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Stephen Oliver has been head of
Our Lady’s Abingdon, Oxfordshire, (OLA), since 2012. He was previously Deputy Head at St. Benedict’s School, London.
 Catholic ethos and this very much influenced and helps them realise there is a world AI started playing the trombone
my whole pastoral approach.
QYou have maintained a regular and committed prayer life, which you have described as an effective way of stepping back from the demands of headship and retaining a sense of proportion. Do you think non-believers could find benefit from similar periods of quietness?
AI do, and I think the increasing popularity of mindfulness shows this. Mindfulness is a bit like
the Benedictine practice of mental and contemplative prayer with the references to God taken out. This means it works well for those who struggle with the concept of a personal deity. I strongly believe that periods of reflection and quietness are beneficial for staff and students alike: Catholic and Quaker schools in particular have always practised this, and at OLA we have a daily period of silent prayer in the Chapel for all those who wish to attend. I find this an oasis of peace in the busy school day.
QPupil well-being has been at the forefront of school agendas for many years, but perhaps more so recently in the light of increasing concerns about mental health in general and the pressures of social media on teenagers in particular. Some say it is the lack of real faith amongst the majority in society which has contributed to these difficulties. Are they right? Can Catholicism provide any answers to the young people in your care?
AEssentially, I believe that young people, like the rest of us, are looking to find meaning in
their lives. The increasing pressures they experience can be incredibly difficult for them to handle if they can’t put them within a broader context. A system of belief such as Catholicism gives them that context
beyond their everyday struggles that is ultimately more important. It gives them the reassurance that, whatever difficulties they are experiencing, they are loved by a God who has a plan for their lives. Life, then, becomes not just a random collection of events, but something coherent. As a Catholic, you
are encouraged to sit lightly to material possessions, worldly success, fame and all the other things that can make life so pressurised for the young. A student who takes this seriously – and this can take courage – will discover something that, in Jesus’s words, the world cannot give.
when I was twelve. My school had a
brass band and I was given a cornet. I didn’t get on with this so a trombone was presented to me instead, which I instantly loved. Trombonists have a special bond, based on the fact that their instrument has a slide and not valves like the rest of the band. I stopped playing when I left school, but was recently enticed back by an inspirational member of our Junior School staff. My son Anton also plays in the Silver Band – a cornet – so the Oliver family has finally got that instrument covered too.
Q
A
different approaches used by the sometimes highly eccentric staff at my school and would ponder how I might do things differently. I also loved my subject and was immediately captivated by the experience
of teaching during my PGCE year, especially the performative aspects of the role. I still teach Latin to Year 8 and Philosophy to Sixth Formers and would like to continue as long as I can. Whenever I stop being a head, I can think of nothing better than going back into the classroom.
Q
A‘Discouragement is simply the despair of wounded self-love’ (Fénelon). I quote this to myself when I am feeling thwarted and it always cheers me up.
Q
OLA was founded in 1860 by the Sisters of Mercy, but devolved from that Institute in 2007 and is now
Who, or what, inspired you to get into teaching? Do you still teach?
almost entirely dependent on fee income from over 300 pupils in the Senior School and more than 100 in Juniors. Have you enjoyed the financial side of managing the school. What has been the greatest challenge for you?
My vocation as a teacher was
born out of my experience of being taught. I used to love observing the
A
I have learnt a huge amount about school finance over the last six years from my Bursars and the excellent
team of Governors at OLA who oversee this side of the school. As a result, I now feel much better equipped to understand the business aspect of OLA than I did when I started. Schools are unique institutions in that they are communities with long memories – almost like families – that staff, parents and pupils hold very close to their hearts, while
at the same time being businesses that need to flourish in a commercial world. This means that difficult financial decisions sometimes need to be taken that affect individuals, and it is this that I have found hardest about my time as a head.
Q
OLA’s motto is: ‘Whatever You Do, Do It Well’. What is yours?
You play the trombone in the OLA Silver Band. What attracted you to that particular instrument?
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