The sorry demise of Benedictine education

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

Twenty years ago, Douai, a monastic boarding school in West Berkshire, shocked parents with an announcement that it was ‘no longer viable’. Pupil numbers had fallen through the floor — below 200 — and the sums didn’t add up. So four centuries of history were brought to an end and the boys were sent packing. Now those in the know worry about two more prestigious institutions — Ampleforth, the so-called Catholic Eton in North Yorkshire, and Downside, its more modest Somerset relation.

As a former pupil of the latter I’ve been hoping the rumours are unfounded. The school, like Ampleforth, is a remarkable place that produces nice, well-rounded boys and girls. The monks, for the most part, are decent men, trying to live their vocations faithfully. I followed my two older brothers to Downside and, after the school started taking girls in 2005, my younger sister went too, and flourished. But for all my gratitude to the monks, I fear for them.

The signs are not good. Late last month, the TES revealed that Ampleforth had been issued with an official warning notice from the Department for Education. The government’s letter, dated 11 May, said that if the school did not come up with an action plan to bring its child protection standards up to scratch, and sort out its leadership and management, ‘the Secretary of State may remove the school from the Register of Independent Schools’. In DfE speak, this means shut the place down. Thankfully, the school came up with a plan in time and is ‘implementing agreed actions’ before the inspectors call again.

But this indicates the scale of a more general crisis. First of all, pupil numbers at both Ampleforth and Downside are dwindling. At Ampleforth, the total headcount has shrunk from 611 in 2013 to 546 this year: not a good sign, though not yet disastrous (it dropped to 480 in the early 1990s and recovered). At Downside, the number has fallen to 375 — which is when, I’m told, the bursar starts losing sleep, partly because of the discounts he gives on fees. Both places have all but closed their prep schools, which used to feed the senior schools with a good chunk of pupils every September. It was earlier this year that Ampleforth announced the closure of St Martin’s (at Gilling Castle), which starts at Year 2. Soon Ampleforth, like Downside, will only accommodate Years 7 and 8 on the main site, in addition to the senior pupils.

Then, alas, there is the sex abuse scandal, which arrived like the angel of death at both schools around the turn of the millennium. But those awful stories — of abuse, cover-up and institutional blunder — were raked over again just before Christmas last year at Theresa May’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), in hearings that lasted two weeks. For some reason, Ampleforth and Downside were turned into case studies. At midday on Thursday 9 August, IICSA will publish its interim report on them — so watch out for damning headlines.

Effectively, the monks were put on trial at IICSA, with far more prosecution than defence. But the hearings, which old boys discussed at length on closed Facebook groups, highlighted a structural problem with monastic schools: that the perpetrators of historical abuse, and those who failed to deal with it, are often around decades later. Unlike teachers at other schools, they make a lifelong vow to stay with one community. A monk who was accused of abusing a young disabled woman during the 1980s returned to Downside as a popular chaplain in the early 2000s, when I was a pupil. Another found with illegal pornography on a computer in the 1990s was later, absurdly, put in charge of the monastery’s young novices (he was eventually sent to prison). A monk headmaster of mine, whom I believe to be naive rather than cynical, decided to declutter a school basement in 2012 during the holidays. He took wheelbarrows of old paperwork to the monastic gardens — including teachers’ personal files going back decades, containing God knows what evidence — and made a bonfire. Well, he told the inquiry, ‘monks have a tradition of manual labour’. Whoops-a-daisy. He’s been at Downside, with few interruptions, since he was a teenager.

In all this mess, it’s important to note the good as well as the bad. In the worst and most widely reported case of abuse, dating to the 1980s, a monk took a young boy to Downside’s monastic library and repeatedly abused him, paying his victim 50p a time. He was jailed in 2012. Well, every Sunday evening, in upper sixth form, I went to the same library with a monk — for one-on-one philosophy tutorials, simply because I had expressed an interest in studying the subject at university. He was just being kind, but it’s a story that provokes raised eyebrows and ho-ho jokes from my non-Catholic friends. Such kindnesses do nothing to cancel out abuse — but I hope IICSA remembers the abusers are in a tiny minority; that most monks care deeply about their charges.

The truth is that when the sex abuse scandal arrived, the two abbeys were culturally on the back foot. Ampleforth, once a beacon of northern Catholicism, was home to 169 monks in the 1960s thanks to a post-war boom in vocations. Now it has 55. When I last visited Downside, for midnight mass, there were only eight monks in the abbey. It’s one of the most beautiful neo-Gothic churches in England but it’s starting to feel awfully big for the community that lives there.

There was a time, we pupils were often told, when the captain of the school’s 1st XV rugby team would consider joining the monastery. Those days, when Evelyn Waugh used to attend the Easter services, now seem very distant. I understand the English Benedictine Congregation is soon to send Downside reinforcements, including a new Prior from Belmont Abbey to lead the community. This would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

To some people, there is an anti–Catholic whiff about what’s going on (hardly a surprising reaction given the abbeys’ historical links to the martyrs of the English reformation). In April, the Charity Commission sent a solicitor into Ampleforth to run the school’s safeguarding arrangements. It was an emergency measure unheard of in a major public school, and a worrying one. The Independent Schools Inspectorate followed the next month with its own complaint — that new staff were not being checked ‘with sufficient rigour’ and governance and leadership weren’t good enough. North Yorkshire police also launched a new investigation into safeguarding this year, reportedly on top of three other investigations into historic sex abuse allegations.

And then, last month, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference joined in, suspending Ampleforth. Some Catholics see this as a persecution. I don’t, but is there a concern in these organisations, post-Jimmy Savile, that they might one day be caught out for not being tough enough? That they have to keep up with, or even outdo, each other’s criticisms? That would make more sense.

There are other factors at play too. Monastic schools — and the abbeys that founded them — are struggling because they once had a freak business model that can’t be repeated in the modern age. For a long time, most of the staff were monks, who needed neither salaries nor accommodation, besides a cell in the monastery, or a room and a basin at the end of a school corridor. Now, most of the staff are lay people, and the schools must compete on equal terms with the secular competition, which now welcomes Catholics. These days, Eton has its own Catholic chaplain, and you’re more likely to find the old recusant family names — Weld, Petre, Stonor, Stourton, Throckmorton — on its registers than at once-grand Catholic schools.

There are proven ways for Catholic independent schools to compete, especially when the religious orders that founded them gracefully withdraw from the management. Note the success of St Mary’s Ascot, with a lay headmistress who moved there from Eton, stellar academic results, and not a nun in sight. Sadly, if IICSA hearings proved anything, it was that Benedictine monks are no longer very good at managing school admin: they are often stubborn when dealing with the authorities (police or local councils especially — not a good look) and struggle to keep up with minimum safeguarding standards (‘geek culture’, one monk headmaster used to call the box-ticking that had engulfed the teaching profession).

This may be down to the small number of remaining monks. As an old lay teacher of mine told IICSA, bluntly: ‘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.’

Things have improved, but there’s some way to go. Downside’s first lay headmaster, a devout Catholic and serious academic, left the school last year, complaining of a ‘culture of monastic superiority’. He’s on to something here. Partly because of their gothic surroundings, England’s Benedictine monks have given in to a kind of faux-aristocratic grandeur (charmingly, they often speak with clipped Bertie Wooster accents, as if the second half of the 20th century never happened). More seriously, they feel superior because it tends to be true — they are still in ultimate executive and financial control.

This is at the heart of the current drama, at Downside especially. The monks simply have too much power: they are the sole trustees of the abbey trust, which runs the monastery and school. In fact, it’s the exact set-up that — in his 2011 inquiry into St Benedict’s Ealing, a Benedictine day school in London — Lord Carlile described as ‘wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable’. At St Benedict’s, where appalling sex abuse had been exposed, Carlile said the trust must be split into two — a new one for the abbey, and one for the school, with lay people controlling the school trust to give it full independence. Downside, despite promising change, continues with the old arrangement. A letter circulated on 16 July this year said the setting up of the new School Trust ‘has been agreed in principle’. But somehow, the change always seems to be just over the horizon. Admittedly, Ampleforth’s set-up is better, with lay trustees involved, but the Abbot still chairs the board of trustees, which may explain the recent difficulties.

What happens next? It’s possible that if the monks relinquish more control and hand over to experienced Catholic professionals, both schools will revive themselves and experience what Cardinal Newman called a ‘second spring’. Numbers may start to climb again, perhaps aided by pupils from overseas. Many parents are very loyal — understandably so, because they see their children doing well and they personally like the monks.

But some might feel differently. An old monk, I remember, once told me at a drinks party that he was relaxed about Downside closing one day. Sometimes it’s better for something to end with integrity, he argued, than change with the times too much.

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