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.
St Francis’ College is an independent day and boarding school for girls aged 3-18 in Letchworth Garden City. St Francis’ College is in a building that typifies Letchworth: attractive, thoughtfully designed and solidly built; in a safe and very green residential environment, but at the same time less than 10 minutes’ walk into town. It’s ten minutes from Junction 9 on the A1, and roughly an equal distance between London and Cambridge. Both are half an hour away by train.
St Francis’ was founded by nuns in 1933. It is no longer a Catholic school and since 1983 is has been an educational trust. It is somewhat of an institution in Letchworth. Absolutely everyone knows the building, which has a slightly imposing presence from the outside. Girls travel from all over Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire to come here. On the day I was visiting there was a lunchtime discussion about whether the coaches would get through the snow. In true British style, this turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, with a dramatic flurry that didn’t settle. I actually have very clear memories of St Francis’ College. In the Eighties I was not far away in another girls’ Catholic school in the county, although sadly far less prestigious. This was a time when Spandau Ballet was number one with True, and Martin Kemp had absolutely no idea that one day he’d be a judge on Let It Shine.
When I arrived at St Francis’ for this review, I was expecting to catch sight of a wimple, or at the very least enjoy a whiff of incense. Not so. While St Francis’ is not a faith school, as with so many schools, it practises a welcome for all faiths and none. What has survived and even thrived however, is the original ethos and school motto: Cor unum, anima una. Struggling to keep up? One heart, one soul. Having spent the best part of a day at the school, I can confirm that this spirit lingers. The atmosphere is delightful: one of calm and peace. As it happens, the theme of that morning’s assembly was ‘Quiet’. But it wasn’t just down to that. But from my chats with some of the girls and several teachers, the feeling that pervades St Francis’ College is one of cohesion and purpose.
The school has everything you would expect and more. There’s a 330-seat purpose-built theatre, a 20-metre indoor heated swimming pool, gymnasium, dance studio, hockey pitches and five courts for both netball and tennis. There are seven acres of grounds for sport, with plenty of space for summer sprawling and dreaming.
The range of clubs and activities on offer extensive. In addition to the usual sports clubs, there are any number of academic clubs, from maths for physicists to German club and grammar clinic. There are loads of different music clubs, and several others which caught my eye: vet club, drama club, archaeology, maths puzzle club, physics and chemistry drop in, and medicine and vet society.
What hit me with a Kerpow! was the vibrant creativity in the art and drama departments. Followed closely by Wowzers! when I gatecrashed a lunchtime science club. But let’s do art first. The Recycled Fashion Show is an annual event at the school. A girl in Year 7 made this outfit from old train tickets – after going to Letchworth station to ask a member of staff to collect them over a period of time for her. One of the judges of the show was the head of fashion at Chelsea Art School. Tabitha Wilson is director of art at the school, and just recently, the fashion designer Deborah Campbell Atelier took one of Tabitha’s paintings to create her Summer Breeze collection, currently available at John Lewis. Surely that can only inspire the girls that it really is possible to do anything if you put a Sharpie to paper? The art department offers classes in film, styling, fashion and graphic design. Photography is big at St Francis’. The girls learn using analogue cameras and are adept at developing their photos in the dark room. Year 12 photographers are taking over six pages of the next magazine of Little Flea. In the science department there is a 3-D printer which one student used to make a prosthetic hand.
And here’s the science. There’s so much said and written about girls not going into science, whether as undergraduates or taking this path as a career, but I feel sure that St Francis’ has the answer. I gatecrashed a lunchtime science club and all of a sudden I was enthralled by petri dishes. St Francis’ is one of only six schools in the country taking part in a project to help discover new antibiotics. Antibiotics Unearthed started life at Yale University and the St Francis’ girls involved are working closely with a senior microbiologist from the University of Hertfordshire. It is something that could put the county on the map and more people need to know about the work they are doing. The school has even got its own machine for sampling DNA.
St Francis’ College was 46th in the top 100 schools for GCSE in the The Daily Telegraph’s list published in January this year. In 2016, 100% of the girls got at least 5 GCSE’s at grade C or above, including maths and English. 40% achieved 8 or more A*and A’s. In Art and Music there was 100% A* and A grades. In 2016, for A Levels, 84% of grades were A* – B, with 49% of them being A or A*. 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 Durham, Warwick and Oxford, to name but a few. 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.
Bronwen Goulding is the Headmistress and has been at St Francis’ for two years. And yes, she does like to be referred to as the Headmistress, and of course I only addressed her as ‘Mrs Goulding’. Before talking about academic achievement, she spoke about the importance of well being. She talked about her commitment to helping the girls to develop ‘mental strength and emotional resilience’. She is a big fan of girls’ education – which is just as well. Her impressive career includes a significant stint at St Albans High School. Since she has been at the school, she has given everyone permission to develop the ‘pupil voice’. Together the students have drawn up a Charter of Respect and the girls I talked to immediately told me about how the School Council works and how good it is in allowing everyone to have a say about how things are run. Mrs Goulding (you see, I haven’t lapsed) told me how a competitive academic edge isn’t necessarily productive. More important, she explained, is allowing the girls to set their own aspirational targets. ‘Some girls can pressurise themselves,’ she says. ‘But there is an increasing trend to move away from hot housing. It’s more about developing a growth mindset.’ She also talked about the importance of helping the girls to realise that education at school isn’t just about getting into university. ‘We want our girls to have a broader education,’ she says. This approach has led her to develop networking evenings, oiling the wheels with canapes and a non-alcoholic punch (so easy to spike) so that the students can imagine what it’s like to be out there meeting people in the world of work. ‘I tell them that even if now you’re in Year 13, one day a Year 11 girl could be your boss.’ A harsh truth, but I suppose one that you’re never too young – or old – to learn. There’s an active Old Girls’ Association which organises popular events at the school such as Women for the Future. The Be Inspired event is another unmissable date in the calendar, and this event is organised by the school. This year one of the speakers, Dr Preti Taneja, is a former St Francis’ student.
The prep school is in new extension, adjoining the main building. It is wonderfully light and bright. I went into a couple of the lessons where extremely well-behaved and engaged girls were busy learning, asking questions – and I had a sudden pang – why weren’t my school days more like this? There was a feeling of warmth in this extremely nurturing environment. It goes without saying that the small classes and committed teachers, together with all the felt tips and more contemporary work tools that your heart could desire, can only enhance learning. I spoke to Mrs Barsham, Head of the Prep Department. She is currently studying and doing research into test anxiety and the self-efficacy of primary age pupils. ‘Girls are more prone to test anxiety,’ she says. ‘And they are far more open to social media pressures.’ She is committed to instilling in the girls a belief in their own capability, which was music to my ears. She and the other teachers throughout the school are working closely with parents to nurture this self belief. During this fighting talk I noticed a battered old boater on top of a cupboard, which turned out to date back to the 60s. And yes, despite all the modernity, the younger girls do wear a boater. But that’s enough about fashion. Mrs Barsham is up there with all kinds of innovation. She recently gave a talk to parents about ‘The growth mindset’, something Mrs Goulding talked about (yes! at St Francis’ all the teachers are singing from the same hymn sheet) and developing more ‘enquiry based learning’ from as early as Year 2. ‘We are giving the girls the opportunity to discuss philosophical issues,’ she says. She herself is pondering one of life’s big questions: ‘Wanting to please, is it a girl thing?’
You can board at St Francis’ from Year 6. The boarding house is at the top of the main building. The current number of boarders is 65, which is 25% of the total number of girls at the senior school. This perhaps accounts for the very warm and cosy atmosphere. You can do weekly or flexi boarding, although the majority of boarders are there full time. What makes it feel more like being at home, is that at the end of the school day, rather than a long walk, the girls just go upstairs. And of course as a boarder, you all live together, rather than peeling off to separate boarding houses.
Every day, after going ‘home’ there is supervised prep at 4.30. Supper is at 5.45 which is likely to be moved to a later time, something the girls have requested. In the Sixth Form it’s single rooms, and the younger girls share. For meals the girls go downstairs again to the dining hall but in the boarding house there is an extra kitchen and I think that a lot of toast is made there. I had a tour of a couple of the rooms and sadly there was no evidence of midnight feast debris – something that always made me dream of going to boarding school. It’s lights out at 9.30 for the younger girls (ooo! that sounds late!) and then a sliding scale depending on age. Phones are taken away from the younger girls so no Snapchat until the early hours. The older girls are encouraged to practise *responsible* screen use.
You can almost see the centre of town from the school. Ebeneezer Howard, the founder of the Garden City movement, would be pleased to see how his vision is working beautifully for the St Francis’ students. No buses, no urban sprawl, and all in the leafiest of green environments. For girls who don’t board at weekends, I was green with envy to read about the kinds of trips they can go on. With London and Cambridge both so accessible, there is a board of posters and flyers with trips to theatres, galleries and more outdoorsy activities – rock climbing, indoor skiing and ice skating. In Letchworth itself, the art deco Broadway cinema has been refurbished recently and it’s absolutely stunning. (I actually saw The Railway Children there in the Seventies.) Trips into town are easy and safe.
Letchworth Garden City has a unique history and I do feel that St Francis’ is very much part of both the Garden City heritage but it is also integrated into the local community. This is of course partly thanks to its location – you’re not driving a couple of miles to a converted manor house. From many of the classrooms you can almost have a nosy into someone’s back garden – although thanks to the town planners of Letchworth, the Broadway itself is a magnificently wide road. But the students have close links with the local bookshop, David’s, which again is a Letchworth institution, is also sharply contemporary. When Jacqueline Wilson and Lauren Child came to Letchworth, to events organised by David’s Bookshop, the venue was St Francis’ College. The art department also has close ties with the Broadway Art Gallery. Local illustrator, James Mayhew, was a recent visitor to the school, and Harriet Muncaster, another illustrator and former student at St Francis’, also came to visit. At the time of writing, the girls had just been to the unveiling of the new Broadway theatre.
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 £4,890 per term (£8,085 for weekly boarding and £9,770 for full boarding). In the prep school, kindergarten fees start at £1,410 per term for mornings only and then go up to £3,670 for Year 3 – Year 6 (£6,865 for weekly boarding and £8.550 for full boarding.) There are scholarships up for grabs for academic, arts and sports.
Word on the ground:
‘I can only say good things about it,’ was the immediate response from someone who knows the school well. Another person told me that the teachers are highly talented and very committed to bringing the best out of the girls. Mrs Goulding, according to a pillar of the Letchworth community, has brought a huge amount of positivity and purpose to the school. One of the girls currently at the school also told me that the food had improved hugely in the last couple of years. That’s spam fritters off the menu. I actually had the pleasure of sampling a St Francis’ lunch. Gammon and cherry sauce (surprisingly good.) The choice of food was impressive: colourful and well presented, all made on site from scratch, lots of choice, salads galore and lots of flapjack-y things. Yours truly opted for homemade yoghurt and lemon curd (delicious) but I think my healthy decision was possibly because was trying to impress the Headmistress. I sat next to her on the top table! Other opinions given when I asked, was that it was a very grounded school, with none of the bling that you might get in other independent boarding schools.
The Muddy verdict:
Great for: girls who thrive in nurturing, all-female environment where they can relax completely without the inevitable distractions of being in mixed school. I felt that the girls were very focused and I didn’t see anyone who looked years older than their age. There’s a very strong sense that you be able to be yourself, be silly and playful, without feeling under pressure to grow up too quickly. Anyone who sees having strong links with the local community as a positive thing. There is something of an old world charm about the school, but this is combined with the most contemporary, outward looking attitudes, technology and ambition.
Not so good for: girls who want a co-ed school or who want to be in a very grand and slightly more remote location with acres and acres of grounds.
Dare to disagree?
The next Open Mornings are: Sat 7 and Fri 13 October.
St Francis’ College, Broadway, Letchworth Garden City, SG6 3PJ