Fighting for his school's survival, the headmaster of Presentation College asked the former headmaster of Downside for help. But was the school worth saving? Dom Antony Sutch reports his findings
Five years ago I was asked to be a Governor of the Sacred Heart Preparatory School at Chew Magna, Somerset. The order of nuns who ran the school and owned the site had given very short notice of closure. The parents and teachers united to fight the closure and called in the support of others. Much anger, frustration and heartache and expenditure of energy followed. The school survived and is now thriving.
However there is a legacy of distrust of religious orders. Parents and teachers could not understand the nuns' position. Lack of transparency and communication did not help. Why were there no warnings, negotiations, discussions and no earlier opportunity to explore lay management and a new Trust?
My heart sank when I was contacted over the threatened closure of Presentation College, Reading. Exactly the same scenario seemed to be taking place. In this case the Presentation Brothers of Mount St Joseph. Cork, had announced that the College was to close in July 2003. The parents and teachers wished to fight this. The initial closure date, after protest, was postponed to August 2004 but beyond that negotiation was ruled out.
I am a Religious myself. I understand the pressures on Religious Orders. The decline of vocations and the consequent repositioning of their mission aims may lead to such situations as closing schools. I defend the right of Religious so to do. I defend their right to privacy and keeping their own counsel. However in the care of schools they have a duty to be open, to explain, to communicate, to listen and be prepared to find a mutually acceptable solution. It would seem that the Presentation Brothers were not following this path. This was leading to speculation, much of it highly critical and possibly unfounded. This was damaging the image of Religious Catholic education.
I am passionate about education. I am especially passionate about Religious Catholic education. As the ex-Head Master of Downside, and as a Benedictine I have had much experience thereof. England is in need of good schools.
It is in need of schools which go beyond "geek" culture, which can "tick the boxes of bureaucracy" but not have the tick-box mentality. England is in need of schools with a Christian mission, with a belief in liberal education. It is, in
fact, in need of good Catholic Independent Schools. Is Presentation College such a school? I was called upon to answer that question for myself as I was asked to help.
I went to look at the College. The Headmaster, Frank Loveder, met me at Reading station. This was an immediate plus point for the school, showing a concerned personal approach from the Head.
Highly intelligent, energetic, committed and a real lover of his school, the Head struck me as a dynamic and powerful leader, a rare commodity these days. We had a long conversation and he came across as trying to understand the Brothers yet knowing the school should be saved. It seemed that an appropriate and acceptable arrangement had been reached in January 2003. At that point Brother Patrick Fitzgibbon had noted that Religious Orders had fewer vocations and the Brothers "no longer had the manpower to continue running schools in England." However, he went on, "they are determined to form an Educational Trust to continue to run Presentation
College and wish to hand over the College to local Trustees as a vibrant and valuable school."
It is a vibrant and valuable school. No special schedule had been arranged for my visit. I came across and talked with staff, pupils and two parents at random. They all cared. The parents were delighted with the progress of their sons. The staff I met were lively and energetic. The pupils were particularly impressive. I had long chats with Dominic North, an award
winning artist, and with Alex Westwood, both taking their As examinations this term. The latter said that he had come to the school as a dyslexic, shy and "unable to read or write." He had been greatly supported and encouraged and was now predicted B grades in his exams. He had also been on "expeditions with the school, the latest to Katmandu." He had raised money for charities and through many extra-mural activities had gained confidence. I would have been proud to have been their Headmaster.
Indeed, I would have been proud to have such a school under the auspices of my Religious Order. The school had had a good Inspection Report in March 2001. There had been huge strides academically since. The walls were covered with pupils' artwork and trophies and photographs of expeditions, plays and sporting fixtures brought the buildings alive. The pupils were courteous and happy. The atmosphere was positive. There was an undoubted Catholic ethos and mission.
Of course (as with all schools) there were problems and challenges. The Head was open and honest about these. Investment in buildings was needed as were improvements in facilities. A business plan had been drawn up and accepted by Governors and bankers. My old chartered accountant's brain perused the figures and they seemed reasonable, achievable and hopeful.
At such moments of crisis much hyperbole can occur. Yet the letters and comments of the children directed at the Brothers seemed not to be exaggerated or to be propaganda.
icholas Lally, aged 10, wrote "please do not close my school down I love it so much, all the staff are great, the teaching is great and the activities are great."
Simon Claybourn, aged 11, noted that "altogether it's a really good school with lots of nice people there." Max Lane, aged 13, wrote that the school had "unique features which (because of a small school) can be tailored to suit each of the dyslexic persons." Again he wrote of his brother who "is dyspraxic and would suffer disruption...since he has come to this school his work and behaviour has improved dramatically." I found the letters persuasive and moving.
Returning to London I pondered how I could help. Without wishing to deny the Presentation Brothers their rights and to understand them I felt that it was an excellent school, worth not only preserving but encouraging — its pupil numbers were buoyant.
To my amazement a few days later I received a Press statement, released by the Presentation Brothers and the Parents' Association. In it was the acceptance of the Presentation Brothers' reasons for their initial decision.
In it there was expressed also an awareness of the local demands and circumstances. It had been mutu ally decided that a new Educational Trust would be established with the objective to manage and operate a Catholic College in Reading to continue the
legacy of the Presentation Brothers. It echoed the statement of January 2003. So the Brothers were "delighted to rescind the closure notice." This was
wonderful news. The parable of the Prodigal son corning to his senses came to mind. Why had there been such a hiatus in the first place?