Bedford Girls’ School, Bedford
This independent school for girls age 7-18 is a truly refreshing environment, with outstanding facilites, where girls can try everything, take responsibility for their choices and feel completely confident in their own skin.
We first visited Bedford Girls’ School two years ago, and with changes always afoot here we decided it was time to pop by for another visit and update you on what’s new.
Bedford Girls’ School (BGS) is a day school for ages 7-18, just minutes from the centre of town and the banks of the River Great Ouse (handy for the rowers!), making it easily reached by road and rail. That probably explains why girls travel from far and wide to come here – the catchment includes Herts, Bucks, Northants and Cambridge.
It’s a broadly selective school with 920 pupils and class sizes of 20-24.
A bit of background. BGS is the result of a merger between two schools in 2009. The Harpur Trust decided to combine Bedford High School for Girls with Dame Alice Harpur School. Both were founded in 1882 by the legacy of Sir William Harpur, a merchant who became Mayor of London in 1566. He and his wife, Dame Alice, made an endowment to Bedford to support charities, and in particular, education and today the Harpur Trust supports BGS as well as the Bedford School for boys and co-ed school Bedford Modern.
While it has years of educational heritage, BGS wears them lightly. The merger allowed the then new Headmistress, Jo MacKenzie carte blanche to create (with a great deal of support from her team) a brand new school. Bedford Girls’ School could be what it wanted to be – what a brief! You could describe the result as a happy accident or an example of what can happen with insightful planning and intelligent design.
On the former site of Dame Alice Harpur School, the grounds are attractive featuring buildings from a full spectrum of architectural styles and periods, with the 1930’s senior school building standing alongside far more contemporary extensions. Inside, everything is really light and airy with plenty of glass, high ceilings and and fresh, bright décor.
Are you sitting down? There is a programme of continuous development which means that almost every year, there is something new and exciting for the girls to come back to after the summer – aren’t they lucky!
The last major project involved updating the science department to create a more flexible, interactive and collaborative workspace. In the labs all the workbenches are on wheels, and there’s no teacher’s desk, so the spaces can be easily re-configured according to what they’re learning, and the girls are even allowed to write on the (wipe-clean, of course!) desks. Each lab is equipped with a Clevertouch interactive display, which allows students to share work from their iPads and take control.
On that note, it’s an Apple distinguished school, so educationalists come from all over the world to find out how they are using tech.
Then there’s the futuristic-looking iCreate space, surrounded by a curved glass wall which the girls can write and stick notes all over, which makes it look a bit like the workings of a mad scientist (in a good way..!) Recently they’ve been studying the work of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, so the glass is plastered with the girls’ pledges about doing their bit for the environment.
They can even see straight into the technicians’ lab thanks to a large glass window, and for those who can’t get enough science in class, there are lunchtime tinker labs. It’s all designed to help spark curiosity in STEM subjects and I’m not sure how you’d fail to feel inspired here, even if science wasn’t your thing. It certainly brings it to life in a super creative way. It doesn’t feel like a school, but that’s the idea – to shake things up and prepare the girls for what their future workspaces might look like.
Before science, it was the drama department’s turn for a revamp. The state of the art black-box theatre has a similar spec to a professional theatre. Every space has been acoustically treated by a sound engineer. No more reverb! There’s a Harlequin floor (professional and tip top), and the modular auditorium seating means the layout can vary to fit the performance – you can choose from ‘in the round’, traverse, and even proscenium.
A minimum of three major senior productions are held here every year. They’ve done Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland (below) as well as an all-female version of Lord of the Flies. The upcoming show sounds like a whole different kettle of fish though – they’re putting on Avenue Q, the sell-out West End puppet show with replica puppets from the actual show. You’ve got to hand it to them, they don’t shy away from a challenge here!
The Junior School take part in curriculum-based productions too, plus many girls do their LAMDA qualifications and there are a wide range of dance classes on offer in one of the two bright and modern dance studios.
But it’s not just about treading the boards, there are loads of opportunities to get involved backstage with everything from costume and set design to sound and lighting, including joining the after-school theatre crew. Again – the girls are constantly being fed ideas about different career paths and given tasters to see what piques their interest.
Next up the art, texiles and food tech departments are in line for an update. They don’t feel particularly tired or in need of improvement but after seeing the super snazzy upgrades to science and drama it feels like there are no holds barred so I’m intrigued to see the results.
Currently there’s a big and bright art room with a dedicated display area for Sixth Form work – and what a talented bunch they are too!
There’s also a ceramics room and separate textiles space with all manner of fabric printing and sewing equipment – it feels more like an art college than a senior school.
And there’s a well-equipped DT room and two food tech rooms with individual workstations. The girls have been learning how to poach an egg today (how very ‘Delia’) but they’re also set more creative projects like coming up with street food dishes, and there are displays of all of their culinary creations displayed along the corridor to whet the appetite.
You might need to limber up before reading this next bit. Ten star jumps would be perfectly fine. Sport is massive here and the facilities and opportunities are stunning. And it pays off as the sporting success is off the scale. Well, no, actually it’s ON the scale. BGS is the 2nd top independent day school for girls’ sport nationally and 8th nationally overall (including boys’ and co-ed independents). How’s that for you? It’s based on how each school performs in their top sports. For BGS that’s rowing (they even have a boat house down on the river Great Ouse, shared with Bedford Modern and Bedford School), lacrosse, hockey, swimming, tennis and netball. But the girls can also do cross-country, Triathlon and Biathlon, athletics and rounders.
There are no fewer than six lacrosse pitches and a superb pavillion in nearby Cople Fields where the school also hosts lacrosse tournaments. And underestimate these girls at your peril – that’s the lesson Bedford School’s boy’s team learned after BGS’ 1st XV thrashed them in a friendly inter-school game. It’s all taken in good spirits though and this has now become an annual charity fixture every Easter.
Many of the coaches here have played at national (or even international) level, and what’s great to hear is that they work with the D teams too, so it’s not just the A teams that get the elite treatment. Sport is celebrated here and the girls are encouraged to see it as fun, and importantly, to keep it up long after they reach 14 – the traditional drop-off age for girls’ sport. Part of the school’s dedication to that is offering a wide variety of sports – as well as the traditional ones, Sixth Formers can choose things like badminton, trampolining or even yoga which they’ll do on a rotation throughout the year.
Sport is also seen as something that supplements their studies and boosts their mental health. In fact the school set up a running club during the A level revision and exam period where the girls (and staff) trained for the Hitchin Half Marathon in between their studies. On the topic of mental health, as I walk through the locker room, my guides Sophie and Alice explain why they are all covered in Post-It notes – the sports department had written positive and motivational quotes on each and every one as part of Mental Health Week. What a lovely touch.
And check this out for a fitness suite… Sixth Formers get free reign to train here during breaks and free periods while the rest of the senior school incorporates sessions into lessons.
And they fare well in the water too, with swimming teams in all years and a 20 metre pool on site.
A couple more recent updates to the sporting facilities include a newly re-laid Astro turf pitch and a new floor in the sports hall. I don’t know about you but I’m worn out after all that!
Even the libraries here are fabulous and are a good example of the way BGS brings old and new together seamlessly. I mean, just look at that ceiling!
The fiction library (above) is flooded with light thanks to a huge glass panel on one side, and there’s a cute reading nook in the alcove of the original ornate windows on the other side.
The sleek non-fiction library includes a silent zone where Sixth Formers can go and get some peace and quiet to focus on their studies and there’s a boardroom-style glass-panelled seminar room where some classes and clubs are held – just like you’d find in a real office.
Music-wise there’s a new head honcho who’s breathing new life into the department. There are around 25 visiting music teachers and 300 girls take individual lessons. There’s even a composing and recording suite. Plus the teachers are getting stuck in too, with many of them taking up an instrument to learn Grade One during the spring term as part of the Bedford Fringe Festival – kudos!
It’s important for the girls to see that even the grown-ups make mistakes. Jo MacKenzie tackled her nerves and took to the ivories to perform in front of an audience and while she admits that it wasn’t perfect, she did it – it’s how you learn from your mistakes that’s the important thing, and that pretty much sums up the school’s ethos in general.
Classical groups are strong here, but there are also rock and brass bands too, and four choirs, including the Bel Canto choir, which you have to audition for, then there’s the more light-hearted stuff which all pupils can get involved in like the House Glee, which, (you guessed it), is a group singing comp.
The Junior School is just over the road in Howard House – an attractive building which again benefits from traditional features, like high ceilings, and internal modernisation, such as French doors in the classrooms which open out on to the lovely grounds – these boast a greenhouse, adventure trail and netball court.
There are 240 girls in the Junior School but it doesn’t feel big or overwhelming. In fact, it’s the opposite – homely and welcoming. Plus, as the girls join at 7 they’re a bit older and more robust to adapt to a new environment than they might be at age 3 or 4. 40% of entrants in Year 3 come from one main feeder school – Pilgrims – which also comes under the Harpur Trust.
As the warm and bubbly Head of the Junior School Carolyn Howe explains, Years 3-5 benefit from specialist teachers in music, dance, Spanish and sport and in year 6 (in preparation for moving up, or across the road), they use the Senior facilities and teachers for science and arts subjectct (a rotation between art, food and nutrition, DT and textiles).
The Junior School’s curriculum is the IB Primary Years Programme is all about making the link between subjects. They’re learning about Ancient Greece in history for example but they are painting pictures of urns and learning printing techniques in art to help tie everything together.
Similarly, Spanish, which is taught throughout Junior School, is very interactive. The girls benefit from a native speaking teacher who covers the basics of the language but they also learn about the culture by doing salsa and Spanish cooking. Can we join in? In year 6 the girls move on to a rotation of four different languages to whet their apetite for Senior School.
The Junior girls have one hour of music per week plus private lessons too and they share the facilities and teachers with the Senior Girls. Plus, one of the benefits of being part of the Harpur Trust is that the schools can share instrumental teachers too – need a drum teacher? Just ask Bedford School up the road, and vice versa. The girls start composing on keyboards from Year 3 and their musical curriculum is very thematic, based on things like orchestral instruments. There are loads of extra-curricular clubs too, like guitar club, flute choir and music recording club, and there are about 50 girls in the Junior choir.
They also do half an hour of dance lessons here each week as part of the curriculum, which the girls can supplement with extra lessons in tap, ballet and modern.
There is literally a chance to try whatever you fancy here – the girls only have to think of something they’d like to do (within reason of course!) and BGS will arrange it for them. One of my Sixth Form guides tells me she doesn’t think there’s anything she hasn’t tried here.
Girls’ only education is seen as a completely brilliant thing here. There’s a sense that you can be yourself without any need for self consciousness. Year 6 girls do handstands in the garden during break time, then they are going over to Bedford School to join the boys for Combined Cadet Forces. In fact, there are a few girls togged up in their camo gear in lessons as I look around – clearly it’s a popular choice.
The House names stuck me as a little fluffy at first glance – Chanel, Austen… but when I discovered that they’d been named after female role models, including Nightingale and Parks, too, it made more sense. It’s girl power all the way here.
On that note, there’s a Girls’ Leadership Group (GLG) that is made up of Head Girls, Deputies, House Captains and Reps for sport, art and so on. They run various campaigns, organise events and learn skills that will benefit them in future, like time management, teamwork and of course, leadership.
Every pupil has a Google account so they can easily share their work with their teachers and peers, and Google Classroom has changed the way teaching happens, allowing staff to share resources with their class to read and refer back to in their own time as opposed to standing up and presenting it.
Something else I liked is that the classroom walls aren’t covered with perfectly presented displays but are works in progress, with scribbled Post-It notes (remember the iCreate space?). Also all Junior School pupils do something called QED (question, explore, discover) homework research projects on set topics, which is as much about exploring different learning techniques as it is the final outcome. Lots of out-of-the-box thinking.
BGS is one of just a few schools which offer a dual stream – girls can choose to take the IB Diploma or A level route. For those who want to take three subjects and already have a vocational career in mind, A levels might be the preferred choice, but girls who perhaps want to travel or don’t like the idea of putting all their eggs in one basket often feel that the IB Diploma is a more flexible option.
The idea of the IB Diploma is that it gives the girls more options – crucially, while the university A level requirements continue to go up the IB ones have stayed more or less the same, which means that girls who take this route may end up with more offers. It also challenges the girls in other ways than sitting an exam, by doing things that perhaps don’t come naturally to them, like public speaking or report writing. But the choice is key here and what’s right for one girl won’t be for another, which is strongly supported at BGS.
And there’s more when it comes to readying the girls for the future – the careers service, known as The Bridge – is a great resource and they put on ‘lunchbox lectures’ on an enormous range of subjects, often with guest speakers. Today there’s a member of the alumni here to talk about setting up her photography business. The girls get emails in advance so they don’t miss the ones they’re interested in and they’re recorded too in case they clash with a sports fixture or something.
The Sixth Formers also have their own common room and separate dining room-cum-snack-bar, Chequers, where they can get the same food as the main dining room, or get it to take away in case they want to go to a lecture or lunchtime club.
In 2019, the exam results continue to impress. At GCSE 70% of all entries achieved grades 9-7 (A*-A), with one third of the year group being awarded ten grades 9-7 (A*-A) across their subjects. Overall, the school achieved a 96% pass rate (9-4). In the IB Diploma, a third of the cohort achieved 39 or above and 93% of all Higher Level papers were awarded a 7-5 (A*- B A-Level equivalent). And 45% of all entries (A-Level and International Baccalaureate Diploma combined) achieved A*-A grades. Over one third of the A-Level cohort gained three A*-As or more.
Jo MacKenzie is celebrating 10 years at the helm this year and what a decade it’s been! She seems kind, soulful and wise and gives off a quiet confidence that seems to permeate the whole school. Obviously becoming Head and creating a whole new school at the same time must have been an incredible undertaking, not only that, but she also had the challenge of bringing together the values and 130-year heritage of two existing schools in a cohesive way. I reckon she’s done a pretty remarkable job.
Apart from the physical changes and continuous improvements to the facilities that she’s made, Jo had (and still has) a real vision about educating girls with confidence – she tells me that the impressive exam results are purely a side effect of that – but also investing in co-curricular and collaborative opportunities too. She’s passionate about teaching the girls to reflect on failure to help them become better learners and I think that’s what breeds the resilience and humility that is so evident in BGS girls.
Junior School: £9,729 per annum (£3,243 per term); Senior School and Sixth Form: £13,674 per annum (£4,558 per term).
The school day is the same for everyone: 8.30am – 4pm. There’s a breakfast club from 7.30am, where girls can pay for what they have on the day and parents are welcome to join them. In the evenings, girls can stay until 7pm. Wraparound care is at no extra cost and the girls are free to make use of it as and when they need it – a huge added bonus for parents!
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: I think this school could sway parents who are firmly in the state education camp, as while yes, this is an independent school with frankly stunning facilities it feels completely unstuffy. The girls know how lucky they are but there’s not so much as a sniff of entitlement.
Not for: Despite it’s rich heritage BGS feels undoubtedly modern – both physically and in its thinking, so parents dreaming of a traditional set-up in a historic rural setting might take some convincing. It’s in no way a protective sorority-style bubble. There’s a big emphasis on what goes on in the wider world, being open minded and giving the girls choice about their education and future, so parents need to be on board with that too.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it. There’s a Sixth Form open evening on 7 Nov, and whole school Open Mornings on 13 Nov, 4 March and 7 May.