Anyone reading about Ampleforth College in recent weeks could be forgiven for assuming the school is stuck in the distant past, struggling to adapt to the modern world. As a former pupil who remains deeply involved in the wider community and knows numerous families with children currently being educated there, I can say with confidence the very opposite is true: notwithstanding procedural issues raised by Ofsted, the school is, and always has been, ahead of its time. The rule of St Benedict, on which the monastery was founded in the 1550s and which permeates every aspect of school life, reads like a template for every modern private school now seeking to “check its privilege” in our very divided world.
It’s not just a school, it’s a family, it’s a community, it’s a world view founded on the principles of self-sacrifice and helping others.
It was recently reported that Ampleforth is one of the top ten schools whose pupils go on to have the most impact on society. Notably, it was the only one in the north and of a mainly religious character and in which other qualities are more than a tie-breaker between academically brilliant applicants. At half the size of many of its rivals, its pupils have a far greater chance of making a lasting impression.
Life at Ampleforth is fully immersed in a world wider even than the stunning valley which it occupies, including three lakes and copious forests. The breadth of experiences of the community offer portals into many other parts of the world and life, often through volunteering or off-curriculum lectures that seem normal at Ampleforth.
If the worst comes to pass, don’t count Ampleforth out. Inscribed by a tile on a low wall beside the sanctuary in the Ampleforth Abbey church, Isaiah’s words attendite ad petram unde excisi estis (Look to the rock from which you are hewn) hint with a double meaning that the tile came from St Peter’s church in London, better known as Westminster Abbey. The monks of Ampleforth were once the monks of Westminster Abbey. The community survived exile in France, the French revolution and a difficult time settling back into the stunning Ampleforth valley in England, until the anti-Catholic regime abated.
I remember all this well: I volunteered to guide coach parties around the church and school when I was there. The visitors loved our anecdotes about school life. A description of keeping the dish of roast potatoes on our knees to stop the older boys raiding it would sometimes result in tips intended to pay for a local pub meal. The school now boasts its own pupil pub.
As the potatoes were safe on our knees, I saved my money up and bought £100 of TSB shares using the application form in the Daily Telegraph. Everybody was excited when the shares arrived. The school had recently acquired a push-button new telephone system. It offered the ability to check share prices. Unfortunately, the keys also made notes when pressed as I discovered on the day it was installed. I’d just played the notes of “happy and glorious” in the national anthem when a huge siren echoed over the valley. To my dismay, I realised that every monk was rushing towards our fire station and donning yellow accessories. I stopped the first monk I could find. He read the total horror and remorse on my face. I guess that he left the other monks believing it was a fire practice for the new system, for I never heard anything more about it. It’s nice having teachers who are in the forgiveness business.
On hearing that I was going to apply to read engineering at Cambridge, Fr Oliver offered to give me a head start by booking a classroom and teaching me O-level technical drawing off timetable. The head start paid off and meant I had one compulsory module of my course in the bag at university. Unknown to me, he was seriously unwell and activity was getting difficult for him. He continued teaching me until three weeks before he died.
In any difficult situation, my housemaster would say, “God loves you” and remind us of the importance of remembering this and loving yourself and others. His off-curriculum economics teaching was a bit unconventional. He used to look after the boys’ pocket money. One term he realised that he had spent too much on books for the house and that his “bank” was slightly insolvent. He foolishly mentioned this to one boy. After the next meal, three withdrew their savings and by supper we knew what a run on a bank was. He was forced to auction several years’ worth of confiscated items on condition that they were collected at the end of term and removed from the school. This beat any text-book teaching.
I recently had a social video call with my three companions on my Queen’s Scout Award expedition while I was at Ampleforth. We were commemorating the recent death of Fr Alban Crossley, who had led the Venture Scouts. On one expedition, I recall Fr Alban, after a more formal definition, explaining how he’d once witnessed a funeral in Africa where the communion of saints manifested itself in the mourners suddenly chanting and dancing in prayer, knowing that they were still in communion with the departed. He also taught me how to build a barbecue and cook the top of a fried egg. Once we were good enough with a compass, we would enter an all-night 30-mile navigation competition across the moors.
After leaving, the wider community introduced me to Lourdes where I have helped and been helped by disabled people for 20 years, to my colleague who directs most of the films I have produced, and to figures in the Catholic Union where we lobby for an ethical foundation for many political choices. Monks will ring up former pupils years after they have left with exciting ideas and opportunities.
Ampleforth is popular amongst a significant non-Catholic minority. Parents value not just the excellent curriculum but the encouragement of children to explore their own faith and live a life of purpose – a concept now widely discussed. Has Catholic education always been ahead of modern life?
Families are also attracted by a rigorous curriculum across the board with nationally outstanding science, design and technology, music, classics, theology and library facilities. Staff in many capacities encourage every child to find the right outlets to achieve his or her full potential.
Rather than having many rules and uniforms, students are responsible for respecting themselves and others in the context of the Benedictine Christian ethos. This reverence for the dignity of every aspect of the person engenders a supportive and caring community. Monks, teachers and their friends cultivate the formation of every person – spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, creatively and socially – as a unique and loved person. The monks offer support for life. Service activities, such as taking the disabled to Lourdes and serving the poor in Chile, permeate the agenda, infusing excellence, resilience, empathy, compassion, motivation, determination, and self-confidence. Many continue these for decades after leaving through an ongoing camaraderie bound by faith and values.
Clearly, I enjoyed my years at Ampleforth but I recognise that a small number did not.
Safeguarding now includes health and safety. Yet, contrary to the impression deliberately fostered by the mainstream press, the last abuse by monks was more than quarter of a century ago and the horrific case of a music teacher was over a decade ago. The two feeder schools where nearly all of the crimes occurred have been closed. A reconciliation programme is in place. A new proprietor, headmaster, trustees and board of governors have all been in place since summer 2019; the College and Abbey are legally separate. In many ways, we are looking at a new school, except that the Benedictine ethos and spiritual support provided by the Abbey remain at the heart of the College, supplied through the same safeguards as every other teacher in the country. An overwhelming 99 per cent of current parents said their children are happy and safe in Ofsted’s parent survey.
Action taken on schools should be to benefit the pupils. Freedom of information requests have revealed no evidence of any current risks to future or current pupils and no benefits to pupils of such a ban. Despite the next pupils not being due until September, education secretary Gavin Williamson curiously signed what is being spun as a quasi-judicial decision without giving the school or pupils any chance to point out that the ban works against the children’s welfare. That’s not how such decisions should be made. There are other measures that should have been used instead. Pupils I have spoken to have been crying in distress at the prospect of losing the school that they love. Needless to say, Williamson has no plan for rehousing the 500 pupils.
There is a fine history of courtiers and ministers of the crown founding educational institutions that perpetuate their works of public service: Balliol, Merton, Wykeham, Gresham, Aske, Whitgift. If he destroys one, it might be a fitting way for Gavin Williamson to mark his tenure as education secretary. Ampleforth College, Britain’s pre-eminent Catholic school, is hanging by a thread, banned from taking new pupils by Williamson’s mutant pen filled with ink borrowed from Carrie Lam, Honk Kong’s chief executive. The ban is unjustified: the criticisms have not affected any children. Compare that with schools riven with knives, drugs or illiteracy that the DfE does nothing about. The ones that the state itself runs.
Let’s avoid an act of cultural and spiritual destruction in Britain. Generations of thinkers, pilgrims, volunteers and writers will then all be able to thank Gavin Williamson. Gavin means “God send”. The school has no house beginning with G and St Gavin’s has a nice ring to it.
Michael Pritchett is Secretary of the Catholic Union of Great Britain and also Chairman of London’s West End Conservatives and a member of the BAFTA Council. Join the CUGB to support saving the school
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