Back to school after Goldman Sachs

Stonyhurst College

Stephen Withnell, Governor of Stonyhurst College and Westminster Cathedral Choir School and new Director of Strategic Development at Stonyhurst, has recently written a comment piece for The Catholic Herald on his appointment and on the future projects for the school.

A year of celebrations begins at Stonyhurst this September, marking the college’s 425th anniversary. Founded in 1593 in Saint Omer, the school moved to Bruges and Liège before settling at Stonyhurst in Lancashire in 1794. The oldest Jesuit school in the world, Stonyhurst is one of the great survivors of English Catholic history.

Stonyhurst’s history is one of constant evolution and innovation. For things to stay the same a lot has had to change.

For example, today the school has a strong lay executive and an independent governing body. In 1999 it became fully co-educational and in 2009 it became an independent charitable trust.

Stonyhurst is thriving: its roll has increased over the last five years and its prep school, Stonyhurst St Mary’s Hall, has grown by 25 per cent. My children will soon walk to school across an open field and country lane, rather than arriving at London preparatory schools after a 45-minute commute in an Uber. My wife, a NHS general practitioner, will swap a three-hour trip each day around the M25 for what the AA Route Planner tells us will be a 4.1 mile drive, duration 11 minutes, to her new country GP practice.

For our great Catholic independent schools to thrive in the 21st century, a new approach to endowment, fundraising, international partnerships and external relations is required.

My role at Stonyhurst will focus initially on working with the executive on advancing Stonyhurst’s ambition and planning in these three areas.

Many independent schools are excellent at this. Schools as different as Dulwich, Wellington and Manchester Grammar are exemplars to learn from.Stephen Withnell

I will not try and outline here what I think the “answers” are. Each school is unique and I have a lot of listening and learning to do. But I will give some of the reasons why it’s a great privilege to work on such things.

Professionally, it has been an easy decision to choose to apply whatever I may have learnt in the service of others. I have fallen in love with the school again as a governor, and helping the executive and board strengthen from within is a worthy assignment. I will retain my MD role at Goldman Sachs as well as select trusteeships – this “portfolio” of interests will, I believe, work well.

At Goldman, I have served as an adviser for corporations on strategic and fundraising transactions worth more than $150 billion, but my new assignment may well be my most challenging yet. The charitable business models of independent schools are much more finely balanced and nuanced. They are not always receptive to change, and they should not be run like businesses.

Catholic independent schools need to redouble their efforts in strategic planning if they are to thrive. Nurturing a culture of shared mission, of giving and philanthropy, is what built these schools in the first place. Overseas expansion – Stonyhurst is opening its first international school in Penang, Malaysia – is a natural step for schools which have been international from their foundation.

Why is fundraising and growth so important? Catholic independent schools do not aspire to charge high fees, or to be small and exclusive – quite the opposite. For example, approximately 30 per cent of Stonyhurst pupils receive fee support, which can be up to 100 per cent of the total fee. We would like the number of pupils receiving support to be higher – and all who think they would thrive at the school should apply. Access for all who truly wish to attend must be the goal in our sector.

Our schools need to raise permanent, ring-fenced capital to endow places and fee assistance. “Permanent” and “protected” are the operative words here: funding places out of income is what many schools actually do, and this is a not a long-term strategy.

At their best, our Catholic independent schools develop pupils’ talents by challenging them to give of their very best in all that they do, to the greater glory of God. They seek to be caring, supportive and prayerful communities which prepare young people intellectually, spiritually and emotionally to provide leadership in the modern world. They are laboratories for what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter and dialogue”, and academies to prepare future leaders for engagement with what Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism”.

As Niall Ferguson argued in his 2012 Reith Lectures, biodiversity in education is preferable to monopoly: “A mix of public and private institutions with meaningful competition favours excellence.”

Supercharging the way our oldest schools are endowed, how they fund-raise, how they pursue financially astute partnerships and how they communicate with society at large can help them move towards ever-wider access. And this is surely something we can all support.

This article has first been published on The Catholic Herald and on Stonyhurst College website.