Brand new ancient – Downside School

Independent School Parent, Autumn 2014, HMC member, Dr James Whitehead, Head Master, Downside School, explains the monastic community at the heart of his 21st century school.

Downside Abbey is a community of Benedictine monks who have run a Catholic school at Stratton-on-the-Fosse for the last 200 years. Traditionally, the head has been a member of the Monastic Community appointed by the Abbot, however, a reduced number of monks and recognition of the professional expertise any head teacher needs in the world of education, prompted a new approach by the school’s trustees. As a former teacher here at the school I have a good understanding of its ethos and tradition. One of my roles is to plan the next period in the school’s development, ushering in a new era for the teaching community. Starting rather unusually in the summer term provided me with the chance to explain my understanding of the core values to the school, to pupils and staff.

Tradition and History

As Downside’s first lay head – “lay” means non-priest – you can’t help but feel the weight of history of a school that has its origins in a 400-year-old monastic tradition. Many schools have stories behind them but few of them are as enthralling as ours. Founded in Douai, France, during the Reformation, when Catholic schools were illegal in England, the community then fled the French Revolution and settled in Somerset, in 1814. Into this school, comes a new head master, someone interested in teaching and learning, in poetry, someone who happens to love refereeing rugby, but whose fitness levels are not quite what they were!

How to Adjust?

Over time, working in two Benedictine schools – I was second master at Worth School in Sussex – an understanding of the Benedictine “Rule” (the guide to community living that helped shape the civilisation of Europe after the medieval period) has enabled me to appreciate the impact that putting Christian love at the centre of an educational philosophy can have on young people. It helps to develop articulate pupils who can listen, selfless pupils dedicated to service of others and young people geared to contribute to the building up of society, rather than just determined to benefit from it. Many schools tend to have mission statements that are focused on developing pupils’ skills and achievements but not all schools offer a clear moral and spiritual purpose.

So What Did I Encounter?

I have been impressed by the sense of community spirit. I have been struck by the way in which the pupils support each other and I have noticed the pride that they show in their school. The only real challenge has been to reassure the community that there will not be a change in the school’s ethos, which is of course its greatest strength. What is refreshing at Downside, is that the scions of aristocratic families mix with pupils on generous bursaries, bound together by a sense of spiritual identity and by shared values. It is a hugely enjoyable project – uplifting and energising. I look forward to the future.

Read the full article © Independent School Parent (subscription may be required)