St. Francis’ College, Letchworth Garden City
Muddy says: This wonderfully nurturing day and boarding school for girls has an empowering can-do ethos and is located in the world's first Garden City.
We first visited St. Francis’ College in 2017. It was a pleasure to go back in 2019, and while the school is still pretty much as it was before, there have been a few changes. Here’s our updated review:
St. Francis’ College is a selective independent day and boarding school for 350 girls aged 3-18 in Letchworth Garden City. The school building is on The Broadway, the most beautiful road in Letchworth, the world’s first garden city. It’s close to Junction 9 on the A1 and 10 mins walk into town where you can hop on a train and be in Cambridge or London in just over half an hour.
There are eight green acres and it’s very, very leafy. It’s well placed for Herts, Beds and Cambs and there are lots of school coaches and minibuses on offer.
St. Francis’ was founded by nuns in 1933. Since 1983, the school has been multi-denominational and welcomes girls of all faiths and none. While the Catholicism is long gone, the peace and calm of a Christian ethos remains.
You’ve got the best of town and country at St. Francis’ College. Great facilities: there’s a theatre, swimming pool, gym, dance studio, chapel, hockey pitches and courts for netball and tennis. There are loads of clubs and after school activities.
St. Francis’ girls were winners in district netball and hockey tournaments last year. Drama is strong here with recent productions including Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful; Beauty and the Beast and Theseus, the Maze and the Minotaur. The cast of the dystopian play Kitty, written by the school’s drama teacher Mrs McDermott, competed in the annual Welwyn Youth Drama Festival at the Barn Theatre. There’s a vibrant music department with regular concerts in the school chapel and also in the town.
STEM is big at St. Francis’ and the science department has been involved in a collaboration with the University of Hertfordshire to help overcome the global crisis of antibiotic resistance. Last year, some of the girls took part in the European Microbiology Conference in Birmingham to present their findings. Students recently took part in the GSA’s Girl Power Conference in Cambridge: STEM Solutions Towards a Sustainable World.
The Dads4Daughters is now an extremely popular annual breakfast event at the school which promotes gender equality in the workplace. St. Francis’ is an Artsmark Gold school and the art department is completely brilliant, with excellent fashion, photography and fine art. I have been to a couple of the end of year art and photography exhibitions and they are impressive. The recycled fashion show is legendary.
The prep school is in a bright, modern building. In January this year, Colin Mannall joined as the first ever male head of prep. When we meet, Mr Mannall is so new that he seems quite surprised to find himself in an all girls’ school after 16 years at co-ed Kingshott in nearby Hitchin.
With the evangelical zeal of a new broom, he says that he wants to modernise things, make lessons more fun and integrate IT into the curriculum. He plans to encourage the girls at St. Francis’ to be ‘go getters’ and with his plans to give the Year 6 prefects more responsibility and empower the school council, it’s all sounding very good indeed.
St. Francis’ is an ‘all-through school’ which is conducive to long-term friendships and the Old Girls’ Association is a quite an institution, with over 1500 members. Some of the girls I met told me about how they know everyone in the school and that the buddy system works brilliantly.
Taking responsibility is encouraged from a young age and if you’ve got an idea to start something new, it’s easy to make it happen because the teachers are so supportive. One girl vlogs about school events and another is planning a senior citizen prom for the residents of a local care home. The girls tell me that the school council has an even stronger voice now.
As with many independent schools, wellbeing and the growth mindset underpin pastoral care and learning. St. Francis’ has just won the Wellbeing Award for Schools.
Earlier this year, a student from St. Francis’ won the Letchworth Young Designer Competition. The winning design is a leaf incorporating Ebeneezer Howard’s original three magnet plan for Letchworth. The design will be used as the brand for a town consultation by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, asking people about what makes a contemporary garden city.
St. Francis’ College was 46th in the top 100 schools for GCSE in the The Daily Telegraph’s list published in January 2017. In 2018, the pass rate for GCSEs was 98% for grades 9-4/A*-C. 60% of the GCSE results were 9-7 grades. For A Levels, the pass rate was 100% with 93% of the grades being A*-C. The majority of girls stay on after GCSE for Sixth Form.
Looking at the list of destinations for leavers, you’ll see a large number of girls going 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, Warwick and Oxford. And of course 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.
If you want a place here, there’s an assessment if you want to start in the prep school, carried out as part of a taster day. There are entrance exams if you want to start in Years 7 and 9, including an interview.
Bronwen Goulding has been at the helm of St. Francis’ for four years. As you might imagine, she’s a big fan of girls’ education and is an advocate of creating an environment where girls can know themselves, relax completely, grow in confidence and feel empowered.
Since we last met, there’s a big push to build leadership and development in the sixth form. Increasing the student voice is one of her aims and since my last visit the school council has more power, with the girls encouraged to present their ideas and views to the senior leadership team. There is also more capacity for creating extension work for gifted and talented students and overall, I would say that since my last visit, the school feels more dynamic.
The boarding house is in the main building and it all feels very homely. You can board from Year 6, and you can choose full, weekly or flexi boarding. The girls seem to have great fun, with a huge number of trips and activities at the weekend. The boarding house has been refurbished recently and it’s bright and uplifting. Flexi boarding is hugely helpful even for girls who live relatively close to the school – it helps working parents to know that this option is there. The school also offer 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.
Letchworth Garden City has a unique history and St. Francis’ is very much part of both the Garden City heritage but it is also integrated into the local community. There’s a brilliant theatre, cinema and art gallery in the town and David’s Bookshop is an institution with a fantastic year-round programme of author events, some of which are held at the school.
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.
For the senior school, it’s £5,660 per term (£8,825 for weekly boarding and £10,665 for full boarding). In the prep school, kindergarten fees start at £1,540 per term for mornings only and then go up to £4,330 for Year 3 – Year 6 (£7,450 for weekly boarding and £9,330 for full boarding.) There are scholarships up for grabs for academic, arts and sports.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents like the focus on wellbeing and the nurturing care for their daughters. This is a quiet school without any bells. 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.
Flexi boarding is popular with busy families, as is the all-through school – there’s less stress when you don’t have to think about moving on and looking at senior schools. Colin Mannall, the new head of prep, is creating a new dimension and people are very pleased that he is here.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Girls who thrive in a nurturing, all-female environment where they can relax completely. There’s a very strong sense that you be able to be yourself and be silly and playful without feeling under pressure to grow up too quickly. If you’re looking for continuity – the fact that you can start in nursery and be here until sixth form is a winner.
NOT FOR: There’s no IB here, if that floats your boat. And 8 acres, though verdant, is a more limited outside space than some competitor schools.
DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest! The next Open Days are Sat 21 March (10am – 12.30pm) and Friday 27 March (9am – 12.30pm).
St. Francis’ College Broadway, Letchworth Garden City, SG6 3PJ 01462 670511