Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood
You'll find 280 acres of fresh air and Art Deco heritage at this high-achieving yet well balanced boys school in Herts' Three Rivers District, a mere 30 minutes from central London.
Merchant Taylors’ School is a dreamy 280 acre boys day school (11-18 year olds), nestled just outside of Northwood, between Watford and Rickmansworth, with 933 pupils. Set on a handsome, sprawling site, its main buildings are Grade-II Listed Art Deco solid brick offerings. More modern additions have been sympathetically designed in line with the elegant and studious aesthetic, with the whole site giving off vaguely collegiate vibes with its 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 both Herts and Bucks, 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 Senior, to Sixth Form, from where the bright, civilised boys are blasted off onto a range of top universities.
Spending £27m over the past eight years on developing and improving the facilities has certainly paid off as they really are excellent. And while that may sound like a huge outgoing, its been spent very prudently. The school is particularly blessed in terms of sport, with fields that are expansive and stretch as far as the eye can see. And 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, how many schools do you know that can boast of their own lake and watersports centre? Pretty cool, eh?!
There’s also a state-of-the-art 400m 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, a fencing piste, sports hall and well-equipped gym.
The cricket facilities are so pitch-perfect that Middlesex CCC use them for training and matches and only Eton has as many grassed cricket pitches. Oh, and the English, Australian and Indian cricket teams trained at the school in preparation ahead of the World Cup in 2019. Howzat?!
There’s a lovely whole school library, with symmetrical spiral staircases and a light and airy feel, plus far-reaching views over the sports fields. Although it’s well stocked, if boys can’t find the book they need here, it can be ordered in from the British Library so the literary world is their oyster.
The Old Chapel (above) has been put to good use as a multi-faith centre (it’s not a religious school but all faiths are welcomed), and a hub for the religious societies to gather, and it’s a pretty handy space for Yoga club, too.
The big player facilities-wise though is the Design, Engineering & Technology department, which is quite extraordinary – so large that it feels like a professional workshop, rivalling some university equivalents. Not only does it have more technical machinery and 3D printers than you can shake a glue stick at, there’s also an electronics studio and, wait for it… an entire workshop dedicated to car mechanics.
Yep, the school have bought an actual car, which the boys are learning how to fix up, (chassis replacement is next on the list), before those old enough to have a driving licence will be allowed to take it out for a spin. These kids are living the dream! Top Gear eat your heart out.
The all-singing, all-dancing department is undoubtedly a huuuge pull for boys who have even a spark of interest in engineering, tech and robotics. On that note, forget Robot Wars, the Middle School team are now World Champions in robotics having won an international competition to design, code and build bots, and compete against other teams. That’s an international competition – pretty impressive!
Meanwhile, the most recent overhaul has been that of the Geography building. Built in 2019, it’s been an exciting addition, packed with cool tech, from VR sets which put the kids right in the heart of the country or site they are studying – how about the middle of a volcano? Rather them than me! – to desks with integrated computers that pop up when required. The spacious, modern classrooms also have a sliding wall, allowing them to merge into one room for society meetings and lectures.
Incidentally the school has its own geography magazine which is written and produced by the students in collaboration with a graphic design studio – great experience for budding NatGeo journos!
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, Merchant Taylors’ hook up with local private girls’ schools (mainly St Helen’s) for drama and music productions (most recently, Les Mis and Chicago). The productions are hosted here in the Great Hall every other year (with St Helen’s hosting alternate years). There’s also a smaller Studio Theatre for Drama and some performances.
Music-wise there are 21 orchestras, choirs and bands, with all manner of instruments to choose from, 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 for the boys.
While many of the recent concerts have been virtual, there are regular performances at Christmas and on the annual Doctors’ Day. That said, with just under a third of pupils learning an instrument, it 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, (located above Design, Engineering & Technology), is highly regarded and brought in an Artist in Residence initiative a few years ago, which is still going strong. There are three teaching rooms, a ceramics studio and kiln, photography studio, print studio, art library and IT suite, as well as a Sixth Form workspace. And one of the big benefits of sharing a building with the snazzy Design, Engineering & Technology dept is easy access to their resources such as welding or spraying equipment. Bet the kids are dying to get their hands on that cool kit (all under supervision, of course!)
Let’s not beat about it, sport is a big deal at Merchant Taylors’. Cricket, rugby and hockey compete for prominence, and, as you’ll find at many boys’ independents, football is sidelined, but is still available as an option for Sixth Form.
Remember the lake I mentioned earlier? Sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and paddleboarding are amongst the offerings, and, naturally, there are regular watersports trips – how about surfing in Cornwall?- plus boys can choose watersports as a Games option if they opt out of the usuals. It’s all part of a big push on outdoor sport at the moment.
But if that doesn’t float their boat (sorry!), there are plenty of other sports to try, including basketball, athletics, swimming, golf, judo, triathlon, fencing and even fly-fishing. Plus there are regular trips to the conveniently close Hemel Snow Centre if skiing piques an interest.
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*).
I’ve mentioned that cricket is big here and, while it’s not unusual for indie schools to have pro sports coaches, MT boys are particularly spoilt. For last year’s Cricket Week, the Indian National Cricket Team trained on the school’s 1st 11 pitch. Meanwhile Bhuvneshwar Kumar Singh took time out to run a training session with the boys on the next pitch with cricket legend Gordon Grenidge joining in to help. Talk about star struck! And, once the new indoor cricket centre has been completed it’ll be shared with Middlesex CCC and the boys will train with their batsman Eoin Morgan.
And although it is being phased out soon, I think it’s worth mentioning that Merchant Taylors’ History and Languages students take something called a Pre-U, instead of the usual A-level. It’s a more challenging qualification, focussed on analytical, self-led learning, that supposedly better prepares them for the move up to uni. What I found interesting though was that the boys taking the Pre-U have continually risen to the challenge by achieving even better results, and I think this is testament to the attitude here at Merchant Taylors’ – always striving for more.
I really liked meeting Simon Everson, Merchant Taylors’ Head since 2013 (previously Head Master at Skinners’ School for seven years). He is clearly driving a lot of investment and innovation (you only have to look at the Geography block and Design, Engineering & Technology department – it’s now onto a new drama theatre and cricket centre), but is keen to ensure the new developments are in keeping with the existing aesthetic of the school. His vision is to create a campus-like feel (not unlike those of Oxbridge) with plenty of green space, and you certainly get that vibe as you walk around the school. While the outside suggests antiquity and tradition, inside the classrooms and facilities feels fresh and modern – the best of both.
And he’s extremely down to earth. Everson is determined that the boys develop adaptability and resilience, (something he thanks the Pandemic for turbo charging) and he’s certainly not all about churning out A* students with no communication skills. I also liked his analogy about training the boys to be the human equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife. The idea being that they’ll leave school with the ultimate trifecta of skills – soft, academic, techy – and myriad options open to them.
The 2021 exam results certainly make for impressive reading, with 94% of boys achieving the equivalent of grades A-A* at GCSE and 17 pupils achieving the new higher grade 9 in all subjects – something that’s expected of only the top 4-5% pupils in the country. Wowsers!
And the A-level results weren’t half bad either – with more than 86% graded A-A* and 16 pupils achieved A*s in four subjects. The results seem to just get better every year.
And, if you’re wondering about next steps, 11 of the last cohort went on to Oxbridge, with the vast majority getting their first choice University.
WRAP AROUND CARE
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). And there is also a late coach service for those staying on.
For a top day school with such delicious proximity to London, I’d say the fees are as you’d expect and not unreasonable. Currently it’s £22,280 per annum (40% Autumn £8,912 , 30% Spring £6,684, 30% Summer £6,684). 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 an all-round approach to learning. There’s much love of the school’s facilities and the sporting prowess in particular, which is no surprise really.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: All-rounders, joiner inners, and particularly sports lovers (keen cricketers, particularly, will be in heaven). Ideal for parents who want expansive grounds along with super-quick London access. Design, Engineering & Technology, History, Biology, 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. And if you’re not completely sold on the single-sex environment, there’s plenty of contact with local girls’ schools St Helen’s. Footie-crazy kids might be disappointed by the lack of football played here, but my instinct is that those with a passion or talent for it will be encouraged and supported no matter what.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! The next Open Morning is on Saturday 7th May 2022, and aimed at 13+ admissions (and boys currently in Years 4 & 5). To book a place click here.
Merchant Taylors’ Senior School, Sandy Lodge, Northwood, Middlesex, HA6 2HT. Tel: 01923 820644.