St Columba’s College, St Albans
Muddy says: This Catholic school puts equal stock in moral guidance as it does in academia, making for well-rounded young people, eager to reach their full potential and give something back to the wider community.
St Columba’s College is a selective Catholic School, based in leafy St Albans, with 820 pupils aged 4-18. It boasts probably one of the best views in the city… From the sports field (and reception area, where I’m greeted by my hosts), there’s a spectacular panorama with the Cathedral and Abbey smack bang in the middle. Rather apt as a backdrop for a Catholic school, but I’m sure they thought of that! From September 2021, they are also really excited to be taking girls into the Lower Prep (Reception, Year 1 and Year 2) and Lower Sixth, followed by a phased transition to co-education.
The school was founded in 1939 by a Catholic layman, Mr Phillip O’Neil, before the Brothers of the Sacred Heart came over from New England in 1955 and bought it out. From just four Brothers, the cohort grew throughout the 60s-80s, with many Brothers holding senior positions at the College, but only four remain actively involved in school life today – one of those is a member of the orginal quartet: Brother Clement, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Now, there’s dedication for you…
The Move to Co-ed
As society has changed, so has spiritually minded St Columba’s. With a desire to equip their students for the realities of life after school and also to enrich the lives of young women, the school will be beginning its move to co-ed in 2021. the change will begin with the Lower Sixth and the Lower Prep with girls being fully integrated into all years by around 2023.
“I think what will make St Columba’s great for girls is the school’s ethos,” explains Headmaster, David Buxton. “We are strong at developing character and want our students to be confident in themselves and compassionate, with a strong sense of service. This is something we very much want to extend to girls too.”
And the school is very much ready to get going, with focus groups working on curriculum, uniform, sports arrangements and extra curricular activities and a few new management appointments in place to help the transition go smoothly. Former Head of Sixth Form, Richard McCann (a well known member of the St Columba’s community for many years) has move to become Head of Prep (he originally trained in primary teaching) and David Waters, with 16 years independent co-ed experience under his belt) has been brought in to oversee the change at the sixth form level.
Both are excited to get going. Richard McCann explains that his focus is on tweaking the curriculum to ensure things change with the times and to make sure both boys and girls will get maximum benefit from it. Whilst David Waters wants to use his knowledge to enhance what the boys are already experiencing to make the Sixth Form a top co-ed environment; this will include the modernisation of the current Sixth Form building to make it a more dynamic space. Exciting stuff!
Whilst it might not be the prettiest of schools from the outside, as the saying goes, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and that’s certainly the case here – there’s a real warmth which emanates from the pupils and the staff at St Columba’s, but while it’s undoubtedly an actively Catholic school (compulsory mass every Half Term and a small compulsory core of religious activities), it’s not defined by that. In fact, only 37% of the pupils follow the Catholic faith. It’s more about following Christian principles, which are outlined in the Columban Code (the three Cs): Courtesy, Courage and Compassion.
These are such a major part of school life that there’s a whole pastoral programme built upon them – SHAPE (which stands for Service, House, Academic, Pastoral, Extra-Curricular). This encourages the students to build on each of these five elements throughout their school career to both better themselves and the College community. It means the students are always thinking about what they can aspire to and how they can give back – each year they raise money for Shelter by doing a sponsored sleepout, and aim to collect over 1.5 tonnes of supplies for local food banks.
And they could happily add a 4th C – Community. Like most independent schools I visit, the pupils have a real pride in their school, their house, and the various clubs they belong to, and unsurprisingly, that’s often instilled in them before they start here – especially if a parent (even grandparent) or older sibling have attended the school before them.
Added to that, in the Prep School alone, 28 of the 42 staff have had children at the school and 11 staff have been at St Columba’s for over 20 years. I even meet one member of staff who was an ex pupil and now calls his former teachers his colleagues (that must have taken some getting used to!). There are also masses of alumni meet-ups (like an annual over 65s lunch) and events, like the Inspiration Day, which takes place every June, where old pupils come back and talk to Lower Sixth pupils about careers. and events.
So, in short, you don’t get far here without playing your part in the community, both within the school gates and outside of them. But as far as I can see that can only be a good thing.
Don’t expect an abundance of traditional old school buildings here. There’s the attractive Iona House (see top), built in 1900 (more on that later), while the teaching spaces are modern and functional. However, a multi-million pound overhaul in 2013 saw the addition of some new classrooms and offices as well as renovations to the Fitness Suite, Hall and Senior School Reception.
The Science and D&T labs were renovated in 2015 and 2018 respectively, and a new Prep School playground was added in 2017 (thanks to donations from parents). The Dining Hall was completely transformed last year, and the Sixth Formers are also enjoying the recent addition of their own café.
Up next is a major multi-million pound project on the sporting side to create three level all-weather playing pitches. I say ‘level’ as the current grass pitches are on a bit of a slant. It’s all character building I guess, and Mr Murphy, Head of PE, tells me this might actually have given St Columba’s pupils a competitive advantage against visiting teams, as they know exactly which way the ball’s going to go! I’m sure the shiny new pitches will be a welcome addition though.
Over the summer the stage in Coindre Hall has been renovated for Prep and Senior drama and music performances, and works are also underway to update facilities ahead of the arrival of girls in 2021.
Prep School starts with two forms, each with a max of 18 pupils. In Year 5 this jumps to three forms with max class sizes of 20, so there are never more than 60 pupils per year. The sense of community starts young, with Prep School students all being allocated one of four houses (these are different to the Senior School houses). Each pupil has their own tie and PE T-shirt in their house colours. But it’s far from a divisive move – they are encouraged to be in competition with themselves more than with others. And doing well in lessons (not just in sport or music) is rewarded – the ‘science thinker of the fortnight’ gets to don the Joseph-and-the-Technicolour-Dreamcoat style lab coat!
What else? Well, sport is popular in Prep – notably rugby, football, cricket and athletics. The ICT suite has won an award for classroom design. The pupils show me how they’re using an interactive resource called Mini Mash to illustrate their Forest Fridays (something they do in real life) and it was refreshing to hear the teacher asking questions like ‘what do you use as your paper?’ in a day and age when kids are so often glued to their tablets that they aren’t making those connections.
In the Art & DT room the pupils are designing posters to promote the St Albans market. There’s music playing softly in the background. Mrs Loveman explains that the children have probably been a bit noisy… if the chatter ramps up, the teacher puts some music goes on and the pupils need to keep their voices low enough to hear it. A clever way of bringing a bit of self-awareness and mindfulness into the classroom.
On that note, all the Prep pupils take ‘time at two’ – literally two minutes at 2 o’clock every day, when they can focus on one thing, such as shaking a glitter jar (which leads to me spotting one in every classroom!), or listening to a piece of music, to calm the mind.
Music plays a big part here. The pupils have just been learning about traditional Japanese playground songs, to help them understand different rhythms. From Year 3 pupils each spend half a term learning the violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, clarinet and flute on a rotation throughout the year.
In Year 4 all pupils learn doods and toots (which bridge the gap between recorder and wind instruments), then they can try out the ukulele and djembe drums. In terms of extra-curricular options there’s a Prep Choir, Chamber Choir, Hand Bell Choir, Samba band, Ukulele group, Prep Strings, Prep Band and a Junior Orchestra, and there are plenty of evening recitals and concerts for parents to come and watch.
Needless to say, there are specialist teachers for Prep music, and that’s along with French, IT, swimming, games and PE from age 4. From age 6 this also includes science and Art/D&T specialists, too.
In Senior School pupils are put into different houses – six of them, all named after the Brothers’ schools in America. Of course, the students love battling it out with a bit of healthy competition across the variety of activities run throughout the year.
One prime example is the Columban Fayre, where each house hosts a stall and competes to raise the most money (funds go towards the school or the sister schools), but equally it could be in the chess comp or at the annual Eisteddfod.
I like the fact that each year group has its own motto – something for the students to think on and carry with them through their school life. For Year 7 it’s ‘try everything’, and in Upper Sixth it’s ‘legacy for all. There are also ‘themes of the week’.
This is definitely a deep-thinking school with caring high on the agenda. The students are encouraged to look out for each other with a number of buddy schemes between Senior and Prep pupils, as well as Sixth Formers and Year 7s to help with on-the-ground issues from using their lockers to study skills.
Latin is taught from Year 7 and those who have a knack for it can carry it on in Year 8. In terms of other languages, it’s a choice of French or Spanish, plus there’s an optional after-school Chinese club.
The library is used for occasional lessons (Years 7-9), as well as private study for Sixth Formers.
Extra-curricular options in Senior School include everything from archery to yoga (there’s even a bike mechanics club!). Naturally music and sport come up trumps though. Music-wise there are no fewer than 12 ensembles for the students to try out, ranging from a barbershop group to a saxophone quartet, as well as four bell choirs (one of which has toured America). Plus there’s an annual carol service, end of year concert, and a major music and drama production – last year’s was We Will Rock You.
There’s a plethora of international trips that the students can take part in, and, being part of a wider international family, St Columba’s make a visit to the Brothers’ schools in America every year, as well as setting up exchanges between the pupils.
As the students move up the school there’s more emphasis on higher education and careers, and there’s a dedicated (and super approachable) careers advisor, Mr Kelly, who meets with individuals from Year 9 and upwards to discuss their options. From Year 10 there are timetabled careers sessions and the students also take the Morrisby test.
Alongside that, subject teachers run trips to various workplaces in action, and the school sets up work experience placements to give the students a flavour of working life. Speakers are often invited to the school too, to talk to the Sixth Formers about what they do – George, who is giving me the tour, glows with enthusiasm about a recent one by a lawyer who had been working with Formula 1.
The sports facilities are not extensive within the school’s modest eight-acre grounds, but there is a snazzy fitness suite which is used by Prep and Senior School pupils as part of their PE lessons and, as a special privilege, testosterone-fuelled Sixth Formers are allowed to go and pump some iron in there during free periods. The students also have the use the facilities at Westminster Lodge leisure centre in town, and are ferried to-and-fro by school minibus. Plus, of course, those new all-weather pitches will be a real game-changer once complete.
Having said that, Columbans don’t fare badly on the sporting front… In Senior School the strongest sports are rugby, football and athletics, for which the pupils have won District and County titles. A number of St Columba’s rugby players are competing in Club Rugby at County level and several students are members of the Saracens Academy.
And they are particularly hot on basketball, too, having concluded last season as the most successful independent school in national competitions and the most successful basketball school in the Hertfordshire county competitions.
As for athletics, just this year two pupils have represented Great Britain in the U20 steeplechase, another was district steeplechase champion and another 1500m district champion. The school has produced seven district champions in a variety of athletics events, with at least six pupils representing the county five years on the trot in cross country.
St Columba’s students performed well in this year’s exams despite Coronavirus, with over 60% of all grades at 9-7 (A*-A) at GCSE and over 75% obtaining A*-B at A Level. Additionally, 70% of leavers go on to their first choice of university, with 50% going to Russell Group Universities.
THE HEAD MASTER
Mr David Buxton joined as Head of St Columba’s College in 2008, from the Cardinal Newman Catholic School in Hove, where he was Deputy Head. His manner is calm and collected, and I imagine the students find him very approachable and fair, far from the fearsome, stiff upper-lipped figurehead that you might expect from a Catholic school. Perhaps that’s a sign that he doesn’t have to crack the (metaphorical, of course) whip very often here.
But, while it’s clear that he takes great pride in the school’s character and quirks (more on those below!) he’s a big believer in moving with the times, and encourages all the staff (himself included) not to sit on their laurels, and to constantly challenge themselves. One example being his introduction of blogging in subject departments, which both pupils and teachers contribute to – part of the school’s more cautious approach to using tech in the classroom.
Aside from that, his big clarion calls are a strongly integrated pastoral offering, and the idea of developing virtues – a Catholic idea, and something that means Columbans leave the school equipped with a strong moral compass and an ability to draw on their deeper intuitions as opposed to relying solely on textbook-learned knowledge.
Apart from occasionally spotting one of the elderly Brothers wandering around the school in their full-length gowns, which is a little out-of-the-ordinary if you’re not familiar with it, it’s worth noting that Religious Studies is compulsory here from Prep to GCSE.
On another note, how cool is this, if you’re a teenager into spy games…? The oldest part of the school, Iona House (now the admin hub) was once the home of an Admiral before being used by the Goverment as a safehouse for Winston Churchill during WWII – it’s reported that he held top secret meetings there with Charles de Gaulle and General Eisenhower.
Oh, and if you’re au fait with your local history you’ll know that St Albans has Roman roots and that the modern city (including St Columba’s) is built upon ruins. There’s going to be some mammoth efforts taken during the re-development of the school’s sports pitches, to avoid damaging anything of historical value. In fact Mr Murphy, Head of PE told me that he even had to have the length of his spikes on his course markers checked before a Cross Country event for fear of damaging any potentially priceless Roman Mosaics hidden under the surface! (True story!) One of the Sixth Formers showed me some of the Roman pottery remnants which had been uncovered on the school grounds (now locked up in the Latin classroom, which is actually built over a Roman road).
WORD ON THE GROUND
The key message here is: don’t rule out St Columba’s if you’re not Catholic – afterall 63% of the pupils aren’t, so that’s got to speak for something. Once they get through the school gates, it’s the positive ethos and values that appeal to parents when they visit and it’s easy to see why so many are quickly won over. St Columba’s isn’t about churning out straight-A students (although their results are good), but creating well-rounded, socially intelligent young people with a strong moral compass. And what parent wouldn’t want their child to have those qualities?
Breakfast Club is from 7.30am and After-School Club runs until 5.30pm.
There’s a sliding scale of fees through Reception and Prep School, starting at £3,808 per term for Reception through to Prep 2. For Prep 3 it’s £4,466 and Prep 4-6 costs £4,925 per term. For Senior school the fees are £5,703 per term.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Parents who want their children to develop a good moral grounding in a nurturing community-spirited environment, allowing them to thrive in the areas that they have a natural passion and aptitude for.
NOT FOR: If you’re more interested in league tables and on-paper achievements than the all-round experience, St Columba’s probably isn’t for you.
DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest! There’s a Prep School Open Morning on 28 April and Senior School Open Working Day on 17 June . To find out more, click here, or you can call or email Mrs Rachael Wilson, Admissions Registrar, on 01727 892040 or firstname.lastname@example.org.