James Penn meets Dom Anthony Sutch, the leading Catholic school's new headmaster designate, who takes over the reins next academic year
FAmigt SLT R:11 has all the qualities one would expect of a future headmaster of a Catholic boarding school: he is courteous, intelligent and very, very discreet. Appointed to take over at Downside in September, he is well equipped to take the school past a somewhat turbulent patch in its history.
The monastery lost thousands of pounds in the Barings Bank crash and the school has seen pupil numbers slip from 500 to 350 over the last ten years. Part of Fr Sutch's remit will be to stabilise and improve that figure. In doing so he will have to combat a perception that boarding is not for mummy's delicate adolescent offspring, as well as try to soften the image of a school which looks like a cross between Colditz and a Victorian asylum. "People have described it as magnificent," he says of the nineteenth century Gothic extravaganza. "If you want soft pinks it's not the place for you the architecture is of its period. In one sense it's a national monument. But we will be planting trees and building a fountain. As far as the buildings themselves go, only a Philistine would alter them."
"I've no idea what exactly causes it," he says of the reluctance to put kids through the traditional public school treadmill. "The social trend seems to be that boarding is unfashionable. It's certainly expensive [fees are about £10,000 a year]. We have a two year reorganisation plan not to sell outselves to the market but to make ourselves more attractive. We've certainly got a very good school, but we've got to persuade people Of that."
This plan involves allowing lay teachers to become house masters for the first time and appointing three lay deputies to help oversee the school's day to day running. To a certain extent this is necessitated by the shortage of monks there are currently 43 to 60 lay staff. At a more grass roots level, boys will be given more study bedrooms.
His appointment from housemaster to head, taking over from Dom Aidan Bellinger who returns to teaching after three years in the post, is another aspect of the changes.
There is no intention of following schools like Rugby and Marlborough in becoming co-educational (like other Catholic boarding schools it is all male). "It has been considered: five years ago we looked into it very seriously and were advised against it. We are primarily concerned with the education of the pupils here, and not with getting numbers up."
Nor are there thoughts of watering down Downside's Catholic commitment: "Theoretically we don't take non-Catholics, but in a very few cases we will. For example we've got a ten and twelve year old whose parents have converted but who aren't Catholic themselves. We do get quite a few enquiries from Anglicans, because it's a more lively Christian education where the belief is very real, not just part of the prospectus."
Local Catholics from Somerset and Avon, however, will be encouraged to go. "We've decided to provide them with the opportunity of coming here, " said Fr Sutch, adding after reflection, "Shall we say it will be rash of them not to take it."
If they, or their parents, do take up the offer, they will join a cosmopolitan environment. Pupils come from North and South America, Europe and the Far East as well as Scotland and Wales. "We're a national school when a lot of public schools are now recruiting within a 40 miles radius. The Catholic world is catholic in a real sense. It's said that we're better known in Vienna and I long Kong than in the next door village, which says something for the good manners of the boys."
The school has produced such luminaries as businessman Rocco Forte and author Auberon Waugh in the past. More recently it educated the England rugby player, Simon Halliday, and the sons of former Times editor, William Rees-Mogg. When asked what other prominent Britons had sons there, Fr Sutch was unforthcoming. Very discreet, as I've already said.
Having agreed to meet Anthony Sutch at Paddington's Great Western Hotel, there was little risk of missing him. Not many people arrive for an interview dressed in an ankle length black cassock and white braided belt. It is regulation Benedictine dress and he insists on wearing it wherever he goes, though he has found himself abused for it in London and even on one occasion beaten up ("mugged", he later rephrases it).
"If one is ashamed of the habit then one shouldn't be wearing it. I'll carry on wearing it whether people like it or not," he insists staunchly, adding, "My more honest friends say it's to cover my figure." Educated at Downside himself, his mother was a Catholic convert and his father an Anglican. He became a monk nearly twenty years ago, at the age of 27, after starting life as an accountant and says of the cenobitic existence: "It really is a great life and also a way' of seeking God. It has as many problems as any other walk of life' and you find out fairly rapidly whether you're suited to it."
Monasticism and the male' hoarding school go together like ham and eggs, and Fr Sutch finds the Rule of St Benedict as useful an adjunct to the educational side as to his personal life. "We're occasionally accused of turning them all into little monks, but we're not doing that. Benedict says, "Give the strong something to strive for and make sure the bruised reed is not damaged." The teachings are about concern, compassion, and a group living together with a common purpose," he says.