Francis Goodburn came to St John’s to study Mathematics and Computer Science in 2011. He was Organ Scholar for his three undergraduate years. He is now Head of Mathematics and Academic Enrichment at Ampleforth College.
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It is hard to admit mixed emotions about a golden ticket opportunity; joy and gratitude are usually the only appropriate responses. And given that I ticked every box on St John’s outreach checklist (single-parent family, state school, free school meals, Northerner – besides the obvious), the chance to attend Oxford – and as an organ scholar too – was surely my Willy Wonka moment. 

But after I had been bowled over by the grandeur of the place and the might of intellect found there, and though I revelled in the excitement of new-found independence, fresh experiences and strong friendships, there were more than a few moments of my time at Oxford that felt hollow. While part of this may have been late growing pains or an early existential crisis, part of it was something else. 

I couldn’t help but ask myself the question that I groan at hearing from my own students now: ‘What purpose does this serve for real life?’ While I can usually muster an answer in relation to quadratic equations, I think even now I would still struggle to do the same about my time at Oxford. I hesitate to admit that three years of worrying about problem sheets on esoteric topics or what introit to have at Evensong in a bubble detached from the wider world felt at best self-indulgent and at worst pointless. 

My peculiar remedy to purposelessness was child protection social work which I did for a few years after graduation. Despite the frustration, fatigue and heavy workload, every day felt real, like it mattered. And that was lifegiving. I get the same feeling now from secondary school teaching. Young people’s openness means you can have a meaningful impact in their lives every day; the advantage of children’s authenticity is that they don’t take themselves too seriously or need to pretend as though they know what they are doing. Because, in the end, I don’t think many of us actually do.