Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood
285 acres of fresh air and art deco heritage at this high-achieving all-rounder boys school on the Herts/Bucks borders, a mere 30 minutes from central London.
Merchant Taylors’ School is a dreamy 285 acre boys day school (11-18 year olds) in Northwood, Hertfordshire – just nestling the border with South Bucks – with 900 pupils. Set on a handsome, sprawling site, its main buildings are Grade II Listed art deco stolid brick offerings with more modern additions, giving off elegant, studious, and vaguely collegiate vibes with their quads and statues.
A zippy 30 minutes into the centre of London (or out of it, if you’re one of the many city pupils heading out for dizzying volumes of fresh air) and easily accessed by coach and rail from Bucks and Herts, Merchant Taylors’ emits the calm confidence of a school with over 450 years of tradition, though actually it only moved to its current location in 1933. The school goes from nursery and prep (nearby Northwood Prep was merged into the school in 2015) through to senior school, from where the bright, civilised boys are blasted off onto a range of top universities.
I’m no stranger to seeing excellent school facilities, but Merchant Taylors’ does seem to be particularly blessed, particularly in terms of sport. Athletic types will be in fitty-heaven here. Aside from the usuals of heated indoor pool, floodlit hockey pitches (MTS has been chosen as 1 of 8 England Hockey Junior Performance centres), rugby pitches and tennis courts, you can add lakes for sailing and windsurfing, a state-of-the-art athletics track, an assault course (for the Combined Cadet Force students only – you’ll have to earn your clamber under the camo netting!), grass tennis courts, and a fencing piste.
The cricket facilities are so pitch-perfect that Middlesex CCC use them for training and matches and have agreed a five-year deal to make MTS ‘The Home of Middlesex Youth Cricket’, and only Eton has as many grassed cricket pitches. Oh, and Australian cricket team trained at the school in preparation for their Ashes tours of 2013 and 2015.
Academic upgrades include a flash library with a lovely curly wurly staircase, below…
… a DT department so large that it feels like it’s a professional workshop, a light, airy art block, built in 2000 and most recently an overhaul of the geography building – the Head Monitor (that’s ‘Head Boy’ to you and me, and very sweet he was too) who was walking me around told me that both art and geography are really hot subject here, and the new Geography block that the pupils are apoplectically excited about – where kids can put themselves via VR into the middle of a volcano, no less.
MUSIC, ART AND DRAMA
Unusually here you’ll find a Drama Scholarship available at 11+, 13+ and 16+ so it’s fair to say theatrics are taken seriously.
Like many boys’ schools I visit, Merchant Taylors’ hook up with local private girls’ schools (mainly St Helen’s) for drama and music productions (Grease! Guys and Dolls! Um, Edward II….) The productions are generally held in the Great Hall or the smaller Studio Theatre. Perhaps one of the few areas in which facilities can improve at this school is in a bigger, dedicated theatre space – and lo, it’s the next big project in development.
Music-wise there are 21 orchestras, choirs and bands (I can’t even begin to express how much I want to hear ‘The Merchants of Groove’…), which shows a thriving department, and there’s an annual concert at the Merchant Taylors’ Hall in the City that must be an amazing experience. That said, the 40% of pupils learning an instrument is lower than I’ve come across at other schools, perhaps a reflection of how sport flexes its muscles above all else here.
The Art department is highly regarded, and this year welcomed a new initiative – its first ever Artist in Residence, Mark Connolly.
Let’s not beat about it, sport is a big deal at Merchant Taylors’. Cricket, rugby and hockey compete for prominence, with Merchant Taylors’ U17 cricket team national champions in 2017. The U15s are also Middlesex County Champions and there are 17 cricket teams through the school. In hockey, the 1st XI won the 2018 National Plate Final and the U16s reached the Indoor National Finals putting them among the top ten sides in the country – no doubt assisted handsomely by former England international and school coach Richard Alexander.
Plenty of other sports to try if they don’t take the fancy though, including basketball, athletics, swimming, soccer, golf, judo, triathlon, fencing and even fly-fishing. Water sports runs over all 3 terms and offers windsurfing, dinghy sailing, kayaking and canoeing.
Quite a few things that pricked up the Muddy ears. Firstly, you can’t say the teachers aren’t brainy here – over one-third of the 100-strong academic Faculty read their first degree at Oxford or Cambridge (*gulp*).
There’s a unique Easter camp for the physically challenged (Phab) that’s been running for 40 years – with 20 Sixth formers from MTS running a week’s holiday camp at the School along with St Helen’s girls for twenty disabled teenagers. The whole School stages various events during the year to raise the £10,000 needed to run the camp using the purpose-built residential centre at the School – a useful way to make sure these privileged children understand empathy, teamwork and understanding.
It’s also the only indie secondary school in Herts with Green Flag Status. Merchant Taylors’ has developed a fruit and veg garden, looks after 12 chickens (fed primarily on food waste from the kitchens) for egg collection, and this summer they introduce bees to start honey production. I’ve only come across one other school that has bees (I imagine it’s a health and safety minefield these days) but as someone experienced the fun of it at junior school myself, I’m all for it.
One more thing to finish it off – boys can take qualifications in coaching and officiating in rugby (RFU and IRB) which is common sense when you think about it and also lovely that they can help referee the younger kids.
I really liked meeting Simon Everson, Merchant Taylors’ Head since 2013 (previously Head Master at Skinners’ School for seven years). With a vastly oversubscribed school that pulls in bright boys from London and Bucks/Herts he perhaps finds it easier than some heads to espouse his dedication to helping the kids pursue happiness and independent thought, but his views are upheld by some very charming, down to earth kids.
Everson is clearly driving a lot of investment and innovation (the Geography block just complete, it’s now onto a drama theatre and cricket centre) but he’s very much in the real world too. Having put on evenings for parents on wellbeing for their kids with a low turn-out, he now piggybacks these events onto the likes of parents evening – easier for mums and dads to get to, and a captive audience for this most important of subjects.
This year’s exam results certainly make for impressive reading, with 88% of boys achieving the equivalent of grades A-A* at GCSE and 12 pupils achieving the new higher grade 9 in all subjects – something that was expected of only the top 4-5% pupils in the country. And the A-level results weren’t half bad either – in fact they were the schools best results in seven years. More than three quarters of exams were graded A-A* and 8 pupils achieved A*s in four subjects. Nice work.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Messy, and I like it
7.20 is the earliest departure for coaches, and from 8am hot breakfast snacks are available. Days feel relatively short here with the school day officially ending at 3.30, though of course there are a gazillion clubs in which to take part until 5.30pm (sport on Mondays and Wednesdays, activities on other nights).
For a top day school with such delicious proximity to London, I’d say the fees are reasonable. Currently it’s £21,526 per annum, which includes lunch (40% Autumn £8278, 30% Spring £6210, Summer £6210). Music fees are additional.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents I’ve spoken to buy into Merchant Taylors’ on this potent mix of academic results with a non-hot-house approach to learning. Much love of the school’s facilities and the sporting prowess in particular which is no surprise really. Local parents would like longer wrap-around care for the younger boys, but the general vibe is very positive.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: All-rounders, joiner inners, and particularly sports lovers. Ideal for parents who want expansive grounds along with super-quick London access. Art, DT, English and Geography are particularly ‘hot’ subjects here if you have a talented child in that area.
Not for: It’s a fairly large cohort for a senior school, so that might not suit more nervy boys. There’s plenty of contact with local girls’ schools St Helen’s and Northwood College but of course it’s still an all-boy environment, which is, of course, a personal judgement call on the merits of single sex schools. I have two kids at single sex schools and one at mixed, and they’re all happy, so I’ll leave that one for you!
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! The next Open Morning is on Sat 21 Sep 10am – 12.30pm.
Merchant Taylors’ Senior School, Sandy Lodge, Northwood, Middlesex, HA6 2HT. Tel: 01923 820644.