A SCHOOL history, such as Peter Leroy’s well-told account of Monkton Combe School, is a window on a world. It is, to be sure, a little world to those outside it, but not to those within, to the children who flourish or flounder there. Such studies invariably raise educational issues of far wider relevance than the concerns of any one small school.
Monkton Combe School, founded in 1868, has always maintained a robust Christian identity. Its spiritual home is the Protestant Evangelical wing of the Church of England. Although Monkton has turned out a disproportionate number of clergy and “missionaries” — now an endangered species — Leroy claims that it has never been a hothouse. Certainly, most Monkton alumni one meets do not seem to have been propagated under glass.
Peter Leroy, himself an Old Monktonian and for ten years head of Monkton’s Preparatory School, takes up Monkton’s history in 1968, the year in which a former Headmaster A. F. Lace (“who rarely smiled and was always in a hurry”) published a history of the school’s first 100 years. Leroy’s sequel chronicles, chapter by chapter, the school’s fortunes under successive headmasters. All come across as admirable men (Monkton has yet to appoint a woman head), although Leroy would not have us suppose that they are flawless.
Turbulent teenagers aren’t flawless either. Monkton nestles in a sleepy Somerset valley whose charms are less attractive to many sixth-formers than the fleshpots of Bath. Leroy well understands that the young need both space and boundaries, and his picture of Monkton is of a community that has always tried to provide both.
A Monkton Combe Senior School group photo in 1892. From the book
Much the hardest task for a historian of Monkton Combe is to record fairly the school’s merger in 1992 with the girls’ school Clarendon. What had been planned as a marriage became a desperate rescue operation. Leroy provides a sensitive summary of a series of events — deeply wounding to many involved — in which, it must be said, the participation of Providence was not always obvious.
There have been massive cultural shifts in education over recent decades. Teachers can no longer just be left to get on with their job. They must be constantly monitored and regularly inspected. Rigorous safeguarding policies and procedures have to be introduced. None of these necessary developments, astutely observed by Leroy, lightens the teacher’s load.
Leroy, “a member of the unbeaten 1st XV of 1960”, takes great pride in his old school’s sporting achievements. (Clearly he is keen on compulsory games and would probably maintain that the unpleasant intimacies of the ruck are character-building.)
The governors of Monkton Combe asked Leroy to write an updated history of the school. That commission he has fulfilled splendidly. If unaddressed questions occur to us in reading his book, we must remember that he was not asked to defend the public-school system as such.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.
A Delightful Inheritance: 150 Years of Monkton Combe School
Monkton Print £24.99