Thursday, June 21, 2007


I was busy working on my plans for a sponsored cycle ride to raise funds to get local young people to Sydney for World Youth Day when a friend, Dr William Griffiths rang. Would I like to go over and watch the TV programme about Chavangnes, the English school in France run by Ferdi McDermott and his team? Watching TV is a rare experience for me, and I have worked with Ferdi on his earlier publishing/bookshop ventures, so I cycled over happily.

The programme will be chiefly remembered for an absolutely sickening scene in which the boys were encouraged to learn how to kill a rabbit - which will probably be enough to put off some potential pupils without a further thought. Other than that, the place looked terrific fun, and the boys' evident freedom to give their opinions, and the hugely articulate way in which they did so, a sense of friendship and absence of teenage angst, combined with great liturgical reverence, (masses of Latin chant,Mass said ad orientem etc etc) gave a flavour of something worthwhile. Little was said, however, about academic work and the only class we saw was Latin. Not very impressive.


Anonymous said...

He seems like a nice chap! Ferdi that is! i had considered it for my boys & Ferdi was kind in assising us with a place. The C4 didn't put me's just i couldn't at the end of the day send my boys away!

At the end of the day a rabbits..just that a rabbit!

Anonymous said...

When my son was at the school, he didn't do morris dancing nor did he slaughter a rabbit, but he did go horse-riding and rowing every week. CH4 concentrated on the boy who found serious Catholicism 'weird', but ommitted to use an interview with a boy who explained why daily Mass was important to him. So Ch4 did a typical hatchet job.
Having said that, a school which allows a pupil who is emotionally damaged after being mugged (diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder) to be criticised on TV by staff and pupils is hardly a caring environment. If you want to teach boys a a new skill (e.g. slaughtering a rabbit or felling a tree) you should get in an expert. But what the film didn't show was the lack of text books, and the fact that several teachers are one-year 'interns'. Some of these have been very good, but one year they weren't even graduates. The boy who got into Oxford is not only highly intelligent and self-motivated, but he is a linguist and organist, so his talents were well catered for. Scientists and sportsmen have a very different story to tell. To call the school a 'Public School' in the English sense of the word is a deceit. Some parents gave large sums of money to the school, only to see it squandered. One of my son's friends was 'always hungry'. Many of us have been conned - because we were deperate for our sons to get a sound Catholic education, unavailable or unaffordable to us in England, and Ferdi offered a vision, but one he is not competent to realise.

Anonymous said...

As one of the parents of the boy with post traumatic stress disorder mentioned by "mother of former pupil" I would like to set a couple of things straight.

The Channel Four documentary makers shot many hours of footage and could have portrayed the school in a very different light had they chosen to do so. To gain the trust of the college they produced a little 8 minute taster which made the college look like a cross between Eton and Ampleforth.

The documentary was a very different affair and one can only speculate as to their motives.

What I do know is that the head of Juniors, Mrs Asch was clearly trying to counter negative comments and was being far from uncaring. As for pupils shown making the odd derisory comment, everybody felt that they had been treated very shabbily by the documentary makers who had been very selective in which tiny extracts from long interviews they opted to include.

Before going to Chavagnes, not only had my son been mugged but he was also forced to write down his address and told that he would be murdered if he told a living soul. Far from being an uncaring environment, certain members of staff at Chavagnes treated him very kindly and I quickly came to believe it to have been providential that his PTSD manifested itself in that environment precisely because the staff were so caring and his behaviour was seen for what it was. He eventually decided boarding was not for him but that is no relection on the college.

If Chavagnes had any fault in all this it is in having a certain naivete in which I have to lay claim to a part share since I also agreed in good faith to take part.

The rabbit sequence was filmed at the behest of the film makers and constitutes the only occasion in which a furry animal has ever been slaughtered at the college.

My elder son summed the whole Channel Four documentary saga up with what I thought were very wise words for a 12 year old:

"If we all know that the documentary wasn't fair, didn't give a true portrayal of the college and if we all know that it doesn't represent us then I don't see why we can't just carry on being who we are, doing what we do and ignore it."

Well said.

Chavagnes IS unusual and quirky and worthy of support. By its very nature it attracts praise and bile in equal measure. I am well aware of the criticisms levelled at it over the years but nothing can detract from the fact that my elder son has thrived there and has responded to the uniquely Catholic atmosphere.

As for the lack of text books, every school my children have ever attended has sent home xeroxed sheets for homework. If people are annoyed by the economies which it is necessary to make then perhaps they should ask themselves what they expected from such a young plant when its fees are so low.

Criticise Chavagnes if you must but not on my account/behalf. I love the place.