again, or at least doing something more intellectual. But there was also a renewed desire to teach, and to teach deeply. So in the first term I produced a practically uncut Hamlet with myself as Claudius and a lad from my wonderful A-level English class playing the troubled prince with all the natural authenticity of an obsessive and passionate 17-year-old.


 I also started researching the life and work of Olive Custance, the wife of Lord Alfred Douglas, and brought out a volume of her poems, with a biographical sketch and notes, in which I followed very much the same system and approach that I use in my English literature classes. Since then I have been scouring libraries around the globe (I went in person to the British Library, Magdalen College, Oxford and the New York Public Library) for forgotten poems and letters, working towards a “Life and Collected Works” which I will get around to in the next year or two. 

Lastly, I made sure that my main protégé of that time, Iwo, a Polish lad who had the misfortune to have me as his teacher for three out of his four A-levels, got a place at Oriel College, Oxford to read French. He has remained very loyal to me ever since and just graduated with a II:1 last year in French and Italian. Keeping busy did a great deal of good for the school and for myself, after the drama of my accident, although the book project often kept me out of circulation in the evenings, except for theatre practices. 

In 2015 I launched, after about six or seven year of mulling over the idea, a “Studium” with the aim of creating a little university college, tagged on to the school. In my mind, strongly influenced by Newman’s Idea of a University, I first conceived of it as something for young men only, and managed to attract three of four young men from different places around the world to come and study on a kind of GAP year format for a couple of years. The curriculum was really a study of the evolution of western thought from a Christian standpoint. By 2018, I had entered into a partnership with a couple of universities to secure validation for a BA. We began the 2019/20 year with eight young people (four boys and four girls), living in the College and pursuing their studies. But the whole awful drama of this year has put further recruitment on hold until the Covid situation is clearer. 


In 2016, a sideways tribute was paid to me by the Telegraph’s obituary editor, Andrew Brown, writing in the Catholic Herald (11 March, 2016, see above) about the demise of visionary headmasters in favour of dreary service-providers; he spoke of me in the same breath as Abbot Barry of Ampleforth who prepared boys for death, and JF Roxburgh of Stowe who wanted the lads to “know beauty”.  My school was suggestively referred to as “that Catholic boarding school in France”.

So, here I am at 48, an Englishman firmly rooted in France, with a small school, a fledgling university college and a variety of writing, researching and publishing projects on the go, keen, in the next stage of my life to work on my own physical and spiritual health, to consolidate everything I have built up here and also - after all these years - to make a wider contribution to the science of education, drawing on my own experiences here, and asking - in a serious and academically sound way -  the question that I have been asking myself for the last twenty years: can the liberal education tradition save our schools and their children? Is this the answer to curriculum reform? Of course, I am biased and have come to the table with an idea that the answer is “yes”. But on the other hand, twenty years of trying have also convinced me that the practice and the theory are two different creatures. Even if I do want - very much - for my boys to “know beauty” and to die well, I do also have to live in the real world of the here and now, with all of its complex challenges and difficulties. God made me a romantic, but the school of hard knocks has made me a realist.

At a time when the content of the school curriculum is a topic of debate amongst politicians and in the press as never before - and pulling in so many different directions -  I remain convinced that the broad, Christian, humanistic education which I received in the 1970s and 1980s is still the best kind of education we can offer our young. In my literature review, I propose to examine the seminal texts in what can be regarded as the Liberal Arts tradition in education, focusing on its proponents and opponents, and also to present and summarize a representative selection of the recent scholarship around curriculum content and pedagogical methods, all with the aim of addressing the question: “Should the tradition of liberal education inform the future shape our school curriculum?”

So that is the question I am focusing on in my research.

Postscript of July 2020

Apart from one or two tweaks at the end, these reflections date from summer 2019. The adventures of the last twelve months deserve a place here but I will wait until Christmas 2020 before I start to think about committing anything to paper about this 'annus horribilis.'

Laus Deo Semper


Below: with colleagues in 2012 for a tug of war against the boys.


Above: Singing Burns love songs with my English literature A-level class at Robert Burns Night, 2018

In 2015, with two young teacher colleagues, walking on the “Camino de Santiago” in Spain.

Below: in 2013, walking with the boys to Santiago.


In Washington DC in 2018, playing the kazoo with new friends after giving a lecture on the Liberal Arts.



[1] At

[3] See portfolio of evidence for some extracts from StAR.

[4] I read his autobiographical

[5] Professor O’Hear has visited Chavagnes about a dozen times and is a great supporter.

[6] Some of my own writing about these thinkers is included in the portfolio of evidence.

[7] Included in my portfolio of evidence.


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