The Headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School
An independent education is not without its detractors, and one of the criticisms levelled at a traditional education is that it lacks relevance to the modern world. Can learning subjects such as Latin or Ancient Greek translate to the tech-heavy offices of the modern working world?
Does wearing a uniform designed several hundred years ago really help a child succeed in their later careers? OX Magazine spoke to Richard Murray, the Headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School to hear his take on how relevant a historic school can be to the modern world.
There aren’t many educational establishments with a longer history than Christ Church Cathedral School! Since Tudor times, the institution has been providing choristers for the world famous Christ Church Cathedral Choir. And alongside this obligation is a thriving school, the vast majority of which are not choristers but regular pupils. “The school was originally founded by Cardinal Wolsey with whom many are familiar following Wolf Hall.” Richard tells us. “In the early episodes of the recent BBC drama, those who were viewers will know that Wolsey fell from favour – he earned the displeasure of the king, who was Henry VIII. In 1525, Just before he fell, he founded a great college in Oxford which included the choristers of this school. However, Henry VIII dismissed him four years later and at that moment he took over both Hampton Court Palace and also Wolsey’s great college in Oxford. He re-founded the college and in so doing, re-founded the school as well.”
The school certainly has an historical heritage, and one involving a King of England, no less. But how visible is this history today? Certainly the surroundings are inescapably traditional (part of the school is even Cardinal Wolsey’s old house!) But are there many other traditions that have lived on since Tudor times? “Unlike many of the other choirs whose choristers wear mortar boards or top hats,
our choristers still wear what we call Wolsey caps, which are Tudor style caps
and I think they are the only choristers in the country to do that. They wear them when they walk from the school over to the cathedral along with their blackcloaks as well.”
But aside from the historic location and Tudor clothing, how does a school founded in the 16th century adapt to the modern world and remain relevant? Richard has his own take on the issue, which might be surprising to some. “The perception that an historic school needs to deny what it is to make itself relevant for the modern world is in fact a false one. Schools with a long history have many important lessons that are still appropriate today. For instance if you walk through the main quad of Christ Church, which was built by Wolsey in four years and is the biggest quad in Oxford, you have a very clear message about aspiration and what one can achieve if one has determination. So as the school walks through the quad on its way to the Cathedral every Friday morning, it is faced with the working out in stone of Wolsey’s great dream. So there are often important messages that these boys can obtain from the buildings of an historic school.
“Historical schools are very often attractive and beautiful places; this is powerful in teaching people the importance of an environment which is the result of careful thought. Quite a lot of our time we seem to spend ruining things and putting up ugly buildings, and coming to realise that this is not for the best is terribly important in terms of the way we are going to have to treat the world in the future. So I would say that schools with history are actually very well-prepared for the modern era.”
Aside from the building, Richard is also certain that teaching the pupils values as old as the bricks and mortar that surround them is also vital. “There are many important values that are relevant in every era, for instance, ensuring that you are generous to other people. There are also transient values that are of their time. And if you come from an historic school, you are able to have a perspective upon which values are truly important. For instance, our choristers learn the art of intense concentration and the ability to aspire towards excellence, values which are shared by the school as a whole. These are values which will always be regarded and it is unsurprising that nearly a third of Christ Church Cathedral choristers go on to win places at Oxbridge.”
Certainly values are one of the core reasons that parents often choose an independent education above a state one, but what about the lessons themselves? Are subjects such as Latin and the Classics still relevant in a world that is dominated by computers and technology? “If you ask computer programmers what are the best subjects to learn in preparation for the job many would say that, in addition to a computing course, Classical languages are a very good preparation because they teach you to think rationally. But also, the training of the mind that you receive from the Classics is very important. People today have very little understanding of how language works and therefore they are not often able to express themselves clearly. Really learning languages from the inside is a great advantage in the modern world.”
Independent schools do, of course, offer modern lessons such as computer studies. However as Richard states, in some ways to be relevant to the modern world, schools need to stay true to themselves. Choosing an independent school does not necessarily mean raising your child in a bubble of elitism, but instead giving them tools and values that can be adapted and used throughout the changes that are inevitable over the course of a lifetime.
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