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St. Francis’ College, Letchworth Garden City

This compact, yet close-to-town all-through school for girls puts heart and soul first and foremost but thrives academically too.

We first visited St. Francis’ College in 2017. Here’s our updated review for 2021:

WHAT? WHERE?

St. Francis’ College is a selective independent day and boarding school for 320 girls aged 3-18 in Letchworth Garden City. Boys are welcomed up to Year 2 – mainly siblings to help parents who already have girls here. The school building is on Broadway – a wide, leafy, tree-lined road which is protected by English Heritage – and has a compact, but perfectly adequate eight acres to call its own. It’s close to Junction 9 on the A1 and less than 10 mins walk into the town centre (and the Broadway Cinema, which the boarders love), where you can hop on a train and be in Cambridge or London in just over half an hour.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the Broadway Building itself looks a little austere (if intimidating). It looms large over visitors on arrival, with its four storeys, narrow windows and heavy, arched doorway. You can almost picture the nuns leading the girls into class, back in the day – yep, St. Francis’ was a Catholic school when it was founded in 1933 until 1983. But don’t let that put you off. Step inside and it feels nothing but warm and welcoming from the off. It’s well and truly shedding its historical rep, for a far more modern and progressive feel.

While the Catholicism is long gone, the peace and calm of a Christian ethos remains. St Francis’ College has been multi-denominational for over 30 years, and still welcomes girls of all faiths and none today.

Those interested in a place here will be asked to sit an assessment in English and Maths and be invited to an interview, too.

FACILITIES

There’s a theatre – A 300-seat one at that with a professional sound and lighting set up. It’s not only used by the students but by Letchworth locals too. Even Muddy Award winning bookshop David’s hosts events here.

Lamda is offered here and taken up by local and international students. One of the most popular events in the theatre’s calendar though is the annual Recycled Fashion Show – this year’s theme was Commedia dell’arte, and there were some pretty impressive creations, all with eco creds too. Bellissimo!

The covered, heated 20m swimming pool is an unexpected bonus for a school of this size and is well-used by all students, from Kindergarten upwards, as well as by some other local Preps.

In terms of other sports, while the playing fields aren’t extensive, there are hockey pitches and courts for netball and tennis, plus a gym and dance studio indoors.

Sport is popular at St Francis’ and sports scholarships are offered. Plus, here’s progression for you – cricket is now part of the school curriculum as of last year. And the Prep play touch rugby. Good going for an all-girls’ school.

You’ll also find a chapel on site (a hangover from its Catholic school days, of course). Today it’s a useful space for small assemblies, music rehearsals and quiet time should the students want a place to go and reflect. While there’s no mass anymore, there are about eight religious services held throughout the year and – here’s a good quirk – girls can learn to play the organ if it piques their interest.

On that note instrumental lessons are available to all girls from Kindergarten upwards, including everything from brass, strings and woodwind, to guitar, drums, keyboard and piano as well as singing. 

Lessons are taught by peripatetic teachers, and take place on a rota basis during the school day (charged as an optional extra). Girls go on to take Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music or Trinity College Music exams. After-school music theory is on offer too. And there are plenty of chances to perform, from in-school assemblies to larger scale concerts.

The Senior Library, which boarders have access to over the weekend (to rent films too), has a new librarian who’s been shaking things up by recruiting helpers across the Senior year groups and creating some thought-provoking displays around the school.

The kitchen is used by Prep 5 and upwards to learn about healthy eating in conjunction with sciences and a Food and Nutrition GCSE is offered, but it doesn’t continue to A-Level.

The adjoining kitchen garden is a joint project between the science and food departments, where the girls are taught about growing responsibly, and the use of pesticides. Boarders can also use it in their own time to plant, dig and grow their own.

There’s also a café and study centre for Sixth Formers to use – one of their privileges, along with use of the laundry (although I’m not convinced they would think of that as a privilege!)

PREP

The Prep school is in a bright, modern building and the Prep hall links the old building with the new. The school welcomed Mr John Sample as Head of Prep earlier this year. As a dad of three girls he’s naturally got a vested interest in girls’ education.

While there are some things he’s keen to put his stamp on Sample tells me that he did not receive a single email from a parent in his first three weeks in the job. Nope he didn’t have a problem with his email address, the parents were just so happy with the way things were ticking along, thank you very much, that there were nothing to write in about!

With average class sizes of 12 in Prep, there’s roughly a 1:8 pupil to teacher ratio, and virtually all transition up to Senior school. Plus there are loads of cross-year activities which help to build on that all-important community feel throughout the college. For example, a Sixth Form student led a film-making day for Prep pupils and there’s the annual 5 Star Day, where the entire college comes to a standstill to make way for all kinds of fun activities and trips.

The Prep Library

Dance, tap and ballet are part of the Prep curriculum, and sports run all year round including tag rugby, netball and football, plus cricket, rounders athletics and tennis, as well as PE lessons. The children also have swimming lessons from Kindergarten to Prep 6 and have use of all the other Senior facilities too. Plus they have their own IT Suite.

Prep pupils aren’t streamed but they are InCAS tested every six months, which helps staff keep a handle on their progress. Sample is hoping to do this more regularly so they can stay one step ahead.

Sample is also a Senior Leadership Champion for Year 7, meaning that he’ll be chatting to his future Prep leavers about what worked and didn’t with their transition to Senior school to help make improvements for future years. This should help to create stronger connections between Prep and Senior, too.

ACADEMICS

For a small school, St Francis’ fares very well academically, and manages to do so without being pushy or competitive. This year 73% of GCSE students achieved grades 9-7 and 50% were awarded grades 9-8. At A-Level 78% of all results were A/A* while 96% were graded A* – B.

Last year 100% of students were offered a place at their first choice university. This might have something to do with the fact that Head, Bronwen Goulding, personally interviews every girl to talk through their uni applications. She will also advise them if she feels they should apply to Oxbridge, although appreciates that this might not be the right choice for everyone. Incidentally, a quarter of all St. Francis’ College students go to Oxbridge every year.

Looking at the other leavers’ destinations, a large number go on to do science degrees at Imperial, Manchester and Oxford, (with zoology at Exeter included in the list). Linguists go on to the likes of Durham, and Warwick. Many girls seem to continue on a creative path, whether it’s music, art or drama, with quite a few going on to University of the Arts and Goldsmiths in London.

PASTORAL CARE

If I had to pick just one thing that St. Francis’ clearly does brilliantly, it’s pastoral care. Community isn’t a word that’s bandied about here, it really means something and is the backbone of the school. In fact they’ve just been shooting a video in the theatre, (called ‘we don’t need more institutions, we need more communities’), which is a reconstruction of a real situation where a girl forgot her lines on stage – the audience applauded her and she picked herself up and carried on. It’s the message of support, care and love that they’re trying to promote here.

Deputy Head, James Nichols, heads up the school’s pastoral department and he explained some of the ways the girls are supported here. For starters, tutors stay with the same classes from Years 7-8, then from Years 9-11 so they can really build bonds and support individuals. Sixth Form is tutored vertically – so the Upper and Lower Sixth share tutors. This allows for extra peer support when it comes to exams and UCAS applications.

The school aims for a proactive rather than reactive approach to pastoral care, with the idea of offsetting problems before they develop. For example, Years 7 and 8 are asked to fill in reflection diaries which can help to identify problems at school or home with questions like ‘how are you feeling about half term?’. There’s also a white card system where students can put their card on their teacher’s desk if they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed and step out of the lesson to seek specialist support from the trained librarian or school counsellor.

I also really like the idea of the termly auctions, which is built on an awards system. Students ‘donate’ things like skills or services and can use the merits they’ve earned throughout the term as currency to bid for them. Previous lots have included lunch-queue-jump passes (always a popular one), and a shoot with a Sixth Form Photography student.

It’s also updating the PSHE course, by asking the girls what they want out of it – pupil voice is very much listened to and acted upon at St. Francis’ – students in all-girls’ environments understandably want different things to those in Co-Ed, and it’s this flexible and adaptable approach to learning that makes St. Francis’ stand out.

Finally, it’s launching an ‘out-duction’ programme which will help to prepare girls for leave school by inviting them to try a university dorm-like experience in the boarding houses for example. Great idea – who’s turn is it to do the washing up, then?

BOARDING

There are four boarding houses for different age groups in the Broadway building and it all feels very homely. While girls can board from age 10 it’s more popular from Year 7 upwards. I like the fact that the dorms are above the dining hall (similar to a real home set-up) so on weekends the girls can have a lie-in and head down to brunch in their PJs.

You can board from Year 6 and, as you’d expect, most full-time boarders come from overseas. But you can also choose weekly or flexi boarding, which is helpful even for girls who live relatively close to the school as it helps working parents to know that the option is there. And the flexi option is also handy if the girls have an early start for a school trip the next day and want to stay the night before.

The school also offers day boarding, which allows the day girls to enjoy all the benefits of boarding (breakfast, supper, after-school clubs etc) without actually staying overnight. This can be booked on an occasional basis or as a set of ten passes (at a discount), which can be used throughout the year.

QUIRKS

While it’s not a quirk as such, St. Francis’ is top in the county for Duke of Edinburgh Award success, which is something to be proud of.

The Sixth Formers have their own secret garden to use when they want some quiet time away from the hubub of the playground.

THE HEAD

Bronwen Goulding has been at the helm of St. Francis’ since 2015. While she’s definitely got presence I also detect some quirkiness – perhaps it’s the vibrant pink jacket she wears, or the decorative golden crocodile on her desk? She’s vehemently proud of her students and staff, particularly for the way they handled (and continue to handle) the pandemic, and the school’s unbroken academic record throughout.

Her big post-COVID push is to focus on the future, with the introduction of Future Ready Days – the first will focus on sustainability and climate change, with food sources and water supply being put under the spotlight. These events will bring together students from Prep 3 to Sixth Form and invite them to create marketing solutions for real products and present them to the school community. Products include insects as food (good luck girls!), edible cutlery, metal drinking straw and plant-based meat.

Since our last visit, Goulding has worked hard to develop pupil voice, and the girls now have the confidence to speak out thanks to the additional support they’ve received. St. Francis’ isn’t about making the girls fit its mould but helping individuals’ personalities and strengths shine through, and Goulding seems to have a real knack of achieving that.

One thing to note is that the school doesn’t offer the International Baccalaureate as an A-Level alternative – simply because it’s not viable for a school of this size. Goulding praises its benefits though and aims to incorporate some of its principles into the curriculum – critical thinking for example. She’s all for teaching the girls to question everything and form their own opinions, in this world of fake news and targeted advertising.

She’s definitely got character and clout – yes, there’s a headmistressy vibe, but she’s not afraid of mucking in and you won’t, ever, find her sitting on her laurels.

WRAP AROUND CARE

There is before and after school care for all girls from Kindergarten to Year 6 from 7.45am to 6.00pm. You don’t have to book this in advance and it can be used as little or as much as you need to. The Senior school girls can stay for supervised study until 6pm.

ISI REPORT

Click here to read the most recent one.

FEES

For the Senior school, it’s £6,150 per term (£9,600 for weekly boarding and £11,590 for full boarding). In the Prep school, Kindergarten fees start at £1,670 per term for mornings only, up to £3,010 for five full days, and then go up to £4,700 for Years 3-6 (£8,150 for weekly boarding and £10,140 for full boarding.) There are also academic, arts and sports scholarships up for grabs too.

WORD ON THE GROUND

In general parents seem to take a pretty hands-off approach – which is testament to the exceptional level of pastoral care here.

The girls love being able to learn without the distraction of boys and the small community means that everyone knows everyone and that it’s fun, friendly and everyone is kind to each other.

Being an all-through school is seen as a major benefit too as there’s less stress involved when it comes to thinking about moving up to Senior school.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

GOOD FOR: Girls who’ll thrive in a nurturing, all-female community where they can shine for being themselves, not in spite of it. And if you’re looking for continuity – the fact that you can start in Kindergarten and be here until Sixth Form is a winner for parents and girls who thrive on strong bonds.

NOT FOR: There’s no IB here, if that floats your boat. And 8 acres, though verdant, is a more limited in terms of outside space than some larger, competitor schools.

DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest! Individual visits and appointments can be made at any time for prospective or current families. Click here to find out more.

St. Francis’ College Broadway, Letchworth Garden City, SG6 3PJ; 01462 670511

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