Bedford Girls’ School, Bedford
Bedford Girls’ School is a day school for girls aged 7-18 in Bedford, about ten minutes’ walk from the centre of town. The layout and architecture of the school narrate some of its history.
A bit of background. Bedford Girls’ School is the result of a merger between two schools. In 2009, The Harpur Trust decided to combine Bedford High School for Girls with Dame Alice Harpur School, two schools that were both founded in 1882 by the legacy of Sir William Harpur, a merchant whose name will always be synonymous with Bedford. He became Mayor of London and in 1566, he and his wife, Dame Alice, made an endowment to Bedford to support charities, and in particular, education. This became The Harpur Trust which today supports a number of schools in Bedford, including Bedford Girls’ School, and the boys school, Bedford School. While Bedford Girls’ School has years of educational heritage, it wears them lightly. The merger allowed the new and current Headmistress, Jo MacKenzie, who was naturally helped by large teams of people – this was a huge undertaking, after all, to do what jewellery designers call ‘clean sheet bespoke’. What a brief. Design a new school! Bedford Girls’ School could be what it wanted to be. You could describe the result as a happy accident or an example of what can happen with insightful planning and intelligent design. There is a clarity and simplicity about the identity of this school that is forward thinking and energising. It feels bright and vibrant and grounded and calm – all at the same time.
The school is on the former site of Dame Alice Harpur School. The site is attractive and feels quite compact, with the Sixth Form Centre located in a former merchant’s house. There are also modern extensions. You can stand in parts of the grounds and feel as if you are in the middle of a residential area and very close to town. In others, there is a woodland feel. All in all, it is an attractive environment that feels cohesive.
Are you sitting down? There is a programme of continuous development and it means that each year when the girls return to school after the summer, there is something new and exciting. When I was shown into the brand new black box drama studio and theatre, I was so thrilled that I literally took a sharp intake of breath. The Director of Drama and Dance greeted me by saying: ‘That’s exactly the reaction we were hoping for.’ She started to show off the lighting: fully digital and LED. We talked about Peter Hall who had just died, and the National Theatre. The school’s new drama department has a similar spec to a professional theatre. Every space has been acoustically treated by a sound engineer. No more reverb! There’s a Harlequin floor (professional and tip top), and the modular auditorium seating means the layout can vary to fit the performance. You can choose from in the round, traverse, and we may even have mentioned proscenium.
The dance studio has lots of glass and the space outside is so light and bright and modern, for a moment I actually forgot I was in a school. It was like being in a creative agency or an architect’s practice, but with more warmth. You can learn tap, modern, ballet and jazz.
You might need to limber up before reading this next bit. Ten star jumps would be perfectly fine. Sport is massive here and the facilities and opportunities are stunning. The sporting success is off the scale. Well, no, actually it’s ON the scale. Bedford Girls’ School is in the top three of UK girls’ independent schools for sport. Many of the sports’ teachers and coaches are international athletes. Girls are winning titles across the board: in hockey, lacrosse, tennis, netball, swimming and rowing. In 2016, the U13 team won national hockey and lacrosse titles and some girls represent Great Britain. There are six lacrosse pitches and a stunning new pavillion in nearby Cople Fields where the school also hosts lacrosse tournaments. What I find refreshing (as someone who was labelled ‘non-sporty’ aged 11), is that the focus is on encouraging every single girl to enjoy sport and to carry on doing it long after the age of 14 – the traditional drop-off age for girls’ sport.
The art department has one room full of iMacs and iPads – you could be in a Clerkenwell design consultancy. This is an Apple Distinguished School. Some of the art work and textiles in progress are astounding. I’d recently been to Central St Martins and some of the work I see makes me think that there were some girls here who could easily go on to study art at degree level. ‘We want to arm the girls for the future and for them to have a voice.’ This comes from one of the teachers in textiles and design technology.
Music is equally fine. The Head of Music tells me that there are 25 visiting music teachers and you can pretty much learn whatever instrument you fancy. A Year 3 girl is learning the drums and the take up of the double bass is growing. Some of the lunchtime music groups are Sixth Form-led: rock school, wind band and ukulele club. There’s an IT suite just for composing and recording. The Randle Hall is for performances, and again, there is state of the art lighting and sound. Four choirs, as well as the Bel Canto choir, for which you have to audition.
The Junior School is set in lovely gardens, with a greenhouse where the girls are growing veg and herbs, and there’s also a brand new adventure trail. Inside the various departments and buildings there’s a sense of vibrancy combined with calm. The Head of the Junior School shows me around and gives me an insight how learning is based on questions. In a recent lesson on WWII, the girls wanted to know which air shelter was bigger, an Anderson or Morrison. The approach? They created two in the classroom. They record their work in Enquiry Books – and I looked through some of them and they made for interesting and diverse reading – oh to be a pupil in the Junior School!
My guide for the day is Michelle-Linda Cudjoe, a deputy head girl in the Upper Sixth who has chosen to do the International Baccalaureate Diploma, and who explains her decision making process to me with impressive clarity. There’s something about this school that feels grown up yet in a light way: people are learning because they want to; making their own decisions and taking responsibility. The artwork for the current school ad campaign is displayed around the school. I Believe echoes the initials for the International Baccalaureate. I comment that this idea surely must have been presented by the creative with the pizazz of Perfect Curve’s Siobhan in the BBC satire W1A. The Library is the most gorgeous school library I have ever seen. I would still be in there if they hadn’t shown me the door. This was another summer project: when the girls came back in September 2014, it was farewell wood chip, hello brushed steel. This has all been brilliantly done to sit cheek by jowl with many original features. Stunning!
During the summer holidays in 2018, the science areas were renovated to create inspiring space for teaching STEM subjects. This is where technology and full immersive learning come together. All the lab furniture is on wheels so rooms can be quickly reconfigured. Bunsen burners are built into cyclical pods and entire walls become whiteboards. Teachers no longer have a desk and each lab is equipped with a Clevertouch interactive display, which also allows students to share work from their iPads and take control. At the centre of the development is the ICreate glass walled space, a dedicated area to be used for collaboration, workshops and lectures. The break out areas overlook the glass walled biology and chemistry prep area so girls can see scientists at work and be inspired by the endless possibilities of working in STEM.
Think of something you’d like to do, and I’ll arrange it for you. Bedford Girls’ School feels a bit like this. In addition to an environment where everything is possible, it also feels as if it’s in good health. Mental health is key. The girls are taught to understand how the teenage brain works – so there’s none of that lazy ‘stroppy teenager’ labelling. Rather than run from your own feelings, you’re helped to realise that hormones are making you react in a certain way, but this is explained in neurological terms. Girls’ only education is seen as a completely brilliant thing here. There’s a sense that you can be yourself without any need for self consciousness. Year 6 girls do handstands in the garden during break time. And yet at the same time, girls are going over to Bedford School (the boys’ school) for shared Combined Cadet Forces: army, navy and air.
You can choose between A Levels or IB. Talking to my excellent Upper Sixth guide Michelle, I get the impression that making the right decision about anything in this school is going to be easier, given the level of support along the way. The school’s ethos is about learning led by enquiry and I felt that by the time the girls arrive in the Sixth Form they are well prepared to deal with the next step. I also feel that girls will find the transition to uni and the world of work easier than in other schools. They seem to have a head start with self motivation and self reliance. Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) in the sixth form is designed to encourage girls to engage with the community: in school, in the local area and also beyond. Girls are definitely treated like adults in the sixth form. If you’d like a mentor, you can request one. And how d’you fancy joining the PPE discussion group? The enterprise club?
I wouldn’t call them quirks, just massive plus points. There’s a Girls’ Leadership Group (GLG) that is made up of head girls and deputies, house captains, and reps for sport, service and art. The GLG spent a training weekend working with Jo MacKenzie on strategy, and then went for a girls’ dorm experience (there is no boarding here) by camping out in the Head’s garden. The Headmistress lives in the school grounds in a house that’s right next to the main building.
The Junior School follows a creative Enhanced Curriculum and embraces The Learning Pit, something that was created by James Nottingham to encourage learning, while embracing not knowing and confusion along the way. It’s a model that promotes the growth mindset that is increasingly popular in enlightened schools.
The uniform stands out: the colours are turquoise for Juniors and purple for Seniors although I should probably think of better colour names. How about magenta and teal? Whatever they’re called, the girls look fantastic: there’s something empowering about wearing such vibrant colours. Being an Apple Distinguished School, using your iPad for a quick bit of research is the norm. And when you’re outside, tree climbing is allowed.
Academic and pastoral care feel integrated here. The Headmistress had recently been teaching Year 9 girls about their brains. Yes, really. And the approach to learning from the here is based on asking questions. My guide Michelle explains that there is a lot of emphasis on helping girls to learn about time management and how to prioritise and, get this – delegate. While walking around the school I see girls reading and writing on their own and they all look gripped by whatever they are studying.
In 2018, the exam results continue to impress. GCSE: 71% were A*-A; with 28% at the Higher Level 9. A third of the year group achieved full A*-A grades. IB: 37.5 points against worldwide average of 29. One student achieved an extraordinary maximum 45 points placing her amongst the 0.1% of students worldwide. A Levels: 75% of all entries were graded A*- B (or equivalent). 92% of girls accepted places at first or second university choices.
I don’t know what they put in the food here, but the girls are calm and grounded. It’s quite remarkable. As for the food served in The Green Kitchen, it looks delicious and I want to stay for lunch, but guess what? I’ve been invited to have lunch at Bedford School. As you might imagine, the food here is healthy but not holier than thou. I do see marshmallows being dipped into molten chocolate and salted caramel.
Meet Jo MacKenzie. Her subject is geography, and she was previously at Ipswich High School. She’s just been teaching some Year 9 girls about how, during puberty, your brain literally unravels and reforms. My first impression is that this is a headmistress with a real sense of style and a person who is happy in her skin. I reckon that her quiet confidence permeates the whole school. She seems kind, soulful and wise. We talk about the challenge she had in creating Bedford Girls’ School seven years ago, at the same time she became Head, while inheriting girls from two existing schools, and a heritage that dates back 130 years.
‘The beauty of creating a new school, is that nobody can tell you that you can’t do it like that’, she says. When I say that the school feels completely different from other schools: fresh and light, she doesn’t seem surprised. ‘We wanted it to be a feminine environment. We wanted it to feel like a girls’ school. If the building feels inspiring and uplifting, it helps the girls with their learning.’
Junior School (From Year 3-6): £9,207 (£3,069 per term); Senior School: £12,939 (£4,313 per term); Sixth Form: £12,939 (£4,313 per term).
The school day is the same for everyone: 8.30am – 4pm. Wraparound care is at no extra cost. There’s a breakfast club from 7.30am. The food on offer sounds delicious: everything from smoothies and hot chocolate to pain au chocolat and bacon rolls. Girls pay for this on the day and parents are welcome to join them. In the evenings, girls can stay until 7pm.
Word on the ground
Bedford Girls’ School is highly regarded. No surprise there. One parent told me that what really impresses her is that the school really understands how to educate girls and gives them the opportunity to develop their strengths and discover talents and interests that they may not even realise they have. Parents love the broad curriculum and the fact that that the school is able to support learning at a pace that suits each child. When it comes to sport, there is a great deal of understanding of difference. One parent said: ‘The teachers give even the less adept future sportswomen the support, encouragement and opportunity to develop a lifetime love of activity.’ A mother says that her daughter has grown in confidence and that she feels that the school, ‘develops in the girls a sense of empowerment, independence in learning and a strong social conscience – from the Junior School upwards, the children are encouraged to look outside the bubble of private education, understand bigger issues in society and develop a strong sense of social responsibility.’
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Girls who want to make their mark on the world! Anyone who believes that mental health should be prioritised. Girls who have an appetite for exploration and for challenging themselves. One thing I observed, is that while yes, this is an independent school and the facilities are frankly stunning, the school feels completely unstuffy, the girls are natural, and there is no sense of privilege. There seems to be a real appetite for being aware of what goes on in the wider world, and this would appeal to girls and families who are keen to be open and engaged. The school is also part of the community thanks to its location: you can walk into town. There is a big focus on independent learning. I like the way the girls are encouraged to develop their own inner power and confidence which makes for a far stronger and quietly robust self-belief.
Not for: The emphasis on being aware of what goes on in the wider world might make parents who want their daughters to be more cossetted and protected to think again. You would want to have an open mind at home for the school to work at its best. If you dream of a rural location, this isn’t for you. You can walk into town from school.
Dare to disagree?
Don’t take my word for it. Take your pick from the 2018 Open Mornings and evenings: Sat 13 Oct, 10am; Sixth Form open evening, Thurs 8 Nov, 6.30pm; Weds 14 Nov, 10am. And in 2019: Weds 6 March, 10am; Thurs 2 May, 10am.
Bedford Girls’ School Cardington Road, Bedford, MK42 0BX . Tel: 01234 361 900.