Downside's strength at rugby could not mask its falling pupil rolls and poor exam results. But, as Will Heaven finds, the school has seen a transformation
Downside has lost its gothic gloom. The change is noticeable in the long corridors: this is more than refurbishment or well-calculated interior design. In the space of three years the school has become fully co-educational, and when I returned there the differences showed immediately. For a start, the place seems livelier and, as one monk pointed out to me, "much noisier".
The headmaster, Dom Leo MaidlowDavis, greets me with a broad smile. He is pleased, as most headmasters would be, with the school's progress next year Downside will reach its 430strong pupil capacity for the first time in over 30 years.
A decade ago there were five Catholic independent boarding schools for boys in England: Ampleforth, Stonyhurst, Worth, the Reading Oratory and Downside. Now, all but one of them are, or are in the process of turning, fully co-educational. Falling pupil numbers were blamed on poor exam results. Catholic schools had fallen down the league tables by choosing to focus on a rounded spiritual development instead of ruthlessly pursuing government targets. As the former Downside deputy head, Martin Fisher, once said: "You don't fatten a pig by weighing it."
On top of this, Dom Leo believes that "families, where they can, like to have their children in the same school". Catholics with children at mixed prep schools did not bother looking at single-sex senior schools why, if nothing else, make the school runs and exeat weekends more complicated?
Action had to be taken. To survive, Downside would have to transform itself into a school for Catholic families. It would have to improve academic standards and attract more pupils, and do all this without damaging the school's uniquely Benedictine ethos.
The decision to go co-ed was not taken lightly. Ultimately, the abbot had the final say, and he wanted the entire community's approval. Dom Raphael Appleby, one of the school's four chaplains, told me that the monks said special prayers after compline every night for a month. "We had to make the right decision, so we took it with the utmost seriousness." When the decision was finally arrived at, Dorn Raphael declares, "there wasn't one dissenting voice", Quickly, plans were made for a girls' boarding house. The school's primary house, Caverel. was chosen, and work got under way to convert shabby 1960s accommodation into somewhere parents would happily leave their daughters.
The last remaining communal showers were demolished, and rarely-used bathrooms became a flat for the soonto-be-appointed housemistress. Builders worked through the night in the holidays, because the girls would arrive in September 2005 less than a year away. The next task was notifying parents that their sons would be joined by girls, and to announce to Old Gregorians (OGs) that their beloved alma mater was to change its 400-yearold approach to education.
The school's OGs, often mocked by Downside girls for their almost compulsory uniform of tweed jacket and red corduroy trousers, were expected by many to kick up a fuss. They didn't. Most, Dom Leo told me, saw it as a necessary progression, and were pleased that the school was offering special discounts on the school fees for their daughters.
Besides the discounted fees, a concerted marketing push began. Neil McLaughlan, a City advertising executive turned English teacher, and now headmaster of Westminster Cathedral Choir School, was appointed director of development. He launched a new look Downside website, which boasts around a million hits a month, and started the Downside Diary, a glossy magazine with a Tatlerish tone, charting the pupils' exploits. It included, in the last edition, an editorial by Dom Leo entitled "Back at the top".
Downside, as many of the older monks will tell you, was at the top for a long time. In the 1950s there were over 600 pupils at the school, and most boys either went to Oxbridge or joined the monastery. But the school declined. In the 1970s Downside was the strongest rugby-playing school in the country, but that didn't mask the weak exam results or the falling pupil numbers. A school that boasted the largest nonmilitary dormitory in the country as one of its strengths was simply not receiving interest from Catholic parents.
A brief attempt at co-education was made, but there was little investment made by the monastery. The girls were housed in the top floor of the Old House in cramped bedrooms and numbers remained small.
The monastic community, which, after all, controls the school's funds, was determined not to make the same mistake again. It has so far ploughed over six million pounds into Downside's development programme, around half of it going into the building of a new girls' boarding house, named "Isabella" after the Spanish noblewoman who gave permission for the establishment of the English Benedictine community at Douai Downside's forebear in 1606.
The school also had to perform better academically and pupils noticed more of their teachers were PhDs. The league tables were derided by Dom Antony Sutch, the previous headmas ter, in a Daily Telegraph article that put him on the front page: "A school is damned because it is 574th in the league table but that school may have worked miracles by giving a child the confidence he or she needs." But the fact remains: parents look at league tables to decide where they send their children.
Dom Leo had a unique solution. With Dr James Whitehead, then director of studies (now deputy head at Worth), he set up the Pope John Paul II scholarships, These provide the brightest Polish students with an opportunity to study in England free, and boost Downside's exam results without diluting its Catholic ethos one of last year's scholars gained no less than six As at A-Level.
Academic results improved across the board in 2007. At A-level, pupils achieved a record 77 per cent A-B grade whileGCSE results were recorded at 60 per cent A*/A. Results were, in other words, the best ever.
So have the girls settled in? Leonora Mellish. an upper-sixthformer, is adamant that they have. "Everyone's a full-time boarder it's not like the girls' school where I was before, when everyone disappeared off home for the weekend. The school has more of a family feel. It's close knit." Above all, ,he said, "it's much more fun here".
Spiritually, the girls have as many opportunities as the boys to pursue their faith. 'They have two Masses a week, termly reconciliation services with the opportunity for Confession, as well as pray:r groups and an open door at the chaplaincy centre. "I find the monks realh easy to talk to," another sixth-form girl said.
Last term.in correspondence to the boys' "monastic experience" weekend, seven girls and their housemistress went away to a convent. Much to their surprise, they enjoyed it. "It was actually quite fug," one told me, "but we couldn't stop giggling during the silent meals."
Despite tlx "monastic experience". the future ofDownside's monastery remains to be seen. But there are three postulants (monks who have yet to take their vows) his year, including, rumour has it, a trained opera singer and a qualified eye surgeon.
For the school, the signs remain positive. Evelyn Waugh once described Downside, where he went on Easter retreat, as "tlat centre of sadism". It's difficult to imagine the same thing being said now. Dom Leo wrote last year in the 0ownside Diary that the school, like Cardinal Newman's Church in llith-century England, is experiencini its "second spring". By all accounts ,that seems to ring true.