Our Lady's Abingdon - The Head’s Blog

The Head’s Blog

First Impressions

I am honoured and privileged to be the Head of OLA. I said this to pupils on the first day of term. I said this to staff. I have posted this on social media. And I am delighted to be able to say it to you.

OLA is an excellent school. Pupil achievement is excellent. Pastoral care is excellent. And what really makes this school excel, and how we can best demonstrate how wonderful OLA is, is through our pupils. They are quite simply fantastic. And that is why I feel honoured and privileged to be the Head.

One theme I would like you to bear in mind as we start a new school year is ‘Transformation’, and transformation not in the sense of change per se, but in all of us at OLA, pupils and staff, being the best that we can be, and all aspects the school being the best that it can be.

What makes OLA different?


An excerpt from our Mission Statement: “To each according to their needs” … we nurture wisdom, the value of learning, independent thinking, a sense of self-worth and care for each other that all may reach their full potential.

Our Catholic ethos determines everything that we do at OLA. The child is at the centre of everything. We want pupils to make the most of their gifts in all areas of school life, whether it is academic, pastoral, extra-curricular, spiritually, as a friend, as a member of a family, as a member of a community.

I would like everyone to remember that we are ‘Catholic’ in its literal sense. ‘Catholic’ means ‘all welcoming’, and we welcome boys and girls from all backgrounds, faith and non-faith. Approximately one-third of pupils at OLA are Catholic, and it is a similar proportion amongst the staff. It is our ethos and our Mission statement that current parents and pupils value, and they value our Catholic foundation because it prepares them for a life of fulfilment and, importantly, a life full of opportunities taken, not wasted.

What do we mean by Transformation? Transformation is where each individual child is valued for who they are, and who they can be. An advantage of being a small school, with class sizes averaging 15, is that we get to know everyone. We know their strengths, their areas for development, and we know how to support them, motivate them, encourage them and challenge them in everything that they do. We have ambitious aims for our pupils, and we challenge our pupils in a caring and nurturing manner so that they can develop resilience and confidence over time.

At the start of term, I said to pupils: “Try to fail. Not try and fail. Try to fail. Have a go. Learn how to be challenged. Learn how to be resilient.

As our founder, Catherine McAuley once said: “We should be shining lamps, giving light to all around us.”

‘Educate’ means to lead out of the dark and into the light. As teachers, we are enlightening our pupils. Inspiring them in lessons. Supporting them pastorally so that they feel confident. Providing a plethora of co-curricular clubs and activities so that they can make the most of their gifts. Continuing with the theme of Transformation, our pupils can enlighten the lives of those around them, contributing positively to our school community, and to any community in which they live or work when they leave OLA. Enlightening a future world where our pupils have the qualifications, the confidence, the ability to speak publicly, the skills to work independently and as part of a team, the personal integrity to do what is right and, ultimately, the indomitable spirit to make a difference in the world.

All of our pupils are on a journey and we are walking beside them on their journey. A journey of exploration and discovery.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

Academically, we want to really kindle those fires and stir those burning embers to life. We want pupils to achieve. We inspire our pupils in lessons and also in the wide range of academic enrichment activities and events we offer. Academic enrichment is an area about which I am passionate, and it is an area which we will develop even more in the future. We will have seminars and conferences, competitions and prize essays, cross-curricular projects, debating, outside speakers, trips.

So that we have a firm focus on pupil achievement, we have recently restructured the Leadership Team and created a new role, Assistant Head (Academic). One key part of this role will be ensuring that we set ambitious targets for pupils, and that there is a rigorous tracking and monitoring system which will stretch our high-achievers and intervene to support those who need help. We will not allow anyone to slip through the net. Another key part is continuing to develop the quality of learning so that it is not only excellent now, but is excellent in terms of futureproofing our pupils. Pupils joining Year 7 next September will be going to university in 2028. Pupils joining Year 3, 2032. The world will be very different. Education will be very different.

And so, I am delighted to announce that OLA is aiming to become a Microsoft Showcase School engaged in digital transformation to improve teaching and learning. This is a fantastic goal for OLA to have as we would ultimately join an exclusive group of UK schools as well as a global community. OLA will also look to join the Microsoft Innovator Educator programmes, and participate in the Microsoft Imagine Academy which offers both staff and pupils courses aligned to Level 2+ certifications.  We will be moving towards all pupils and staff having one-to-one Microsoft Surface Go 2 devices.

Pastorally, pupils can contribute to their tutor groups, to Student Council, inter-house competitions, and chaplaincy to name but a few. Pupils value our pastoral care because we view them as individuals, and we are with them on their journey. When it is going well, we are there to encourage, and when it is difficult, we are there to listen, to support and to guide. Mental health awareness is an area we also wish to develop further. As part of our Leadership Team restructuring, we have also created a new Mental Health Lead, who will coordinate awareness training programmes for pupils, staff and parents.

In terms of co-curricular, recent Open Morning visitors had the opportunity to see our glorious choir perform in the Chapel; our own swimming pool which is right in the heart of the school; our newly redeveloped sports field; an international kayaker training; rowing erg machines, and; many other activities around the school. We will always look for new ways to develop our co-curricular programme.

At OLA we really do care. And that care extends into all aspects of school life. Whether you are Catholic or not. Whether you are a straight A* student or you find Maths to be a real challenge. Whether you are a county level netballer, a first XV rugby player, a musician, a chorister, an actor or actress, or maybe you like to read. Maybe, you like to create. Maybe, you like to be involved in fundraising for charities. If you have a Special Educational Need or disability. If you require mental health support. If you have no idea what you want to do. We care. We want you to be the best you. We want your child to be the best version of themselves.

Mr Daniel Gibbons, Head of OLA

The end of the school year and the many changes OLA has undergone in its history

The end of the school year prompted me to examine more closely the display of old school photographs displayed outside my office. Maybe some of you have seen them. Leaving aside a very early one from the nineteenth century, which shows a mere handful of boarding girls, the photographs start in 1960 and proceed at fairly regular intervals up to the present decade. In 1960, gymslips, collars and ties are de rigeur for the girls and there is no sign of any Junior School pupils. There are, of course, no boys either and, unlike all subsequent photos, a complete absence of school staff. This changes markedly with the next snapshot, which dates from just over a decade later. The number of pupils is around the same (about 160), but the ties and gymslips have gone and a group of staff has appeared.

As more mature readers will remember, 1971 was the era of ‘peak’ miniskirt, a fashion among the staff that contrasts starkly with the still fully-habited figures of the two Sisters of Mercy present. I find it surprising that so few Sisters feature at this point in the school’s history, especially given that their number rises in subsequent photos before reducing to zero in more recent times. In the wake of the changes brought on by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), many orders of nuns and religious Sisters experimented with abbreviations of the old-style habit and the Sisters of Mercy were no exception. By 1993 the habits have largely disappeared, apart from Sr Gabriel, who was clearly intent to hold on to former customs to the bitter end.

The 1977 photograph shows numbers in the school rising to more than 250 and some men finally appearing among the staff. Eight years later the man count is up to five, rivalling the number of Sisters. The picture taken for the 150th anniversary of the school in 2010 features the first boys, the number increasing considerably by 2013, but with the Sixth Form still largely female. The latest picture, taken in September 2018, shows a fully co-educational school in all year groups, reflecting the coming together of the Junior (now Lower) and Senior Schools over the last decade and the transformation from convent school to the mixed independent day school that OLA now is.
I have reflected here before on the many changes OLA has undergone in its history. What is constant is its spirit, the school’s warmth and inclusive feel shining through all these photographs regardless of any changes of dress or gender balance. We remain a school deeply imbued with our Catholic ethos, open to pupils of all faiths and none and welcoming children of a range of abilities. The spirit of cooperation between students and staff was very much to the fore at this week’s Sports and House events and, not for the first time, I was proud of how our pupils conducted themselves. I hope that before too long there will be another picture to find its place in this fascinating gallery.

Reading, Writing and Authors

One of the many pleasures of bringing up a family is the opportunity it gives to revisit the books of one’s youth. The tastes of the current generation don’t exactly mirror those of four decades ago, but it’s good to see many of the books I enjoyed all those years ago still at the top of the reading lists. Flat Stanley and Stig of the Dump remain firm favourites, and I am delighted to see the current revival in all things Paddington. A few years ago our daughter was thrilled when I read her A Bear Called Paddington and we as a family have, like everyone else, greatly enjoyed both the Paddington films. Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit retain their hold on young minds, as do Enid Blyton and, most assuredly, Roald Dahl. When I interview Year 6 pupils and ask them who their favourite author is, Roald Dahl is invariably the name that comes up most often.

Many other writers do, however, now seem largely forgotten. I once tried to read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth to my children. This was a book I had found breathlessly gripping when I read it at primary school, but they found it too slow and wordy. I understood what they meant. The vocabulary used by Sutcliffe is incredibly complex, begging the question whether children today are exposed to the same range of language. As a child I was mainly drawn to historical fiction and, as well as devouring Sutcliffe’s entire oeuvre, plunged deeply into G.A. Henty, Geoffrey Trease and Cynthia Harnett. Who reads them today? I was also drawn to the strange dystopias of John Christopher, especially his Tripods series, and, like so many children, found the Sherlock Holmes stories a source of endless pleasure.

I was reflecting on this today when I introduced our guest speaker at Upper School Prize Giving, Jo Cotterill. We have two of Jo’s books in the Ratcliffe Library, donated by Jo on previous visits to the school. As I mention in my video message today, I am currently reading her acclaimed novel of 2016, A Library of Lemons, a poignant story that explores the grief of its heroine following her mother’s death and how she copes with this through the magic of reading and friendship. It’s a wonderful, beautifully written novel that I can thoroughly recommend. Earlier in her life, before devoting herself to full-time writing, Jo was a teacher, and it shows in the way she understands children’s worlds and the challenges they face growing up today.

Our English department and Ratcliffe librarian, Damian Walsh, are tireless in their efforts to encourage OLA’s pupils to fall in love with the many wonderful children’s authors writing today, some of whom live in the Oxford area and have visited us during our annual Festival of Reading. Julia Golding and Katherine Rundell have both spoken at the school in recent years and enthused the young audiences visiting OLA from local primary schools. The library is a bright, warm and welcoming environment and is always well-used, both at lunchtimes and as part of English lessons. I was delighted this week, when interviewing a prospective pupil, that she mentioned the library as being one of the main reasons why she wants to come to OLA.

In recent years some of the best public examination results we have achieved, both at GCSE and A Level, have been in English Literature. It is very pleasing to see how our pupils are responding to the excellent teaching they are getting in this area, often gaining grades well above their baseline ability. These results are, I am convinced, in no small measure assisted by the school’s culture of reading and the seriousness with which the written word is taken at OLA. Not only are the classic writers of the past celebrated, but pupils have the opportunity to hear directly from living authors how they go about the business of writing novels. This is a wonderful opportunity for us all which I am proud to see happening in our school.

Football and Olympics

On Wednesday, along with the rest of the family, I was on the edge of my seat for a couple of hours watching the Germany v. Hungary match. What a nail-biting contest that was! What made the result particularly exciting is that Germany will now play England next week in the last 16 of the competition. For an Anglo-German household like ours, it doesn’t get much better than this. The popcorn has already been ordered.

In a few weeks’ time, of course, we also have the excitement of the Tokyo Olympics, not to mention the prospect of the football World Cup in Qatar next year. While we are far from being in a Covid-free world yet, there is definitely a sense of things opening up in the sports world, with crowds returning and a gradual return to normality.

Reflecting on this, I was reminded of a booklet given to me as a child about the 1972 Munich Olympics, the venue of last night’s Euros game. This really captured my imagination, especially a section devoted to the history of the Olympics and their founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. An interesting contrast can be drawn between this great Frenchman, whose inspiration it was to revive the Olympic Games for the modern era, and that other genius, Jules Rimet, who founded the football World Cup. Both were inspired by high ideals and between them made an indelible mark on the world sporting landscape. However, their visions were very different, reflecting their contrasting backgrounds and political philosophies.
De Coubertin was a Jesuit-educated academic and aristocrat with a deep interest in educational matters. Like many of his era, he was inspired by what he saw as the ideals of the ancient Greeks, combining this with a fascination with the reforms Dr Thomas Arnold had introduced into the English public school system. The character-forming influence of sport became his abiding obsession following visits he made to English schools in the 1880s and this, alongside romantic notions of Greek athletic combat, gradually led to his forming the International Olympic Committee and reviving the ancient Games. He believed that this would promote understanding across cultures, help prevent war and foster a cult of amateurism, which he saw as a higher ideal than professional sportsmanship.
Rimet had a more troubled background. His father, a farmer, had been forced to sell his land as a result of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the family moved to the working class Parisian quarter of Gros-Caillou. As he grew up, he was moved by the economic hardship experienced by his fellow workers and, inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on labour and capital, Rerum Novarum, started a movement offering help to the poorest of the poor. Significantly, he began to see sport as a way out of poverty for talented young men and as a means of promoting social harmony. In the latter respect, his ideas were not far removed from de Coubertin’s. In 1897 he founded the Red Star club which went on to win the French football cup three times in a row in the 1920s. After the end of the Great War Rimet became president of the French football federation and a few years later president of Fifa, a post he held for 33 years.
Believing, like de Coubertin, that sport could ‘propagate understanding and reconciliation between the races of the world’, he formed with Fifa the idea of an international football competition. Uruguay offered to part-fund this and so Rimet and a group of European teams crossed the Atlantic in 1930 for the inaugural World Cup. Rimet carried the trophy that was later to bear his name – a representation of the Athenian goddess of Victory – in his bag. Famously, this was stolen just before the 1966 World Cup in England, only to be recovered from a London suburban garden by a dog named Pickles. It was stolen again when on display in Brazil and never recovered.
A devout Catholic, Rimet was opposed to the amateur ideal, believing that working class footballers should have the chance to earn a living away from the factories that would otherwise have claimed them. He was opposed to what he termed the ‘closed, disdainful oligarchy’ of de Coubertin and his disciples and, despite the ideas they had in common, was unimpressed by the public school spirit that had influenced his fellow Frenchman. The fact that the two competitions these men founded continue to flourish suggests both their visions were valid, although both have undergone considerable modifications along the way. We remain in their debt and have a great deal to look forward to this summer and next as a result.

Girls’ cricket at OLA?

If you’re an England football fan, I’m sure you’ve been cheered by the start England have made in the Euros and are eagerly looking forward to the Scotland game. If you’re a cricket fan, you might not be feeling so buoyant, given England’s recent defeat in the series against New Zealand. However, there is still women’s cricket to enjoy, in the shape of the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, named after the woman who did most to raise the profile of the women’s game in the last decades of the 20th century, storming the male bastion that was Lord’s and establishing a women’s World Cup before the men did the same.

Girls Cricket at OLA

What of girls’ cricket at OLA? This is a question I’m frequently asked by prospective pupils, which has led to a review by our PE department of girls’ sport provision. More on this soon. This has prompted me to do some digging into old copies of OLA’s school magazine, ‘The Annual’, editions of which we have dating from 1927 to the 1960s. The results are fascinating. Unlike football and rugby, cricket appears to have been well-established as a girls’ sport from an early date. Sr Penny Roker’s history of OLA, ‘Children of Mercy’, records several instances of the girls playing cricket in the school, including a match against the boys of the prep school in 1926. The result was not in dispute, but while the girls’ diary records imperiously: ‘Cricket match with the boys. Result obvious’, the boys comment tersely: ‘Naturally, we had to let them win’. Cricket was just as popular as tennis as a summer sport, with Sr Penny noting: ‘The girls preferred to play cricket regularly all summer, although it was really meant to be for the junior girls’.

My researches in the Annual reveal that, while tennis, hockey and netball generally ruled the roost as they continue to do today, cricket undoubtedly had its adherents. Each of the magazines has a ‘Games Report’, detailing the kind of triumphs that would now receive lavish treatment in the newsletter and on the website, with occasional photographs of girls holding sticks and rackets. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any pictures of girls at the wicket. The fullest entries for the summer game are to be found in the 1927, 1943 and 1944 issues. The first of these has a breathless account by one Sheila O’Sullivan which begins: ‘Cricket is my favourite game and, when it is a question of a match, I simply put my heart and soul into it.’ The writer makes reference to there being a ‘Convent Cricket League’ with the girls’ team being captained, in a way that would raise eyebrows today, by the ‘father of an old girl’.

To make up for a regular fixture being cancelled, the girls arrange a repeat of the 1926 match against the boys of the preparatory school. Unfortunately, the boys manage to overhaul our heroines’ total at the conclusion of what sounds like a thrilling, two innings contest. The chronicler records nobly: ‘It was a terrible moment; we did not like being beaten, but we bore it in the fine spirit of sportsmanship.’ The girls cheer up immediately when their captain presents them with ‘several large boxes with sweets’ which they promptly share with the boys.

According to the 1943 Annual, ‘the school has taken its introduction to cricket very well’, the writer clearly being unaware of what went on in the twenties. A year later the girls manage four school fixtures and three house matches, with cricket receiving a longer report than any other sport. Each member of the team is profiled, including a no-holds-barred assessment of form that would hold its own in any newspaper sports supplement today. P. Woolliams, for instance, is described as a ‘hard hitter who has probably been the most prolific scorer in the team. Her slow bowling too is quite tricky, but she must concentrate more on length.’ Take note, P. Woolliams.
Curiously, there is no reference to cricket at all from 1945, the departure of one Mrs Kirtin mentioned the year before perhaps meaning that there was no member of staff to carry on the tradition. A rumour has, however, reached me that girls’ cricket underwent a brief revival at OLA in more recent times, perhaps even run by two current members of staff. I will now be pursuing my researches in this direction.

Mr Oliver tell us about his favourite – and least favourite! – subjects as a school pupil, and reflects on what comprises a broad and balanced curriculum

“At OLA we encourage pupils above all to follow their interests, providing a broad range of options to enable them to do so. Every single subject gives value over and beyond the subject matter involved. Good teachers don’t just open a door to knowledge but, whatever their specialism, teach skills that go beyond it. In this way our children develop into rounded human beings with a range of personal and academic aptitudes that will be useful to them for the rest of their lives.”

I am a little embarrassed to confess that, while passionate about Arts subjects at school, I was less excited about Science. As at OLA, the Science subjects at my school were part of the core curriculum and all pupils were required to study them to ‘O’ Level. While I could relate to Biology and developed an interest in environmental matters, leading to huge enjoyment of an Environmental Studies option in the Sixth Form and a month long expedition to Iceland on the back of this, I could never quite see the point of Chemistry and Physics. This, I think, had something to do with the teachers I had for these subjects, but was also a general failure on my part to understand why they were important.

I still have my Physics exercise book from this time with its comment from my teacher, a laconic Scot who had clearly noticed my lack of enthusiasm: ‘Cheer up! Only two weeks of Physics to go.’ In the end, by slogging away at Hooke’s Law, colloids and other (to me) impenetrable material, I did achieve some decent grades – better, in fact, than in my preferred Biology – but was relieved to be able to move on to pastures new in the Sixth Form.
Looking back, I am disappointed that my youthful imagination wasn’t stirred more by Science. It is, of course, very much en vogue among young people right now, not only because of the many excellent popularisers of Science like Brian Cox, Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins, but also because of the exciting advances in human knowledge and technology that have come with it. Added to this, here at OLA we have a wonderful team of Science staff under the inspirational leadership of Mr Easton. This means that we always have a healthy number of students opting to study Science at A Level, enthused by the windows it opens and encouraged by their parents and the prevailing zeitgeist. As a result, while some other subjects end up being taught in very small groups, Science subjects rarely are. Students regularly take their interest to the next level and recent choices for university subjects have included Biomedical Sciences, Nuclear Physics and Medical Engineering.

The current popularity of STEM subjects can, however, lead to the danger of schools downplaying the benefits of other choices. A healthy balance in the curriculum is always needed and students should never feel they need to choose certain subjects just because they are seen to be more highly prized than others. I write as a Classicist who is well aware of the dominance that Latin and Greek had in the curricula of independent schools over many decades, and how long it took for Science to find a place in them at all. Despite the well-documented benefits of a classical education, the 19th and early 20th century public school curriculum lacked breadth and, as well as needing an injection of Science, in the end had to make room for the study of modern languages and the other subjects that go to make up today’s timetable.

At OLA we encourage pupils above all to follow their interests, providing a broad range of options to enable them to do so. Every single subject gives value over and beyond the subject matter involved. Good teachers don’t just open a door to knowledge but, whatever their specialism, teach skills that go beyond it. In this way our children develop into rounded human beings with a range of personal and academic aptitudes that will be useful to them for the rest of their lives.

Bertram Ratcliffe MC Prisoner of War and Escapee

For my blog this week here is an article I wrote some years ago for the school magazine. The article concerns perhaps OLA’s most illustrious former pupil, in whose honour the Senior School library is named. He was a gallant and daring officer whose devotion to his old school was unwavering.

Captain Bertram Louis Ratcliffe MC

There is little doubt that Captain Bertram Louis Ratcliffe MC was one of the most remarkable pupils ever to attend what, in later times, was to become Our Lady’s Abingdon. The episode for which he is mainly known is his dramatic escape from a train in northern Germany as a prisoner of war during the First World War, but there is much more to Ratcliffe than this. As well as being a career soldier he was at various times an actor, writer, businessman and benefactor of his old school, dying at the ripe old age of ninety-eight in 1992. His uncle was the great industrialist Lord Brotherton, who himself was a major benefactor of the library at Leeds University that bears his name and in whose collections Ratcliffe’s papers and memorabilia are now gathered. Many of Ratcliffe’s books, including an account of the early life of Napoleon Bonaparte, are still available and provide a fascinating insight into the interests that preoccupied him from the period immediately after the Great War right up to his death. His 1935 novel ‘Idle Warriors’ gives a more or less faithful account of his experiences during the defining period of his life, his three year imprisonment at a camp for officers near the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt.

Ratcliffe was born on 8th March 1893 in what was then the prosperous London suburb of Upton Park, West Ham, an area that had recently been developed as a desirable residential district for employees of the City of London. Ratcliffe’s parents, both Roman Catholics, moved there from their original home in Manchester some time before the birth of their youngest son, perhaps attracted by West Ham’s status as a growing centre of Catholicism with its newly built and impressive church of St Antony of Padua. According to the Census record, by 1901 Ratcliffe’s mother had moved to Hornsey in Middlesex, while his father appears to have emigrated to Australia.

A year later young ‘Bertie’ was sent away to Abingdon to board at St. Joseph’s, the preparatory school founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1883 as a sister establishment to Our Lady’s, the girls’ convent school they had started in the early 1860s. The boys’ school prepared its pupils for the major Catholic public schools such as Downside, Douai and Ampleforth although this was not the route that Ratcliffe was to follow. He remained as a pupil until 1905, saying later in life that it was the only school he attended where he was truly happy. His affection for the school is shown by his many benefactions to it in later years and his frequent visits to events such as the annual Prizegiving.
In the summer of 1907 Ratcliffe started as a boarder in the Head Master’s House at Harrow School, where he was to remain until 1912.

After leaving Harrow, he became an officer cadet at the Royal Military College Sandhurst, from where he passed out in July 1913 with a commission in the 14th the Prince of Wales’ Own West Yorkshire Regiment. Not much more than a year later he was to be caught up in the general mobilisation that occurred as the British Expeditionary Force was formed to cross the Channel and prosecute the war against Germany. At 6.15 am on 7th September 1914, along with the officers and 959 men of the regiment’s 1st Battalion, he left Southampton for France on the troop ship Cawdor Castle and by 16th September had reached the Aisne River. This was the period in the war following the Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne, but by the middle of September the Germans had begun a counter-attack. The British line was being heavily bombarded as, on the 19th of the month and in heavy rain, Ratcliffe’s Battalion replaced the Coldstream Guards on the heights of Craonne. Here they held the extreme right of the British line, with the Fifth French Army to their flank. Enemy snipers opened up before they were properly dug in, but they worked on trenches through the night and were able to stand to arms at 3.30 am. These were the very earliest days of the trench warfare that was later to become the defining feature of the Western Front. At 5.00 am the Germans launched a heavy infantry attack on the French who, having suffered heavy casualties, withdrew. Just over an hour later the incident occurred that Ratcliffe later used for the opening lines of ‘Idle Warriors’:
‘Possibly it was the blade of my raised sword that, glinting in the rays of the morning sun, drew the marksman’s bullet. I saw him fling himself upon the ground and take aim, and I pointed my sword at him and at the little groups of grey men that were appearing from among the trees and making alternate rushes towards us down the green slopes. I was not afraid; for there is courage in ignorance, and I was barely twenty years old. Suddenly a mailed fist struck my right shoulder; an electric shock passed through my body; my sword spun from my hand: I was falling dizzily as one falls in a dream … down, down at ever increasing speed. Then I found that I had stopped, and, to my astonishment, that I had only reached the bottom of the half-dug pit in which I had been standing a moment before. Blood filled my mouth and a hot stream was spreading over my back.’

Across the day the 1st Battalion suffered heavy casualties and, by its end, only 5 officers and 250 men remained. Seven officers were killed, two were wounded and eight were counted as missing: Ratcliffe, who had been taken prisoner by the Germans at 2.00 pm, was one of these. Unable to walk, he was placed on a cart and by 23rd September found himself in the town of Laon. Throughout this time his wound had remained undressed and he had received no medical attention. Under French administration, he was lodged in the Lycée with a number of other captured British and French officers and here he describes himself as being well looked after by a French doctor. His wound received attention and he was moved, on 8th October, to the Palais de Justice in the same town. Finally, on 10th October, he was packed into a fourth class train carriage along with twenty-four German soldiers and, passing through Cologne and Frankfurt, travelled south.

Five days later, the train arrived at Ingolstadt in Bavaria. Here, along with six French officers, he was made to walk ten kilometres to Fort X, one of a ring of forts that had been built around the town by its Bavarian rulers as a redoubt in the nineteenth century. In ‘Idle Warriors’, Fort X is given the name Fort Prinz Heinrich and here, in rather lurid terms, Ratcliffe describes his introduction to what was to be his home for the foreseeable future. ‘I seemed to have travelled far, not only by road and rail, but through time as well. Fort Prinz Heinrich? The great gates swinging on dusty hinges; the screeching bolts; the moat; the piled-up cannon balls; the sentries half seen in the lantern rays; the colossal figure of the commandant; the evil glint in the eye of his secretary, Muller; the sickening blow from the sentry’s rifle.’

In the interview he gave to the British military authorities on his return to England in April 1917, Ratcliffe described the camp and his experiences there in more detail: ‘The fort is surrounded by a moat; all the windows are barred, and the entrance is by means of a tunnel. All the rooms are underground; regular casemates. I was placed in a room with five French officers; we each had a bed, straw mattresses, one sheet, a straw pillow, two blankets, and a stool issued to us. In the room there was also a small table, large enough to accommodate four, at which we had to eat all our meals … The guards, as a rule, were respectful. We had two roll-calls a day, at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and were allowed out until 7 p.m.’ Of the 3,000 or so men at Ingolstadt, only twenty-five were British. Here Ratcliffe remained until 19th April 1915, when he was allowed to go to the military hospital at Ingolstadt for an operation on his right arm, which had been useless since he had been wounded. After the operation, conducted by a nerve specialist named Dr. Funroeher, he regained the use of the arm and was allowed to convalesce for two months.

In April 1916 Ratcliffe was transferred to another of Ingolstadt’s military prisons, Fort VIII, which he describes as more comfortable than his former billet. Throughout his time as a prisoner of war he is conscious of his duty to escape, but the fort’s location in Bavaria made a successful breakout almost an impossibility. Prisoners at the various Ingolstadt forts did try to get away, but the vast majority were recaptured and sometimes transferred to the notorious Fort IX, reserved for really difficult cases. The future General de Gaulle, to be encountered by Ratcliffe in the Second World War, spent some time here after making himself too troublesome to his captors. Ratcliffe himself got into trouble when, in May 1916, he was put in the cells for a week after a map of Bavaria was found in his luggage. The opportunity that was to lead to his escape only came nearly a year later in early April 1917, when he and a number of other British officers were told that they were to be transferred to a new camp in the north western corner of Germany at Krefeld.

Their journey, under armed guard, began on April 6th when they were put on a train travelling to Cologne via Würzburg. The train arrived at Cologne at 5.30 pm on the afternoon of the 7th from where, after a change of trains, Ratcliffe and his fellow prisoners set off again an hour later. In his London interview he recalled the next dramatic steps in surprisingly matter of fact terms: ‘The journey continued, and at about 8 p.m. we arrived at a small junction 2 kilometres south of Crefeld. It being dusk, we five {British officers} left the train as it was drawing out of the station, ran a short way along the line until we came to a crossing, where we divided into three groups.’ In ‘Idle Warriors’ he gave this same episode, the beginning of his daring escape, the value it deserved:
‘Half an hour went by. We were travelling fast and jagged blocks of stone, strewn along the embankment, did not encourage that vital leap. Another ten minutes went by, another five. Featherstone {the name Ratcliffe gives to his fellow escapee, Squadron Commander Briggs} and I searched one another’s eyes. It was time to act. Suddenly the Bavarian officer appeared in the doorway. “In a few minutes we shall be at our destination. You will please prepare your things.”
Then, as he turned away, the opportunity came: it could have come at no better time or place; for the light was fading, and the line was running nearer to the frontier than it had done throughout the journey. The train began to slow up, giving us, as it were, a sign, and putting my head out of the window I had a swift vision of troops leaning from the train and waving to women in houses besides the line; …Wildly I wrenched at the handle. Why wouldn’t it turn? Damn the thing. Featherstone’s voice was at my ear, impatient, tense: “Quick, for God’s sake … open the bloody door … open it … Hell!”
The handle gave, the door flew open and I leapt, or rather fell out, bounced helplessly, turned head over heels, picked myself up and started to run. Beside me I felt rather than saw Featherstone, running and breathing heavily. Well, we had done it now, we had plunged … and the train was already out of sight.’
Briggs and Ratcliffe had on them only a map and a compass, now in the Liddle Collection at Leeds University, and some chocolate. They were dressed in full British uniform, Ratcliffe in a knee length coat and puttees. Once off the train they were soon spotted by two men and had to run across some ploughed fields to get away from them: ‘We kept on walking until 4.30 am the following morning, never touching the roads, always going across ploughed fields; then we hid in a small wood by the side of the road until 8.30 p.m., when we started off again on our journey, across more marshes and on until midnight, when we struck into a very big forest, walked for one and a half hours through the forest until we suddenly struck a sentry.’
At this point Ratcliffe and Briggs separated, Ratcliffe being pursued by the sentry until he managed to evade him by lying low in a ditch. At around 2.00 a.m. he set off again and soon saw the line of barbed wire that marked the border with Holland. Unfortunately, he was immediately spotted by another German soldier. ‘I started to run as hard as I could over the frontier, but I had only done about four paces when I caught my foot in a furze bush and fell. The sentry followed me, and when I got up he was standing 2 yards from me.’
The two men now had a conversation in the moonlight, at the conclusion of which Ratcliffe bribed the sentry for 25 marks to let him go. He was then allowed to make a dash for the border, finally arriving in Holland at 5.30 a.m. on the morning of April 9th. Eventually, after reporting to the police and proceeding via Venlo and Rotterdam, he was handed over to the British Consul and by April 12th was back in London. On this day he sent a telegram to relatives in Yorkshire saying that he had escaped and the interview quoted from above took place at his brother Edward’s home in Ealing. This interview, now lodged in the National Archives at Kew, is the main source for the information we have about Ratcliffe’s prison experiences, the details of which were fleshed out so dramatically in ‘Idle Warriors’ eighteen years later. On 18th April King George V invited Ratcliffe, who by this time was staying in Yorkshire, to come back to London to tell him about his escape, an event which duly took place at a lunch at Windsor Castle on the 23rd. For his brave exploits he was awarded the Military Cross.

The later events of Ratcliffe’s long life are also of great interest and will one day provide rich material for a biographer. He spent the period from 1917-19 as ADC to Major-General Sir P. C. Palin in Palestine, retiring from the Army in 1920. In 1924 he married the Belgian pianist, Andrée Marie-Helene Vauthier, and in the Second World War was appointed staff captain on the British military mission to General de Gaulle and the Free French. The dustcover of his 1981 account of the early life of Napoleon gives the following information about how he occupied his time when not serving his country: ‘After the war he took up an apprenticeship with a merchant firm in the City before establishing his own company importing Scandinavian products. He then became a director and later chairman of an industrial chemical firm. After a short period as a professional actor he took up two further chairmanships … before devoting his time to writing.’

In addition he became a benefactor of his old school in Abingdon, giving a large sum in 1948 to equip the school library that was named after him. He also donated money to fund an annual Ratcliffe History Prize and the Hilaire Belloc Prize, for which he sought and gained the consent of Belloc himself. Ratcliffe was a regular attender of the annual Prizegiving and donated other items to the school, such as footballs and boxing gloves. He also contributed poems to the school magazine.
It is fitting to end by citing the motto of Bertram Ratcliffe’s old regiment, the West Yorkshires: ‘nec aspera terrent’. The harshness of war held no fear for this former pupil of the Sisters of Mercy and, as we continue to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, it is appropriate once again to recall his name.

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

This Monday is the National Day of Prayer for Young People, a day on which schools are encouraged to pray the Rosary for the intentions of our pupils. Given everything that our students have gone though over the last year as a result of the pandemic, the 2021 day of prayer takes on a particular significance.
Linked to this, Bishop Philip has placed the youth work of our diocese under the patronage of the fascinating figure of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (pictured above).

Pier Giorgio was born in Turin in 1901. He came from a wealthy and influential family, his mother being an artist and his father the founder and owner of the Italian daily newspaper ‘La Stampa’. Neither of his parents was particularly religious and both were unhappily married. He had a younger sister, Luciana, with whom he was very close and grew up to be a good-looking young man, full of life and energy. A daredevil athlete, he loved skiing, swimming, horse-riding and, above all, climbing mountains.

The young Pier Giorgio soon developed a deep spiritual life based around the twin poles of daily reception of the Eucharist and devotion to Our Lady. At the age of 17, he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society – of which we now have a flourishing branch here in Abingdon – and dedicated much of his spare time to serving the sick and the needy, caring for orphans and assisting demobilized servicemen returning from World War I. Without drawing attention to himself, he worked secretly in the slums, gave away his wealth and much of his spare time serving the poor: ‘I see a special light around the sick, the poor, the less fortunate, a light we do not possess’ he said. He often gave up his holidays at the Frassati summer home outside Turin because, as he said, “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?”

All this was combined with an attractive and lively personality. As a university student, he was the life and soul of a group of close friends called the Typi Loschi (the ‘Shady Ones’). He smoked, enjoyed a drink, played practical jokes, debated politics and fell in love. He was also devoted to the theatre, the opera and other cultural pursuits. He loved art and music and could quote whole passages of Dante from memory. But alongside this was his profound spirituality, with many hours, even at night, given up to prayer. He encouraged his friends to accompany him to Mass, read Holy Scripture and pray the rosary.

Like his father, he was strongly anti-Fascist and did nothing to hide his political views. At various times he was physically attacked by groups of anti-clerical Communists and Fascists. Participating in a demonstration in Rome, he stood up to police violence and rallied other young people by grabbing the banner his group was holding, which the state guards had knocked out of another student’s hands, and used it to fend off the blows of the guards.
Just before receiving his university degree, Pier Giorgio contracted polio, probably caught from the sick he had been tending. After six days of terrible suffering, he died at the age of 24 on July 4th 1925. To the amazement of his family, who knew little of his inner life, great crowds turned out for his funeral. The streets of the city were lined with a multitude of mourners, including the poor and the needy whom he had served so unselfishly for seven years. Many of these people were, in turn, surprised to learn that the saintly young man they knew had actually been the heir of the influential Frassati family.

There is a great deal about Pier Giorgio on the internet and I am indebted to www.frassatiusa.org among other sites for what I have gleaned about him in recent months. I can see very clearly why Bishop Philip is holding him up as a model for our youth. Frassati was a highly attractive person who put his faith vigorously into action and, in an all too brief life, devoted himself to helping his fellow human beings.

Well Above Average – OLA’s continuing ‘Value Added’ success

According to Government leagues tables, published earlier this year, OLA was the joint 4th best performing school for adding value at A-level out of 84 schools and colleges in Oxfordshire in 2019. This puts us in the top 5% of schools in England. We rate well above most of our major competitors, as the graph below shows:

Our score is 0.42, placing us in the ‘Well Above Average’ category, the highest a school can achieve. These figures explain how much progress students who studied A-levels made between the end of Key Stage 4 (GCSE) and the end of their A-level studies, compared to similar students across England.

The scores are calculated by comparing the A-level results of students at each school with the A-level results of students in schools and colleges across England who started with similar results at the end of the previous Key Stage 3 – Key Stage 4.

By this measure, OLA’s 2019 A-level cohort made much greater academic progress between their GCSEs and A-levels than those in other schools. This builds on the ‘Value Added’ many of them had already achieved at GCSE, where their performance exceeded baseline expectations.

In summer 2020, our students once again excelled themselves, scoring some of the best results in the school’s history. Our Value Added scores were even higher than in 2019, showing once again that OLA’s small class sizes, innovative and fun approach to learning and nurturing ethos bring out the very best in our students.

Reflecting on OLA’s History in its 160th Anniversary Year

In the midst of the pandemic, there is a danger of forgetting that the school is in its 160th anniversary year. We are now hoping to celebrate this in 2021, once social gatherings become possible again. Our school has an extraordinary history and from time to time it is important to recall the journey it has taken over the decades and, sometimes, centuries.

I am sure if I asked any of OLA’s pupils whether the school features in the Domesday Book, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. I would expect nothing less, given that the school was founded in 1860. However, there is a part of OLA whose name really can be found recorded there and you can read about it if you’re prepared to take a short stroll down Audlett Drive.

Behind Sherwood Avenue, in the middle of a 1970s housing estate, you will find the ruins of an old building. This is Barton Court, built around 1554 and part of the ancient manor of the same name. The ruins are not particularly impressive but the story behind the estate that gave birth to them is a fascinating one for anyone associated with OLA. Historians have speculated that its origins go back to Roman times and even the Iron Age, and we do know that the place was one of the earliest granges of the Saxon Abingdon Abbey. The Domesday Book records that the manor contained 137 households, making it one of the largest in the country. It consisted of 200 acres and had land for forty ploughs, worked by ‘24 freedmen and two slaves’. As you might expect, it was assessed by the Normans as needing to pay a great deal of tax. By the 12th century it was providing the monks with 5,600 eggs a year and also supplied the straw for the Abbey refectory floor. The manor house served as the abbot’s palace.

All this came to an end at the Reformation. Following the destruction of the abbey, the manor was leased to John Audlett, the last of the monastery’s stewards, and was later inherited by one Thomas Reade (note all the familiar Abingdon names). Using stone from the ruined tower of the abbey church, Reade built a new house, Barton Court. The history of the house turned out to be brief but distinguished. In the Civil War the Reades, who were ardent royalists, entertained King Charles I there several times, the family having been given the right of royal hospitality by Henry VIII. It was from Barton Court that Charles said goodbye to his queen, Henrietta Maria, for the last time in April 1644, before going to fight the Battle of Newbury.

Only two years later the house was largely destroyed by parliamentarian troops and never rebuilt, leaving the ruins we still see today. A new house was constructed nearby later in the 17th century and survived until 1967. After this house was demolished, its stones were used for the foundation of Didcot Power Station, the towers of which have of course in their turn recently undergone demolition. So the wheel of history turns.

It was this house, along with 47 acres of land and various outbuildings, that the Sisters of Mercy purchased for the school in 1926. By this time the manor was no longer in the hands of the descendants of Thomas Reade, but owned by the Stonehouse-Bowyer family, relatives of the Sir George Bowyer by whose generosity the Sisters had been enabled to found the school seven decades before. The Sisters used their newly acquired estate to create hockey and cricket pitches and tennis courts, and it was also used for the annual sports day, a tradition continued to this day by the Junior School. The house was leased as a nursing home and a small dairy farm was set up, to the delight of the pupils.

Over the years parts of this land were gradually sold off and all that remains today is the sports field we continue to call Barton field, the last link with the ancient manor of Barton apart from the ruins behind Audlett Drive. If you do go down to see them, you will see a photograph on the information board of a wooden door. The caption reads: ‘This door was removed from Barton Court and is now used in the Convent’. The door is still there in the old convent building, a tangible reminder of the Barton estate and a chain of history reaching back to the Domesday Book and beyond.

Left: The ‘new’ Barton Court purchased by the Sisters in 1926. Right: Barton Court today

How Catholic is your school?

One of the questions I am most often asked by prospective parents is: ‘How Catholic is your school?’ Usually this comes from people who are not Catholic themselves, wondering whether a Catholic school is right for their children. My response is that we are welcoming to those of all faiths and none and that the school’s ethos is broad enough to accommodate all. The fact that less than a third of the pupil body is Catholic is testament to the fact that the education we provide reaches out and embraces children from a wide range of backgrounds. Yet ‘broad’ does not mean ‘insipid’ and I will argue here that there is a very distinct vision informing the way we do things.

Last year I attended the annual schools’ day in Basingstoke, where all the Catholic heads in the area came together for study and reflection. We were fortunate to be addressed by Professor Gerald Grace, probably the most influential British Catholic educationalist of his generation. Prof. Grace reminded us that our Catholic schools were founded for the wider benefit of society and not just for the Catholic community. Since the 1960s a great number of documents have come out of the Vatican on the subject of the nature of Catholic education, chief among these being the snappily titled The Catholic School (1977). Prof. Grace urged us to go back to this source, which is exactly what I’ve done.

‘A school,’ says the document, ‘is not only a place where one is given a choice of intellectual values, but a place where one has presented an array of values which are actively lived. The school must be a community whose values are communicated through the interpersonal and sincere relationships of its members and through both individual and corporative adherence to the outlook on life that permeates the school.’ Cutting through the Vaticanese, this means that Catholic schools, while being centres of learning, are first and foremost communities. The values of the community, if sincerely embodied by its members, will create an environment where children will flourish, academically, spiritually, morally and socially.

But this begs the question: What are Catholic values? People who know OLA well usually say that the school is a warm, welcoming community where children are nurtured and where the school’s motto, ‘whatever you do, do it well’, is actively promoted. Is the school like this because it is infused with a Catholic spirit? I believe that it is. Another key document, issued by the English Catholic Education Service in 2014, says: ‘Catholic education strives to offer students every opportunity to develop their talents to the full through their academic work, spiritual worship and extracurricular activities …. All students are valued and respected as individuals so that they may be helped to fulfil their unique role in creation.’ I would like to think we live up to that and that we at OLA therefore embody the best of Catholic education.

Critics of Catholic schools often use the term ‘indoctrination’ to describe the educational philosophy that underpins them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Genuine intellectual enquiry is at the centre of all our schools and drives the approach to academic work. In a world where blinkered dogmatism is on the rise, Catholic schools encourage pupils to look at all sides of a question in a genuine pursuit of truth. In a society increasingly subject to the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, as Pope Benedict famously put it, the unfashionable pursuit of beauty, truth and goodness remains the goal of the Catholic school. This means that the education offered is not just a narrow drive for academic results but a participation in a community of learners, where skills valuable for the whole of life are learnt. In our fragile, anxiety-ridden world this seems to me a philosophy to be treasured and passed on to the next generation.

Black Lives Matter

(Blog originally published 10 November 2016)

A defining moment of my childhood occurred when I was taken to watch my first county cricket match at Hampshire’s Northlands Road ground. A teacher at school had aroused my interest in the game and I had pestered my father for days to take me to a match. We arrived to find that Hampshire had won the toss and were batting. Approaching the boundary through the crowd at the turnstiles, I found that two of the greatest batsmen of the era, Gordon Greenidge and Barry Richards, had just arrived at the wicket. Both were in full flow. Greenidge cut his first ball, pitched short and wide outside the off stump, for four, and Richards majestically dispatched the first few balls of the next over to the on-side boundary. To say that I was captivated would be a major understatement. These two stars immediately became my heroes, kick-starting a lifelong devotion to cricket.

This image of my childhood came back to me earlier this week when I attended Chris Lubbe’s talk, advertised in our newsletter last week, at St. Edmund’s School. If you have never heard Chris Lubbe speak you should take the first opportunity to do so. He is a South African who seems to have met everyone who was anyone in the two decades after 1990, a time when he was working as Nelson Mandela’s bodyguard. Lubbe accompanied Mandela all around the world, meeting the Pope, the Royal Family, American Presidents and, much to his and his boss’s amusement, the Spice Girls. As well as name-checking a long list of celebrities, Lubbe spoke movingly of his and his family’s long suffering under South Africa’s apartheid regime, his mother nearly dying after being brutally thrown onto the pavement by the police after she had had the temerity to rest on a whites’ only bench. Lubbe himself was beaten up, tortured and imprisoned, becoming a political activist in the days when South Africa was fighting to emerge from its darkest period.

So how do my memories of seventies English cricket relate to this? What strikes me now about the scene is how I took it for granted that Richards, a white South African, should be playing together in an English setting with the West Indian Greenidge. The two of them opened the innings for Hampshire week in, week out at the height of the apartheid era. This seemed completely natural, the world of English cricket being populated as it was by players from all the great cricketing nations. Touring sides from India, Pakistan and the West Indies made an equally great impression on me and I idolised such mesmerising performers as Gary Sobers, Asif Iqbal and Bishan Bedi, as well as the English greats of the period. The idea that anyone would have made any distinction between them because of race, nationality or, indeed, religion would have struck me as bizarre, my only interest being in the skill they displayed and the individual touches they brought to the game. Yet in South Africa things were ordered differently.

Only a few years earlier Richards had been representing his country against Australia, his test career being tragically brought to an end when he was at the height of his powers by the sporting isolation that had enveloped his country. Greenidge, by contrast, became a key figure in the dominant West Indian side of the seventies and eighties as the South Africans looked on from afar. The horrors of apartheid involved far greater miseries than this – as Lubbe so graphically described – but the fact that a generation of South African players, both black and white, were deprived of the chance to represent their countries was indeed tragic. I am glad that so many members of the OLA community, staff, parents and teachers alike were able to hear Mr Lubbe this week and be reminded that the politics that brought apartheid about must never again be allowed to flourish.