'The system is focused on weaknesses, not strengths'
Arthur Godsil; St Andrew's College
Ellen Gormley and Danielle Dawson at last year's Young Scientist exhibition
David Norris speaking at St Andrew's International Model United Nations conference in 1996.
A sharp suit, a sports car, a business brain and a media pundit: as headmasters go, Arthur Godsil is more Richard Branson than Mr Chips. After more than 20 years in the driving seat at St Andrew’s College in Booterstown, “the God” is stepping down.In that time he has always cut a confident swathe through public discussions around exams, bullying, drug use, truancy and parenting.
It’s as much a part of the system as any other school in the country, yet, under Godsil, St Andrew’s sits at the back of the bus: alternative exams, unorthodox discipline codes and novel approaches to drug use and truancy have set it apart from the crowd and made it Dublin’s school of choice for many.
Godsil is retiring early, with a plan to take his unique view of schooling to a wider audience. His dream, he says, is to one day set up a school of his own. “I’m going early because I want to stay in education, perhaps in a consultancy role, with an international focus,” says Godsil.
He’s not giving away much more than that, apart from a distinct air of excitement about the potential his retirement offers him.
Godsil has been very critical of the Leaving Cert system, which he believes should be retired too. He was responsible for developing the International Baccalaureate at St Andrew’s, and about 70 students a year now choose this international programme over the Irish version. He has gone on record to accuse the system of producing students who need to be “deprogrammed” for third level.
“In our current system, we tend to focus on fixing weaknesses. How often do we look at a report card with a string of A and B grades but, sadly, focus on the sole D grade? The system is focused on weaknesses rather than strengths. The International Baccalaureate recognises the strengths of students, requiring them to choose only three subjects at higher level from the six they must study, but all higher and standard levels attract the same points rating.
Focus on strengths
“We all live our lives utilising our strengths. I know nobody whose career revolves around his or her weaknesses. In St Andrew’s we concentrate on developing students’ strengths through our personalised learning programme.”
Godsil gives the example of a student who was struggling across a range of subjects. “He said that the only subject he was good at and enjoyed was geography. To his surprise, I said that we should focus on that. He thought that that was the one area he didn’t need to work at. By giving him more support in the subject he was good at, he moved from a C grade to an A grade. He’d never had an A before, and the confidence that that gave him has improved his overall attitude to school and led to greater success in other subjects.
“The traditional approach is the opposite: take for granted the strong subjects and put all the focus on their weaknesses. Why sit an exam that you know will produce a poor outcome?”
In print, Godsil comes across as a crusader, but in person he is softly spoken. Like his image, his office is not headmasterly: it’s the tastefully lit, polished-wood retreat of a CEO. He likes to create a climate of respect, as he describes it, and has never given a detention in his years of teaching.
“I don’t like to talk about discipline or misbehaviour. I prefer to talk about school climate. We try to foster a culture that allows children to behave in a way that is positive, supportive and comfortable. I like to think not of imposing sanctions but of trying to change behaviours. Handing out punishments can create resentment.”
Godsil admits that it takes time to convince everybody that natural discipline will work. “This approach requires constant modelling and consensus building. There are always some who believe in making examples of student misbehaviour. I happen to disagree and see the benefits of a different approach.”