More than a wizard of a place

 

PROFILE ST COLUMBA’S COLLEGE, RATHFARNHAM, DUBLIN:It’s a Harry Potter-style boarding school with black gowns and a magical atmosphere. But, as LOUISE HOLDENdiscovered, St Columba’s believes its record of achievement is not fully recognised

GIRLS AND BOYS in black gowns boarding together in an ancient, secluded school; St Columba’s College must be used to the comparison with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There is a magical atmosphere around the 160-year-old campus with its Victorian and Georgian buildings, including a chapel designed by the eminent Victorian ecclesiastical architect William Butterfield, nestled in 150 acres of gardens and woodland in south Dublin.

It’s one of a handful of seven-day boarding schools left in the country and so attracts a diverse patronage. Travelling diplomats and Irish ex-pats choose Columba’s for their children when they want an Irish education. Some travel the length of the country for the school’s Church of Ireland ethos. Whatever the motivation, Columba’s is an expensive option. Six years in this Rathfarnham Hogwarts will set you back €120,000.

What do you get for your money? Value, says Columba’s warden (or principal) Lindsay Haslett.

“We’re a small school, 300 students in total. Every student gets food, board, laundry, six afternoons of compulsory sport a week, music tuition, 12 drama productions a year and dedicated attention from our staff – three-quarters of whom live here on campus. We know each student individually and we can offer what’s best for each.”

Students also attend class six days a week and are kept very busy the rest of the time – there’s not much scope for getting into trouble.

Haslett compares the service with the average pre-school childcare facility which costs about €12,000 a year for basic nine-to-five. Nonetheless, against a backdrop of falling enrolments in some private schools, a place like St Columba’s needs to justify itself. Even its day fees, at over €10,000, put it towards the top of the school price list.

Columba’s is one of a small but growing group of private schools that has seen a drop in enrolments since the downturn – by six per cent from 2008 to 2009. Hardly surprising, then, that Haslett is eager to put the record straight on Columba’s.

The school fell outside the list of top 50 feeder schools in The Irish Times 2010 Feeder School Listand has failed to rank highly in the listings since they began.

“Every year I get expressions of annoyance and frustration from the parents, Board of Management and the pupils of this school, because they are aware of the high standards at this school,” says Haslett, who says that the 71 per cent transfer to university rating, quoted for the school in The Irish Times, is misleading.

“It’s particularly frustrating given that Columba’s has pioneered the publication of exam results in Ireland. All our results are available on our website and we have an outstanding points score of 459 on average across the school.”

Haslett contends that the figures for St Columba’s are skewed by factors overlooked by the feeder list research mechanism.

“Firstly, we have a high percentage of students going to the UK and further afield to study. Secondly, we have a relatively high rate of students taking a year off education after the Leaving. Perhaps they make this choice because ours is a seven-day boarding school with six days of tuition a week. When these students take up college places the following year, their entry to college is not factored into the lists.”

Haslett also points to the students who resit the Leaving to get more points for the highest-entry college courses. These are also counted among the 29 per cent of Columba’s students recorded in The Irish Times 2010 Feeder School List as not proceeding to third level.

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the school by a UK research company found that 95 per cent of St Columba’s parents believed that the school offers good value for money. All the parents surveyed said that they would recommend the school to another parent.

With such high levels of satisfaction all round, why give a stuff about The Irish Times Feeder School List?

“Parents get upset when they see the top 10 schools in south Dublin and their child’s school is not one of them. Everyone likes to see their choice vindicated. Education is a subject of debate everywhere.

“I can only imagine that people who have chosen other schools say ‘I notice St Columba’s wasn’t there’.”

Haslett spent much of his working life in the UK and, like many in the educational fraternity, he is not a fan of league tables.

“League tables are a crude measure of education. They don’t reveal the pastoral side of schooling. Our pupils are busy, successful, stimulated and happy. They have high self esteem.”

However, school league tables are like the commercial music charts. They’re regarded with disdain by musicians, yet everyone wants to get into them.

“People accept that these figures are written in stone. The paper says that only three quarters of our students go to college. In fact, 98 per cent do. These anomalies provoke debate. I get tired of trying to correct the misapprehensions but I am urged not to relent.”

Parents, or member of the general public with a mind to do their own research on school performance, face a dappled data landscape.

More and more schools are confident enough to put their exam results in the public domain but not everyone gives the whole story, says Haslett.

“I trawl websites looking for information on Leaving Cert results. Some schools give scores that reflect well on them. We do not publish selective statistics.”

When reminded about the falling enrolment figures at St Columba’s in recent years, Haslett is untroubled. “We will never be oversubscribed like Blackrock College or Gonzaga because we are a boarding school and there’s limited demand for that.”

Against a backdrop of a potentially prolonged recession, pressure to withdraw State funding from private education and cuts in support for Protestant schools, the limited and dwindling demand for boarding is not an insignificant challenge.

Many schools may have to jostle for position in Ireland in the coming years.

And not just on feeder school lists.

St Columba’s College

Student profileThere are 300 pupils, male and female, currently attending St Columba’s. Four out of five are seven-day boarders. The rest are day students who attend classes six days a week.

Columba’s students come from all over the 32 counties and further afield – many are children of the diplomatic corps or Irish ex-pats working abroad.

School profileSt Columba’s is a Church of Ireland school set on 150 acres of garden and woodland comprising a collection of period and modern buildings in Dublin’s Rathfarnham. Three-quarters of St Columba’s staff live on campus.

Extra-curricular activities Columba’s students enjoy two floodlit Astroturf hockey pitches, rugby and cricket pitches, outdoor hard tennis courts, an outdoor swimming pool, cross-country mountain runs and a golf course.

Music and dramatic productions are a frequent feature as well as weekend clubs and tours. Half of all Columba’s students receive instrument tuition in school.

Academic ProfileThe average points attainment across all Leaving Cert students last year was 459. Included in this average was the 15 per cent of students currently receiving learning support at Columba’s.

Ninety eight per cent of Columba’s students went on to third level last year.

Fees:Seven-day boarders pay around €20,000 per annum. Day students pay over €10,000.