St Joseph’s in the Park, Hertingfordbury
Muddy says: Meadow views, mindfulness and a Mongolian yurt await at this bucolic Hertfordshire prep school, but they don't belie a rich and rewarding academic and co-curricular culture.
You’d struggle to find a more picture perfect setting for a school – it helped that I visited on a sunny day of course, but if the charming village location (on the outskirts of Hertford) and rolling parkland views (complete with grazing cows) don’t bowl you over, I’m not sure what will.
Co-ed day school St Joseph’s might not be big, with just 157 pupils (and an average class size of 20) but it does have a big heart (thanks to the emphasis that’s put on building strong relationships, community spirit and a sense of belonging) and feels instantly inviting from the moment you step through the door.
If you’re wondering about the religious-sounding name, St Joseph’s was founded in 1898 by the Sisters of Mercy from St Joseph’s Convent in Chelsea, but it hasn’t been a Catholic school for over 40 years. Today it welcomes those of all faiths and none, and although there is some involvement with the local church, from voluntary cleaning to harvest festivals – think of it as having a Christian foundation with a small ‘c’.
It’s a non-selective, inclusive school (but there are informal assessments held over two taster days), and children can join when they are approaching their third birthday. Most come from near Hertingfordbury – Broxbourne, Cuffley, Potter’s Bar, Welwyn – but others travel from Hitchin, Harpenden, Bishop’s Stortford and even North London.
St Joseph’s has 6.6 acres to call its own within Hertingfordbury Park, which has a rather regal heritage. First mentioned in 1285 the park was once owned by the Castle of Hertford and King John used it as his hunting grounds. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were said to have hunted in the surrounding woodlands, too. The eagle eyed might be lucky enough to spot one of the resident muntjac deer, and there’s even a badger sett on site.
While there’s nothing left of the 17th-century manor house, part of the Serpentine Wall makes up the entrance of the school today. The main school building is 1950s in style, but a major refurbishment in 2018 added a new science room, new classrooms, a library and cloakrooms.
The infants’ classrooms are downstairs and the juniors upstairs, so the children literally move up a level when they start Year 3, and have a transition taster day – a momentous occasion where they’re all allowed (as is tradition) to bang on their desks. A drumroll of sorts?
The Parklands building (former cottages) had an extension in July 2018, too, to provide new administrative facilities.
The hall was built in 1952 and can be transformed to a gym or theatre, (the stage was designed by a member of the theatrical Holloway family), and even has its own pipe organ (yes, lessons are available!)
The nursery has its own outdoor play area, and there’s also a cute little thrift shop, which sells second-hand uniform, too!
Woodlands, the school’s Learning Support Centre is one of St Joseph’s big selling points, with some parents picking the school specifically for it. The two dedicated classrooms feel welcoming and for the kids who come here in the mornings it feels like a normal part of their day, before they re-join the rest of their class in the afternoon.
The experienced specialist teachers offer really tailored support for pupils in years 3-6 (up to four per year, which is managed at admissions stage) with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalulia, as well as other SEN like hearing loss.
A lot of what they do is multi-sensory – for example, they might go out to Sainsbury’s to learn about money – and English and Maths are studied in a project context. Woodlands pupils get one extra trip per term, too. Recent ones have been to London’s Postal Museum and a tile workshop at St Albans Abbey to tie in with a Gaudi art project.
Outside, the main playground was recently re-surfaced and re-modelled with new equipment and climbing frames. There’s also a woodland area used for Forest School and gardening club, as well as a chicken coop, courtesy of Bill the caretaker, and the kids can feed and handle them (with a bit of help from Bill).
But one of the stand-out features is the Mongolian yurt. Yep, there’s an actual tent in the grounds which is used for outdoor lessons, quiet contemplation (hmm… really?! More on that later), and LAMDA sessions. It’s even used on Mondays for a free mother and toddler music group for locals. There’s that community spirit again.
Oh and the outdoor pool is pretty fab, too – I was desperate to go for a dip, but there was a scuba diving lesson going on (I mean how many prep schools do you know with their own scuba club?!) What’s brilliant though is that it doesn’t go unused over the summer holidays, as families can buy a pool pass, and idle away the day while the kids splash about and run around in their safe and familiar surroundings – only thing missing is the pool bar!
As for future plans, a new outdoor classroom is being built over the summer holidays, with an amphitheatre, for storytelling, lessons and performances.
Performing is very important at St Joseph’s, and I don’t mean just academically. The kids are encouraged to stand up in front of an audience from as young as three in class assemblies, and to get involved in regular productions and recitals throughout their time here.
There’s the Christmas carol tour, weddings in the village church (often teachers will invite the kids to play and they get a bit of pocket money for it, too), and performances to the residents at the local care home. And nearly 100 pupils in Years 3-6 take part in the weekly LAMDA sessions to help develop those skills in performance, listening and working as a team, plus they get to mess around with props and stage make-up, too – great fun!
There’s an annual Infants’ Christmas production – last year’s was The Wizards of Oz (there’s more than one?!) – and I arrived just in time to catch the rehearsals for the Junior Summer Production which had a bit of a Lion King theme. In fact, the whole week’s timetable had been dedicated to it as they wrapped up for the end of term.
There was some very enthusiastic dancing and jumping across the stage (were they monkeys or lions?!) and the nice thing is that kids of all abilities can take part – it’s not just for those who have the voice of an angel! On the other hand, performing can bring out some little stars by giving the ones who struggle in the classroom an opportunity to shine.
65% (Year 2 – 6 play an instrument) and there are eight peripatetic teachers on hand for piano, organ, guitar, drums, flute, violing, brass and singing. There’s also Suzuki piano tuition from age three, the Little Violins Club from age five, three junior choirs, and orchestra and a Music Theory Club. The parents and teachers can stretch their vocal chords too in the adult choir!
One of the highlights of the musical calendar is Mini Glyndebourne – I love the idea of all the families pitching up with their picnics in the sunshine to see their little ones take to the outdoor stage performing in solos, choirs and ensembles. Some past pupils even come back to perform.
Children take part in Kaleidoscope activities on a Thursday afternoon during which they can explore new skills both inside and outside school. Groups head off to The Edge (a local outdoor activity centre), to the Talisman CrossFit gym and the nearby Pony Ranch for horse riding. Or at school they can do Forest School, dance and performance or cookery.
On the sports front, St Joseph’s do best in football (boys and girls), netball, hockey, cricket (there’s a big focus on the girls’ teams) and Little Tennis. Boys’ sport is set to get a big shake up though, thanks to a newly appointed Head of Boys’ Sport, so watch this space.
Something a bit different… CrossFit is now part of the sports programme, which is popular with those who aren’t so keen on the more trad sports. The kids can try new skills, like rowing, box jumps, rope climbs, lifting and skipping and the school has teamed up with the CrossFit Talisman gym in Hertford, where the coaches modify workouts allowing children at different fitness levels to train together. It’s helped with team building, resilience and confidence and has been particularly beneficial for those with special educational needs such as dyspraxia or autism.
The kids compete once a week and use Haileybury’s coach and grounds for hockey on Fridays. There’s also a golf and a ski team and plenty of extra-curricular clubs to get involved with too – from pony riding and street dance to Judo, as well as multi-sports clubs.
As for trips, from the age of eight all the Juniors benefit from a residential trip. This year the Year 6s are going to France and the Year 5s on PGL. The Year 6s take part in Opportunities Week, where they get to go on trips to Parliament, go behind the scenes at Stansted Airport to learn about being a pilot, and take part in charity work – the school supports the Hertford Food Bank.
I also love the idea of the Silver Service afternoon tea, where the kids are given a budget to make it, then serve it to their parents. It’s all confidence building and prepares them for the level of independence they’ll need for their next schools and further into the future.
On that note all of this year’s leavers have received offers for their chosen schools – Bishop’s Stortford College, Broxbourne, Dame Alice Own, St Christopher, Sherrardswood, Mount House and Presdales are all in the mix – and three achieved scholarships (an academic one to Queenswood; a sports one to Haileybury; and a music one to St Edmund’s College). So clearly St Joseph’s is prepping them well for next steps.
Mr Douglas Brown joined St Joseph’s in 2016 from his previous role as Deputy Head of Pastoral at Berkhamsted and, unsurprisingly, his key calling card is wellbeing. He works closely with the school’s Head of Pastoral and, being such a small school, all staff are able to meet weekly to discuss how each individual child is getting on.
A bright and breezy chap, his face lights up when he tells me about his future plans, which include the introduction of Learning Habit Days – where the kids will take time out of the curriculum to learn skills like curiosity, flexibility and persistence. This is based on the work the school’s been doing with educationalist Jane Simister over the past two years to promote independent thinking.
And there’s evidence that this is working as each classroom has its own tree on the wall which the children can add a leaf to whenever they demonstrate these skills.
But at the end of the day school’s got to be fun, too, right? One staff member tells me that Mr Brown has brought a sense of adventure to St Joseph’s. You only have to check out the increasingly whacky list of extra-curricular activities (snorkelling and woodland yoga anyone?) to see that.
As a small school with a tight community, the onus for looking after the wellbeing of the children is on all staff not just their form teacher. There is also a school counsellor who can offer support for children of all ages and for parents and family members if they need help.
This is a pretty deep-thinking school and wellbeing features high on the agenda (thanks to Mr Brown) – how many schools have their own qualified mindfulness teacher, hmm…? Yep, mindfulness is actually part of the curriculum here, and as part of that, the kids are encouraged to take regular exercise (outside of sports lessons), including an optional early morning weekly run around the field before school.
On another note, the school runs its own verison of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Years 4-6. The St Joseph’s Challenge involves doing something for charity, something adventurous and learning a new skill (which could be through one of the school clubs). And, like with D of E, there are bronze, silver and gold awards up for grabs.
And, being big on parent involvement, St Joseph’s also offers mums and dads the chance to come in and look at their childrens’ work in Book Sharing sessions, which are held in the library, in between the more formal Parents’ Evenings.
There’s Breakfast Club from 7.30am and After-School Club until 6pm. What’s more, the kids aren’t expected to sit around in their classrooms and do more work, there’s a special wraparound care room, designed to be a home-from-home, where they can relax, play games, eat breakfast and make snacks. It’s pretty cosy with a sofa, TV and kitchenette, like their own little studio flat!
Termly fees are: Kindergarten from £1,985; Nursery from £2,635; Reception, Year 1 and 2, £4,180; Years 3 – 6 £4,390; Woodlands, £5,830.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Erm, well, two of the Beckhams’ kids came here (yes, really!), so if it’s good enough for Posh Spice… On a serious note though, parents love the school for its family-centric attitude – there’s so much to get involved with from concerts and assemblies to Parents’ Fellowship Association parties, quiz nights, fetes and the infamous Mother’s and Father’s day sales – plus the Woodlands Centre is a huge pull too for those worried about whether their children will get the support that they need in their schooling.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those after a truly bucolic village school feel, which puts the kids at the heart. It feels like a far-cry from the more business-like independents, yet has the benefit of masses of extra-curricular activities on tap and an outstanding SEN offering that provides invaluable support without focussing on difference.
Not for: It’s hard to say who wouldn’t love this school, but if I was being nitpicky, some parents might find the size and setting a little stifling, particularly if they’ve got their sights set on a much larger hot-housey secondary school, which could feel like a big leap for an 11-year-old.
Dare to disagree: Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself. The next Open Morning is on Fri 8th October (9.15am – 12pm). Click here to find out how to book a place.
St Joseph’s in the Park, St Mary’s Lane, Hertingfordbury, Herts, SG14 2LX