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An excellent fit for boy who might be considered eccentric or unconventional elsewhere or who just wants a gentler, kinder and deeper approach to education – all with a strong academic end point. Quiet time and meditation all par for the course, kicking off every morning and afternoon, as well as book-ending each lesson. Sport for all, no excuses. Lots of it too – three times a week. But you don’t have to be brilliant: ‘My son has never been a first team player in any major sport but St James handles that very well.’ Nor is it…

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What the school says...

St James Senior Boys School in Ashford, Surrey, offers a distinctive education, uniting a philosophical approach to the development of life-skills with academic excellence. The approach aims to unfold the twin powers of love and reason so that a boy may grow into a man who knows what he thinks, does what he says and is a friend to all. The school selects boys on the basis of the interview with the Headmaster; the exam results are considered to give only a partial picture of the candidate's suitability - character, interests and ability to speak about them, thoughtfulness, curiosity, brightness and cheerfulness are strong pointers. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2013, David Brazier BA MSc PGCE (50s). Previously head of Long Close School, Slough, where application numbers tripled during his six-year reign (and which some boys left to follow him to St James). Other posts include head of English and drama at Crosfields School, Reading and assistant head at Davenies, Beaconsfield. Studied English and American literature at Kent; MSc from Reading.

We first spotted him in a classroom (he teaches philosophy, mindfulness and a course on love, relationships and sexuality) standing in front of a grainy image of Auschwitz, discussing the unlikely theme of gratitude. ‘Gentlemen, hold that thought, hold that energy,’ he told his class (very St James) as he excused himself to greet us. Unflappable and empathetic, he has the calming, learned presence of a vicar, minus the preachy bit. Parents love him: ‘The central gravity of everything the school stands for philosophically – you can hear his words and views coming out through my son who thinks constantly about how he can better the world.’ ‘He just gets teenage boys and is incredibly loving and warm about them.’ ‘Writes a blog that I look forward to reading, which is something I never thought I’d say.’ Pupils feel he’s on their side – ‘I took time to settle when I joined and he went out of his way to make sure I was alright,’ said one. ‘Knows us all and jokes with us all,’ voiced another, though ‘can be authoritative when needed.’

He is the first head to have no connection with School of Economic Science (SES), the philosophy that the school was founded on – and parents say it shows. ‘The school I saw 10 years ago doesn’t resemble the school now – it’s modern and forward thinking,’ said one; ‘no longer weird,’ was a rather more blunt perception. His mind was on practical matters when we met, notably ‘expanding the music department (‘I’d like a small performance area to the side’) and converting the bungalow by the school gates (‘A wellbeing centre, I think’). Overall, gives the impression of a man at one with his school and more than a little gratified at seeing his vision come to life; leaning back in his chair contently, he told us, ‘I will end my career here.’

A one-time playwright (he has written three plays that have been performed in schools, though not at St James), he is also a keen cricket fan and coach (was looking forward to coaching the boys that evening). Lives onsite with his wife Lizzie, a leadership and management consultant. Has two grown up children – his son a maths teacher and his daughter works in construction.

Entrance

Sixty places up for grabs in year 7 – around 10 are taken from those moving up from the junior school; the rest from an even split across primaries and preps (about 35 in total). Competitive, with approximately 160 applications in total. Academically selective-ish – ‘we are after students with an IQ of 100 and above.’ Tests in English, maths and verbal reasoning, plus interview with the head, who looks for ‘spark and spirit – the kind of boy who wants to have a go at things like being in a play or trying a new sport.’ Up to 20 further places available in year 9 – same process applies. Pre-tests available at both stages (in year 5 and year 7) for those prepared to commit to a place early.

One or two (school would like more) join at sixth form. Applicants need six 6s at GCSE (7s for sciences and maths if they are to be studied at A level) and they attend an interview. This also applies to boys already in the school.

Exit

Almost half leaves after GCSEs for all the usual reasons (girls, a change, financial, different courses eg media studies). Sends a lot to UCL, Exeter and Bristol. One to Oxbridge in 2021 and one medic. Occasionally a few overseas. Recent trend away from arts courses and towards physics and chemistry. Classics a perennial favourite.

Latest results

In 2021, 59 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 60 per cent A*/A at A level (80 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 27 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 24 per cent A*/A at A level (53 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

The philosophical underpinning of every subject (as well as being a compulsory course in its own right) is the USP. ‘It’s not just about passing exams but understanding how what you’re learning is relevant to the world and how you can use it to impact others,’ said a parent. Suits deep thinkers, the open minded and those for whom casual talk of energy, harmony and wholeness sits comfortably. Quiet time and meditation all par for the course, kicking off every morning and afternoon, as well as book-ending each lesson. Not that these chaps all wander around constantly seeking higher meaning – as one simply pointed out, ‘the pauses are just really good for when you come in all hot and bothered from running around at lunch.’ Nor are all lessons awash with Socrates and Plato – for every lesson we watched where boys explored big questions (‘let’s perform a frozen moment from this chapter then analyse its deeper meaning’), there was another going over common mistakes in maths tests, revising Spanish vocab and getting busy with experiments around radioactive sources in physics. Still, there’s no mistaking that what the head calls ‘a mindful pedagogy’ sits at the heart of learning.

Class sizes average 20, with a 1:20 ratio of pupil to staff. Many lessons we dropped in on (where all boys leap to their feet at first sight of a visitor) had a teacher plus assistant. Good on languages - Spanish, French and Latin for all from year 7, plus Sanskrit as an option, with around a third taking up this Indo-Germanic language that pre-dates even Greek and Latin (particularly popular among boys coming up from the junior school, who are already familiar with it). This ancient language is also available at GCSE, though no longer at A level (‘sadly the exam board stopped it’). Setting in these, plus English and maths from year 7.

Boys specialise early, starting their (usually nine; 10 if they take Greek) GCSEs in year 9. DT and geography popular – the school has seen the latter soar from being one of the weakest subjects. At A level most take three (four if they’re doing further maths); sciences loom largest, psychology very popular, with maths and DT hot on its heels. Will run A levels for one student, as we saw in both Spanish and French. Chemistry, physics, maths and English get top results. EPQ taken by half and there’s also a compulsory personal development programme – a series of workshops aiming to push boys out of their comfort zone. Boys with niche interests (of which there are many) regularly go off curriculum in less formal ways too – ‘if there’s anything you’re really interested in that’s not on syllabus – like Greek gods for me – the teachers always support that,’ said one boy. Some grumbles about a high staff turnover – ‘I think it’s because they’re so great at finding young and upcoming vibrant staff and they wind up using it as a springboard,’ reckoned a parent. Innovative during Covid – one science teacher got a heart from his local butcher to do a live dissection class; younger boys loved the lockdown superhero competition.

Learning support and SEN

School does very well with mildly autistic boys, which parents put down to the ‘strong pastoral care,’ ‘focus on emotional negotiation skills’ and ‘embracing of quirkiness’. In one of our group chats with the boys, one became fixated by the need to straighten a rug and we were struck by the acceptance of this by his peers – as one parent put it, ‘The boys really allow for each other.’ Dyslexia and dyspraxia also common among the quarter of pupils here with SEN, though school reports lower numbers of ADHD. Very little withdrawal from lessons, with most assistance in the classroom itself: ‘My son loves that he blends into lessons rather than standing out as he would if he constantly had to go off for direct interventions – even in maths, which he finds hardest, all the support is at his desk with the help of a TA.’ ‘All his teachers seem to know what works for him – adapting teaching techniques and using a laptop.’ Touch typing courses available and encouraged, especially for dyslexia.

The arts and extracurricular

A boy was coolly strumming his guitar in a GCSE music class we dropped in on, while his classmates were composing music on the surrounding tech - all very zen, all very St James. Six or seven usually take the GCSE, with ones and twos opting for A level. Wind, jazz, strings and Samba feature among ensembles, and some boys create their own pop bands. Orchestra much improved. Around half learn an instrument or have singing lessons – we stumbled upon a boy mastering The First Noel in the chapel – magnificent singing, magnificent acoustics - where there is one of three organs owned by the school. Public performance opportunities include the highly anticipated annual concert in Hammersmith Town Hall.

Head of drama is considered something of a legend – we watched her at work, shoeless in the black box studio where she was excitedly introducing pupils to the joys of Willy Russell. ‘She’s so bubbly and enthusiastic, it really rubs off,’ exclaimed one boy. An edgy version of Alice in Wonderland is being planned with the girls’ school.

Art rooms spacious and light, but all a bit pristine and lacklustre for our liking. No personal spaces for older students, no open access (it was all locked up on our visit) and barely any pupil work on the walls (and not much across the rest of the school either). Maybe they could learn a thing or two from their neighbouring DT department where we saw vibrant rooms packed with inspiration and boys excitedly getting to grips with the equipment – ‘one of the most popular GCSEs,’ said one boy, clutching a precariously glued miniature bridge before reminding one of our tour guides that he’d ‘promised to meet me at the chippy later, yeah?’

No need to stay after school (though you can do that too) to take advantage of clubs and societies, with everyone getting set time to pick from eg war games, chess, debating. Sports clubs popular, as is philosophy club. Around 30 per cent does cadets; similar numbers for DofE. There’s an annual service day in which boys assist the groundsmen with eg fence building and gardening, while a rather more highfalutin Stepping into Adulthood formal dinner, complete with after-dinner speaker, gets boys and their parents to dig out their glad rags.

Sport

Sport for all, no excuses. Lots of it too – three times a week. But you don’t have to be brilliant: ‘My son has never been a first team player in any major sport but St James handles that very well.’ Nor is it (as it once was) all about the rugby (though it had still won the last eight matches when we visited), with football and cricket catching up fast in terms of both play time and fixtures. Hockey remains a staple. Boys end the week with cross country around the woods and lake - ‘the only time the boys get to go there, which adds a lovely sense of mystery,’ reckons head. Rest of the grounds not to be sniffed at either, including the manicured pitches that form a striking backdrop to the main school building – the hum of traffic and red bus tops the only reminders that you’re not in the countryside. But it’s the shiny new sports centre that our tour guides were really itching to show off – right down to every last weight in the gym and coloured line on the sports hall floor. Masses of more minor sports eg martial arts, tennis, kayaking, open swimming, sailing, rowing, basketball, badminton, golf and climbing. ‘For the sort of boy who wants to get out and let rip, it’s fab – there’s so much sport on offer and so much space to do it in,’ said a parent.

Ethos and heritage

School was founded on the hippie (some say cultish) principles of the School of Economic Science back in the 1970s and although there are no links whatsoever now, a heady spiritual ethos remains. Nobody (the head included) seems to be able to articulate precisely what that looks like but a flavour comes from the philosophy, mindfulness and meditation for all – and a parent had a good go at summing up the concept as ‘an education that involves developing young men of character not just a series of lessons leading up to exams.’

Originally based in Twickenham, the school moved west in 2010, now occupying a stunning (if a little cold inside) mansion erected by The Society of Ancient Britons in 1857 to house the Welsh Girls' School. Grounds to die for – huge manicured pitches, lake with ducks and own woods. Some of the 1960s low-rises (and the dated sixth form common room) let the side down a bit, but all provide practical spaces. And there’s a charming chapel (‘not that the school is religious, we draw on all religions and none here,’ insisted our tour guide).

As a nod to its partly Vedantic roots, food has always been vegetarian. We needed no persuading to wolf down our scrummy mac cheese and salad, though noticed a few forks doing more prodding than feeding hungry tummies. ‘I’m fussy,’ smiled one by way of explanation, and therein lies the problem, according to one mother - ‘teenage boys just are fussy and that’s what the caterers need to respond to.’ ‘Could be more varied – no more lentils or mushrooms, please!’ agreed a boy.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

‘Everyone cares about you – that’s the reason I love it here,’ said one boy movingly. ‘It’s ok to say if you need help – it’s not the kind of culture where people are too proud to speak out,’ remarked another. Parents also speak highly of the pastoral emphasis. ‘My son wouldn’t have fit in a big bustling school filled with alpha males – this is much more gentle somehow.’ ‘My son struggles with big emotions and when I emailed the head to ask about support, he immediately got a school counsellor to assess him and now he’s seeing her weekly.’ A tutor system ensures nobody slips between the cracks, and sixth formers act as buddies to year 7s. Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Everyone’s Invited, Sarah Everard – all are discussed and debated openly. ‘Not much is taboo here,’ said a boy, while a parent told us she was ‘massively impressed with the fact that they explore issues like misogyny.’ A corridor display of lockdown poetry caught our eye - a poignant reminder of how difficult some found Covid, although all were quick to praise the school for keeping their caring focus throughout.

‘Tuck that shirt in! And at the back, please!’ said the librarian so firmly in the middle of telling us about the multiple book clubs and author visits that we found ourselves hastily looking towards our waists, feeling more than a little relieved when we realised she was addressing a boy walking past. ‘Yup, that’s pretty common,’ say boys, ‘they really care about uniform here.’ Nobody seems to mind – ‘it’s nice to look smart,’ smiled one. Ditto for the other school rules, which all sound sensible enough – phones allowed but not to be seen or heard, showing kindness and politeness at all times etc. ‘They’ve become a lot hotter on homework being handed in on time – you definitely want to do that now,’ said one pupil. Bullying generally nipped in the bud – ‘I was called names for about a month but as soon as I mentioned it to a teacher, it stopped so I wish I’d called it out earlier.’ Drugs not an issue, say head – random testing makes sure of it.

Pupils and parents

Twickenham and Richmond are heartlands, though families now also come from as far as Slough, Langley and Virginia Water. ‘Boys travel for up to an hour to get here but we discourage any more than that,’ says head. A more local cohort is also on the rise, largely thanks to the gentrification of Ashford. School buses, public buses (which stop right outside) and trains (station is opposite) the main means of transport. Parent profile has also shifted and now includes more professionals, especially medics and academics; lots of media types too, plus workers at nearby BP and Shell. Generally more likely to say, ‘I want my son to find his opinions and who he is, not just pass exams,’ than ‘my son will be a doctor.’ ‘Not all well-heeled,’ added one mum, clearly relieved – ‘parents are much more normal and down to earth than I’d expected.’ PTA socials for those who are so inclined, ‘but you don’t have to – I don’t,’ said one parent, though added that ‘the WhatsApp chats can be useful.’ Thirty-two per cent ethnic minorities among pupils; 22 per cent among staff – this diversity is widely celebrated via festivals, food etc.

Boys are a mix of quirky, bubbly, reflective and intense – some disarmingly mature for their years, others reassuringly boisterous (though on the right side behaviourally). And that’s the point, say parents – ‘whoever you are here, you’ll find your people.’ Some wind up missing girls being around – and several boys told us they’d like to do more than the odd play and dance with the girls’ school, but distance poses a logistical challenge.

Money matters

Fees good value for the area. Sports, music and ‘invitation only’ headmaster’s (academic) scholarships – currently eight to 10 a year. Means-tested bursaries also available.

The last word

St James has left its flower power reputation behind while maintaining the best bits of the Eastern philosophies it was founded on. Upshot is a thoroughly modern approach to learning that’s particularly ahead of the game when it comes to mindfulness, philosophy and emotional intelligence – the on-trend aspects of character development that other schools are just catching up with. An excellent fit for boy who might be considered eccentric or unconventional elsewhere or who just wants a gentler, kinder and deeper approach to education – all with a strong academic end point.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

St James provides a special educational support programme where necessary. Tutorial sessions and in-class support may be arranged. Close communication between deputy headmaster, form master, SENCo and parents is required for this; arrangements will be co-ordinated thereafter. We provide a baseline level of care after which we ask parents for a contribution towards additional learning support costs. The headmaster, parents and SENCo will discuss fees for these additional arrangements.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
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
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
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 Y
VI - Visual Impairment

Who came from where


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