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 550 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 and senior school are separate, and the Early Years Centre (affectionately known as The Monte to acknowledge its origins as a Montessori nursery) is a short walk across a playing field. Everyone shares the main dining hall. 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 Forest School woodland area is jungly. There is a designated tree for climbing and there are more trees that can be climbed 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 is a Artsmark Gold school and you only have to visit the art and design technology departments to see why. You could be at art school. The students are utterly absorbed and you can see and feel their motivation. Computer aided design and manufacturing are on the curriculum.
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 the exhibition extends to Letchworth’s community museum. In the 2018 show, shoes were made from human hair, and a cycle helmet and trousers were 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 Richard Palmer 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.
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 every Tuesday 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.
Richard Palmer came to work at St Chris as a gap year student – a scheme which continues today – to help set up a design and technology workshop. When he tells me about his first impressions of the school he lights up: it is clear that he found his spiritual home. After gaining experience in more traditional schools he became Head of the Junior School in 2004 and then Head in 2007. He still teaches design technology. His wife works in the school with the pastoral team and both of their children were at school here. He lives and breathes the school’s values. He believes in inclusivity, non judgement and relishes the fact that the school isn’t posh or cliquey. He is in a good position to recognise the uniqueness of St Chris: he is a School Inspector with the Independent Schools Inspectorate. He is passionate and vocal about the need for children to have fun and play and remain children for as long as possible, and that achievements don’t have to be academic. At the same time he is proud of the school’s academic and sporting successes. When we talk about self-governance, a model he points out is practised by Apple and Google, he admits that children and staff have to put in more effort and thinking time in order to make this work. He doesn’t try to impress, but his authenticity, empathy and transparency make him impressive.
EARLY YEARS CENTRE
This is where I have to come clean. I spent two of my most memorable and enjoyable weeks in 2018 working as a teaching assistant in the Early Years Centre at St Chris. I am registered with an agency in St Albans which places teaching assistants and I was offered a placement at St Chris long before I visited the school to write this review. I have quite a bit of experience working in other nurseries in Hertfordshire and I have to say that the differences between the Early Years Centre at St Chris and other nurseries in Hertfordshire are remarkable.
The first thing that struck me 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.
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 and as an adult working here I felt calmer and happier and more relaxed in myself.
As for the food, for two weeks I had a school lunch every day and I’m still telling friends about the shortbread, the curry and the salads. 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, the overall passes were at 97% and in 2018, 30% of all grades were A* or A. The school isn’t academically selective. 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, sometimes only 12, and the teacher can concentrate more on your needs.’
Nursery starts at £1,530 per term, for five morning sessions a week, including lunch. Junior School day fees: £3,630 per term for Years 1 and 2; £4,520 for Years 3, 4, 5 and 6. Senior School £6,025 per term for all years, including Sixth Form. Weekly boarding is from £6,650 per term for Year 6 in the junior school and it goes up to £10,550 for full boarding in the senior school.
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? The school’s virtual Open Day will be available from September 2020.
St Christopher School, Barrington Road, Letchworth Garden City SG6 3JZ 01462 650850