Extraordinary Lives: Raymond Friel

Raymond Friel, OBE, was born in Greenock but spent most of his career in England where he’s been a headteacher, a leader of academies of 30 schools, and is now the Director of CSAN, a network of domestic Catholic charities in England and Wales.

Growing up in Greenock

It was a Catholic household in the east end of Greenock. Most of my childhood was in a tenement. And you quite quickly formed an idea that you are part of a culture within a larger culture that was not actually that friendly. But it was a very secure working class Catholic upbringing.

My mum and dad lived simply, worked hard and cared for us. I went to St Lawrence’s Catholic Primary School and got a good education.

Having been a teacher you look back at your own experience, and it was a good education. And all the time breathing the air of a kind of Catholic culture. I’ve got a lot to be grateful for, happy memories and good foundations.

A sojourn at seminary

Then I went off to junior seminary, to Langbank, and then Blairs, and I enjoyed that too.

I was Head Boy at Blairs but there was a wee rebellious streak. And it wasn’t a good combination to be head boy and nipping up the back lane for a ciggie! So that didn’t go so well.

I didn’t get the boot, but instead of being sent to Rome or Valladolid where people were eating pizza, drinking wine, and enjoying the sunshine, I was sent on to a seminary in Ireland.

It wasn’t a boot-camp, but it was quite strict. And I just had a kind of an instinct that this life really wasn’t for me. So I told my bishop, who wasn’t very pleased with me, ‘sorry, my lord, I just don’t feel it’s there anymore’. And I left.

I had enjoyed the experience. But afterwards, you picked up that some people, had a much less happy experience. And thinking back was that the best way to form people for ministry?

Because although I saw much good, I can also see the danger that you’re forming an elite group. Who are re- moved from the community then formed in a very institutional model and maybe that’s not the best way.

The call to teach

So I ended up going to Glasgow University, then training to be a teacher down south and becoming one in Lon- don in 1990. It was great to be young in London then.

Having been haunted by the vocation I’d left behind I could see a different one opening up, and I was getting married and I was being blessed with children.

I just loved teaching. Seeing young people flourish, seeing them get it, seeing that moment of learning.

Also the moment when a young person’s been off track, or been challenging, or sad, and you see them grow a bit, turn around, come back and face in a positive direction. It’s really satisfying.


I wasn’t looking to be a headteacher but there was a tap on the shoulder. My own boss had said ‘St Joseph’s is looking for a headteacher, and they’re in trouble. I think you should go have a look.’

I went into the interview process with blind unconcern because I didn’t think I would get it but I did. And the school was bro- ken. Behaviour was terrible.

Staff morale was shot to pieces. I was standing there in the middle of this wreckage, thinking, ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ I really didn’t know. So that’s when you cling to Faith and you run on instinct. So I thought, I know what a good assembly looks like. I think uniforms are important.

I think behaviour is important. I think Catholic ethos and prayers are important, and you try and bring people with you to improve the situation.

And one thing I learned was that kids don’t like being in an edgy school where bullies run the show. And staff certainly don’t like it.

The book

Something I was passionate about in education was formation. Helping to form the leaders coming through.

I noticed the senior leaders at Catholic schools were very capable but the formation of Faith was really weak at times. So I got a real passion for helping them see leadership could be informed by their Faith.

The book is an extension of that. Taking that to a wider audience. And it’s for anybody in the Church whose Faith is a bit dormant or stopped going to church in their mid-teens, or has been a bit disillusioned in recent years. It’s just an invitation to go back to the basics.

I thought, it can’t be the head, it has to start with the heart. It has to be a commitment to be less a person who is run by ego and more a person possessed by, to use that language, the Holy Spirit.

So you become a child of God and not just a creature of the culture.

Raymond Friel, OBE, is the author of Formation of the Heart: The Why and How of Being a Catholic Today. It is available now from all good bookshops.

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