St Hilda’s School, Harpenden
A small, friendly family-owned prep school, St Hilda’s day school for girls is a good option for those who hanker after a warm, home-from-home atmosphere and great pastoral care.
St Hilda’s is a non-selective independent day school for girls 4 to 11, with a co-ed nursery from three years, sitting in the centre of Harpenden, an affluent family-orientated commuter town with a countryside vibe, just a few miles north of St Albans. Founded in 1891, the school’s handsome Victorian red-brick mansion house feels more like a large family home than a school, with its grandfather clock chiming by the quarter hour and the stained glass front door. St Hilda’s prides itself on being family-oriented and the bijou numbers – 138 pupils in all, with a cosy average of 18 in a class – add to that emphasis. Even the staff keep it in the family – current St Hilda’s owner Mary Piachaud, Head Teacher for 16 years until she retired, saw two of her own daughters through the school, now has a granddaughter in reception, and daughter Emily is the PE teacher and a Director.
Compared to some private schools with their ultra-modern tech blocks and full-size golf courses, St Hilda’s two-acre central town location means its facilities are more modest, though it’s hard to complain about an outdoor swimming pool (small but perfectly formed for littlies at 12 metres), sound-proofed drama studio, science lab, computer suite and recently refurbished tennis and netball courts, and mini assault course! There’s also an orienteering course five mins down the road. In fact, the school does itself proud when it comes to sports, with nine St Hilda’s girls getting to the ISA national athletics in 2019.
The outside space has been well thought out, with several play areas divided into sections for kids of different ages, including an adorable wooden stage for outdoor performances, an orchard, wildlife pond, a working garden for the littlies to get their hands dirty, and a rinky-dink Grandpa In My Pocket boat.
MUSIC AND MORE
There’s very good music provision, with about two-thirds of pupils learning an individual instrument at school (some learn two or three). That’s on the higher end of what I usually come across at this age. There are three choirs, an orchestra, strings and a wood wind group. Headmaster Dan Sayers is a musician himself, and passionate about encouraging children to get involved and show off their talents at one of the four yearly concerts – from the infants’ Spring Term stage productions through to the Year 6 production. There’s some real talent here, too, with the school winning categories in the St Albans Schools Music Festival last year.
St Hilda’s is keen on its extra-curricular activities. Amidst the more traditional offerings of tennis, chess, music, languages, handbell, LAMDA (three quarters of the girls take it up) and so on, it also throws in some more funky alternatives, such as fencing and yoga.
Don’t let the warm, fuzzy feel of St Hilda’s fool you – it’s a strong performer when it comes academics. The most recent ISI report (2019) proclaims the school Excellent in the quality of the pupils’ academic and other achievements, with the girls demonstrating “outstanding attitudes to learning, being highly engaged and actively involved in lessons”. The St Hilda’s ethos is the driver to the curriculum here, based on its strapline of ‘Caring, Curious & Confident’. Basically meaning that if your kids feel cared for they flourish, explore and build confidence in who they are and in their abilities. With over 90% of girls getting into their first choice of school, it seems to be working! Half of the girls go on St Albans High School for Girls and Berkhamsted in an even split, while others’ preferred choice is Queenswood, Abbot’s Hill or outstanding local state options. There’s also a healthy number of yearly scholarships across academic, sport, music and arts (nine last year and 13 the year before).
SEN & PASTORAL CARE
SEN is very well catered for here, with a Learning Support Department that can cater to one-to-one support and includes a specialist dyslexia trained teacher and a maths specialist. St Hilda’s offers all pupils from Year 5 access to a staff member as a personal mentor. In the young years, this is based on parent request (or need), while pupils in Year 5 are offered a mentor who stays with them for the rest of their time at St Hilda’s. There’s also a regular pupil session with their form tutor on personal development and growth, where kids are encouraged to discuss any worries. For those who don’t want to air their problems in public, there’s a ‘worry’ system, where issues can be raised anonymously, and the relevant teacher will then sensitively address the issues raised with the whole class.
THE HEAD TEACHER
Dan Sayers – former Deputy Head and previously Senior Teacher at St Albans High School for Girls Prep – has been Headmaster of St Hilda’s since 2015. He’s a friendly, gently-spoken man, clearly proud of his friendly, approachable, down-to-earth school and the care it bestows on its pupils. Since Sayers has been head, he’s encouraged a more open-door policy with parents and getting them involved with every aspect of school life. Three of his own children went through the school (two have now left and one is in the nursery), so he sees both sides of the periscope, which can be useful for a head. Double frustrations of keeping schools down during the lockdown saw him going the extra mile to get St Hilda’s fully open last half term in June 2020 before many other private schools.
In a school without the rolling fields of rural countryside on its doorstep, Sayers has headed up a move to more outside learning – the lovely wooden stage in the field was built back in 2016, together with an outdoor classroom. The stage also enables the pupils to put on performances in the great outdoors – brilliant for them and the parents.
Kids start here at three years old, and have their own self-enclosed area, with the usual accoutrements of sandpit, outdoor space, good staff ratios, crafty stuff and a gardening patch. At this age, that’s all you want really – the Latin classes can wait. Plans are in the pipeline for a new external pre-nursery house, so now’s a good time to sign up your own little people.
St Hilda’s biggest quirk is its confidence not to have one! Its homely feel is the school’s biggest calling card, and that’s the quality that gets families signing on the dotted line. For a school judged Excellent in every area of its ISI report, there’s no pomp or show-offness. On the contrary, the entrance to St Hilda’s is unassuming, being on a small, gated driveway off a residential road, and a couple of the Victorian rooms are perhaps a little well-loved round the edges. But I really liked seeing a school where classrooms, which are mainly in the new end of the building, are truly all about the kids. They’re warm, clean, light and every wall is covered in the pupils art. Sayers’ introduction of meeting the parents at the school gates every morning, strengthens this welcoming atmosphere. St Hilda’s is what it says on the tin: an approachable family school where care, curiosity and confidence are encouraged, and academic outcomes are excellent.
The school was inspected by the ISI in October 2019. Read the report here.
Good value and less expensive than many local options, perhaps reflecting the small cohort and town centre location. Prices range from £3,154 per term in Reception (15 hours funding free for three to five year olds) through to £4,115 in Years 5 & 6.
St Hilda’s is flexible about kids staying late. Parents can tell the office even on the same day that they need their children to stay on (up until 6pm), and it’s all included in the school fees. Cue grateful, overstretched parents everywhere. Littlies in nursery start at 8.20am and finish at 3.10pm but, for an extra charge, they can attend Breakfast Club from 7.30am and stay until 6pm. The school also offers a comprehensive holiday club service for up to 50 weeks. It’s run by its own staff (so always a known friendly face or two), as well as external providers.
WORD ON THE GROUND
St Hilda’s has a well-deserved reputation for pastoral care along with its excellent academic success. Although it’s an old Victorian school, it doesn’t have that sense of old-fashioned ‘values’, where children are seen but not heard. Instead, the classrooms are colourful, the library set out like a comfy living room with big, squidgy cushions, and while the building isn’t groaning with ‘do not touch’ antiques or sparkling with the latest high-tech kit, the space is well-loved and set up for kids to learn, play and have fun.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those looking for a superior all-round option: pupils nurtured (especially so for shyer and less confident kids) and brains engaged, in a warm, caring environment that has been judged Excellent in every possible area. Also for parents who want to get fully involved in school life, and those looking for great comparative value for money.
Not for: Those who like pomp and grandeur; a competitive, highly academic environment; or for anyone looking for a country idyll – the school is in the heart of Harpenden, though this does have the upside of being easily accessible.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! A virtual Open Day is taking place 6 March, but if you can’t make it, no problem – Sayers says he’s always up for a chat with prospective parents, and is happy to conduct a bespoke tour via Zoom. To make your appointment, please call Mrs Fereday on 01582 712307 or ping over an email. Or ,if you want to have a sneak-peak yourself, click on the virtual tour.
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