Headmaster Robin Dyer was hired by Ampleforth in September 2019 to restructure the school after difficulties to do with the aftermath of the IICSA report which brought back into the open historical cases of sexual abuse that had taken place at the school in the 1980s and 1990s. In Dyer’s first year, significant forward strides were made;however, in November 2020 the school was told by the Department of Education that it had not taken the necessary steps sufficiently quickly to improve safeguarding and that it was to stop taking new admissions.
This was a blow for Ampleforth, which was starting to regain its good reputation at the time: parents were unanimous in their support for the school, delighted with the care and education their children were receiving. The restriction order was eventually lifted in September 2021 after the school worked hard to put in the best and most up-to-date safeguarding systems as well as committing to further important changes.
Dyer comes across as extremely competent. He is also eloquent, amusing and friendly. He is married to Penny with whom he has four grown-up children, and comes to the role from Wellington College where he was for 33 years, first as a teacher of politics, then as a housemaster, second master and finally as acting headmaster. Before that, he studied politics at Durham University, before playing cricket professionally for Warwickshire for five years. “There was universal celebration when Warwickshire sacked me because I wasn’t the most entertaining batsman,” he says.
During his time at Wellington he brought in a lot of positive change, including helping to establish the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) programme. While this is not yet on the cards for Ampleforth, it is something Dyer believes the school ought to consider.
The IB, which has already been adopted by a number of public schools around the country including Stonyhurst, has many advantages, including its international appeal, the fact that it allows pupils to continue with more than four or five subjects, and that it has largely avoided grade inflation. He is also keen that pupils are made aware that they have the option of taking up apprenticeships after leaving school.
So Dyer has a track record of implementing new systems and of improving efficiency and professionalism within schools, which is why he was brought in to Ampleforth at its worst hour. He says he was not put off by the challenges of rebuilding the school, but rather attracted by “its history, its ethos. It has been a very good school for a very long time,” he says.
“I came here to sort out some problems that were existing in 2019. I’ve been improving systems, making everything more professional, with more responsibility and accountability. We’ve made tremendous progress and we’ll continue to make progress. There is no room for complacency. We think we can improve all the time. We expect the children to have that mindset, so why shouldn’t we?”
Ampleforth maintains its pride in its Catholicism and it maintains good relations with the monks of Ampleforth Abbey, where the pupils worship on Sundays and during the week. Two of the monks are in fact teachers at the school, while nine of them are house chaplains, each serving one of the nine houses that make up the school. In spite of this, structural changes have been brought in which mean that the school and abbey are on the path to becoming completely separate entities. At the moment, the school is already in a position whereby it is beholden only unto itself and its board of governors, running its own finances and setting its own policies. “There is still work to be done in terms of the legal wiring between the two organisations, but when that’s finished every element will be separate,” Dyer explains.
Dyer is not himself a Catholic, but this has not proved to be a problem for him or the school. It was “a happy accident”, he says, that his own philosophy of education was very much in line with Catholic education and Benedictine values. “It means that I can talk about these things from a position of authenticity,” he says. The Benedictine system regards each student as unique, needing individual attention to help bring out their strengths and work on their weaknesses. “The attention to each student at Ampleforth is compelling,” he says. “We’re not a one-size-fits-all school in that sense. Our pastoral care is meticulous – we really enjoy helping students to develop into the unique entities they are.” Dyer also feels very strongly about the co-ed philosophy. “I firmly believe in the principle because the point of school is to prepare people for life, and life is clearly co-ed. It makes sense that the sexes should learn to live with each other.”
I ask Dyer about school fees, which seem to go up unrelentingly at all public schools year on year. Costs for schools, such as teacher pensions, are huge, and parents increasingly expect the best facilities for their children. He knows this is a problem, but offers a solution: more bursaries. “The future is for schools to develop financial structures that can provide good means-tested support in terms of bursary provision.”
Ampleforth has a substantial bursary pot, which already helps to educate a significant number of its pupils. Scholarships, in the sense of financial rewards for academic excellence, are gradually becoming a thing of the past. “We’re more interested in bursary support than giving those pupils whose parents who can afford the fees discounts,” he explains. “A lot of schools are operating in that way now, which I think is a good thing.”
Another thing which a lot of schools are doing is opening up versions of themselves abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Asia. Among the most successful of these operations is Wellington, Dyer’s former employer. Many do this because they are struggling financially, which Dyer assures me Ampleforth is not. But he is interested in the idea of “spreading the school’s impact on an international basis”, specifically in Catholic countries or countries with sizeable Catholic populations. The “Catholic Eton” has, of course, always been popular with international students, attracting children from Malta, Austria, Spain, France, Poland and more. “Opening abroad one day would be good for the pupils because I think our ethos is good and our teaching is good. It would be very positive all round. That’s someway off though as we still have a lot of work to do here.”
Speaking to Dyer, there is no sense that Ampleforth is on its way out as we feared it might be not that long ago. On the contrary, I sense renewed energy, excitement for the future and a passionate desire to keep a great bastion of Catholic education alive. Exam results this year have been excellent and school life is wholesome and stimulating for pupils, who along with their parents are delighted with their new(ish) headmaster.
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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