St Edmund’s College, Ware
A hidden gem, this Catholic co-ed has got acres of grounds, stunning facilities and puts wellbeing and personal development at the centre of its educational offering.
The oldest Catholic school in England, St Edmund’s College was established in 1568, in Douay France, but the buildings you see today were built in 1793. It’s on the outskirts of Ware, in the super rural hamlet of Old Hall Green surrounded by fields and farmland, and with 400 roaming acres to call its own.
A boys’ school for many years, the College became fully co-ed in 1986 and now has 655 pupils aged 11-18. There are around 22 per class in Year 7 with many classes becoming smaller up the school. It’s predominantly a day school that offers boarding (around 20% board and most are international students) and there are no fewer than 18 bus routes. Most pupils come in from the A10 corridor which reaches down to North London and up to Royston, covering the key towns of Hertford, Bishops Stortford, Welwyn Garden City, Broxbourne, Hoddeson and Enfield.
It’s a selective school with tests at all entry points – previous school reports are considered too, so no hiding there! And there are two applicants per place so those kids have to prove themselves not just academically but also in terms of how they fit into the school’s ethos and values. And it’s not just the kids who come under scrutiny – parents’ attitudes are also considered at interview stage. So do your research to make sure you’re on board with the values too, before signing your son or daughter up.
The buildings are stunning, with high ceilings and ornate décor in places – just check out that almost Harry Potter-esque refectory (above)! But the Pugin chapel is the cherry on the cake. It’s used for morning prayers and mass, as well as optional quiet reflection on Friday lunchtimes.
I’ve mentioned the space – there’s a whopping 400 acres to explore, which is shared with the Prep. Within that there are three rugby/football pitches, an Astro turf, and six tennis/netball courts, so there’s plenty to get stuck into on the sports front. Indoors, there’s also a sports hall, with a viewing gallery and weights room, as well as a swimming pool.
The classrooms feel modern, spacious and tech-ified. Each has its own Smart board. Plus there’s an IT room on each of the three floors, including the aptly named ‘i-rise’ where the computers actually rise up from the desks.
There’s a separate Science block, which was updated about six years ago so the labs still feel pretty ‘new’ and fresh.
The Art department feels really airy with the vibe of an urban loft studio, and has a glass kiln and a ceramic kiln plus a separate room for A-Level students to do more focused work. Mind you, it’s also really zen-like in the main room with classical music playing softly in the background as I wander round.
Similarly DT feels like a very professional set-up, with all the up-to-date machinery and gadgets a budding engineer could want. Incidentally Years 7-9 rotate DT and Food Tech on a half-yearly basis, so they get to try a bit of both before choosing their GCSE options.
There’s a decent sized library (which is used for some lessons as well as free time and private study) as well as a separate Sixth Form study room where the older pupils can go for a bit of peace and quiet.
Each House has its own room, shared by all year groups, and they are unmistakabley decked out in their house colours, complete with lockers and table football. They’ve recently been refreshed (along with the Boarding Houses) and are used for Friday House assemblies as well as break times.
Then there’s the Douay Hall (named after the school’s original site in France) which is the main hub for assemblies and performances.
Being a Catholic school, religion obviously plays a role here but it’s not overwhelming. I’ve mentioned the weekly morning prayers and mass but the school also celebrates key religious festivals as well as its own St Edmund’s Day (November) where the whole school spends the days leading up to it learning the 30-verse college song (O Beate mi Edmunde). By the time they leave Year 13, they’ve just about nailed it! Additionally, RE is compulsory for GCSE. OK, that might not be sooo popular with everyone but does tend to be par for the course as Catholic schools go.
The school ethos is that it proposes but never imposes religion, and in fact, it says something that only one third of the pupils here are actually practising Catholics. But the silent reflection sessions sees the chapel packed out most Fridays, so the pupils obviously take value from this whether in a religious sense or to keep tabs on their own wellbeing – something else which is highly valued at St Edmund’s (you can add the Chaplaincy team to the extensive pastoral network here too). In fact, the new Head, Mr Mostyn, is passionate about the idea of mind, body and spirit working together and being mutually dependent.
The College operates an extended day, which incorporates a Period 7 activity – whether co-curricular or study-based, so that the school day finishes at 4.30, but there are plans to extend this further into the evening to help stretched parents. And there’s a huge co-curricular offering here, with everything from debating to boxing, and candle making to university cooking club, plus a recent addition – polo, which is held at a nearby polo club.
From Year 9 pupils can join CCF or RAF and take part in the St Edmund’s Award (their own version of the Duke of Edinburgh Award). There’s a range and armoury on site and opportunities to have a go at everything from flying and gliding to kayaking and overseas trips – ideal for those wannabe Ant Middleton’s out there! It’s not just for boys mind, plenty of girls get involved, too.
There are loads of opportunities to go on trips, too, of course, including an annual Sixth Form trip to India, where they get stuck in to community projects and really experience how other cultures live.
I’ve mentioned that the majority of boarders are International students, but three visiting pupils are also welcomed every term in Year 7 from a partner Spanish school. St Edmund’s is also keen to shout about the benefits of boarding to UK pupils, particularly as it’s such a flexible option here. In fact one of my Sixth Form guides only lives locally, but tells me he’s considering boarding for his final year so that he can get more study done in the school environment without the distractions from home – what a mature decision!
St Edmund’s sport is set for a bit of an overhaul, particularly for boys’ sport in the upper school, which has just lost its mojo a bit in recent years. The College is looking to build on its links with Saracens Rugby – bringing in some of their coaches to work with the younger year groups.
On the flip side, the girls are absolutely dominating on the Netball front, with the U18 squad being County champs. And you can expect to see a spike in interest and performance in girls’ football and cricket, too, with investments in those areas to come.
MUSIC AND DRAMA
A new Director of Music started in September and has already started a new Chamber Choir and has lots of other plans in the offing.
Music is popular, with 180 instrumental lessons scheduled each week and the annual highlight being the summer concert, where everyone has the chance to show off their talents, from soloists to ensembles, rock bands to choirs – there was even a ‘drum off’ last year!
And when it comes to performance, there are no holds barred. The annual College production is always a sell out, and is held at the Broxbourne Theatre (for a ‘real’ theatre experience). Recent productions include Starlight Express (yep, roller skates and all, with a purpose-built race track around the auditorium), School of Rock featuring two live rock bands and Singing in the Rain, with actual rain!
Mr Matthew Mostyn only joined St Edmund’s in September 2019 from – rather aptly, the second oldest Catholic School in England – Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. He’s got a real twinkle in his eye which leaves no question of his delight about landing the role here. He admits to feeling like he’s stumbled upon a hidden gem, but is keen to quell that reputation, in as much as he wants to ditch the ‘hidden’ bit and for everyone to know how great St Edmund’s is.
It’s true that the school more than holds its own in competitions and academically, so it’s not a case of reinventing the wheel, just building on those recent successes, but also, importantly making the links between academic success and wider personal development.
I found his interview technique interesting too – he tells me he’s got one eye on the 11-year-old pupil and the other on their 99-year-old self and the amazing life they have had. So he’s always looking beyond the academic and to what they’ve done or can do to make the world a bit better.
Sure, it’s a school that could easily up its results by making the selection process purely academic, but that’s not what St Edmund’s is all about. Think of it more as formation rather than purely education, which also comes from making friends, playing sport, taking part and performing. This, Mr Mostyn believes is the key to being happy and successful, which I must say, is a very convincing argument.
Ok, so if you’re confused by Forms, Years and Key Stages, wait til you hear this… At St Edmund’s each year group has its own name. Year 7 is Elements, Year 8 is Rudiments, Year 9 is Grammar, Year 10 is Syntax, Year 11 is Poetry and Sixth Form is Rhetoric.
So what’s it all about? Well, they’re the stages of learning the classics, as would have been in place when St Edmund’s was founded back in 1568. Only a handful of Catholic schools still use them, but just to confuse poor Mr Mostyn a bit more, they’re in a different order to his previous school – there’s something for him to get his head around!
Oh and the College actually has its very own on-site musuem. I didn’t get a chance to look around it this time, but it’s only the second school I’ve visited to have one, so it’s definitely got the novelty factor.
Flexible boarding is offered to all College students as well as overnight stays on an ad hoc basis, which could be handy for parents with unpredictable work schedules. Plus the extended day is due to come in shortly, and there are also plans to launch a ‘day boarding’ option which will allow day students the chance to stay on after 4.30pm.
If you’ve read the rest of the review you’ll know by now that St Edmund’s isn’t an academic hot house, having said that its results make for impressive reading with a 99% pass rate at A Level (35% achieving grades A* and A), and 90% achieving Grades 9-4 at GCSE.
The majority of students go on to university, including many Russell Group ones, like Bath, Bristol, Cambridge, UCL, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Manchester, Nottingham and York to name a few. A small number do leave to go onto selective apprenticeship programmes too.
College day fees are from £5,670 to £6,115. Weekly boarding fees are £8,055 to £9,210 and full boarding fees are from £9,434 to £10,820.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents looking for a wholistic approach to education which puts equal value in wellbeing and personal development as it does in academia.
Not for: Those who are prepared to instantly rule it out for being a Catholic school – even if you’re not religious it’s well worth looking beyond that to the school’s core values and to the wider benefits that this kind of education can offer.
St Edmund’s College, Old Hall Green, Ware, Herts, SG11 1DS