St Christopher School, Letchworth Garden City
St Christopher School in Letchworth Garden City doesn’t need to think about how to differentiate itself. It is different. St Chris (as it likes to be known) is a day and boarding school for 530 girls and boys aged 3-18. The school is almost as old as Letchworth itself (the world’s first garden city, founded in 1903), and was created by members of the Theosophical Society in 1915 and run by the Theosophical Trust until 1930. Some of the founding principles and practices – which continue today – included tolerance towards all races and religions; an appreciation of the spiritual benefits of the natural environment; the physical benefits of sport and exercise, and a vegetarian school diet. When St Chris opened as the Garden City Theosophical School in 1915, the Daily Herald reported that the school was based, ‘not on the sameness of children, their conformity to type, but on their differences’, which must have been considered radical at the time. Today, ‘treating a child as an individual’ is an expression that crops up on websites and in the literature of most independent schools. At St Chris, treating children as individuals is something that has been practised for over 100 years.
At St Chris there is no school uniform and the children call their teachers by their first names. The school food has always been vegetarian, although recently some meat has been added to the menu for the boarders, and at their request.
St Chris is 30 miles from both London and Cambridge and is a ten minute walk from the centre of town and the railway station. There are fast trains to London (you can get to St Pancras in 38 minutes) and it’s close to the A1. There’s an extensive school bus network bringing in children from all over the county and there’s also a school bus from Highgate in north London. Over 100 children travel from north London to St Chris every day.
At first glance, the school layout feels a bit higgeldy piggeldy and hard to navigate. This soon becomes clear and makes perfect sense. The junior school, with an integrated nursery (affectionately known as The Monte to acknowledge its origins as a Montessori nursery) and senior school are separate buildings on the same campus. Everyone shares the main dining hall, indoor swimming pool, sports pitches and theatre. Many of the buildings are in the original Letchworth Garden City Arts & Crafts style. There are new buildings too, and it all works as a whole. The newest building is for maths, English and IT and was designed by a St Chris Old Scholar. It’s a big site, with 25 acres, but it feels compact because everything is easily accessible. The grounds are immaculate.
St Chris has playing fields for rugby, football and cricket, and courts for tennis and netball. You can play hockey and golf, and learn climbing, canoeing and archery and yoga. There’s a big sports hall and gym. There’s a great love of outdoor learning, with an outdoor classroom, an observatory (there is an active astronomy club), a skate park, and a climbing wall. The Junior School has a Forest School and there are lots of trees for climbing in the orchard. The orchard fruit makes its way into the dining hall.
The indoor swimming pool is in its own building which feels like a leisure centre. Children can learn lifesaving, water polo, pool kayaking and scuba-diving. There’s a music centre with a music technology suite, a drama studio and art gallery.
There’s an impressive and spacious cookery school, the ‘Vege Centre’, which feels extremely professional, and has its own herb garden.
St Chris has a strong pedigree in art and design, and you only have to visit the art and design technology departments to see why. You could be at art college. The students are utterly absorbed and you can see and feel their motivation. Computer aided design and manufacturing are on the curriculum and a Creative Media Suite aids learning.
From Year 9 you can choose a particular discipline: graphics; 3D design, fine art and textiles. The art teacher I speak to tells me that it would actually be far easier to teach everyone the same subject at the same time. But in a school where you are nurturing independent learning for students, the teachers are never going to be coasting along. If you are doing an art or design A Level you have your own studio space.
Talking to one of the art teachers, she tells me that students who leave St Chris and go on to a foundation course or to do a design degree often find that their first year is too easy because they are ahead of the game creatively.
The annual Recycled Fashion Show is a big thing at St Chris and in normal times the exhibition extends to Letchworth’s community museum. Previous shows have seen shoes made from human hair, and a cycle helmet and trousers made from surgical gloves.
One of the junior school children tells me about DP, or Deliberate Practice, when you might choose to draw a horse every week until the process feels more natural and fluid.
Visiting the drama and music departments at St Chris and talking to the students, there is no doubt that these are not subjects on the periphery and that there are huge opportunities to develop your interests. Even if you don’t want to perform, there are many openings for getting involved in production. The music teacher I meet says that he feels lucky to teach here because the facilities are so fantastic. At St Chris you don’t feel a marked divide between students and teachers. It’s more that everyone is here to learn and that there’s work to do together.
The first play produced in the original St Christopher School theatre in 1925 was Through the Crack by Algernon Blackwood, and the assistant stage manager was Laurence Olivier.
As well as its well-known provision for the arts, St Chris also has an equal pedigree in science and maths. Over the past two years, students have gone on to study engineering, maths, natural sciences, astrophysics and computer programming in a wide range of courses at top universities.
St Chris is so different from other schools that the best thing you can do is to visit the school and experience these differences for yourself. The atmosphere feels very relaxed and open, but don’t think for a moment that this is a school with no discipline – this couldn’t be further from the truth. The children are encouraged to make choices about what they want to do and they respect the freedom they are given and seem very independent and able to make decisions. Students were quick to open doors for me and for other children. One of the (many) things that struck me during my visit was that the older children talk to the younger children and vice versa and everyone seems to know everyone else.
I don’t know if you can call self-governance a quirk but it certainly contributes to what makes St Chris feel distinctive. The children really do have a voice here and when the boarders asked for meat to be included in the menu – in a school that has been vegetarian since 1915 – the Head had the power to veto but realised that by not offering a meat option, the school was in fact limiting freedom of choice. Talking to the children about how the school council works is revelatory because they are clearly genuinely empowered and engaged. It’s thanks to the school council that St Chris now has a skate park.
On campus there’s a house called Arunwood which was the childhood home of Laurence Olivier. His father was the Rector of Letchworth, Rev. Gerald Kerr Olivier. Its grounds are now home to the St Chris pygmy goats who joined the school community in 2021. Research shows how animals and animal husbandry have positive effects on pupils and schools in numerous areas. The school plans to develop their stock of animals (something St Chris has a proud history of) and bring aspects into both the curriculum and co-curricular opportunities as well as eventually making it part of their outreach work with the local community.
When students leave St Chris and start work, employers notice the difference, remarking that young people from St Chris are independent and have great moral courage. The St Chris Old Scholars are very active and quick to return to the school for reunions and to offer support.
Not a quirk but worth mentioning, are the links St Chris has with other schools and organisations. There are long term relationships with charities in Rajasthan and Ladakh and senior school students are encouraged to visit and volunteer. The school has great connections with Letchworth Garden City and the Cookery Centre runs courses that are open to all.
In keeping with the informal atmosphere, parents and teachers call each other by their first names and parents seem very relaxed about going in to the school to pick up their children.
There is no religious education and no hymns are sung. Rather than assembly, there is Morning Talk which takes place three times a week and each form takes a turn and you can choose a subject. It’s something that stems from one of the early Quaker Heads. When everyone is assembled – either during Morning Talk or mealtimes, anyone who wants to can ask for a period of silence.
St Chris has an impressive provision to help children with additional needs, with 5 specialist teachers.
The dress code seems to be comfy home clothes: jeans, leggings and sweat shirts. One student says that the non-uniform approach is good because wearing your own clothes allows you to express yourself. Another child tells me that having a uniform might be a good thing because you wouldn’t have to think about what to wear.
In September 2020 the school welcomed a new head, Emma-Kate Henry, who had previously been Deputy Head at St Chris, before taking on headships at Hampshire Collegiate School and d’Overbroeck’s in Oxford.
She considers St Chris to be the school to change her views on how education can be delivered and believes strongly in the values of humanity, compassion and hunger to learn.
And the core premise of the school – which puts individuals at the heart – will remain safe under the charge of Mrs Henry.
EARLY YEARS CENTRE
The first thing that struck me about the nursery was that everything starts from kindness. Children are not patronised and nobody attempts to control them. The atmosphere allows children to do things at their own pace while learning respect for others and their environment at the same time. The teachers and support staff show immense care and love and understanding of very young children and human nature.
The curriculum follow the EYFS and while there were certain times of day when children were being ‘taught’ skills that they would learn as part of the curriculum in other nurseries, there were many other practices that come from Montessori. Children are encouraged to choose what they would like to play with and they need to take responsibility for what they have chosen and to put things back in their place and not leave things half finished. Amazing life lessons that start from age 3. Disputes between children are settled by encouraging children to put into words what led to a squabble or upset. And yes, if you’re thinking this takes a long time or is too good to be true, again, I urge you to visit this school. The atmosphere is happy and calm.
As for the food, there is a huge choice and a wonderful variety of colours, flavours and textures. Anyone who is surprised by the idea of a vegetarian school should visit St Chris to see just how good the food is here. Children are encouraged to serve themselves and then go back for more if they want to. The team in the kitchen and dining hall know all the children by name and present the food with a huge amount of love and pride and it is much more like home cooking than school food. Something that filled me with joy was the fact that the children in the nursery walk across a playing field to have lunch in the main school and as a result have more fresh air and exercise than some children in other nurseries have in an entire week. The facilities and choice of toys and activities – including music, cookery and French lessons – are wonderful, and the children go to Forest School regularly where they can – whisper it – climb trees.
As part of this review, I had lunch with a group of sixth formers and they were so grounded and at one with themselves that it was a delightfully relaxing and thought provoking experience. What will stick with me forever is a young man called Bailey who said that St Chris has created an ‘opening up of all possibilities’ and that he discovered a love of design here and, more importantly, a real passion for making things, and big things in particular, because there is just so much space in the art and design departments. He realised that rather than wanting to go to university, he knows that he wants to explore carpentry and joinery.
Academic and art scholarships are offered in the senior school. The school also offers bursaries. 95% of students gained at least five A* to C passes or the equivalent. At A Level, in 2021 89% of grades were A*-C. At GCSE 91% of grades were 9-5. The vast majority of students who leave St Chris go on to university or art school. Looking at the list of university destinations, there is a high number of creative subjects: product design, illustration, architecture, film, but you’ll also see aerospace engineering, physics with astrophysics, chemical engineering and maths and economics. A couple of the children tell me about the teaching style: ‘They teach in a much more creative way here and I’ve learned a lot more here than in my other school. The classes are small, and the teacher can concentrate more on your needs.’
Nursery starts at £1,680 per term, for five morning sessions a week, including lunch. Junior School day fees: £3,993 per term for Years Reception to 2; £4,995 for Years 3, 4, 5 and 6. Senior School £6,648 per term for all years, including Sixth Form. Weekly boarding is from £7,365 per term for Year 6 in the junior school and it goes up to £11,515 for full boarding in the senior school and sixth form.
WORD ON THE GROUND
‘The teachers are kinder here’, a child who has moved from another school tells me. ‘It’s very relaxed and you can wear comfy clothes. Teachers don’t shout.’ Another child tells me that bullying doesn’t exist and that ‘everyone’s friends with everyone’ and ‘there are no blocks or groups’. Another student says ‘You don’t have to be anyone you’re not. People aren’t going to judge you here; you can be whatever you want within reason’. Parents love the fact that the communication between school and home is completely open.
Early morning from 7.30am and after school until 6.30 with lots of choices, including breakfast club, sibling club and an evening meal option. A mind boggling variety of clubs. For younger children there is even a club called Party Games. Extra sessions are charged separately at £4.90.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Clearly St Chris isn’t for everyone. But if you have ever thought that your child might be happier in a school that allows for differences and which wholly embraces an individual’s need to express one’s true self, this is recommended. It is a challenging environment in many ways because you have to think for yourself and take full responsibility for your decisions. In keeping with some of the original garden city principles of embracing the outdoors – the original Letchworth Garden City architects designed homes with sleeping porches and long gardens for allotments – a child at St Chris is guaranteed to have more fresh air and exercise than in many other schools. And while historically St Chris has had the reputation for being bohemian and liberal, it’s amazingly disciplined and has a great record for sporting achievements, academic and personal success.
Good for: Anyone whose family matches the school’s values and admires the need for self-reliance and thinks that a non-hierarchical approach to organisations is the way to go. Anyone who is ready to step up and learn about taking responsibility for decision making, and from an early age. If you appreciate the greener and kinder approach to life: healthy vegetarian food, recycling, environmental issues and a fairer and kinder society, you will do well here.
Not for: If you’re looking for blazers and boaters and you believe that children should call the Head ‘Sir’, or that you need to start the school day with a rousing chorus of Jerusalem. If you have a propensity for spam fritters or meatballs for lunch, this won’t be for you.
Dare to disagree? There are two Junior School Open Days on 28 Sept and 20 Oct. Enhanced personal tours are available for Senior School and Sixth Form during the Autumn Term too. Click here for more details. Or you can view the school’s Virtual Open Day here.
St Christopher School, Barrington Road, Letchworth Garden City SG6 3JZ 01462 650850