Why Benedictine education?

97. SCHOOL SHOTAs the first lay Head Master of a Benedictine School that is over 400 years old but is now celebrating its bicentenary in its current location, you can’t help but wonder how history will judge you as an individual, as well as the model of education you offer. Many schools have remarkable narratives behind them but few of them are as interesting as Downside’s history. Founded in Douai (France) during the Reformation when Catholicism was not tolerated in England, and then established in Somerset in 1814, Downside is a school which has helped to shape Catholic identity in England, founding other schools such as St Benedict’s Ealing and Worth, while the monks also went on to help establish the Catholic Church in Australia. The monastic community were at the forefront of the chaplaincy work on the Western Front during the Great War; fifteen monks who served in the military experienced the reality of life in the trenches, including the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. The monastic community still has a surviving chaplain from the Second World War Battle of Arnhem who recently celebrated his 100th Birthday. Into this school, notable for its academic rigour, its sporting prowess and its musical achievement, comes a first lay head, an English teacher and occasional rugby referee whose fitness levels are not what they were … How will the school and the individual cope with such change?

What makes Downside cohere is its Benedictine ethos, its prayer life and its close-knit sense of community, built on the highest standards of pastoral care. Over time, working in two Benedictine schools, an understanding of the Benedictine ‘Rule’ – the guide to community living that helped steer the civilization of western Europe in the medieval period – has enabled me to appreciate the impact that putting Christian love at the centre of an educational philosophy can have on hearts and minds. It helps to develop articulate pupils who can listen, selfless pupils dedicated to service of others, young people geared to contribute to the building up of society, rather than just determined to benefit from it. Many schools these days tend to have mission statements that are focused on developing pupils’ skills and achievements but not all offer a clear moral and spiritual purpose. Leading a school with a distinctive mission to put prayer and work (‘ora et labora’) at the centre of the lives of young people, is an immense privilege, but also somewhat ‘counter-cultural’ in a largely secular age.

What can Downside offer in the 21st Century? It is my view that interesting people tend to avoid what is ideologically bland or indifferent. Downside, in effect, offers an oasis of philosophical and spiritual engagement, an environment where young people develop as independent learners in a true sense, their intellectual development shaped by moral courage, and by a Catholic sense of the ‘poetry of life’, a belief that modern life is truly meant to be meaningful, as well as full of joy and mystery. Long established school societies such as the Abingdon Debating Society, or the Knowles Society – an academic forum where young people present papers for discussion – provide opportunities, together with the prayer life coordinated by the chaplaincy, to develop minds fruitfully, in a manner not confined to the assessment objectives of the Ofqual-determined curriculum. Excellent academic performance is certainly achieved, yet a wider view is always kept in mind.

Status tends to continue to bother many people in a class-bound 21st century, whatever politicians or sections of the media may suggest to the contrary. What is refreshing at Downside, is that pupils from privileged backgrounds mix well with pupils on generous bursaries, bound together by a collective sense of spiritual identity, by shared values. The chic and the less determinedly fashionable live and work together, as higher spiritual standards are looked to. The 1st XV rugby player is a server in Mass, and girls combine zumba with the practice of Lectio Divina, the prayerful reading of the Bible. It is a unique educational tradition where faith formation remains a primary concern. In this inclusive culture, even a strange beast such as a lay Head Master feels welcomed!

Siegfried Sassoon the poet, whose identity was partly shaped in the cauldron of the Great War, converted to Catholicism at Downside; he played cricket with the Ravens, a staff team, and could often be seen praying in the nave of the Abbey Church, in a space built in memory of the fallen. At Downside he found a measure of peace and a sense of community. It seems important to me that schools are inclusive of those in search of spiritual meaning and also that they really make sense of the past, while equipping young people for the future. Our bicentenary matters to us, as does the centenary of the Great War. The poetry of life is part of it. Why not be Head Master of such a remarkable place?

Dr James Whitehead, Head Master, Downside School

  • Jonathan Elms

    As a traditional, somewhat grumpy, OG, proud to be associated with this analysis by Downside’s first lay headmaster. Benedictine perception and humility at its best.