Brendan Clover on the lasting legacy of Nathaniel Woodward, the Victorian founder of schools to provide education grounded in the principles of the Christian faith

He was to the educational world of the Victorians what Isambard Kingdom Brunel was to engineering. No other single individual had the impact on the Victorian educational world as the Reverend Canon Nathaniel Woodard. Born on 21 March 1811, Nathaniel was the ninth child in a family of twelve. He was an unlikely champion of an educational trust: his own education being cursory and unremarkable; at home with the family governess and a ‘pass degree’ from Oxford. He said of his Oxford time that his duties as a husband and father prevented his academic research.

Newman’s views

When Woodard Schools have their annual Oxbridge Master Class for lower sixth-formers aspiring for Oxbridge entrance I stay in Cardinal Newman’s rooms at Trinity College Oxford. I like to imagine Woodard and Newman meeting and their conversation. Nathaniel was a pragmatist convicted of one single idea. Newman was a philosopher of such great distinction and versatility. I am convinced that Woodard placed Newman’s ideas on education at the heart of his schools:

‘Liberal education viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect as such, and its object is nothing more nor less than intellectual eminence. Everything has its own perfection, be it higher or lower in the scale of things, and the perfection of one is not the perfection of another. Things animate, inanimate, visible, invisible, all are good in their kind, and have a best of themselves which is an object of pursuit’ [The Idea of a University, 1858].

A love of learning

For Newman as for Woodard education means not the imparting of facts, but the training of the mind towards perfect command of the art of thought. We might call it now ‘holistic’ education. Still today that philosophy informs our group of schools. ‘It is the primary purpose of a Woodard education to awaken a love of learning in young people, and to do this within a value rich and value driven context that recognizes the unique value of each individual person and our responsibility towards each other.’

Newman and Woodard, though separated at Oxford by ten years or so, were both products of Oxford Tractarianism. Each of them held that education not controlled by the ‘Church’ (according to their ultimately different understandings of that word) was fraught with disastrous consequences to society. For Woodard, thrown out of the Diocese of London for preaching in favour of the practice of auricular confession and catapulted into a curacy amid the deprivation of Shoreham, the mission was nothing less than the transformation of society.

His ‘Plea for [the education of] the Middle Classes’, published in 1848, expressed the belief that if society was to be radically transformed then the employers were the ones who could make the difference and instil in the workforce the proper Christian values which would become the change agent. ‘Education, education, education’ was a strapline our Founder could have coined!

Astonishing achievement

The plan was a bold one. Woodard divided the nation into five regions (or divisions) where he would build three schools for the various strata of the Victorian middle classes. In the end he founded 13 schools including a Training School for ‘Commercial Schoolmasters’ (to provide him with a constant supply of teachers: a precursor of the ‘teaching schools’ trumpeted today) and a Military and Engineering School (1850–8), a predecessor of the diploma programme and the University Technical College idea.

This was, in any age, an astonishing achievement brought about by single-minded determination to make a difference. Some of his fund-raising techniques were unorthodox, inviting guests to lunch in London locking the

door and refusing to let them out until they had parted with a sum of money he thought appropriate, and he left little in the way of endowment, but eleven schools in today’s market would cost in the region of £220,000,000. He certainly deserved the Canonry at Manchester which Gladstone bestowed on him!

Making a difference

And what of today? Well still, despite our best efforts, the Church of England, and the Catholic part of it, largely disowns Nathaniel Woodard or is ignorant of him. If that is because we are, at heart, a collection of some pretty outstanding independent schools, that too is a misrepresentation of the truth. Woodard Schools is a group of 18 ‘incorporated’ schools plus two Woodard-sponsored academies, fifteen affiliated (maintained sector) and seven associated (independent) schools. In a few years time there will be more young people educated in Woodard Academies than in our independent schools. And Woodard Schools continue to make a difference in areas of significant inner-city deprivation.

Bicentenary celebration

On 21 March a bicentenary birthday Eucharist will be celebrated at Lancing College, Woodard’s place of rest, and at Woodard schools across the country. We have a 2011 hymn written by Canon Jeremy Davies, common readings, and much else besides. The incense will rise in many of our school chapels. Young people of Christian faith, other faith or none will come to the altar for a blessing. For at their heart of our schools are Eucharistic Communities where the Mass is ‘held in a place of honour’.

We believe that every young person has the right to experience the breadth and length and depth of Christian spirituality: not in a ‘ram it down your throat’ proselytizing way, but as an offer to engage in the debate about God, to have the experience and thus to have the meaning.

In this way, day by day across our country, in schools, we honour our Founder and his faith in the Sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, as we shall collectively do at a Service of Thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey on 24 November 2011, when, please God, at the end of our period of Festival, we shall rejoice in having raised enough money to build a secondary school in Kenya in yet another area of illiteracy and deprivation, a living legacy for a builder Founder.

Could it just be that the Catholic heart of the Church of England is beating in our School: those schools which by being inclusive faith communities have offered the nation that great gift of inclusion and affirmation of the faith journey, with a real celebration of diversity and difference, which, because we know who and what we are, we need never fear?

Qui diligit Deum diligat et fratrem suum.

Canon Brendan Clover is the
Senior Provost of the Woodard