‘What Eton and Oxford Might Have Become’
Chavagnes International College was founded in 2002, in a large former junior seminary in the west of France, by a group of British teachers under the leadership of Ferdi McDermott, a former Catholic publisher. Ferdi has himself been Headmaster of the College since 2007.
What inspired you to do this?
I had always been drawn to the vision of Cardinal Newman expressed in his Idea Of A University in which a place of education ought to be a community of minds and hearts. According to Newman, education is about friendship.
It is the positive relationship between pupils and between pupils and teachers, and then with Almighty God, that sets the scene for learning. Learning happens because the people involved wish to learn from each other as a natural part of the esteem they have for each other. Especially for the young, learning is the most natural thing for them.
Was there any sort of tradition you found must inspiring?
We were also inspired by the traditions of places such as Oxford, Cambridge and Eton, which before the Reformation were places of education that featured a community of scholars who joined together each day for prayer and for meals as well as for lessons.
The pillars of a College at Oxford or Cambridge were its Fellows, who originally saw their role as a vocation to teaching, scholarship and prayer. These places were meant to become powerhouses of prayer and learning, inspired no doubt by medieval monasticism, but quite distinct from it.
Newman’s ideal place of learning, he wrote, “will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow.”
You seem quite fascinated with John Henry Newman’s ideas.
Yes, in Newman’s musings he was really trying to imagine what Eton and Oxford might have become had it not been for the Reformation. Academic excellence needed holiness in order to come to a full flowering. That was his dream.
And something like this idealism inhabited us when we started our own school in 2002, in the Vendée, a part of France known for its devotion to the Faith and its connections with England, in a building that had been a minor seminary for nearly two centuries, and was itself built on the site of medieval Benedictine monastery. We are very much part of a tradition here; we feel it all around us.
What were the obstacles in your way and how did you overcome them?
We have had some difficulties dealing with the French state. It is the heaviest administrative culture in the so-called ‘free’ world. But one gets used to it. The knack is to persevere and sometimes just to hope that French officials will take pity on a bemused Englishman who has been defeated by French form-filling. The local people, and our local bishop, have been very welcoming.
The setting for the school is beautiful. How did you find your way there?
Because of the huge difference in the real estate markets in the UK and France, it was a time when a lot of English people were moving across the channel; trading in a small house in London for a castle in France was all the rage at the time. We did it in a small group, with an adventurous project in mind. But we were not the only English people making the move at the time.
How did you know that there was a demand for Catholic education on the English public school model in France?
Well, we didn’t. It was just that I had a strong intuition of the kind of school I wanted to create, and this was shared by my colleagues. Initially our pupils were almost all English. But that has changed. It was a pleasant surprise that certain kind of French family is fascinated by England and especially drawn to a school like ours.
What countries have your students come from?
We have 40 boys at the moment. 25 of them are French, but some come from bilingual families, and those who remain here for a few years become quickly bilingual. The French boys here tend to be from aristocratic families who still hang on to their Catholic faith and who are prepared to make great sacrifices for their children. We also have pupils from England, Malta, Spain, Poland, Russia, Nigeria and two from the USA.
What grades do you offer? What special classes do you offer?
It is a secondary school, with pupils from ages 11-18. We prepare our boys for entry to university and they sit the British A-level examinations, with the French baccalaureate as an option. We teach Latin, Greek, Spanish, German and French, although only a very few clever boys get to study them all at once. There are also Mathematics, the Sciences, History, Music and Religion. And Sport. Lots and lots of sport. Boys love that, and it keeps them cheerful.
Tell us about some of your star teachers.
Our teachers are often from Oxford, Cambridge or some of the other leading UK universities; several have doctorates or are pursuing them. They tend to be all-rounders who like their sport and music. I wouldn’t want to draw attention to anyone in particular, except to say that two former teachers are now ordained: one is a priest in the Institute of Christ the King, and another a deacon in the Fraternity of St Peter.
It’s a shame when great Masters leave, but we are happy to lose them to the priesthood. The main thing to say about the teachers here is that we are friends as well as colleagues. And that makes a positive difference to the boys.
Is it difficult for boys who have not been away from home before? How do they learn to cope?
Boys are rarely homesick for long. There is so much for them to do. Mothers get “sonsick”. But we are learning how to deal with them!
Why do parents tell you that they select your school? Do the boys have much choice in the matter?
The boys have a lot of choice in the matter. Parents are attracted for a number of reasons; mainly religious and cultural ones. But the boys buy in to the ideal. And they make it work.
You spend a great deal of effort helping boys apply for university. What universities have your alumni attended?
We have succeeded in getting boys in Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and other leading UK universities, as well the Sorbonne (France’s oldest university), the Pontifical University of Navarre, to name but a few. Some have gone to the US; to the University of Kansas, to Thomas Aquinas College also.
Speaking of alumni, where are they working today? Are they involved with the school?
Several former pupils have come back to teach for a term or a year. It is always great to catch up with them and to get to know them as men. We have one former pupil who was here from 2002-2005 who is now a deacon, and will be ordained priest in December. Others are lawyers in the UK, France and Spain. No doctors as yet, but that may come. No one in jail yet, as far as I know. On the whole, they tend to keep their sense of loyalty to the Church and also their friendship for each other. They are good at staying in touch.
What’s been the best part of your experience as principal of the school? The worst? the most surprising
I think I can tie the answers to those questions together into one story. In January 2011 I fell off the roof (I had been getting the school ready for a safety inspection, rather ironically). I was lucky to escape with a broken hip and wrist but I was on my back for about 2 months and unable to walk for about 3 months.
The time in hospital was an enforced silent retreat, punctuated by French television and visits from intrigued young nurses. I had a lot to think about after nine years of Chavagnes. There were a few doubts.
But the boys were kind. Some of them sent me sweets, cards, even a jigsaw puzzle. They were genuinely concerned. My return to school, in a wheelchair, was marked with touching expressions of affection from boys and teachers who were happy to have me back again. And also, I just felt that I was relieved to be home; that this was where I really belonged, doing the difficult but extremely rewarding work I love to do.
It enabled me to recommit wholeheartedly to the next ten years! So that whole experience was the worst and best thing that has happened to me here.
Apart from that, I would say that teaching is full of beautiful moments. Sharing in the instant of a child’s wonder at learning or understanding something new and interesting is just great. It always makes me smile.
Watching them grow into fine and idealistic men of faith is a great privilege. I went to a good school and an excellent university, but I often find myself wishing I could have had the education these boys are getting; to have been the solid young man at 18 that some of these young gentlemen are.
I think that some of them will make truly great teachers.
update: February 16, 2018