Leading Catholic school headmaster: ‘Boys will turn off if you patronise them’

The London Oratory School offers children a bold statement of Catholicism, says Olenka Hamilton

Every year the London Oratory School, a boys’ academy which takes girls at sixth form, has 1,000 applicants from across London for the 160 places available. Places are so coveted, in fact, that one hopeful parent urged us not to run this article lest the publicity raised the competition. It hardly needs mentioning that the Oratory is one of the best-known schools in London, famed for giving a top-class education for free to Catholics lucky enough to get a place. But how is it that the school, a comprehensive, always does so well?

Much like a homily you might hear at the Brompton Oratory, with which the school is closely linked, headmaster Daniel Wright doesn’t water down his speech. He says it’s very straightforward. It’s all about giving the boys “the authentic stuff”. Wright, 45, joined as headmaster in January 2018 from the independent St George’s, Weybridge.

He is personable and extremely articulate, with just the right level of aloofness you would hope for from a headmaster.

“There’s an adage,” he says. “If you set the bar low for boys, they’ll go under it; if you set it high, they’ll go over it. Boys will just turn off if you patronise them; they want the strong stuff.”

Married with two children, Wright is a convert. Born into a Church of England family in Cambridgeshire, he was educated in the state sector before going on to study medieval history at St John’s College, Cambridge. It was there that he encountered Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, both of whose writings set him on the path to Catholicism. In 2004, he joined Dominican fraternity Blackfriars in Oxford and now preaches as a Lay Dominican in the school chapel three times a week.

The Oratory certainly feels authentic, right down to its desks, which are the old-fashioned wooden kind. Computers aren’t allowed in the library before lunchtime and students stand to attention when you walk into the classroom. The corridors at break times buzz but they aren’t raucous, and you sense the students are serious and civilised. “We have a clear sense of who we are and what we want to achieve – not just skills and knowledge,” says Wright, recalling a recent inspection when the boys apparently asked for “more Confession”. “The boys love Confession. It’s very well attended,” he says, beaming.

Under the guidance of chaplain Fr George Bowen from the Brompton Oratory, the pupils are on a diet of daily prayer, fortnightly chapel, half-termly Benediction and annual retreats, as well as six Masses a year at the Oratory, which they love “because it is a bold statement of Catholicism”, Wright explains. Moral development is central and the parents are heavily involved from the very beginning. “It is an extension of the family and faith is integral, not just a bolt-on.”

Wright is strongly in favour of a non- selective system. He believes that the right environment can be transformative. “I’m very hesitant to put children on determined pathways too young. They need to decide who they are as they grow up,” he explains. “I think more than anecdotally, but empirically, the rates of fluctuation among boys particularly between the ages of 11 to 14 in terms of their academic output is absolutely wild. It is the task of the school to help the children get their acts together, by giving them the discipline they need.”

The school goes far beyond what the curriculum has to offer; as a result it has seen boys go from the lowest bands to winning Oxbridge places over the course of their time there. Wright teaches theology, for example, a non-examined subject, which is intended to be “casual and expansive”, and initiate boys into the culture of Catholicism and broaden their horizons. Set texts are literary with a Catholic flavour, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Behind everything at the London Oratory is the music. Charles Cole is Director of the Schola Cantorum, the school’s liturgical choir. Founded by Cardinal Basil Hume, the Schola comprises 40 boys aged 7 to 11, whose singing commitments include Mass at the Brompton Oratory every Saturday. In addition, the school’s many choirs and orchestras regularly perform in some of the world’s most splendid locations.

Cole and Wright work very closely together. “We are both committed Catholics,” says Wright, “and we both understand that beauty can touch the paper of faith and keep it burning.”