JOHN BIRCHALL has proud memories of his time setting up “a school like no other anywhere else in the world” on St Helena. He shared a few of them in a special assembly to mark on the 25th anniversary of Prince Andrew School – in a video message from China.
Some of the teachers on St Helena were somewhat nervous about the idea of moving to the big new building that was going up on Francis Plain. But young Nick Stevens had little time to dwell on the prospect: a sudden staff shortage meant he was a pupil one day, and a teacher the next.
John Birchall shares both memories in an internet address that was played to current students and staff on 3 October 2014, a quarter of a century on.
“I arrived in early summer in 1986,” he says, “to be immediately involved in a ceremony on a wet grey day on an empty Francis Plain to lay the foundation stone for Prince Andrew School.
“I recollect touring the first and middle schools to try to reassure the teachers assigned to Prince Andrew School that working in a school of this size was not quite the daunting prospect they imagined it to be.
“I recall a young Nicky Stevens being catapulted from Year 11 student to PE teacher in the space of a day on the departure of a member of staff… and being even more surprised how he quickly grew into the role under the stewardship of your current headmaster.”
The new job was the start of a career that saw Nick go on to be the creative force behind the New Horizons youth centre in Jamestown, and eventually to head St Helena’s team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland.
He’s also been an occasional football pundit on the BBC World Service.
His mentor, Paul Starkie, was employed as an adviser from 1988 to 1992, sent out by the UK government. He went on to work in Indonesia and Belgium before returning to PAS as head teacher in 2012 – with his St Helenian wife, Lisa, and son Zac.
John Birchall has also gone a long way since leaving the school in 1989, having served as its first head teacher. He went on to work in Oman, Spain and Indonesia, before becoming academic director of a chain of colleges educating 6,000 students in China.
“The years I spent on St Helena were among the most challenging and the most rewarding I have experienced in my 42 years of education to date,” he says in an address he posted on the YouTube video-sharing website.
“When I lie at night and dream, I often find myself transported back in some way to find myself trudging up Ladder Hill, strolling Francis Plain or wandering around Longwood. Such is the lasting impact of St Helena,” he says.
In those days, some of the older pupils were paid to attend school in an arrangement with the Public Works Department.
“I recall paying wages to all the PWD students on a Friday, assisted by Miss Doris Peters and Miss Joy George,” says John.
“And I recall taking part in the community education classes, where I made what must have been the worst table every constructed on St Helena.
“My most lasting memory was leading the proceedings 25 years ago when we held the opening ceremony.
“I remember the enormous sense of pride which echoed round the hall as the entire school, resplendent in school uniform and Prince Andrew School ties, sang the Prince Andrew School song for the very first time under the musical direction of the late Mr Eric George.
“I recollect to this day the true sense of community that prevailed, and the way in which students felt truly privileged to have such splendid surroundings to pursue their educational dreams.”
He tells pupils: “I hope this sense of Prince Andrew School being your school, and a feeling of pride in it being a school like no other anywhere else in the world, still prevails today as it did in 1989.”
He gives his congratulations for recent significant improvements in GCSE results.
John extends “a special personal thank-you” to Basil George, who was chief education officer at the time “and whose drive and vision contributed greatly to creation the school you enjoy today.”
He ends by urging the people of St Helena to “build upon the silver jubilee spirit to take Prince Andrew School to new levels in the years ahead.”
Governor Mark Capes and Basil George were among special guests who heard music pieces from the school choir and various pupils at the special assembly. It ended with student president Lizemarie Robbertse and vice student president Chrystabel Greentree speaking about the importance of striving for success.
Watch John Bircall’s address in full here