St Albans High School for Girls
A school where it's possible to succeed academically; become an independent and strong young woman; and nip into town at lunchtime. Result!
St Albans High School for Girls is an independent day school for girls aged 11-18 in the cathedral city of St Albans. Only ten minutes’ walk from the city centre, the school feels more town than gown. Founded in 1889, the school has a solid history but don’t expect an oak panelled world: the environment is light and contemporary. The school is selective and high achieving with a reputation for stellar academic results. In 2015, it garnered the Secondary School of the Year award from The Sunday Times. While it has links with the Church of England, it of course welcomes girls of all faiths and none. The assortment of buildings and houses on either side of Townsend Avenue create a campus vibe – boutique rather than sprawling.
St Albans is probably the most urban location in Hertfordshire, and it comes with great transport links – a swift 20 minutes by train via West Hampstead to St Pancras. The school coach service to the rest of Hertfordshire is impressive, and while many of the pupils are local, it is possible to travel to the school by coach from Hitchin in north Herts and Kings Langley in west Herts. The coaches also pick up from Mill Hill in north London and Luton and Dunstable in Bedfordshire. The prep school is 5 miles away in Wheathamstead, and a high proportion of girls come up to the senior school. There are just over 700 girls in the senior school, but the benefits of space, combined with a calm and purposeful environment makes it feel like a smaller school.
Impressive. I am often in St Albans, but until I visited the school, I had no idea that the sports’ facilities were so close. Across the road from the main building, in a location that suddenly feels very country, there are playing fields and a state-of-the-art sports centre. Everything is here: tennis and netball courts; swimming pool; lacrosse pitches; a running track and changing rooms, showers and a café.
The school centres on and around Townsend Avenue, with a mixture of old and new buildings. The Jubilee Building is uplifting, and its Rotunda is a light-filled glass space where girls can take their packed lunch if they want a change of scene from the dining hall. There is a small café here selling sandwiches, wraps and Starbucks coffee. It’s also popular for one-to-one meetings with teachers. The main hall is vast and on the day of my visit, the head girl is in there playing the saxophone while someone plays a grand piano. How does she find the time, given all her leadership duties?
Drama is big here and at least 50 girls take LAMDA courses each year. House drama is the shining star, and everyone I spoke to talked about it, including parents with daughters at the school. The house system – with houses Julian, Mandeville, Paris and Verulam – is something all the girls told me about, and with a huge amount of pride. The strong house ethos stems from its origins as a boarding school. ‘Character building’ is how one girl described house drama, adding, ‘it stops us being too serious’. It also creates a natural and fun reason to get to know girls in other years.
Music is another big part of school life, with symphony and chamber orchestras. The choirs have the added benefit of being able to perform in the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban. It’s common for girls to go to Oxbridge with choral scholarships. There is also a joint school orchestra with the boys at St Albans School.
I was extremely impressed by the number of languages you can study here. Take your pick from French, Spanish, Italian, Classical Greek, Italian, German and Mandarin. The science facilities are tip-top, and science is extremely strong here. Chemistry A Level is taken by a third of the sixth form, which surely has to be a record breaker.
As with many independent schools, visiting the art department made me think that part of it could be opened and run as an art gallery. The quality of work is exceptional. When I have a peek at an A Level art group I feel green with envy. Sixth formers in their non-uniform choice of clothes chat as they paint in an inspiring and light studio space that has a touch of St Ives.
I meet a number of girls from different year groups in one go, and they come across as grounded, engaged with the news and the outside world, questioning, brilliantly articulate and confident about giving their opinions. They give me the lowdown on all sorts of topics. A plus point, they tell me, is that the uniform is smart but that it’s not overly strict.
Interestingly, the girls talk about pastoral care, when usually it’s the teachers who are keen to talk about this. All things pastoral are clearly top of the agenda here and mental health and wellbeing are as important as fresh fruit on the lunch menu. And in fact there is a fresh fruit cart strategically placed close to the door of one of the main buildings so that you can snaffle some strawberries on your way to lessons. Yoga and mindfulness are also on the agenda.
When we talk about bullying, I’m told that it can happen, but tends to be the cyber kind, and the example I’m given is if Instagram posts get out of hand. This is dealt with swiftly between pupils and teachers. There is also peer mentoring and girls can become Digital Leaders to help others with safe social media and Internet use.
It would be hard to beat the extra-curricular activities on offer here. There are easily over 100 clubs, with many that I’d never seen at other schools: Carnegie Shadowing Book Club, Wacky Food Club; Medvetscoc, Ultimate Frisbee, Bratwurst Club, Pankhurst Society, Etincelle, Lacrosee Stickwork, YMUN, Gospel Choir.
Food has improved recently, thanks to a new catering manager who was visible during the lunch service, keeping an eye on the proceedings. Everyone I spoke to mentioned the new regime and how delighted they are with the new, more colourful menus. I was very happy indeed with grilled Dover sole with spiced butter and churros with chocolate sauce for pudding. Looking at the week’s menu, my eyes alighted on chicken and chorizo risotto and spinach and cauliflower tikka masala.
There’s an emphasis on leadership and girls are encouraged to start clubs if they want to, as well as join them. There is huge amount of activity and inspiration for future careers, including networking events and a programme called Inspiring Choices.
‘A big change’ when you suddenly have ‘a lot more freedom’ is how one of the girls described the transition from Year 11 to the Sixth Form. There is no uniform in the Sixth Form, unless it’s a special occasion such as Founders’ Day. Most sixth form girls do 3 A levels together with EPQ and GCSE short courses, some do 4 A levels. There’s a rich and varied programme of fortnightly lunchtime lectures, with recent visitors including Woman’s Hour’s Jane Garvey, and barrister Sarah Sackman.
The sixth form common room was surprisingly scruffy compared to other areas in the school, but I was told that a whole new building is planned, complete with roof top garden, and will be completed by 2020.
In the sixth form, and throughout the school, there’s a big emphasis on learning for the sake of learning, further reading, and reading for pleasure. There’s a programme called University Stretch that nurtures in-depth debate and helps girls to prepare for seminars. You also have a UCAS mentor if you want one, to help with your university choices and applications. I ask the girls whether they mind that there is no IB here. Nobody seemed to object. ‘Our school is very suited to A Levels’, one girl tells me, explaining that their teachers are ‘so knowledgeable and specialist’.
98% A*-B at GCSE. 78% A* or A at A Level. 90% of leavers are offered a place at their first choice of university. 40 girls applying for Oxbridge this year, with 18.9% Oxbridge offers in Year 13.
Jenny Brown is a bright spark of colour and I’m not just talking about her dress sense. She is full of energy and enthusiasm; has a natural curiosity about the world; a great sense of humour and a wonderful turn of phrase. Her CV is impressive: North London Collegiate School followed by English at Oxford; teaching and leadership positions at South Hampstead High, Channing and St Paul’s Girls’ School. She lives in Highgate and does a reverse commute. When she first discovered St Albans High School for Girls she fell in love with this ‘gem of a place’, and couldn’t believe that you could have the ambition of a top London independent school but without the stress. She talks about the’ bucolic delight’, and ‘space from the white heat of the capital’. Oh, Jenny, you put things so well! She is no nonsense and incredibly sharp. I liked her a lot. She is global: soon after we meet she is flying out to Washington to speak at a leadership conference and she is keen for the girls to make international connections. One of her top objectives is love of learning, after which, she says, ‘the results will look after themselves.’ She is hugely ambitious for the girls and the teachers and believes that teachers need to be learning all the time. When we talk about the pressures synonymous with academic excellence, she says that ‘to push’ someone has negative connotations. What the school is doing is to encourage the girls to be the best version of themselves.
I think that St Albans High School for Girls has more perks than quirks. It’s handy being so close to town, and I often see girls in Boots looking at make up at lunchtime and going into Pret and Subway. You can also manage to fit in a quick bowl of noodles in a lunch hour – the staff at Wagamama are always extra quick for the girls. Lunchtime trips into town are only for girls from Year 10 and above. Stephen Hawking is a former pupil. He attended the school with his sisters in the 1950s and The Hawking Building is one of the science centres at the school. One of the Maths and ICT teachers is studying for a GCSE in Computer Science to demonstrate that learning is for life and to experience what it really feels like to do an exam course. St Albans School, the boys’ school, is next to the cathedral and some girls choose to move here in the sixth form.
The fees are £5,910 per term. Many of the clubs and extra curricular activities are included. Music tuition and speech and drama are extra. The school is keen to spread the word that there is a great deal of help with fee assistance and there are some examples on the website of families and their incomes to give new families an idea of what’s on offer. Scholarships are also available.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents like the fact that the girls are encouraged to be curious and interested in the outside world. This view is echoed by the girls. ‘We have a lot of freedom and we’re in the community. We look outwards.’ The girls are very appreciative of their teachers. ‘Our teachers are so hardworking!’ one girl tells me, and adds that the teachers help to alleviate worry and exam stress. A parent tells me that the girls are challenged academically and that she wouldn’t have sent her daughter here if she had been less robust. The girls acknowledge that it’s an academic school and that some pupils feel the pressure. Rather than being pushed by the teachers, one girl tells me, ‘We’re good at pushing ourselves.’ Another girl tells me that there’s an ethos of respect and that the girls are quick to demonstrate that they deserve trust from the teachers and their peers.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
The open and engaged culture feels completely unstuffy. This is a school with a strong ethos of empowerment. The headmistress is a great role model who oozes confidence and belief and this positivity and energy permeate the school. While everyone I have ever spoken to about this school talks about the academic results and subsequent pressure, I know I was only there for the day, but I got the sense that the girls are extremely mature and grounded, and more than capable of handling it and that there is a great sense of balance and awareness about the need for time out.
GOOD FOR: Confident girls who want to challenge themselves. Girls who are prepared to engage from an early age and to take responsibility.
NOT FOR: Anyone who wants a school with views of rolling hills and sheep. And if you’re looking for somewhere to do the IB, this isn’t for you.
St Albans High School for Girls, Townsend Avenue, St Albans, AL1 3SJ 01727 853 800