Princess Helena College Hitchin
This small rural school might look traditional from the outside but has a modern mentality and has just opened its doors to boys for the first time, too.
Princess Helena College (or PHC) has a 200-year heritage, in fact it celebrates its bicentenary this year (watch this space for all sorts of celebratory school and wider community events).
It’s in the rural village of Preston, but just three miles outside Hitchin, and when I say rural, I mean it – the big bonus is that once inside the gates all you can see for miles around is countryside and farmland. Plus you might catch a glimpse of the odd muntjack deer or hare, too.
Housed in a Grade II listed Queen Anne country house, (formerly known as Temple Dinsley), which was redesigned by Edwin Lutyens, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a seriously traditional school – despite appearances PHC has a very modern outlook from its use of tech to its pastoral approach.
It’s not large – there are just 150 pupils, and class sizes are equally petite at around 20-25 in lower school, but the big news (sound the klaxon!) is that in September 2019 PHC welcomed its first intake of boys, having previously been an all-girls’ school. Back to that later…
There’s a rather lovely 100 acres worth of grounds to explore, with some heritage features, like brick pergolas, ponds and even an orchard. While there’s everything that the pupils need here, the main facilities aren’t perhaps as all-singing and all-dancing as larger, more modern schools can boast about.
The main building is attractive with wood panelling, parquet flooring and large welcoming open fireplaces. There are two traditional looking libraries (non-fiction and fiction), and an elegant hall for assemblies.
The subject classrooms all benefit from interactive whiteboards and Apple TV to allow screen mirroring in lessons – soon to roll out iPads, too. Plus there are two computer rooms and a science block with two biology labs, one chemistry lab and one physics lab.
The sports hall (used for basketball, netball, trampolining and gymnastics amongst others) is housed within an extension to the main school and features a mezzanine level fitness suite, a Dance studio (Dance is taught at GCSE and A-level, plus private lessons are available and there’s an annual House Dance, too), and a Drama Studio. The Sports Hall is also used for performances.
Art-wise, there are two really bright and spacious classrooms which overlook the gorgeous orchard and gardens – one A-Level student has her own desk with a panoramic view. How’s that for inspiration? Plus there’s a dark room for photography (yep, it’s available as an A-Level) and a ceramics room, too. And for those who are musical, private lessons are offered in the eight practice rooms (which can also be used during lunch and break times).
Outside there are netball and tennis courts, and a playing field with rugby pitches and a full athletics track, as well as an outdoor pool, which understandably is only open during the late spring and summer months (still, you’ve got to be pretty hardy to take the plunge!) There’s an annual swimming gala every summer, which sounds like great fun and the boarders can splash around at their leisure during the summer weekends. Plus the pool is opened up to the local villagers during the school holidays too – just one of a number of community initiatives that the school offers.
There’s also a cute school tuck shop, which is run by Year 12 volunteers, who look after everything from stock taking to budgeting (great for picking up business skills) and the Year 11s have their own private area called The Den which includes a study room and small kitchen where they make basic things like tea and toast or sandwiches. All good prep for entering Sixth Form and beyond. Plus, that idea of independence is continued up the school with separate Sixth Form study rooms and a dedicated kitchen.
If you are already familiar with PHC, chances are you’ll know it as a girls’ school, so after nearly 200 years, the transition to Co-Ed is a fairly major change. It’s something that the Head, Sarah Davis is passionate about and most importantly the girls seem to be welcoming it with open arms.
At the start of this academic year (September 2019) PHC welcomed its first intake of boys into Years 7 and 12, then this coming September it will extend that to Year 9, so the change is happening gradually. Boarding for boys will be available from the start of the next academic year.
The Year 7 boys have slotted in very easily – and in the classes I observed I wasn’t aware of any obvious differences – and naturally there’s been a teensy bit of excitement from the Sixth Form girls about the arrival of boys into the fold. The Year 12 boy I met was utterly charming and couldn’t speak highly enough of the school – certainly not put off by its former life as a girls’ school. And parents of boys are attracted to PHC both if they already have girls here, but also for the support and attention it gives to individuals.
On that note, the pastoral care here is second to none with every pupil being allocated a staff mentor and all new joiners get a buddy – either from the year above if they’re in Year 7 or from their own form for other years. Plus the House system brings different year groups together too which benefits all ages, whether that’s teaching responsibility in Upper School or feeling supported in the younger years.
I’ve mentioned the small class sizes, so when it comes to the variety of A-Level subjects, some may only have a take up of one – although it’s not always possible within timetable constraints, some subjects will actually be opened up even if just one student opts for it. The most popular A-Level options are English, Maths and Geography.
There are three Houses and they come together for everything from Music, Drama and Dance to Photography and Art competitions. And it’s not a half-hearted effort, everyone really gets into the spirit of it here, even the staff who are allocated a House, too.
There’s a really diverse feel here, which is down to the large intake of international students, which make up the majority of the boarding community here. Around a third of the pupils here board – most of those are overseas students but there are a number of weekly boarders too. Plus flexi-boarding is an option for occasional nights when parents are working away for example. Year 10s will usually share a twin and Year 11 upwards have their own private rooms.
There are loads of cultural events to get involved with too, like Asian and African appreciation days where the pupils wear traditional dress, and take part in performances in their native languages. Even the kitchen staff get on board and put food from different cultures on the menu.
On the subject of languages, pupils start with French in Year 7, add Spanish in Year 8 and choose their options for GSCE, with most taking at least one. Languages are also thriving on the club scene here, with a Poly-lingual club and a Modern Foreign Languages Culture club. There’s also a Chinese teacher available to A-Level students who have Chinese as their first or second language and the school accepts visiting students from Spain and Russia for a term to improve their English. And of course, there’s plenty of support available for international pupils from the English as a Foreign Language department.
The only (albeit temporary) downside I can see to the gradual transition to Co-Ed is that it’s currently early days for boys’ sport. While rugby and basketball are offered as well as lacrosse in games lessons (plus cricket for the summer term), there aren’t enough boys to field their own teams at fixtures as yet, but the new Direcor of Sport who joined at the start of this academic year is sure to set that straight in time to come.
Incidentally the girls are flying at rugby, and recently won all their matches in an inter-school comp. Netball and athletics are traditionally strong here, too, and there are some very skilled lacrosse players.
MUSIC & DRAMA
Music is compulsory for Years 7-9 and the curriculum covers the rudiments of music in Year 7, to the history of music in Year 8 and Pop in Year 9 (yep – the idea is to seduce the pupils into choosing it as a GCSE option). This is the work of the Director of Music who has been at PHC for just over a year now. He’s also keen to increase the uptake of private lessons – currently it’s around 30% of pupils, with singing, guitar and drums being the most popular, and flute and clariet following closely behind. Plus there are plenty of groups to get involved with from choir and string ensemble to rock bands and Theory Club too. And there’s certainly no lack of enthusiasm for getting behind the musical House comps.
On the drama front there’s an annual whole school production, House Drama and a KS3 production where the younger pupils have the chance to take on the main roles and show off their skills. Plus past leavers have gone on to study at LAMDA and RADA.
Sarah Davis joined Princess Helena in April 2019 from the much larger Co-Ed, Bedford Modern. She’s full of enthusiasm about the transition to Co-Ed here, and naturally, fully advocates the benefits of a Co-Ed education. Plus she’s really enjoying getting to know the pupils and their families here both on an academic and personal level, something that’s not as easily achieved in larger schools. She’s proud to tell me that the pupils say they really feel like individuals here, and that they can really be themselves – however quirky that may be!
Last year’s A-Level results included a solid 70% achieving A*-C grades, while at GCSE 96% achieved grades 9-4. PHC also offers the chance to do an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) in addition to A Levels with around half of pupils taking this. It’s basically a detailed piece of project work in a specific topic of their choosing to boost their UCAS applications. And leavers go on to a wide range of top unis including Oxford, LSE, Warwick, York, St Andrew’s, Manchester, Leeds and Exeter to name a few.
It ranges from £5,700 per term for day pupils to £10,125 per term for full boarding. Weekly boarding is available (4 nights) for £8,125 per term and occasional boarding is bookable at £70 per night.
There’s a slightly unconventional wraparound option here. The school day starts early at 8.20 for all pupils. Boarders usually head down for breakfast from 7.30am and there are staff around at that time too if day pupils want to come in earlier and use their year group common rooms, although very few come in for breakfast itself. Year 11s and Sixth Formers can obviously whip up some toast or an omelette in their kitchens though.
PHC runs an extended day for all pupils (at no extra cost), until 6pm, which gives them chance to do some of the co-curricular activities on offer and stay for prep before or after. Tea is served to all pupils too, with some kind of tasty scone or cake to go with it, and all buses come at 6pm but parents can also pick up their kids after a club or prep at 5.15.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Girls and boys who would thrive in a tight-knit environment which both supports and encourages them on a personal and academic level. And parents who like the idea of a traditional school with modern thinking and teaching are bound to be pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer here.
Not for: Super sporty boys who are champing at the bit to compete in fixtures might not find PHC the best fit right now, but in time, once boys’ sport has had chance to build momentum, it’s more likely that full year groups will be fielded in teams so the opportunities to get involved will be far better than in schools with a much larger intake.
Dare to disagree? See for yourself. There’s an open day on 2 May 2020.