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Closure

The last words are from Fr Christopher, as recorded in the last edition of the Belmont Magazine:
On 21st February 1994, the Belmont Community, meeting in Chapter, voted to close the school. On 28th February the Abbot, Fr Mark, informed the lay staff. On 1st March the press, other Headmasters, parents, old-boys, and boys were informed. The school is due to close at the end of this summer term 1994.
On my own personal level, I am very sorry about the closure of the school. The school has been the main work of my life: I joined the staff at the age of 28 and I am now 62, so, except for seven years chaplaincy work at Cambridge, most of my adult life and most of my priestly life has been spent working in the school.
But, of course, I'm not the only one: Fr Antony and Fr Nicholas, the two other senior Housemasters, Br Peter, Br Bernard and Fr Timothy have all given love and devoted care to the school. Meanwhile there are many other monks, some not known to current boys and parents, who have served the school for long periods and are very fond of it: Abbot Mark, Fr Hugh and Fr Simon, former Headmasters, Abbot Alan, Fr Denis, Fr Dermot, Fr Aelred, Fr Dominic, Fr Stephen, Fr Illtud, Fr Paul, Fr Dyfiig and Fr Francis, all former Housemasters, and Fr David, for years unofficial school chaplain. And the dead, of course: Abbot Anselm, Abbot Alphege, Abbot Robert, Fr Christopher McNulty, Fr Brendan, Fr Hilary, Fr Raymund, Fr Martin, Fr Fabian and Fr Wilfrid. And two who left the Community some years ago: Fr Roger and Fr Cyprian.

 
 

And there are the lay staff: all genuinely devoted to the school, and all, in their different ways, very hardworking: Chris Spencer, Michael Bamsley, Hugh Davis, Sandy Elliott, Graham Simpson, Mike Caswell, Jenny Hancock, Barrie Dayment, Wallace Knowles, Jean Russell, Val Williams, Bill and Gill Anderson, Gerard Boylan, Mike Elkin, lan White and John Roberts. And others, now retired from Belmont: Jan Abbey, Jo Baly, John Bennallack-Hart, Paddy Camden-Smith, Bev Davies, Mike Dunn, Peter Fletcher, Terry Fallon, John Heath, Pauline King, Mike Maybury, Dave Myers, Clive and Marie Prout, Tony Rees, Peter Walsh and Christine Williams. And the dead: Frank Crease, Jock Finan, Derek Mobbs, Major Sempill, Tess Taylor, Clive Thomas and Norman Walsh. They served you well.

Quite simply, we haven't got the fees-income to keep the school going. What has defeated us has been the steady decline in boarders. The school Houses were built in the early 1960s with accommodation for 248 boarders. In 1976, by squeezing boys into every odd comer (linen cupboards, fire escape doors) we peaked at 268 boarders. That was 18 years ago. In nearly every one of the 18 years since boy boarders have fallen - 267, 264, 259, 245, 247, 233, 224, 214, 190, 204, 180. In the 6 years of my Headmaster-ship the decline has continued: 1988 173, 1989 156, 1990 144,1991 119,1992 108,and now, 1993 84. Meanwhile in the last ten years. Day Boys have remained constant at about 60 - good, but not enough to make up for the decline in boarders, and financially, of course, you need nearly two day-boy fees to equal one boarding fee.

Now, this decline is not, as I once thought, due to some defect in Belmont which could be put right by a determined Headmaster. Nor is it simply the recession - it pre-dates the recession, and continues now after the recession is coming to an end. No - what we've been up against is this: nationally, boarding education has stopped being the norm for those parents who can afford it. Nationally, the number of boarders goes down by 4%, 5% or 6% every year. In 1992/3 it went down 6.2%, in 1993/4 5.2%. In the 1970s (before Thatcher, before the recession) there began one of those great subconscious shifts in public opinion: parents continue to want the superior education which independent schools can give, but they do not want to send their children away from home, away to school. Boarding is no longer the norm - it has become emergency treatment for a child with 'special needs'. All boarding schools are suffering from this; and I'm afraid more and more boarding schools will have to face the sadness of closure. Obviously a school which starts with a small complement of 250, like Belmont, is harder hit than one starting with a base-line of 400 or 500. But the downward trend is, I'm afraid, the same.

And the paradox, which really hurts, is that this numerical decline has occurred for us at Belmont side by side with a steady improvement in academic standards, and some first class achievements (for such a tiny school) in Rugby, Rowing, Drama, Cricket, Fencing and Basketball.
Throughout my Headmastership I am sorry but I have been wrong. I thought cultivating Prep Schools and Primary Schools and their Headmasters would help - it hasn't. I thought extensive and re-vamped advertising would help - it hasn't. I thought appealing to Old Boys as potential fathers would help - it hasn't. I thought accepting Spanish boys and then, as I got desperate. Hong Kong boys, would help - it hasn't. I thought encouraging dyslexic boys to apply and arranging for their tuition here would help - it hasn't. I thought preaching about the school in Catholic parishes would help - it hasn't. I thought attending Schools Recruitment Exhibitions would help - it hasn't. I thought improving the calibre of the lay staff would help - it hasn't. I thought a Scholarship Fund Campaign would help - it hasn't. I thought recruiting in Europe would help - it hasn't. I thought cultivating the St Mary's Lugwardine connection would help - it hasn't. I thought making economies and redundancies would help - it hasn't. I thought increasing fees and cutting departmental budgets would help - it hasn't. I thought reducing the academic standard required for entrance would help - it hasn't. I thought getting the monastery to subsidise the school out of its own surplus would help, but there isn't a surplus - and it hasn't. Above all, the bitterest blow, I thought improving the school's academic results and reputation would help - it hasn't. I am sorry, I have been wrong. I have two final points.

Firstly, not many boys could put this into words, but it was a perceptive parent who pointed it out to me. The great strength of Belmont has been its unusual combination of old-fashioned customs and rules and regulations - what angry teenagers in the 60s called 'the system' - with flexibility and humanity and sensitivity towards exceptions and oddities and needs. A combination of law in general and adaptation to individuals of order and idiosyncrasy. Very humane.

And secondly, I think for the last 68 years, boys have taken away from Belmont something of un-measureable value. Something non-quantitative. Something qualitative. I think you can call it relationships. A boy takes away from Belmont five, six, seven years lived in a community where everyone more or less knows more or less everyone else. Lived in a community where, incredibly, more or less everyone is liked by more or less everyone else. Lived in a community where there are wrinkles - because it is human and humanity means wrinkles. Where there is at times bullying, where there is at times stealing, where there is at times laziness. But a community where these things are noticed and worried about and painfully confronted in a way unimaginable in some of the schools and some of the streets which surround us. Above all, lived in a community where there are relationships - where boys relate to each other across the age groups and the racial groups and the class groups - where boys relate to masters across the generation gap and the intellectual chasm, where masters relate to boys with a comradeship which goes surprisingly deep.

Actually, the first thing I noticed about Belmont when I came here thirty-four years ago, what I fell for, was the rapport between staff and boys, between boys and boys, between staff and staff. This is fairly unusual in schools. What I fell for was the naturalness and the normalcy, the honesty and the directness, the genuineness with which every monk, master and boy related to and was related to by every other.

I have been Headmaster for only six years, and during that time I have been inspected four times. And two of the inspections came last year, 1993, in March and in May. And what the Inspectors asked me about and what I told them about was numbers and curriculum and exam results - all the great corporate activities, all the great codified statistics. But just once in each inspection, there actually came a moment of personal and individual truth. The Inspectors in March said, I quote: "Relationships between pupils and between staff and pupils are first rate. This makes for a happy atmosphere in the school... The boys are open, friendly and articulate, perceptive and secure."

And the Inspectors in May said, I quote: "The boys have a close intimate life. They set great store by their friends. They have good relationships with the adults on the staff, but if they were troubled or worried, they would go in the first instance to their friends, rather than parents or Housemasters."

You see, that doesn't often get noticed. Deep down, buried underneath the curriculum and the exam results, deep down is the umbilical cord which attaches boys to Belmont. Deep down each particular boy in Upper 4B or in 6/1 Science had a good time at Belmont, because they had friends. And deep down what they will most miss when they leave Belmont, is friends.

Ask them and see.