My first examination

My first examination

It could be argued that The Irish Christian Brothers have at times been in breach of The Trade Descriptions Act. This is because there do appear to be examples when the evidence of their Christianity is questioned. An Irish accountant I knew made reference to the ability of ‘the brothers’ to make the Gestapo look like amateurs. This also calls into question their ‘brotherliness’. I was probably seven when my mother took it into her head to enter me for the entrance examination to the preparatory school for Saint Mary’s College, Crosby. We had neighbours whose children went there. While we boys were ushered off to the examination hall, all the mothers went to the chapel to pray; all except my mother who, not being a Catholic stayed outside to ponder if by doing so she might ruin my chances.

After a while, the mothers clustered round a brother who read out the results for all to hear. He did not mention me. ‘But you have not mentioned my Clifford’, said my mother. ‘He does not appear to have written anything’, replied the brother. I am sure you can imagine the conversation on the bus home afterwards. I had made a show of my mother in front of all the other mothers. She wanted to know what had happened, so I told her.

Remember, I had never encountered an Irish Christian Brother before that examination, held in what to me was a very forbidding building. I sat at the back. It was where I was told to sit, behind all the other boys. At the front glaring at us was this tall (to me) man all in black. He announced that any boy who copied the work of any other boy would have his paper brought to the front and torn up. AND, he would go to Hell!  As I explained to my mother, I knew that five nines were forty-five but I could see that a boy in front of me had already written that, so that meant that I couldn’t. To play safe and make sure that I did not accidentally write anything the same as any other boy I wrote nothing. I certainly outsmarted that Irish Christian Brother.

Years later I asked the sociologist Laurie Taylor how he had survived those brothers. He said that he did it by building a counter culture in his head. Others of that generation who went to Saint Mary’s included the poet Roger McGough, John Birt, one time Director of the BBC and Tony Blair’s ‘Blue Skies Thinker’. Tony Booth the actor and father-in-law of Blair also attended this school while Cherie went to the girls’ convent school over the road. The thought of ‘surviving the brothers’ and ‘building counter cultures in the mind’ makes me think about the challenges in education and professional development. If you visit the Edwardian classroom in Beamish museum in Durham in 2017, it’s still perfectly possible to understand the purpose of this classroom. This makes me think that a number of educational processes, for example, examinations, have not really changed over time. We may have replaced ‘the fear of hell’ with a ‘love of learning’, but examinations and their processes remain somehow timeless. Why do we continue to hold exams in school halls that smell of polish and school dinners? Why do we have to write out answers to examination questions in pen and ink and put our hand up to attract the attention of the invigilators if we need more paper? This process hasn’t changed for centuries and yet it could change. Surely, exams could be completed on electronic devices and sent off for marking via wireless connections?

At the IPDA conference 2009, Urban drew attention to the consequences of remaining stuck in the past. We lose a sense of innovation and freshness. Perhaps we should learn from other professions who have reinvented their purpose? This might enable the development of education that is enterprising (Gibb 1987)? In simply doing things in a certain way, because they have always been done like this, we are resisting key agents of change. The Christian Brothers might have been characterised by this strategy, but the irony appears to be that power rests in embracing change and moving forward with new momentum. I hope we can adopt this strategy as academics as we engage with the processes of professional development in 2017 and beyond.


Gibb, A. A. 1987. Enterprise culture- its meaning and implications for education and training. Journal of European Industrial Training, 11 (2), 2-38.

Urban, M., 2009. Strategies for change: rethinking professional development to meet the challenges of diversity in the early years profession. Paper presented at the IPDA conference, 27-28 November, Birmingham, UK.


Cliff Jones,

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