My father did not choose to send his four children to a Catholic school, or even a boarding school. While our cousins trotted off to Ampleforth or St Mary’s Ascot or Shaftesbury, I was sent to grammar school and my siblings were public school-educated. My father and one of his brothers went to Downside, the other went to Stonyhurst and his sisters went to St Mary’s Ascot (until one of them was expelled for turning the statues of saints to the wall and the others walked out with her in protest).
As a child, I did not think very deeply about his reasons; I suppose I was obscurely flattered, naively thinking that it meant he loved us more than his siblings loved my cousins. I knew that he was rebellious and hated his boarding school; my knowledge of boarding schools stemmed from my parents’ tales of misery and books by Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton. Then I read more advanced books such as Frost in May and Jane Eyre, and Helen Burns’s death put the kibosh on any lingering yearning to be sent away to school.
My children went to a Catholic primary school, chosen more for its educational qualities than for its religion, although I was delighted by the priest attached to the school, the regular Masses for children and parents, and the ethos that came with its religious base. Until, that is, I learned that a dinner lady insisted that the children ate in silence and when they did not, she punished them by making them pray. To be fair, she was shown the door when the head found out.
So, what are the advantages of a Catholic education today? The Big Four – Ampleforth, Downside, Stonyhurst and St Mary’s Ascot all have lay heads and lay teaching staff now. St Mary’s Shaftesbury was forced into liquidation in 2020, blaming the Covid pandemic for the death blow. Other Catholic schools had already closed, for example, Douai Abbey in 1999 and Buckfast Abbey Prep in 1994. Dwindling attendance is causing financial problems in many of the schools.
The elephant in the room is of course the issue of sex scandals. St Mary’s Ascot goes from strength to strength but the scandals which rocked the Benedictine schools Ampleforth and Downside must have hurt, and continue to hurt, the appeal of these schools to parents. Heinous as both the abuse and the cover-ups were, we do need to remember that these were in the past. The schools in question have cleaned up their acts, safeguarding has been tightened (as it has in all schools), and now the pupils at these schools are in no more danger from predators than in any other school in the land – and trust me, more schools than you might think have hushed up an affair between a teacher and a 15- or 16-year-old.
All public schools are having to fight their corner at the moment, but the Catholic arm seems confident. Beck Ward Murphy, marketing manager of Downside, is cheery: “Interestingly enough, we are pretty much full for September so we must be doing something right.” Downside experienced a bit of a slump in recent years but its most recent inspections are positive.
There is no doubt these schools have been brought into the modern age. Monks are dying, vocations are falling, the running of the schools is separate from the monasteries to which they are attached. Young people are not locked into cloisters to mouth silent prayers, but are educated in all aspects of the modern world. A parent might fear that a Catholic education would not provide enough diversity, therefore not mirroring the world into which their children will emerge at 18, but students of all faiths now attend Catholic schools. “Forty per cent of students at Ampleforth are currently non-Catholic, with a variety of faiths and belief, but they happily and willingly take part in Mass,” says Ampleforth’s headmaster Robin Dyer. “The students’ genuine support of Mass, whether it be in house or in the Abbey Church, is frankly amazing.”
Perhaps their parents feel that the Benedictine (in the case of Downside and Ampleforth) ethos is one which offers light in the dark, faithless days of the 21st century. Ampleforth’s director of admissions, marketing and communication, Harriet Langdale, says: “I don’t think that people sent their children to Ampleforth particularly to be taught academically by monks, but rather because of the Benedictine community, the principles they live by and the impact this has on the children’s moral and spiritual development. Although the monastery no longer runs the school and very few monks teach, the ethos and principles of the school remain Benedictine and indeed are led by the Dean, a monk. In this respect, our relationship with the monastery remains extremely important and is the essence of who we are and what we offer.” And there is no doubt that if you can live by the Benedictine principles, whether your life be lay or in the Church, you will lead a better life.
There were always some who feared that, having sent their sons and daughters to monastic schools, they would lose them to the Church entirely. Although of course we should welcome our children leaving the material world for a life of service to Christ, there are few parents who would not mourn their daughter’s disappearance into a Carmelite nunnery. Now that the heads of the key schools are lay, parents can be reassured that their children will soak up the ethos without a desire to take their vows. Robin Dyer, head of Ampleforth, is not even a Catholic himself, although he “completely support[s] Catholic education and Benedictine values”.
This year, as last year, celebrations for school leavers have been much curtailed. The leaving balls are proms have in many cases had to be cancelled, causing angst among the young the length and breadth of the country.
This, from Harriet Langdale at Ampleforth, gives a lovely flavour of what a Catholic education meant to the leavers this year: “To give an indication of what Mass in the Abbey Church means to the pupils, all of last year, because of Covid, Mass was only in houses, and often outside which was wonderful. The leaving upper sixth made a special request that they be allowed to have Mass again in the Abbey Church before they left. They didn’t have a leavers’ ball and all the other usual leaving rites of passage, but the one thing they couldn’t bear to miss was Mass in the Abbey Church. This was their absolute highlight at the end of their term.”
It appears there is still an argument for a Catholic education – and it is coming from the students themselves.
Sophia Waugh writes the ‘School Days’ column for the Oldie and teaches in a secondary school
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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