“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.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection