St Albans High School for Girls
Check out my update on this highly-regarded selective girls day school for ages 11-18 in the centre of St Albans with fantastic results across the board and a brilliant new Sixth Form Centre.
St Albans High School for Girls is an independent day school for girls aged 11-18 in the cathedral city of St Albans. The school is a stone’s throw from the city centre, but is down a quiet side road, so feels nicely sheltered from the hustle and bustle. Founded in 1889, the school has a solid history, but don’t expect oak panels galore – the classrooms are all large, light and have a contemporary feel. An assortment of old and modern school buildings and houses line both sides of Townsend Avenue and create a campus vibe, although it’s boutique rather than sprawling.
The school is selective and high achieving with a reputation for stellar academic results, but it’s definitely not a hothouse. The school prides itself on nurturing the next generation of academically ambitious, energetic and grounded all-rounders who love to learn and are confident expressing their opinions, but have a real sense of perspective too. This ability to achieve such great results, yet provide a supportive and creative environment for the girls, saw STAHS win the Secondary School of the Year award from The Sunday Times in 2015.
In terms of location, the school is ideal for parents who need to commute into London and other major Herts towns. St Albans has great transport links – a swift 20 minutes by train into 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 a number of areas in North London and Luton and Dunstable in Bedfordshire.
The Prep School is 5 miles away in Wheathampstead, and the two schools maintain close links, with a high proportion of girls coming up to the Senior School in Year 7. There are 780 girls in the Senior School, including an ever expanding Sixth Form, but the Tardis like nature of the school (with a rabbit warren of corridors and many connecting buildings), combined with a calm and purposeful environment makes it feel like a smaller school. Class sizes are kept fairly small too allowing all the girls to engage at all times – 13-26 in younger year groups, depending on subject, 18-20 in GCSE classes and 12 in A-Level classes.
How long have you got? Facilities are excellent here, particularly when you consider the proximity to town. Granted, the main school isn’t surrounded by acre upon acre of playing fields, but when you choose a city school that’s to be expected. However, there are 9 acres of outside space for the girls with the main outdoor sports facilities (playing fields and a state-of-the-art sports pavilion) a short stroll away in a location that feels really quite countrified. Everything the girls need is here: tennis and netball courts; lacrosse pitches; a running track; changing rooms with showers; and a café.
Back on the main site there’s a huge swimming pool tucked away in the Sports Centre, plus an astro turf for lunchtime practice or short games sessions and a huge sports hall with a balcony level for spectating.
STAHS certainly doesn’t neglect the creative subjects in favour of the core academics, with a lot of well-equipped modern spaces provided for the girls to excel at art, drama, and music.
The Jubilee Building houses the main school hall as well as the DT (including product design, textiles and food technology) and art departments and is a really lovely, modern space that feels more university than school. The Rotunda is a light-filled glass area where girls can take their packed lunch or make use of the small café that sells sandwiches, wraps and coffee if they want a change of scene from the dining hall (not that they need to thanks to a fabulous modern renovation of the main dining space in March 2020). Nice to have choices though. It’s also popular for one-to-one meetings with teachers on the more private mezzanine level.
The art space in this building is particularly stunning – a lovely light-filled area and space for each girl in GCSE and A Level years to exhibit and work on her pieces of art. The school’s ethos is that ‘art not only can be taught, but must be taught’ to encourage mental and manual coordination, and encourage risk taking.
There’s a dedicated music department in the Ringwood Building with teaching rooms, rehearsal and performance spaces. Next door is a brilliant drama department with a performing space that not only works for those who want to tread the boards, but also has all the equipment for girls who want to learn the production and technical side of things.
Future plans to make the facilities even better include turning one of the houses on Townsend Avenue into a Pupil Services Hub, which will be home to a medical centre, and key pastoral and wellbeing services like school counsellors, learning support, the Chaplaincy, pastoral meeting spaces and space for quiet reflection (work commencing in 2021).
Longterm plans include significant investment in sporting and performing arts facilities.
The girls can take part in an impressive number of different sports, but the school’s strongest sports are netball, lacrosse, gymnastics, tennis and athletics and they’re used to winning both county and national comps when it comes to netball and lacrosse. Every year group has access to the on-site gym and swimming pool too.
DRAMA, ART & MUSIC
Drama is popular here and the department offers a really diverse and ambitious offering. At least 50 girls take LAMDA courses each year and the school puts on around 6 – 8 productions a year including a whole school musical. STAHS also hosts a Drama Festival Week with GCSE and A Level performances, LAMDA showcases, New Views Plays and radio plays. Girls have the chance to get involved in playwriting as well as performing on stage and there’s a STAHS Theatre Company, which has plans to enter local and national festivals post-Covid. Girls here often gain places in the National Youth Theatre and go on to study at leading Drama Schools. The department also takes the girls on frequent trips to the theatre and there’s the chance to take part in residential trips, both in the UK to places like Stratford-Upon-Avon, and abroad, with a recent visit to New York.
House drama is particularly big with student leadership in the form of Sixth Form Directors. The house system – with houses Julian, Mandeville, Paris and Verulam – is a key part of school life and girls take a lot of pride in representing their house in a whole host of activities. It’s also an excellent way for girls to get to know students in other year groups.
Music is another big part of school life, with orchestras, choirs and ensembles galore. These include large symphony and chamber orchestras led by a professional conductor and Junior, Middle and Senior Choirs, Junior and Senior Chamber Choirs, an A Cappella choir, three concert bands, a jazz band as well as over 20 chamber groups (string quartets, piano trios etc.) and a plethora of other instrumental ensembles, including pop bands. The choirs have the added benefit of being able to perform in St Albans Cathedral and each year there’s an annual performance at a major external concert venue such as St John’s Smith Square, Barbican, and Watford Coliseum.
Around 50% of pupils learn an instrument at school too and it’s common for girls to go to Oxbridge with choral scholarships. Like Drama, House Song is a hotly contested event that involves around two thirds of the girls. Plenty of chance to shine in musical composition too – in 2020 two students’ pieces were selected for the BBC Young Composer: 30 Second Composition Challenge.
There’s a fabulous choice of languages you can study here. Take your pick from French, Spanish, Latin, Classical Greek, German and Mandarin.
The science facilities are tip-top, and science is extremely strong here. The Hawking Building was extended in 2015 at a cost of £2.1m and has state-of-the-art facilities. Chemistry A Level is taken by a third of the sixth form, which surely has to be a record breaker.
STAHS has had no problem adjusting quickly to and from homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, with each pupil receiving a full remote education each lockdown, including plenty of live contact with teachers. Current parents and students are particularly complimentary about how the school is managing online learning and support during the pandemic.
Trickier subjects to teach virtually and co-curricular activities haven’t been neglected at all. The first STAHS Young Musician of the Year Competition took place online during lockdown, with 200 pupils taking part at an extremely high standard. The usual ‘Artist in Residence’ live sessions have been adapted to ‘Becoming an Artist’ workshops, with pupils exploring how to take professional photos, and developing their online portfolios. And, one of the art scholars is running a portraiture club online.
STAHS puts a lot of effort into making sure girls are ready for higher education and the working world, so the move to Sixth Form represents a big change with a lot more independence and freedom. Independent research and managing their own time is a key part of this change, meaning the girls will feel at home in a university setting from the off. Girls will be expected to take 4 A Levels, with EPQ and specialist GCSEs also on offer. Enabling girls to maintain academic breadth in Sixth Form is important to STAHS; for example you don’t have to drop the arts or language you love to pursue scientific ambitions. There’s a rich and varied programme of fortnightly lunchtime lectures too.
The Sixth Form Centre was built in 2020 at a cost of £8.4m, and is extremely impressive with lots of smart, modern spaces for socialising and studying as well as a cool roof top garden. The whole space feels like a smart London office with glass walls, meeting rooms and industrial staircases, all of which help the Sixth Formers to make the transition from school to university and eventually the working world.
The Sixth Form philosophy is a big calling card for STAHS and the reason the Sixth Form is increasingly popular with girls I’d imagine. ‘Teach to 25’ means the school views the Sixth Form as the first two years of a much longer journey (completing A Levels, earning a degree from a top-ranking uni/ completing a competitive apprenticeship, obtaining professional qualifications and getting their first job). During their Sixth Form years at STAHS girls will be taught the skills to help them achieve all of these things through the STAHS Diploma (launching in 2021), which is made up of four distinct pillars – Academics, Skills for Life, Service and Leadership, and Making the Leap.
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. Girls also have a UCAS mentor to help with their university choices and applications.
Very impressive. In 2020 95% 9-7 grades were awarded at GCSE level and 95% A* – B at A Level. When you break these down it’s clear the girls do particularly well in STEM subjects. Nearly all leavers are offered a place at their first choice of university, including international universities, competitive degree apprenticeships, conservatories and art foundation courses. The school has a strong track record for Oxbridge entrance with particular success in Medicine, Veterinary and Dentistry applications (around a dozen places each year).
It would be hard to beat the extra-curricular activities on offer here. There are easily over 80 clubs, with many unique and quirky offerings: National Theatre New Views Playwriting Group, Pop Band, Print-making, Ceramics, and Advanced Desserts and Wacky Food clubs. Particularly popular clubs include STAHS Newsroom and Radio Club, which streams its own show, as well as lacrosse squad and netball.
There’s an emphasis on leadership at the school and girls are encouraged to start clubs if they want to, as well as join them. The co-curricular offerings include a huge amount of activity and inspiration for future careers too.
Amber Waite joined the school in September 2019 from St Dunstan’s College in Catford where she was Deputy Head, Pastoral. She’s originally from Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas and has a background in engineering and research, having worked as a biogeochemical oceanographer and engineer – the sort of careers that are bound to inspire her students. She went on to teach chemistry, earth science, physics and maths before crossing the pond, and after stints at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and Defra encouraging STEM education outside the classroom, Amber is firmly back in the driving seat of education here at St Albans. Since joining she has completely restructured the leadership team at the school, to ensure that creativity and ambition filters through the school from the top down.
With her background, she’s naturally encouraging STEM here and still manages to fit in the odd science lesson and coaches Sixth Formers for Oxbridge interviews in scientific fields. Amber is also passionate about the Arts too, and is proud that the girls at STAHS can be high-achieving scientists at the same time as excelling at art, drama or music.
I’d say that St Albans High School for Girls has more perks than quirks, but some things you won’t find at other schools…
- It’s handy being so close to town, with lunchtime trips into town a rite of passage 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 named after him.
- The House System is particularly strong for a day school and is more along the lines of what you’d expect at the best boarding schools. Unusually for day pupils, the House Tutor, Assistant Housemistress and Housemistress will be fundamental characters in the daily life of each girl.
- The school has a brilliant alumni network to support the current students through a series of careers webinars, lunchtime talks and informal careers coffees.
WRAP AROUND CARE
All private day schools know they need to provide sharp wrap around provision and while there’s no chance to board here, the drop off and pick up perimeters of 7:30am until 6pm are pretty useful for commuting parents.
The fees are £6,550 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 bursaries and scholarships are also available with around 15% of pupils holding an academic or co-curricular scholarship. 2021 sees the introduction of two new drama scholarships at 11+ and 14+.
WORD ON THE GROUND
No chance to speak to the girls on my Covid-secure tour unfortunately, but current parents we tracked down like the fact that the girls are encouraged to excel in their natural strengths, and to be curious and interested in the outside world. Both parents and pupils like how approachable Amber and the staff are (something I can certainly vouch for too), and the support when it comes to university applications is a stand out point for the school.
Until 2020, both the school food and some facilities weren’t quite up to scratch according to one parent, but this has all been resolved thanks to the major investment in facilities and the new Dining Hall/ school dinners.
A parent tells me that the girls are challenged academically but it isn’t a “hot house to generate good grades”. Equal emphasis is put on developing life skills and building confidence and self-esteem apparently. Another parent mentions the individual approach taken: “It’s like a special club where every child’s skills are nurtured and harnessed and every single girl is an individual, not just a number on the register.”
The girls acknowledge that it’s an academic school but you don’t have to be “traditionally academic” – there’s a chance to shine in all sorts of areas. One girl tells me she loved being able to balance both academic studies and other interests, such as sport and music. Another girl tells me: “The school gave me the support I needed to grow in my own way; teachers identified the possibilities within me and nurtured and encouraged growth and built confidence within me.”
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Confident girls who want to challenge themselves in all areas of the curriculum and co-curriculum and who are happy to share their opinions. Girls who are prepared to engage from an early age and to take responsibility will thrive here.
NOT FOR: Anyone who wants a school with views of rolling hills, surrounded by acres of land. Serious wallflowers wouldn’t be particularly at home here and of course, single sex education is a marmite subject, so if you’re not sold on the idea, this isn’t the school for you.
DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest. There are online and on-site open days scheduled on 23rd April for the Senior School and 24th June 2021 for the Sixth Form (subject to change based on Covid-19 restrictions). Click here for more information. You can also read our review of the Prep here.
St Albans High School for Girls, Townsend Avenue, St Albans, AL1 3SJ; 01727 853 800