Opinion & Features

Can our oldest schools survive?

Ampleforth pupils at work in 1952 (Getty)

“Will England’s great Catholic schools survive the century?” a journalist friend asked me the other day. I wished the answer was a simple yes. These remarkable institutions – Ampleforth, Downside, Stonyhurst and more – were built up in the face of open persecution and then a creeping anti-Catholicism. Against the odds, they came to rival the very best schools in the country.

But there are reasons to worry about their future – especially with regard to the Benedictine schools, which were founded by monks whose communities are wasting away. Ampleforth, for instance, was home to 169 monks in the 1960s; now it has 55. When I last visited Downside, I counted fewer than 10 monks at Mass. The abbey there is one of the most beautiful neo-Gothic buildings in England but it’s starting to feel awfully big.

Benedictine schools talk up their mission and “ethos” to prospective parents. For a long time they had an effective business model, too. They sold Catholic education, but their costs were extremely low because – unlike at other schools – none of the teachers had to be paid a salary because they were monks. They didn’t even need to be given proper homes: a cell in the monastery, or a room and a basin at the end of a school corridor, sufficed. Over the past 30 years, however, as the number of vocations has plummeted, that has changed. More and more staff are lay people who need to be given competitive salaries as well as somewhere to live. The costs have soared and now these schools must compete on equal terms with other independent schools.

The current picture is not a pretty one, even if – as I often hear – the pupils at the schools are happy and thriving, just as I was at Downside more than a decade ago. First, the overall pupil numbers are dwindling. At Ampleforth, the total has shrunk from 611 in 2013 to 564 this year; at Downside, the number has dropped below 400. Ampleforth has also announced that its junior school, St Martin’s, is to close. (This provided a chunk of new pupils every year, even if it did cost a huge amount to run.) And both schools are tight-lipped about the amount of fee discounting they do to attract, and retain, pupils.

Then, alas, there is the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which tells me it’s publishing its interim findings about the two Benedictine schools in the next few months. It is unlikely to be flattering – expect a lot of front-page news when it arrives. Plus, Ampleforth’s safeguarding arrangements are effectively being run by a lawyer appointed by the Charity Commission: an emergency measure unheard of in a major public school. The Independent Schools Inspectorate has followed suit, expressing its own concerns about the thoroughness of Ampleforth’s checks on new staff, among wider issues of governance and leadership.

Perhaps these schools will weather the storm; they’ve seen a few in their times, and have come back from the brink. Ampleforth had only 480 pupils in 1991, according to someone who knows the school well. But it seems to me that the monks at both abbeys have made massive strategic errors that risk their schools’ long-term survival, partly because monks have ended up in leadership positions which they are unsuited to. As one of my old teachers told IICSA in his witness statement: “The choice of headmaster was confined to the monastery, and this limitation seemed to have resulted in a succession of men being appointed who were unsuitable (either in character or temperament) for the post.” He was talking about the 1990s, when Downside was so disorderly, and admissions so low, that the school came within a whisker of closure.

Sadly, poor monastic management continues. The monks have clung on to executive power for far too long, failing to keep up with what the authorities required – especially in the area of safeguarding – and what fee-paying parents demanded, especially in academic rigour.

Downside keeps promising to split its charitable trust in two, to give the school’s lay staff and governors genuine control. It still hasn’t happened. Perhaps the finances involved don’t add up, but if the IICSA hearings proved anything, it was that the more lay staff were involved at the level of senior management, the better the schools were run.

Both schools are adapting, albeit slowly. Downside is on to its second lay headmaster in three years and Ampleforth – after a recent two-year experiment with a lay head – might follow suit again if and when its current monk-headmaster leaves. Maybe the governance issues will be resolved. But the monks of Ampleforth and Downside could learn a thing or two from schools where Religious have retired gracefully, and completely, from executive roles.

St Mary’s Ascot has had a lay head and governing body for more than 20 years, and is one of England’s top girls’ schools. Even once unfashionable Stonyhurst, now freed from Jesuit control and management, is thriving in its own more international, less academic market.

In answer to my friend, then, it is my heartfelt hope that England’s great Catholic schools survive – but that will only be if they are led and governed by professionals, not the orders that founded them. Catholic parents, even ones who have lapsed, will continue to pay a premium for a school’s mission and ethos, and of course for happy children. But they won’t put up with amateurism any more. Those days are over.

Will Heaven is the managing editor of the Spectator