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Philosophy and spirituality are a major part of school life. Yes, girls are expected to work hard (we saw heads down in every classroom we visited) but every lesson is underpinned by the kind of big questions and ideas that form the cornerstone of all western and eastern wisdom traditions. Minerva Society particularly popular – after-school talks, including the likes of politician Natalie Bennett. ‘I’ve been blown away not only by the quality of people these girls get – and it’s they who organise the speakers – but by the quality of the questioning from the girls,’ said one parent...

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What the school says...

We offer an education which nurtures and enriches the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development of our pupils. Our happy, united atmosphere provides the ideal environment for every girl to discover her own unique combination of strengths and talents and 'to be the best she can'.

St James girls are industrious, open-hearted and courageous; they work together, enjoying others' successes as well as their own. They achieve the highest academic standards and are also encouraged to develop strength through self-discipline and an ability to live according to an intelligent understanding of what is wise and true. Regular opportunities for stillness and quiet enable them to learn to be at ease with themselves, to appreciate the value of being fully present and to develop their ability to concentrate.

Our teachers have excellent subject knowledge and give their time generously to support the well-being and development of their pupils. Relationships throughout the school are extremely positive and are characterised by a spirit of love, trust and mutual respect.
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What the parents say...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2014, Mrs Sarah Labram BA (40s), formerly deputy head (academic) here. A classicist with a degree from King's College London, she is totally imbued with the St James ethos: a former pupil and head girl, whose two daughters were both educated at the junior and senior schools. She joined St James in 1996 as a classics teacher and has risen through the ranks to become head of department and then deputy head.

A hands-on head with a winning combo of directness, warmth and enviable serenity, she is often out and about around the school and clearly knows her pupils well, chatting easily with them in the corridors. Has an open-door policy, with pupils popping in to say anything from, ‘It’s my birthday, would you like a piece of cake?’ to ‘Can I tell you about my sports achievement?’ Refreshingly, pupils also have no qualms about poking their heads into her office to ask things like, ‘Can you sign our permission slip to stay in at lunchtime to practice dance?’ if nobody else is around. ‘She’s definitely not a head that you only see for bad or serious stuff,’ one pupil explained, and although they welcome her lack of preciousness and her cordiality, they are quick to add that underneath it all, she commands respect. ‘I was late for assembly the other day, and I won’t be doing it again,’ one pupil said. Parents feel they’re in safe hands and praise her responsiveness, kindness and efforts to involve them eg to give talks (a dad had come into talk about climbing Everest when we visited), try out the school food, hear updates about the school and present their own views etc. That said, her introduction of the three new roles of head of lower, middle and upper school means any parental concerns are usually dealt with lower down the food chain.

Teaches Greek to year 9s. ‘Teaching is what I love and classics is my passion – I’m not giving that up!’ she laughs, adding that it ensures that she understands what’s expected of other teachers. ‘I soon see if something works or it doesn’t,’ she explains. ‘And the inevitable informal chats in the classroom give me an insider’s view of pupil needs too,’ she adds. Lives in south east London and hobbies include theatre, classical music and walking.

Academic matters

Girls take the IGCSE in the three sciences, for greater rigour. At GCSE, 79 per cent A*/A grades in 2016. Stunning success in art, biology, classics and physics, and at least respectable everywhere else. At A level the subject options include theatre studies, Spanish, psychology and history of art. In 2016, 83 per cent of A level entries were graded A*-B (51 per cent A*/A). Results creditable in most subjects - few grades below B - and art, economics, French, and physics particularly impressive. School also offers EPQ to give students the opportunity to get deeply involved in a subject that interests them, to pull together learning from other subjects and to develop extended research and writing skills – all good preparation for university.

As with the boys’ school, philosophy and spirituality are a major part of school life. Yes, girls are expected to work hard (we saw heads down in every classroom we visited) but every lesson is underpinned by the kind of big questions and ideas that form the cornerstone of all western and eastern wisdom traditions – but without being tied to the dogma of one. The result? Girls are encouraged to get the magic, awe and wonder of each subject – the wow-factor in addition to good, solid teaching. Plus, we found the girls could link pretty much everything – be it Latin, English or those knotty teenage issues like body image and social media – to guiding philosophical principles. ‘It’s not just about philosophical and spiritual concepts, but how they might be important when, say, you’re trying to understand the relevance of maths in your life or how integrity might be important if, perhaps, you fall out with your friends,’ explains the head. There’s also a big push on mindfulness, meditation and quiet time (five minutes at the start and end of every day). ‘I love the way they create space for inner reflection and how the school is so confident and unapologetic that this is their offering,’ said one parent. ‘If you don’t buy into meditation or mindfulness, it probably isn’t the school for you,’ said another.

Sanskrit is continued for those who join from the junior school (introductory course offered to those joining in year 7) and available as an option at GCSE and A level. At least one a year chooses to study it at university. ‘It’s great for grammar,’ says the head, ‘as well as for the philosophy and culture that surrounds it. Plus, it marks you out as interesting and it’s well respected.’ In addition to Sanskrit, French and Latin from year 7; and Spanish (for those who don’t carry on Sanskrit) and classical Greek (for the most able linguists) from year 8. Setting in English and maths from year 7; Latin and French from year 8; and science from year 9. Homework taken seriously – an hour and 10 minutes for year 7s, building up to a couple of hours a night in year 10 and 11. All the usual monitoring and targeting, with girls all initially tested in year 7, from which they are ranked (although they’re not told where they sit).

SEN mainly consists of mild to moderate dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia, with some mild autism and ADHD. Support mainly classroom based, with some one-to-ones and small group work taking place outside the classroom. ‘Dyslexic girls often find Latin particularly hard, so we’ll do small group work on study skills instead for year 8s, for example,’ says head. ‘The scaffolding they’ve put around my daughter has been amazing – it feels like they really care about getting her the best outcome,’ said one parent. Strong gifted and talented provision. ICT not embedded as much as in some schools, though there’s a decent ICT suite.

Heavy on careers advice, with girls given opportunities for ‘tastes of reality’ all the way through – much of which is embedded into lessons - with advice at every stage, which become increasingly intensive from year 9 up.

Games, options, the arts

This is a compact inner city school, so anything involving running takes place at the Chiswick playing grounds or Barn Elms multi-sports facility, both a coach ride away. On site, they cram in netball, aerobics, gymnastics, health-related fitness and dance etc and off site lacrosse, netball, athletics, rounders and tennis are the main sports. Does well in regionals and nationals for lacrosse (two Wales and one Scotland under-19 for lacrosse when we visited), along with some successes in cross country and netball. ‘There’s a drive to improve variety,’ says the head, pointing to the recent introduction of football, table tennis, karate, cross country running and gymnastics – although this is mostly after school, to the disappointment of some pupils we spoke to. ‘I wish there were more sports and more space,’ more than one told us, and it was disappointing to find that some had reached sixth form having not been enthused by any sport. ‘Sport is the one downside here,’ some parents agreed, with one elaborating: ‘It would be nice to see more of the less naturally sporty girls helped to find one sport they can love for life and to appreciate the value of teamwork that comes with that.’ They have their own adventure club - the St James Challengers - and D of E. No swimming.

Artwork here is exceptional – and is, not surprisingly, on display throughout the school, much of it professionally framed. Two good art rooms in which, largely, the traditional skills are taught by much-admired staff. Visiting instructors add to the core curriculum. No DT, although they do run workshops.

Singing is huge – every Wednesday and Thursday, the pupils get together to sing and we lost count of how many times the summer concert was mentioned. Orchestras, choirs, ensembles galore – for which practice is before school or at lunchtime – and 75 were taking individual music lessons from peripatetic teachers when we visited.

Drama popular and lively, with a new drama studio providing a great dedicated space that can be fully blackened out. School takes part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival. Years 7-9 and 10-13 alternate in doing a play or musical every year (the older ones teaming up with the boys’ school – with other joint events including the summer concert, leadership days and dinner and dances for the sixth-formers.)

Small, but much used, cookery room, with year 7s taught not just how to cook, but a wider perspective of the role of food in societies and a way to use it as a form of sharing and nurturing relationships (eg they cook lunch for elderly folk from local old people’s homes).

All the usual day trips you’d expect in the heart of London – theatre, ballet, museums, London Zoo, Bletchley Park etc – plus plenty of residentials, to the likes of Isle of Wight, Devon and further afield to the battlefields and Greece. Community service trips to places like Calcutta and South Africa, where the girls get involved in housing street children. Occasional overseas trips for choirs and sports teams etc.

Extracurricular clubs impressively varied – everything from politics club to computer science and Italian to arts – which take place before school, at lunchtimes and after school. Minerva Society particularly popular – after-school talks, including the likes of politician Natalie Bennett. ‘I’ve been blown away not only by the quality of people these girls get – and it’s they who organise the speakers – but by the quality of the questioning from the girls,’ said one parent. ‘They are more insightful, sharp and ethically on point than my colleagues that I attend talks with.’

Background and atmosphere

Founded, along with its sibling junior school and senior boys' school, in 1975 by the School of Economic Science (SES) (see our online review of the senior boys' school for background and history), at which time the school was based in Queen’s Gate, later moving to Notting Hill Gate and then, in 2001, to its current location in a leafy residential West London street.

Located down a quiet road, within sight of Olympia, the main gate leads into an attractive courtyard, which forms the centre of the whole school, in which the junior and senior schools co-exist happily. Indeed, there’s nothing remotely unusual about seeing young boys and girls making their way along the polished wooden-floored corridors here – which is really rather nice and makes for a smooth transition from juniors up to seniors.

It would be unfair to say this three-storey school is bursting at the seams, but there isn’t a great deal of elbow room, with compact (but very light and airy) classrooms – which probably look smaller than they are due to the clunky, traditional wooden desks, all facing forward for chalk-and-talk type teaching during our visit, although we were assured there’s plenty of interactive teaching too. Recent improvements include a new sixth form centre, library and a fourth science lab. Good-sized and well-equipped music room. Big and airy school hall, plus gym and a refectory, all sitting on top of one another. Overall, the buildings are well cared for – lots of white-painted corridors, blue carpets, good wall displays and useful noticeboards. Outside space is limited, though care has been taken to provide little trellised alcoves for quiet chat around the tarmac playground, complete with climbing wall, and there’s also the courtyard.

The food is vegetarian and the tables are laid invitingly – hot home-cooked food plus fresh fruit, salad, bread and cheese. Girls love it or hate it (older ones are more enthused). We loved it.

Girls seem down-to-earth, happy and supportive of one another, many draping their arms around each other as they walk from classroom to classroom. ‘I can’t think of a girl here that you wouldn’t describe as nice,’ one pupil told us. Plenty of room for difference, with no feeling that there’s a St James ‘type’ and plenty of room for growth if your daughter arrives as a shrinking violet. ‘My daughter was terribly shy, but now speaks publicly, is head of house and organises outside speakers for the school. I’d never have thought it possible. She has blossomed as an individual, thanks to this school,’ one parent told us. Girls aren’t overly sophisticated, but not too sheltered either. Academically, hard-working, conscientious and reflective. The sixth form have privileges – no uniform, going out at lunchtimes etc.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Highly praised, with the form teacher – who moves up the school with the class where possible – at the heart of pastoral care. And if you can’t talk to your teacher (which all girls told us they could), then there are plenty of buddies and mentors. All the spiritual and philosophical emphasis mentioned earlier undoubtedly helps guard against the usual teenage problems. And although there’s no school counsellor, there’s a trained well-being coach. Bullying rare. ‘Girls are sometimes unkind, but it’s usually down to thoughtlessness and we deal with that quickly when we need to,’ says the head. Pupils concur. Plenty of assemblies on everything from LGBT to mental health. House system taken seriously – with girls all wearing their house T shirts on Fridays and alternating in eating in the staff dining room.

Misbehaviour, when it happens, is low-level – chatting in lessons, failing to hand in homework on time, untidy uniform etc is about as bad as it gets, for which you get ‘a slip’. Three slips in one half term lead to a detention and three of those leads to an extended detention, which basically means community service and reflection. ‘At that point, you’d want to be looking at the root cause,’ explains the head. We met several sixth formers who’d never had a single detention. Only one temporary exclusion, and no permanent ones, under current headship. No school council when we visited (suggestions box instead), but it was about to be implemented.

Who wouldn’t fit in? Girls who don’t appreciate quiet time. ‘There’s lots of wriggling and squiggling at first - that’s normal, but then they get so used to it that it becomes completely normal, then by year 12 and 13 they are such advocates,’ says the head. We found she was spot on. ‘I’m so passionate about the value of meditation,’ said one sixth former. Also not a school for the highly competitive. ‘You don’t measure yourself against other people here,’ one pupil told us. A parent added, ‘Whilst this is an airy and bright school, despite its metropolis location, young people who need to be very physical would find the St James offering challenging, I think.’

Pupils and parents

Mixed as befits its west London location. Around half white British; a fifth from Asian backgrounds (many of whom are attracted by the influence of the eastern philosophies); and the rest a huge mix including Chinese, black Caribbean and Eastern European. English as a second language a non-issue as even they speak English well. A tiny minority of the staff are members of SES, some are ex-pupils, but the vast majority of pupils are now from families who have no direct connection whatsoever. When we mentioned SES to the pupils we met, they shrugged their shoulders. ‘We know it was relevant to the founding of the school, but it’s just not part of our school life now,’ said one. Some pupils travel significant distances, mainly from the west, with some taking at least an hour on public transport, though most pupils are more local. A growing contingent from the north west pocket of London eg Willesden and Hampstead. Parents range from the relatively wealthy to those who save every penny to send their daughter here. Lots of dual income families. Quite a few old girls’ children come here. Lively PA, called The Friends, with all the usual quiz nights and stalls at sports day etc. One parent was disappointed by the lack of class reps. Former pupils include actors Emily Watson and Sasha Behar and novelist Laura Wilson.

Entrance

St James Junior girls move seamlessly through – NB now at year 7 rather than year 6. The rest come from preps and state primaries – around half from each. Main prep feeders are Pembridge Hall, Orchard House, Chiswick and Bedford Park, Glendower, Ravenscourt Park Prep, St Nicholas Prep, The Falcons School, Bute House, Garden House, Kew Green Prep, Thomas’ Battersea and Thomas’ Kensington. Some also from St Mary Abbots, Barnes, Belmont and Fox primary schools. Around 200 apply for around 25 places (the other 25 taken by juniors). School is part of the North London Consortium so tests in maths and English. School's own reasoning test day also includes activities in baking, art, drama, dance and science. Plus an interview with the child and their parents. There’s the odd space available in most higher years. Entry criteria for sixth formers is at least five GCSEs A*-C, including at least an A in the subjects chosen.

Exit

Around a quarter leave after GCSEs - all for good, healthy reasons: some to co-eds, some to schools that offer alternative A levels or courses, often to colleges, occasionally to board or to nearer home. Some gap years. Around 70 per cent to Russell Group universities, with popular destinations including Bristol, Exeter, Durham, York, King’s, UCL and SOAS – and increasingly, East Anglia. One to Oxford in 2016. Science or medicine related courses popular, the rest choose across a vast range – art through to zoology and everything in between. Many pursue careers in which they contribute to the community, notably teachers, medics, nurses and working for charities.

Money matters

The school operates a means-tested bursary scheme. All current and future parents may apply. Future parents need to be registered with the school. This is not a rich school so don't look for masses of help.

Our view

This small school is ‘like a family’, according to the pupils we met, and we got that impression too. Girls are supportive of one another and this, coupled with the emphasis on spirituality and philosophy, makes it a school that provides so much more than the academic rigour, which is a given. They take the view that it’s no good being a straight A* student academically, if morally you are a C student. No wonder the school turns out such generous-spirited, honourable, sharp young women who know not only how to reach their full potential, but who have grown up understanding how to use that potential to the advantage of wider society. A gem for ethically minded families.

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Special Education Needs

St James Senior Girls' School offers an education, which draws out and magnifies the unique talents implicit in each individual. An environment is provided which enriches the intellectual, emotional and spiritual development of a pupil in an atmosphere which supports unity and is conducive to the happiness of all.' Ethos and Aims; Senior Girls' website. Within this environment, pupils with mild to moderate LDD/SEN thrive and achieve good results. Pupils,come from a wide range of backgrounds and are accepted from both the state and private sector. The School has experience of working with pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and specific learning difficulties but maintains an open attitude to looking at supporting the needs of pupils outside those areas.The School's policy of keeping the same Form Teacher, where possible, with a class from Years 7-11 provides an opportunity for pupil and teacher to establish good relations. This enables all pupils, but especially those with LDD/SEN to feel that their particular circumstances are understod and supported. Pupils, once settled, are then prepared to take risks - they are willing to try new methods and stretch their goals. Experiencing success enables pupils to develop confidence and a sense of self-worth. 09-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Aspergers Syndrome [archived]
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders [archived]
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Delicate Medical Problems [archived]
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Epilepsy [archived]
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
Not Applicable
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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