3 April – Saturday, 1 April 2017, marked exactly a decade since Chris Thomas became Headmaster of Saint Andrew’s School. A former Head Boy, he succeeded the much-loved Roy Gordon.
In an interview on Friday, he revealed that he had applied for the Headmaster’s position at his previous school, Stirling, in East London, but he was then asked to apply for the position at Saints. The timing wasn’t ideal, with a son in grade 10 and a daughter in grade 11, but it worked out well in the end.
“It actually worked out far better than we had anticipated”
“It actually worked out far better than we had anticipated in that both my son and daughter followed careers that they probably wouldn’t have thought of, because they had to change subjects when they got to Bloemfontein,” he said.
“I had a very gruelling interview, which I vaguely remember,” Mr Thomas recalled. “I heard in November  that I had been nominated for the post, but there was a delay, so we had to wait an extra term.”
Head Boy of Saint Andrew’s in 1977 and now the Headmaster for 10 years, Chris Thomas
Returning to the school where he was Head Boy in 1977 was “quite strange”, he shared.
“Suddenly, instead of being in matric and doing various things, I was performing functions that I had last performed when I was Head Boy. Simple examples would be the reading at the Carol Service and laying the wreath at the Remembrance Day Service. That was something that I had to do in a different capacity.
“The first time I had to read the Role of Honour at the Remembrance Day Service was quite moving because two of the guys on the list, one in matric with me and the other a year ahead of me, had passed away and I was faced with the reality of having to deal with that.
Chris Thomas leads the way at the annual Remembrance Service
“It has been an incredible journey since then.”
When he returned to the school, he had a good understanding of the Saints’ culture because he had been a pupil at the school, the Headmaster said, and that made the transition easier. In addition, his previous Headmaster at Stirling had mentored him in the role of being a Headmaster.
“Also, I found that as an Old Boy there was an acceptance from Old Boys initially. You obviously have to earn your spurs after that, but they understand you have the same values and believe in the things that do, so they gave me a chance.”
The school’s values
The maintaining of the school’s values is very important, he said. “That involves buy-in from all sectors of the school community and the way they interact with each other. Certainly, we need to promote and maintain those values. They are in the school mission statement and they are now on the stairs going up to the grade six classroom.”
Saints teaches the state’s curriculum, he added, but the school also adds to it: “You still have to do maths and science and English and all of those things. Extra-curricular sport and cultural activities are encouraged. It’s the developing gentlemen bit that we add to that.”
Happy times with former teacher and Old Andrean Jason Silcock at Intermediate Phase Prize-giving
Laughing, Mr Thomas admitted his first challenge on starting at Saint Andrew’s was a relatively minor one: “The first challenge I faced was finding out what’s going on. I didn’t even know when break was!”
When he took over from Roy Gordon, the school was running very well and it had a large number of long-serving staff, who were very positive about the school and bought into its values.
“They were very competent teachers and the initial challenge was to make sure that they all didn’t leave. So managing change was the initial challenge. My predecessor had been at Saint Andrew’s for 21 years and they were very successful years. If I had come along and got rid of half the long-serving staff in the first six months, we would have had problems.”
Focusing on a challenge that all schools face today, which is becoming increasingly important and which has an ever-growing effect on schools, Mr Thomas said: “A challenge then and a challenge now is that schools are being forced to take on more of the responsibilities of society and the social problems that 30 or 40 years ago would have been dealt with outside of school are now being dealt with inside of school. That does affect a school like Saint Andrew’s, perhaps not as severely as it affects some other schools.
“It is something that I have said again and again, and I will continue to say: it is putting an incredible strain on school resources and I think that is the big issue that schools like this are going to face in the future.”
Mr Thomas addresses families at the 2016 Carols at Saints event
Inequality, too, will become a more important issue, he said, explaining that the countries that perform the best in education have the most equal societies. In South Africa, society is becoming increasingly unequal. Saint Andrew’s is being affected by that and it is going to more affected by that in future, he said.
“The other ongoing challenge is to maintain the standard of excellence that we have achieved. That means that one has to look firstly for the correct staff and coaches and secondly for boys that are going to make that contribution.”
The maintenance of the infrastructure in a school of Saints’ age, and the development of the infrastructure, is also a pressing issue, he continued.
A familiar presence
Mr Thomas is a familiar presence at events at the school – from Little Saints, the pre-primary, through the foundation and intermediate phases, and into the high school. That’s thanks to excellent staff, he said. They allow him to leave the day-to-day running of the school in their capable hands.
“For functions, I believe my job is to show support for people. As far as possible I do go to everything, but I am perhaps fortunate in that I don’t have any children at home anymore and my wife works at the school as well, so there is an understanding there and, if possible, we do go to things together.”
Father Deon Lombard and Headmaster Chris Thomas show off their hairstyles after supporting CANSA at the Shavathon in 2016
The core of the values he believes in, however, were revealed when he spoke about the role of the Chapel in the school: “I think the Chapel plays an incredibly important role at Saint Andrew’s, as does the Chaplain. His counselling role is not just about counselling, but it is what he is actually teaching the boys during counselling. We are very blessed with the Chaplain that we’ve got [Father Deon Lombard].
“The Chapel needs to be literally and figuratively the centre of the school. Everything that we do should reflect on what we are taught in Chapel. As an example, there is no point in talking about loving your neighbour and then having a bullying problem in the corridors.
“Last year we spoke about empathy. This year we are speaking about generosity. Is that being reflected in the way people behave?
“God has blessed this school”
“As a community, we need to recognise that God has blessed this school for over 150 years and God will continue to bless it, but we need to recognise that we need to be obedient to Him.
Living Christian values should be reflected in the day-to-day life of Saint Andrew’s, he said, adding that the school needs to develop its community outreach more than it has, which has been one of his focuses.
“I am a firm believer that we need to teach boys at a school like this about their responsibilities to the community. My dream would be to make giving part of the school culture for all kids. As a Christian school, I think we should be doing that anyway.”