Bishop’s Stortford College, East Herts
Muddy says: This vast and impressive co-ed day and boarding school has a dazzling array of facilities and a strong community vibe.
Bishop’s Stortford College is a co-ed all-through school for pupils aged 4-18, which offers day and boarding (from age 7). While it’s a Christian school it welcomes those of all faiths and none.
Teetering on the Essex border, the College is ideally located for easy access to London and Cambridge as well as the surrounding countryside, and older pupils are lucky enough to be able to walk into town (a pretty market town at that), which is mere minutes away.
This also means that the pupils come from a fairly wide catchment, encompassing Stevenage to the west, Cambridge to the north, Epping to the south, and the east coast. There are also around 50-60 international boarders per year who are required to do an entrance paper in English as a Second Language.
It’s a selective school with a play-based assessment for four year olds; English, maths and reading tests from age 7-13 (add verbal reasoning for 8+); English, maths, science and NVR tests and an interview from age 13-16; then sixth form entry via one general paper and two academic papers of choice from age 16-18. Academic, music, art and sports scholarships are awarded to talented pupils from Form 2 (year 6) and honorary scholarships may also be awarded, all of which are reviewed annually.
There are currently just shy of 1180 pupils at the College so it’s a whopper compared to many of the schools I visit, and the ‘campus’ is also vast. As the word suggests, it feels more like a university than a school, but there are opportunities to become a part of the College community at every turn, through clubs and houses to sport and drama.
The College was founded in 1868 and some of the grand original buildings remain, but the facilities have been added to over the years with more modern teaching spaces and boarding houses.
The grounds are, well, enormous, with 130 acres of space – fairly unique for a town centre school. You could easily get lost here if you didn’t know your way around. The path, lined with horse chestnut trees (laden with conkers come autumn), leads to masses of green space stretching as far as the eye can see, with just a few private homes bordering the grounds, and fab views over Bishop’s Stortford.
No it’s not a public park, but 100 acres of playing fields just for the pupils, featuring 12 marked rugby pitches, seven cricket squares (and 16 cricket nets), three grass hockey pitches, five football pitches, a 4 x 400-metre grass running track, plus athletics pitches.
As for the rest of the sports offering, there are two full-size floodlit Astro turf pitches for hockey and tennis, all-weather courts for netball and tennis, and a floodlit netball court. There’s also a 25-metre swimming pool (plus learner pool for the little ones) and a sports hall with badminton, basketball, hockey, netball, tennis, volleyball and handball courts, plus a fully equipped gym on the mezzanine.
Four new houses opened in Autumn 2017; Trotman House, a girls’ boarding house; Collett House, a boys’ day house; Rowe House, a new boys’ boarding house, and Robert Pearce House, which was restored following a fire in 2015.
The Ferguson Building includes, (alongside science labs), a large lecture theatre, seating 180, where special lectures and public and community events are held. There’s also an actual theatre, which is used for drama teaching and performances.
Plus, for use by Fourth formers and up, there’s a dedicated higher education and careers department, with three full time members of staff who offer advice and support with onward steps, such as university applications.
The next big project is the transformation of School House – the original building dating back to 1868 – which will include new Headmaster’s offices, the bursary, an administrative hub and a staff common room as well as modern classrooms.
MUSIC AND DRAMA
50 per cent of pupils learn an instrument – around average for a private school in my experience – and they are encouraged to join one or more of the College’s many ensembles, including choirs, orchestras and concert bands at both prep and senior school level. Usefully, the 7-10 year olds have two-weekly cycles of instrumental lessons to give them the chance to try a wide range of instruments before choosing to specialise in Form 1 or 2.
On the jazz hands front, each year the College employs a dramatist in residence who is a recent drama graduate. There are three drama productions at Christmas in pre-prep (one for each age group), three over the course of the year in prep and five in senior school.
The senior school art department (which opened in 2009) is spectacular even ten years on, with its stunning architectural design and gallery-style spaces. There are large light-filled studios, a ceramics studio, a workshop, a gallery space, an IT suite, a sixth form studio which is divided into smaller work stations and display areas for individual students, as well a dedicated resource library.
Pupils are encouraged to discover and explore their own preferred medium, from textiles to computer graphics, rather than all work on the same thing. I met one boy who was making a pot on the wheel and told me that, with the help of a resident ceramicist, they set up a special Raku kiln in the summer (something that they usually wouldn’t get to try until university or art college stage).
There are sculptural pieces on display outside the front door, beckoning you in, and the pieces adorning the stairwell inside (ranging from photography to printing and fine art) are impressive. It’s not hard to believe that Stortfordians are amongst the highest achievers in the country for this subject and I can imagine that the recent exhibition as part of the College’s 150th anniversary celebrations was quite something.
Sport is a big part of College life. Pre-prep have three lessons a week – in games, swimming and PE. In prep the core sports (rugby, hockey and cricket for boys and hockey, netball, rounders and cricket for girls) are introduced, along with house matches. Then in senior school swimming and tennis become core sports, too.
And Bishop’s Stortford is a force to be reckoned with in the pool. It was one of the first schools in the country to have an indoor pool (which opened back in 1895!), so swimming has long been a part of the sporting culture here, and pupils regularly compete at regional, national and international levels. One recent sixth former even made it to the 2016 Olympics in Rio and another won eight gold medals at the Moroccan Winter Short Course Swimming Championships. Blimey.
For the less Amazonian, there’s also a bit of fun competition at the pool called the 80 Club, which challenges pupils to swim eight lengths a day (during the week) for 80 consecutive days to claim an award for commitment.
The College has had its fair share of successes out of the water, too, named in The Cricketer guide to the Top 100 schools for cricket 2019 with a pitch so dandy the Herts and Essex county cricket teams use it. The U13 footballers made it through to the IAPS National Finals last year, the U18 Boys’ Indoor Hockey team won the County Indoor Hockey Finals 2018, and the U16 Girls’ Hockey team were crowned county champions last year, securing them a place in the National Finals 2019. So, you know, they’re pretty handy at sport, no doubt assisted by the Elite Sports Programme, which provides extra support to gifted players and sports scholars.
In a word, impressive. Last year’s GCSE results saw a 99% pass rate (of grades 9-4 in the newly reformed grading system) which included 24% of pupils achieving the highest possible grade of 9 – that compares to a national average (independent and state) of 4.5%, to give you an idea of how Bishop’s Stortford pupils perform. Out of 113 pupils, 31 achieved at least ten A*-A or 9-7 grades, to receive the College’s sought-after Ten Club Tie.
As for A Levels, it was a 100% pass rate last year, 53% A*-A grades, and leavers destinations included Oxbridge, York, Durham, Exeter, Bristol, Bath Manchester, Queen Mary, UCL and LSE.
Value Added scores put the College in the top 17% of schools (independent and state) in the country.
The Memorial Hall is a pretty unique building with its grand collonades and intricate features. It was built in 1922 to commemorate pupils and staff who lost their lives in WWI before a second roll of honour was added in 1949 after WWII. It’s quite humbling to read the inscriptions and it’s lovely to hear that it’s used daily for assemblies, concerts and special events.
On a lighter note, the school has its own apiary where pupils can learn what it takes to be a beekeeper as one of the many co-curricular activities on offer. At prep school there are at least ten options ranging from water colour painting to Dragon’s Den. In senior school there are more than 30 to choose from, including power kiting and rag rug making.
The College also organises an annual Festival of Literature in February, which includes a series of events, and lectures by big name speakers and authors, many of which are open to the public. This year marked its 10th anniversary and the programme featured talks by David Starkey CBE and former Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell.
There are three options for boarding: full, weekly, part-time (2-3 nights a week – senior school only), and flexi (1-3 nights – prep school only). Boarding is in a mixed house in the prep school, and then separates into single sex boarding houses in senior school and sixth form.
As I see pretty frequently now, boarding houses welcome day pupils through their doors, so they can make use of the facilities, mix with their friends and go on the same trips to mitigate any inkling of ‘them and us’ culture’. Equally the boarders can join their friends in the day pupils’ study rooms. There are two exeats per term for full boarders when the kids are encouraged to stay with friends or guardians.
I had a tour of Robert Pearce House, which has been re-built as closely as possible to the original Arts & Crafts style – red brick with black-framed windows – but with the benefit of modernisation like en suite bathrooms in every room (!). The boys also have their own boot room, with access from outside so they don’t have to traipse mud through the house after rugby games, and all their washing is done on site so nothing goes walkabout (they don’t know how lucky they are!).
They can help themselves to fruit all day, and they have chocolate Wednesdays when they’re allowed chocolate spread on their toast at break time. There’s a cosy common/games room as well as a relaxation area if it all gets a bit raucous! And by night all doors are alarmed so there’s no sneaking out between the hours of 11pm and 6am.
And check out the newest senior girls’ house, below – more like a trendy eco lodge than a school boarding house, with its cedar cladding inside and out, loads of glass, as well as a novel seeded roof. The roof windows even automatically close when it rains! There are private study rooms, including a music practice room too. The girls who have moved in here have really lucked out – it’s a great space.
At weekends there’s plenty of down time, which will often involve going to other boarding houses for films and hot chocolate or homemade pizzas as well as a jam-packed program of activities to take part in.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents I’ve talked to say that the pastoral care is extremely strong here (partly due to small boarding houses) and all staff are tasked with keeping an eye on the kids to ensure they’re not overdoing it. Community is the common thread that keeps coming up – despite the size and stature of the school, the kids are all given the freedom and opportunity to find their own niche – it feels like lots of mini communities encapsulated by one larger one.
Around average for this quality of school. Pre-Prep ranges from £3,136 to £3,197 per term. Prep runs from £4,842 for a day pupil in years 3-4, to £5,427 for years 5-8. In the senior school, year 9-11 fees are £6,783 for a day pupil, and £6,844 in the sixth form.
Boarders’ fees range from £7,453 (weekly) to £8,173 (full) for Prep pupils (with flexi boarding available from £72 for one night); £8,436 (2 days) to £10,941 (full) in Senior School; and £8,516 (2 days) to £11,079 (full) in the sixth form. The fees are slightly higher for overseas boarders.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Those who feel excited by the opportunities that a large school with excellent facilities can afford, and parents who like the idea of continuity in their child’s education. There’s so much to get involved in here from a young age, so it would suit children who are ambitious and relish the idea of getting stuck in. Also, those who want to try boarding can get a feel for it before committing full-time, thanks to the boarding houses’ open-door policy to day pupils, and flexi boarding options.
NOT FOR: The three-schools-in-one model and the vast campus-style site might be overwhelming for some (although pre-prep is nicely self-contained so as not to feel too scary for the little ones).
DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest! There’s a whole College open morning on 21 September (9.30am – 1pm), a sixth form open morning on 12 October (from 10.15am) and a prep school open morning on 9 November at 9.45am. Find out more and book a place here.