After half a century in Catholic education, St Paul’s College, Auckland, headmaster Kieran Fouhy stepped down from his role.
Mr Fouhy will hand over the headmastership at St Paul’s to Keith Simento who was deputy headmaster at Auckland Grammar School, and he is a parishioner at Avondale.
Mr Fouhy had time to look back on his 50 years of teaching and leading at Catholic colleges for boys.
Back in 1971, he recalls, he sensed a rather cynical attitude among boys to the teaching of religious studies. This was “possibly because religious studies was associated with parental beliefs”.
Now, however, he senses a genuine interest in religious studies, “as young men unpick some of the universal themes which underpin our Judeo-Christian traditions”.
Religious studies has grown “more in status as a subject”, he believes, now ranking alongside subjects such as physics and economics. More students are showing interest in – and studying – theology and philosophy as serious academic subjects.
But on the negative side, over the last 50 years, there has been ‘the growth of fear among young men, fear of failure in many areas, fear they have no future, fear of being alone, fear of commitment”.
“Some of this fear industry has been fostered by low school expectations, flaky school routines and the helplessness of parental adults who have left the room.”
What has Mr Fouhy’s response been to such ingrained fear?
It has been “to establish strong daily school routines, have meaningful belonging rituals, and high expectations of behaviour and achievement . . . regardless of ethnicity, regardless of poverty of circumstance and mind” and “strengthening tradition with innovation”.
Good teaching of religious studies plays an important part in overcoming such all-pervasive fear. “When we can articulate our tradition, we can have more control of our future [and] less fear!”
With a wife who is a former teacher and five daughters who are also teachers, Mr Fouhy has had plenty of discussions about education. He is well-placed to comment on turning around schools and improving educational approaches.
He was the first lay headmaster at St Peter’s College in Epsom, which he led from 1989 to 2015. During that time, the college’s roll grew from 669 to 1344, and many new or refurbished buildings were added. He reportedly saw himself as “chief catechist”.
In 2015, he “retired”, but he then surprised some by becoming headmaster at St Paul’s.
The college’s UE percentage achievement improved from below 20 per cent in 2015 to nearly 80 per cent in 2019, a feature in Metro magazine this year showed.
In his six years at St Paul’s, he has worked to install a “no excuses”, “get-on-with-it” culture.
“We, as a staff, have claimed back the integrity of the classroom and college community with some high expectations,” he said.
Among these expectations are that every boy should: achieve UE in the year 13 (when they leave); read 40 books per year (one a week); play a sport for his school; complete 20 hours each year in service for someone else – and that boys in years 7 and 8 should learn a musical instrument.
“These expectations are combined with parents having obligations to support their son’s college financially and to support their son’s teachers,” Mr Fouhy said.
Mr Fouhy also has high expectations for education in New Zealand in general.
Education in this country is “in a state of thought stagnation”, he said. It has a “fuzzy feeling about its mission”. Tried and tested ideas about how schools work have been discarded and not replaced by “anything substantive”. He is critical of “modern learning” approaches, for example, open plan classrooms with up to 90 students present. This removes ownership of education from the teacher and diminishes the teacher’s influence, he said.
Some schools struggle to be sure about what they are there for.
“A school’s purpose oscillates between a ‘well-being’ mantra, [having a] ‘solving society problems’ agenda, [being] a substitute for the family agenda, and a simple teaching content mission.”
A school’s mission should be what it was set up to do, he said, and that involves teachers having an obligation to teach and students having an obligation to learn.
Six years ago, Mr Fouhy told The New Zealand Herald that there needs to be purpose to why we are at school; it’s not just to get extra credits.
“That’s why I like the Catholic model; it doesn’t discount human potential, it’s about more than just ticking boxes,” the newspaper reported him saying.
But that does not mean there is not room for improvement in Catholic education, Mr Fouhy told NZ Catholic.
“Catholic schools are becoming inward-looking, compliance-driven, and preserving their ‘deposit of faith’- instead of taking risks and becoming more radical,” he said. Catholic education in Aotearoa New Zealand should return to its missionary roots.
Mr Fouhy would like to see bespoke approaches to attendance dues, depending on the circumstances of communities, more places made available for non-Catholic Christian students, and more places made available for children of poor families, regardless of their faith tradition. The last element could be subject to Catholic review.
“The same diversity of thinking would allow some private Catholic schools (outside the integration box) to operate,” he said.
There have been many accolades for Kieran Fouhy over the years. He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016 for services to education. And he was made a papal knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great in 2013. But apart from his influence on thousands of Catholic men over the decades, there is one achievement that gives him particular satisfaction – the opening of a new chapel at St Peter’s College last year. He had championed this for many years.
The chapel summarises for him all that is important in a boy’s secondary education. “No one lives by bread (achievement) alone. We live with failure . . . hence the cross . . . but also with growth. We only live fully with symbols of hope and beauty. The chapel fulfils both. A school lives within a deep Judeo-Christian river, and the education for all activities has to go deep – not the present educational surface- bubbling. The chapel reminds the community of this fact. The importance of prayer, reflection, worship within a school community. The chapel provides for all these elements.”
Mr Fouhy said that the chapel project had a long gestation period, and he congratulates St Peter’s headmaster James Bentley and the college board for moving the project forward.
One of the approaches Mr Fouhy took as headmaster was having a “single gate”, which meant he could see each student as the student comes in for the day.
Later this month, he will leave the gates of St Paul’s for the final time as headmaster (although a community farewell is planned for November).
Asked what his thoughts might be at that time, Mr Fouhy said he would be thinking about his “gratitude to this fantastic community of young men and their families. The unwavering courage of teachers in the schools with which I have been associated is awe-inspiring. But also gratitude to the many college communities I have served. I am blessed.”
He said he is also grateful to those who have provided the backstory to Catholic schools over the years, and there are too many to recall. He is happy to have had some personal influence in the educational direction of some schools.
Where to from here? He said he would like to walk the Camino in Spain again.
Unlike his last “retirement”, he doesn’t expect there will be further surprises.
But his personal mantra comes from the Gospel passage on the wedding feast at Cana. “Do whatever he tells you” – is Mr Fouhy’s response to events, invitations and future possibilities.