Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Present Challenges: 2. The Schools

School work in the normal run of things has always been a major part of the work of the Vicar here at Christ Church. The Vicar sits on five school Councils and is intimately involved in the life of two of them. So even if everything was going very smoothly a lot of the Vicar’s time would be spent on School work. I knew this when I came and accepted it gladly. The trouble was that things were going anything but smoothly.

My experience at Banchory was that school-work was a vital part of my own ministry and that of my Church. However, as you may remember from a previous post, when I came here the situation at one of the Schools, DPS, was in meltdown. A popular headteacher had been forced out, an unpopular one appointed, half the teachers had resigned in a protest against the existing management, parents were in uproar, and people outside the daily life of the School were jockeying for position, power, and influence. It was a total nightmare not only for the School but also for the Church, which was being blamed for many of the problems in the first place.

My first goal was to calm it all down and that meant getting us out of the press. I took over responsibility for all news management. This simply meant making sure there was no news! The next immediate problem was the problem of the headteacher. The truth was that he should never have been appointed. He was a perfectly nice man, and it was not his fault that he had been appointed. But given the situation he inherited, he was always going to be in difficulties.

I think those who supported the former headteacher wanted rid of him as a sort of revenge. ‘You got rid of our headteacher so we are going to get rid of yours.’ He had had no co-operation from the moment he arrived and had had a systematic campaign waged against him of the nastiest kind. How do you behave as a Christian in this sort of situation? On the one hand, you can see the problem: that this was not the right person to have been appointed. On the other, he had a right to be treated fairly and legally. This was not an easy message to communicate when people were divided into two camps either for or against him.

I argued that we needed to give him time to prove himself with the support of all involved. Then at the end of this period we could organise an appraisal exercise to be conducted by an independent, outside group of appraisers to be appointed only with his agreement. This I argued would be fair to all. It was eventually accepted by all concerned as a reasonable proposal. I think we did try to offer him support, I know I did often attracting quite a lot of criticism in the process!

Without going into too many details, however, the appraisal was not good. We paid for someone to come from Australia who could not possibly have any prejudice in the matter and sought the support of two very experienced Hong Kong educators. The appraisal was conducted over a week and was very thorough. We had no choice at the end of it. We offered the headteacher the opportunity to resign rather than to be sacked, but he refused. So it fell to me sack him. One of the saddest of jobs given what he had been through.

We were now without a headteacher and to make matters worse the sacked headteacher took us to an industrial tribunal accusing us of unfair dismissal. I found myself both very involved in the day to day management of the School and representing the School in a legal case. Fortunately, because of our genuine desire to be fair, the case against us could only fail. We were completely exonerated of any wrongdoing.

The next job was to appoint a new headteacher. We appointed someone who had been at the School for quite some time and knew it and its problems well. We wanted someone who was competent, but who knew what they were getting into.

The School had suffered terribly in the years of conflict. It was still attracting new parents because of its ‘elite status’, but it was clear to anyone who knew it that it was living off past glory and its close association with the famous secondary School, DBS. One of the problems during the time of the popular headteacher, back in the nineties, had been to do with this close relationship. She had wanted to redevelop the School moving it to the campus of the secondary School. At the risk of oversimplifying, everyone associated with the two Schools supported the idea and everyone associated with the Church didn’t. The idea collapsed amidst much bitterness and recrimination. People who had been friends for years and who had even been pupils together at the two Schools fell out with one another. The argument left wounds that still have not healed and damaged the reputations of all involved including that of the Church.

The idea of redeveloping the existing primary school had collapsed. The former headteacher, however, with the support of the secondary School decided to go it alone and build a new Primary School, which they hoped would replace DPS as the natural Primary School for the Secondary School. This meant that DPS was being cast adrift. Its buildings were old and in need of renovation, its staff demoralised and inexperienced, its headteacher still very new and inexperienced, and what is more, because of all the troubles, it had failed to keep up with all the changes that had been taking place in Hong Kong education. Its curriculum, methods of assessment, and teaching style were all hopelessly out of date.

For the past five years, we have been working hard to turn it around. We have built a new annexe, renovated the old buildings, introduced curriculum reform, recruited new teachers, set up a Parent-Teacher Association, turned co-educational, worked on introducing Mandarin (the language of the mainland) into the School, organized events to raise much needed funds for the School, and much more besides. This would have been demanding enough, but we have had to do it at the same time as the new School was being set up. They not only sought to recruit many of our pupils, they also recruited the whole of our senior staff and our two best English teachers. Maintaining morale amongst the teachers and parents that remained has been no easy task!

We have just had a routine external review conducted by the government body responsible for education in Hong Kong – a bit like an Ofsted review in England. We are waiting their report.

I have wanted us to create a Church School that is a Church School in more than name. I have also wanted to try and deal with arguments, conflicts, and trouble in a Christian manner. How far we have succeeded is for others to judge.

I have gone into all this background for two reasons. First, it has been such a big part of life here, and is, I think, worth recording, albeit it in outline, and, secondly, to try to illustrate how time consuming this part of my work has been. My predecessor had a full-time lay worker and two part-time clergy colleagues. I am effectively on my own. This does not necessarily mean that I work harder; there are, after all, only so many hours in the day. It does mean, however, that something has to give - and I have only described some of my work in one of my Schools.

Now, after nearly seven years here, I am reviewing my priorities. Adjusting the balance can seem like that I am not wanting to continue my involvement in the Schools and there is still much to be done. However, it is also true to say that while much has been achieved in the Schools, it has not had a corresponding benefit for the Church. What worked at Banchory has not worked in the same way here. Anything, but.

I will explain why next time! And I promise it will be soon.

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