STONYHURST headmaster Andrew Johnson is remarkably relaxed and in good spirits considering the week he’s just had.
His £30,000 a year boarding school has attracted worldwide interest in the whereabouts of two runaway teens in his charge.
But now the wanderers have been located, normal service resumes with a big, wide, welcoming smile.
Mr Johnson is keen to stress that the historic Jesuit Catholic school is much more than a posh college for rich kids and that it caters for children from all economic backgrounds – “Despite the fact that we have two pupils in the Caribbean at the moment,” he quips.
It’s a moment of spontaneous humour in what has clearly been a distressing time for all those charged with the heavy duty of acting “in loco parentis”.
And the candour is undoubtedly borne out of immense relief.
Mr Johnson is speaking exclusively to the Telegraph after his two pupils, Edward Bunyan and Indira Gainiyeva, have been found safe and well in the Dominican Republic.
They are expected to be back on home soil within a couple of days to face the consequences of their impromptu trip, although it is believed that the chief prosecutor in the Dominican Republic is deciding if they have broken any laws.
What precisely their fate will be when they do return, Mr Johnson is not prepared to speculate on until he has spoken to the “escapees” personally.
He is in regular contact with both sets of parents, speaking to Indira’s father through an interpreter.
It has been commented that the 16-year-olds, despite their irresponsible actions, have shown incredible confidence and initiative in travelling so far afield at such a young age.
Mr Johnson said: “We do try to instil our pupils with confidence, but also good judgement.
“While there are students here who are very well off, there are many parents who make massive sacrifices to send their children to Stonyhurst.
“We are not interested in educating people to only think of themselves or to only value the material.”
Since taking on the headship in 2006, Mr Johnson has worked tirelessly to uphold the school’s excellent reputation both here and abroad to maintain its tradition of turning out the leaders of the future.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, actor Charles Laughton, motoring pioneer George Eyston and photojournalist Tim Hetherington are all old boys.
The question of whether his hard work has been undone by recent events remains to be seen, but Mr Johnson is confident that the college’s image has not been tarnished.
He said: “This is not a prison.
“If someone is absolutely determined that they want to go, there is nothing anyone can do. Although the school has featured in the press a lot recently and it’s not publicity we would ever have sought, I think the coverage has largely been pretty balanced.”
As for security, there is CCTV in the area and many staff members – including the head and his wife and two sons, who are in the sixth form – live on campus.
“Security is in place to protect our pupils,” said Mr Johnson.
“It’s actually quite difficult to get out of these buildings,” he asserts. “But like all good organisations we are going to examine the situation to see if anything can be done better. We want to be the best we possibly can be.”
And although ‘Dominica-gate’ initially excited pupils, it didn’t last for long.
Mr Johnson said: “It didn’t take long for pupils – and it was genuine – to start getting concerned about their whereabouts. Both pupils and parents were regularly updated.
“We were all incredibly relieved when they were found.”
It is without question that Stonyhurst is a remarkable institution and Mr Johnson’s passion for his role is evident.
He’s at pains to understand why someone would want to escape the college with its high-tech recording studios, state-of-the-art dining room, and majestic library with views overlooking the Pendle countryside that inspired Tolkien – whose sons attended the college – to write Middle Earth.
“It’s not all stuffed shirts and boring stuff,” he said.
Neither is it solely for the aforementioned “rich kids”. Over a third of pupils are on bursaries and some of the 700 pupils (including the prep) pay no fees at all.
Its academic record is exemplary with five students getting to Oxford this year, one to Harvard and 61 per cent getting through to Russell group universities.
Students come from 30 different countries and a third of intake is from overseas and around half from Lancashire.
A total of 69 per cent of A level papers sat produced A star to B grades. The school has recently introduced the International Baccalaureate qualification as an alternative to A levels for all-round academic students.
“Most pupils outperform the initial predictions,” says Mr Johnson.
And despite the great escape, all pupils, including sixth formers are supervised most of the time. Boys and girls spend time together in class and during extra curricular activities.
Higher Line (sixth form) pupils are allowed to go into Clitheroe at the weekend to vist the shops with the permission of their Playroom Master or Housemistress. Rhetoricians (upper sixth) can visit the local village on Saturday evenings between the hours of 7.15pm and 10.15pm.
The Higher Line girls’ house provides personal and communal space. Higher Line boys are allowed into the common room at weekends by invitation and at the discretion of the housemistress.
A student bar is available on Saturday evenings in the common room where everyone can relax and have a drink with the pastoral staff in a socialble environment.
“Yes, there’s a degree of supervision,” said Mr Johnson, “but it’s not oppressive. It’s not against school rules for pupils to have relationships. But it is about how pupils conduct themselves in those relationships.
“That has nothing to do with being a Catholic school but about being a boarding school, although it is easier to explain it at a Catholic school because there’s a faith and moral background underpinning it.”
The school’s raison d’etre comes from its Jesuit origins “men and women for others” and to that end it works steadfastly for charity, here and abroad. The Children’s Holiday Trust, local food banks and the Catholic Faith Primary School in Everton, a deprived area of Liverpool all benefit from students’ involvement.
“I would have loved the opportunity to go to boarding school,” says Mr Johnson. “I’m delighted that my own two sons have had the opportunity.
“The advantages are that pupils are given confidence, numerous chances to develop both academically and personally and leadership qualities.
“They become self-aware and comfortable in their own skin and those are important skills for life.”