Belfast man to become first lay headmaster at England’s top Catholic school

Ampleforth, the prestigious Benedictine school in Northern England is to get its first lay headmaster, Belfast man David Lambon, who has strong ideas about education and how to get the best from teenagers


This summer David Lambon will leave behind St Malachy’s College in urban north Belfast to take over as headmaster of one of the world’s great Catholic schools, Ampleforth in rural north Yorkshire.

It is a prestigious appointment but this 46-year-old native of Andersonstown in west Belfast isn’t unduly daunted. He believes universal principles apply when dealing with teenage students.

He also believes in the value of Catholic education and is prepared to challenge the views of the “passionately secular” Minister of Education Ruairí Quinn and also of First Minister Peter Robinson when he compares Catholic schools to a “benign form of apartheid”.

Lambon will be the first lay head of €36,000 a year Ampleforth, where British blue-blood and monied Catholics are educated, along with students from affluent Catholic families around the world. Until now, the college has been run by a succession of monks from Ampleforth Monastery, but the college is moving with the times. Traditionally a boys’ school, a third of its 600 pupils are now girls.

Lambon acknowledges that there is a cultural difference between Irish Catholics and English Catholics, particularly the elite cohort he will be teaching. “But fundamentally my job will be about children,” says Lambon and, whatever about their addiction to modern technology and their teenage cockiness, which he sees as a defensive facade, he has great faith in them.

Rather like the old Who song, he believes the kids are alright, whether privileged or not.

Ampleforth is the school attended by the current and previous dukes of Norfolk, England’s most aristocratic English Catholic family. It also boasts a significant list of old Amplefordians such as the late English Catholic primate Cardinal Basil Hume and the former abbot of Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick Fr Christopher Dillon.

Other alumni include Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, Irish painter Roderick O’Conor, actor Rupert Everett, former Northern Ireland Office minister Michael Ancram, Captain Robert Nairac, killed by the IRA in 1977, and former England and Ireland rugby internationals Lawrence Dallaglio, Guy and Simon Easterby.

Ampleforth, which was founded in 1802, has a great sense of itself but so too has St Malachy’s, which was established 31 years later. It also has a roll-call of leading alumni that includes the late Irish primate Cardinal Cahal Daly, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, writers Brian Moore, Michael McLaverty, Bernard McLaverty and Robert McLiam Wilson, actor Ciarán Hinds, TV presenter Eamonn Holmes, and Major John MacBride executed in 1916 and Eoin MacNeill who countermanded the order for the Rising.

Lambon won’t be overawed. He was head-hunted for the post. He received an email “out of the blue” from executive search and assessment firm Saxton Bampfylde, which was engaged in a worldwide trawl on behalf of Ampleforth to find a new headmaster. This came as he was just over two years into his job as head of St Malachy’s.

“I had no intention of moving but Ampleforth is probably seen as one of the world’s leading Catholic schools. It was the opportunity to further challenge myself as much as anything else . . . it was hard to refuse.”

After a series of interviews against a number of other candidates he got the job. An Irishman taking over this bastion of English Catholic education, was he surprised?

“The way I would look at it, it illustrates the high esteem Catholic schools are held in. We very often disparage our education system but I don’t think that people from Northern Ireland should lack any confidence. Ampleforth was looking for the best person, for the best fit, and that was regardless of nationality.”

He will be joined at the college by its first female deputy head, Deirdre Rowe.

Like other Catholic institutions, Ampleforth was hit by child-abuse scandals involving monks and some lay teaching staff but since exposure about 10 years ago safeguarding mechanisms have been put in place and Lambon believes this is a sorry history now behind the college. “Its safeguarding procedures are now acknowledged as best practice.”

A trained engineer and mathematician, Lambon also has a master’s in school leadership and management.

In his early 20s he worked as an engineer in France and Germany before finally deciding to follow in the footsteps of his mother Maura and his late father Tony by becoming a teacher. He felt an irresistible “vocational” pull.

Lambon’s career path has been steady and upward. He started off aged 24 at Belfast Royal Academy, progressing through a number of schools including St Eugene’s College in Roslea, Co Fermanagh, on the Border where he gained his first head post.

Before St Malachy’s, where he was its second lay principal, he spent seven years at St Mary’s grammar school in Magherafelt, Co Derry, helping it win the Sunday Times Northern Ireland School of the Year competition in 2009.

His own second-level education was at Rathmore Catholic grammar school in south Belfast from 1979 to 1986, years of serious strife that also included the tensions and horrors of the hunger strikes.

School was almost an escape from the outside reality. “Everybody in the 1970s and 1980s was touched by the Troubles, but school was good and we had every opportunity afforded to us at Rathmore; there was great camaraderie and great friendship.”

He met his wife Sasha, head of French at Aquinas Catholic grammar in Belfast, when they were both doing post-graduate studies at Queen’s University in Belfast.

They have two sons, Ben (20) and Blaine (17). She is expected to join him at Ampleforth in the next couple of years. He is a keen triathlete and golfs off an 11 handicap.

Lambon has good things to say about young people – apart from their occasional failure to “live in the moment”, to savour the present.

“They snapchat the moment – they take a photograph of the moment and text it to somebody. They just need a little bit of help and guidance – and that is irrespective of their school or of their background.

“But today’s generation is a tremendous generation,” he says. “They are much maligned but they are incredibly kind. They are very sensitive. They like things to be explained to them. They have a strong sense of community and are probably much more tolerant than maybe a generation ago – we could learn a lot from them.

“When you meet them at a small group level, they have a real intuitive sense of right and wrong. Too much engagement in technology can be a difficulty but you just have to educate them a bit more about that.”

Lambon strongly defends Catholic education against its detractors including First Minister Peter Robinson and Minister of Education Ruairí Quinn. Mr Robinson previously described religious education as a “benign form of apartheid” and objected to the British state funding church schools.

“Perhaps our First Minister was trying to promote debate – that’s what I would hope that comment was aimed to do,” Lambon says.

“I fundamentally believe it comes back to parental choice. They are free to choose if they want a faith school or if they don’t.”

He makes this comment at a time when a Belfast Telegraph survey has found that the top five schools in Northern Ireland are all Catholic grammars, with 8 of the top 10 Catholic schools.

As for the “apartheid” charge: “We work very closely with schools from the state sector to the integrated sector and under no circumstances do we believe in any form of apartheid.

“Our doors are open; our boys go to different schools; different schools come here. This is a Catholic school, it is not a school for Catholics. To me sectarianism would be the complete antithesis of being a Catholic.

“Mr Robinson could probably do with visiting schools and getting a view based on reality rather than maybe taking his understanding from a period of time ago. There is a lot of cooperation across schools.”

When responding to Quinn’s view that if he had his way he would take time from the allocation for religion for reading and mathematics, Lambon says, “I can see the argument for improving English and maths but even in the teaching of religious studies work can be done to support literacy.”

He rather wryly compares the three months of summer holidays for secondary schools in the South to the two-month vacation period in the North and wonders if perhaps longer teaching time might be a better way of improving literacy and numeracy than undermining religious education. “But perhaps that’s a view that mightn’t be popular with teachers,” he accepts.

“The moral development of a child can’t be underestimated,” says Lambon who adds that faith is a “stabilising force” for young people. “We need to be very careful. You have to say, what are we trying to do here? What you are trying to produce are young people who have a rounded view of society and have a reference point for themselves. I would just caution the Minister to be reflective . . . I am not so sure that politicians should micro-manage the curriculum.”

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