CHAVAGNES-EN-PAILLERS, France (Reuters) - Learning Latin, attending Catechism and hurrying along draughty corridors to prayer, two dozen boys are experiencing old-fashioned British boarding school life — deep in the French countryside.
Boxing, folk-dancing and Gregorian chant also figure on the curriculum at Chavagnes International College, a traditional Catholic English boys’ boarding school in the Vendee wine-growing region on France’s Atlantic coast.
Housed in a 200-year-old former seminary in a region marked by France’s wars of religion in the mid-16th century, it says it attracts parents who are disillusioned by the British state school system or the values of modern life.
The fees are also significantly cheaper than in Britain, at 15,000 euros ($23,000) for boarders per year compared with an average of about 22,000 sterling ($43,000) in Britain, according to figures from the Independent Schools Council.
Making a virtue of necessity, the austerity of Chavagnes’ surroundings — sparsely furnished rooms, stone floors and peeling paint — provides a fitting backdrop.
“It offers a complete package of character building,” said Wil Mobberley, a British-based computer animator who has two sons at the school. “They will look back on it as an adventure.”
Founded by 36-year-old Briton Ferdi McDermott, who seven years ago sank half a million euros ($770,000) into buying the buildings, the school also taps into a hankering among some British parents for order, achievement and faith in education.
Faith-based schools are very popular in England, with typically more applicants than there are places, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It says there are 600 or so state-funded religious secondary schools.
“We’ve had kids who have come here because they have been attacked at school,” McDermott said. “Or, in a class of 30, the boys have been put at the back, and the teachers concentrate on the girls at the front to boost the school’s results.”
The punishments in Chavagnes have a distinct pre-war flavor: for example, writing out hundreds of times the phrase “I firmly resolve to behave like a gentleman.”
Each lesson starts with a prayer, and everyone attends daily Mass. There are statues of saints in corners, and holy pictures are mounted on many walls — sometimes to conceal the damp.
“It’s a good school. It feels a bit old, but that’s cool,” said pupil Stephen Lorriman, 12.
The school, which gives a spiky skyline to the town, has 27 boarders: mainly British, but with a handful of other Europeans. McDermott was running a Catholic publishing house before opening it with a group of like-minded teachers in 2002, and is only now working towards his own teaching qualification.
He was not educated at a Catholic school himself, but his parents sold their home to help him buy the buildings: he borrowed 300,000 euros but has had to abandon whole floors because he cannot meet the repair bills.
Nonetheless, he expects to have up to 45 pupils at the start of the academic year in September: “We were hemorrhaging cash,” he said. “Now it’s trickling, we’re close to breaking even.”
Chavagnes, which receives no funding from the French state, has a core of up to seven full-time teachers, plus volunteers. The local bishop pays for its chaplain, 36-year-old Canadian Father Jean-Pierre Pilon, who lives in a hermitage in the grounds of a nearby chateau.
The surroundings come as a shock to 21st-century Western European boys.
“Boys suffer in adjusting to the discipline and the common life, the poverty, the food and the international character of the school,” said Pilon. “But once they adjust, they are happy.”
The intensity of life here can make the boys ardently religious, McDermott said: he was surprised to find two teenagers saying a novena, a prayer said for nine consecutive days, after they had returned from watching football.
At the “top table” in the dining hall, visitors, teachers, and the chef himself eat together, overlooking the pupils’ tables, where navy blue-blazered boys serve each other pasta and vegetables, fruit, local bread and cheese.
After lunch, the boys themselves clear the tables, wash the dishes, sweep the floors, and immediately re-set the tables ready for the next meal.
Boys change into rugby kit in a curtainless junior dormitory, where a communal, trough-style cold-water sink stands at the end of the room and wooden wardrobes form rough divides between the iron beds. The older boys shave in cold water.
Music also plays a role for its “refining effect” on the boys, said Brother John Moylan, a 72-year-old Australian volunteer: “They do Gregorian chant, polyphonic chant, they sing at Mass.”
“The quirky side appeals to me,” said Mobberley, the parent. “It all comes down to what your attitude to education is. This gives them adaptability and resilience, not just exam results.”
Pilon recalled one occasion when the heating broke down, leaving staff and boys shivering in the 19th-century rooms.
“An ordinary school would just close, if that happened. We all gathered in one small room, with an oil heater, and played games.”
Chavagnes pupils may use mobile phones, iPods, and games consoles — but only at weekends.
“Eating together, praying together, living an ascetic way of life. Those things are important,” said McDermott. “But I’d like to be able to spend more money on carpets and paint.”
Editing by Richard Balmforth and Sara Ledwith