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Although not as distinctive and different as it was in the SES-focused days of old, this relatively small school is still set apart from the norm, with spiritual principles influencing every aspect of curricular and extracurricular life. That’s not to say it isn’t academic – the current head makes sure of it - but, as one parent put it, ‘It’s not a school that makes boys who don’t have academic excellence feel any less of a person.’ In short, it’s all about the individual...

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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 September 2013, Mr David Brazier BA MSc PGCE. Studied English and American literature at the University of Kent and has an MSc from Reading University. He joined St James from six years as head of Long Close School, Slough, where application numbers tripled during his reign (and which some boys left to follow him to St James). Prior to this, he was head of English and drama at Crosfields School in Reading and assistant headmaster at Davenies in Beaconsfield, Bucks.

Chatty, warm and amiable, but not a man who’s afraid to big himself up, he makes no secret of his clear intention to dramatically advance the school, particularly academically. ‘The previous head was Margaret Thatcher’s speechwriter, so he wasn’t an educator, whereas my background is in school improvement,’ he says. So far, so good – within just three years, applications for year 7 rose from 80 to 160 boys and there is a waiting list for the first time in the school’s history. It’s no coincidence, he believes, that he’s the first head with no connection with School of Economic Science (SES), the philosophy that the school was founded on. It’s not that he isn’t spiritual, he insists. ‘I was using mindfulness as a drama teacher years ago and have meditated for years,’ he says. ‘In fact, it was when I saw that the school wanted someone with a background in both meditation and school improvement that I decided to apply. The ethos fits me perfectly.’ What he’s done, agree parents and staff, is taken the founding principles and ‘sharpened them up for the modern world.’ ‘His arrival felt a breath of fresh air,’ said one parent. ‘He’s progressive and outward looking, but has kept everything that’s important about the school.’

A hands-on head who knows every boy by name, he teaches philosophy to year 9s, including a course he has written on ‘Love, relationships and sexuality,’ and drama periodically across all year groups. ‘You get the feeling he’s a teacher at heart,’ said a parent. Has an abiding love of the performing arts (especially Shakespeare) and he has written three plays that have been performed in schools. Having played for Berkshire Schools and Hurst in the Thames Valley League, he is also passionate about cricket and is a qualified coach, which the boys benefit from. Has plans to live on site with his wife, Lizzie, a leadership and management consultant. Has two grown-up children, one a maths teacher.

Academic matters

Despite the selective entrance criteria, academic promise has never been the be-all-and-end-all here, with the school favouring a well-rounded education in which boys’ strengths are valued, wherever they may lie. And although the emphasis on academia has been much greater in recent years, this is still not a school for parents who want to push their children to their absolute limits. Indeed, all subject teaching is underpinned by a philosophical and spiritual ethos that means boys are encouraged to constantly focus on wholeness (‘not being stressed and managing your energies well,’ explains the head) and harmony (‘ensuring you get on with others and are at one with your environment’). In practice, this involves a big push on mindfulness (which boys are taught from year 7) and meditation and quiet time, which is a major feature at the start and end of every day.

In 2016, 44 per cent A*/A grades at GCSE. At A level, 20 per cent A*/A grades (61 per cent A*-B), with similar subjects topping the list, with the addition of chemistry and economics. Traditional range of subjects on offer at both levels, with the addition of business studies BTec for sixth formers. Allows pupils to specialise early, following their individual bents. Spanish, German and French introduced from year 7 and everyone takes one of these modern languages for GCSE. Unusually (uniquely, believes the school), Sanskrit – the Indo-Germanic language pre-dating even Greek and Latin – is introduced to year 7s and continues for those who can manage it until year 9, becoming an option thereafter. ‘Sanskrit used to be seen as the language to do if you wanted to be spiritually enlightened,’ explains the head. ‘But we’ve taken the mystical mumbo jumbo out of it, with a university-based teacher coming in to teach it.’ Heartening to see Greek and Latin as relatively popular GCSE options, though few continue classical or any other language to A level. Year 7s are set in maths and Sanskrit; year 8s in maths, French, Latin and Sanskrit; and by year 9, boys can expect to be in one of four sets in these subjects, the weakest of which has around 10 pupils. Homework in abundance (one-and-a-half hours a night in year 7, up to 4 hours a night in sixth form) and if it’s not up to scratch, boys can expect a detention.

Notable mutual respect between boys and their teachers, both of whom describe each other as ‘enthusiastic’. No talking down to pupils whatsoever during our visit, although some parents told us that whilst there are plenty of stars among the staff, a handful are old-school ‘and not so well-liked.’ This is brushed off quickly enough, though – ‘it’s inevitable,’ shrugged one. Help instantly and easily available, with the option to email teachers when on study leave, or come in for support. They respond readily to parental emails too. The school is aiming for teachers newly employed under current headship to have a masters or PhD and all now use a rigorous monitoring system to ensure all boys are on track, as well as undergoing weekly teacher training themselves.

SEN (which includes the usual remit of dyslexia, ADHD, autistic spectrum etc) pupils have historically been so numerous and well-supported here that the school started to get a reputation as being a special needs school – something the head is keen to change. ‘When I joined, we had a third SEN, now it’s a quarter, with far fewer statements,’ he says. It’s not that he’s any less dedicated to the school’s ‘lovely bespoke SEN department, with the caring ladies that run it,’ he says. ‘But whereas before SEN seemed like an add-on, with boys doing their lessons, then going off to the department – an approach that to my mind was 20 years out-of-date - most of the extra assistance from the SEN department now happens in the classroom itself, embedded into the lessons. That makes us much more mainstream.’ Parents say it works well, praising the extra courses put on for boys struggling to keep up.

All boys work towards a St James Baccalaureate, recognising the breadth of education as well as academic success.

Games, options, the arts

At the risk of sounding gooey and romantic, hearing some of the younger boys sing in the chapel stopped us in our tracks. Singing is, in fact, so established here that when we asked some of the boys if they enjoyed it, they looked confused. ‘It’s part of daily life,’ they answered, as if we’d asked them if they enjoy getting dressed. In the old days, it was strictly classical, but nowadays boys are just as likely to sing gospel or pop – a welcome change, they say. There are all the usual school choirs, school orchestra and various ensembles and bands - and besides the music lessons for all, 85 boys (around a fifth) learn an instrument with a peripatetic teacher in one of the (newly refurbished when we visited) private practice rooms. Electric guitar and drums particularly popular, although head is pushing for less gender stereotyping (which basically means more strings). Opportunities to perform publically, including the much talked-about annual concert in Hammersmith Town Hall.

Drama mainly takes place in the studio called The Empty Space after Peter Brooke gave his support for it (a deliberately minimalistic rendering of ‘creative space’), although we also saw boys performing Shakespeare (well) in the roomy school reception area on our arrival – a joy to watch. Performance is important, as is speech itself. 'If you have not mastered speech by the time you leave here, then those who have will master you,' is a maxim quoted at the boys. ‘Makes them talk and engage in conversations,’ say parents. Serious annual productions in collaboration with the girls' school in Olympia, with everyone making light of the considerable amount of inter-school ferrying this involves.

Art facilities decent enough, with two roomy, well-lit studios, although we’d like to have seen more examples of pupil work around the school. DT facilities impressive, shiny and well-equipped with new workshop and computer lab – an increasingly popular GSCE option and now also offered at A level.

Sport is pushed hard here, with facilities including lake, tennis courts, rugby pitches (two more recently added), cricket squares (now plus one), AstroTurf and football pitches – practically all in full use on the sun-drenched day we visited. Kept beautifully (not a weed in sight), these form a striking backdrop to the main school building and can be seen from most classrooms. Inside sports facilities less notable. Rugby, hockey, cricket and cross-country are the big sports here, with football on the up, although not quickly enough for some boys we spoke to. Plenty of minor sports and opportunities too – everything from martial arts to kayaking or open swimming in the school lake and climbing (particularly popular). ‘It means that if you don’t like sport, you’ll find something fitness related to love instead,’ said one boy, although some feel there’s still too much emphasis on rugby. ‘If you don’t like rugby, where do you go?’ said one, as if he hoped we might actually have an answer. School punches above its weight in sporting competitions, particularly in rugby, where it regularly reaches the Surrey cup finals and plays some seriously big schools. ‘Boys regularly go on to get sports scholarships,’ adds the head.

Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to clubs run by a mixture of staff and sixth-formers, ranging from the likes of magic club and comic club to military history club. ‘Boys suggest a club and we make it happen,’ says the head; pupils concur. Then there’s the before and after-school programme of activities – everything from sports clubs to philosophy club. Around a quarter enthusiastically takes up the cadet force, doing all the adventurous things that that offers. A popular D of E scheme attracts others. Around three-quarters of the school takes up one or other of these outdoor options. Some charitable and social activity, but less than we had expected to find.

Plenty of leadership and team-building days on offer. For example, in year 8, students are visited by Steve Cunningham, a world-record breaking blind man, who assists them in writing personal, meaningful targets. In year 8, they have a service day in which they assist the groundsmen with practical tasks like fence-building and gardening, whilst in year 9, a ‘Stepping into Manhood’ formal dinner allows the boys to experience formal dining with an inspirational after-dinner speaker. A trip to Lucca, Italy, presents a scenic opportunity to year 10s to develop a wide range of personal skills and there are lots of other school trips besides. ‘My exchange programme in Montpellier was one of the best experiences of my life,’ one boy told us. On offer to all boys are twice-yearly lectures at the RSA given by everyone from eminent physicians to ambassadors. The Ficino Society is a programme of academic talks designed to foster and care for potential Oxbridge candidates, which adds to the intellectual life of the school and thus meets its requirement to nurture the gifted and talented.

Background and atmosphere

The school was founded in the 1970s within the bosom of SES, which itself was founded in 1937 as a means of exploring through the study of the world's great religions and philosophies what it is to be fully human in a spiritual way and, in so doing, what goes to make a spiritually healthy and prosperous community. But whilst the SES flame burned high back then, it has attracted increasing controversy over the decades, with some even calling it a ‘cult’. Particularly since the current head’s appointment, the school has distanced itself from the movement, now describing itself as ‘a philosophically inspired school whose roots are in the SES, but which has grown and evolved, with the philosophy and ethos made available to all.’

Originally based in Twickenham, the school moved west in 2010, now occupying a truly beautiful site in the West London Lake District, in stunning buildings erected by The Society of Ancient Britons in 1857 to house the Welsh Girls' School. They have been well renovated to make a spacious and light environment, although facilities are not quite as glossy as at some neighbouring schools.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

The boys' form tutors are at the heart of pastoral care here and it’s a role they take tremendously seriously. ‘I’ve never experienced such understanding and support from a teacher,’ said one parent, whilst a boy told us, ‘I had some issues at home and my teacher really helped.’ Buddying system between sixth formers and year 7s popular and a school counsellor was about to be employed on a part-time basis when we visited. ‘It’s ok to admit vulnerability here,’ said one pupil.

Misbehaviour and anti-social behaviour not tolerated and a yellow and red card system culminating in after-school detentions, along with high presence of staff including head in corridors between lessons and in breaks, ensures it stays that way. School particularly strict on uniform, with staff regularly uttering the words ‘Shine your shoes’ on the gate in the mornings, whereby boys are sent to the dedicated shoe-shining room. Bullying a bit of a problem in the past, but current head claims to have cut it by half, having ‘moved a few pupils on’ early in his role and introduced new, stricter-than-ever policies around it. Drugs a non-issue to date.

Lots of leadership opportunities, thanks to the prefect system, class representation on the school council and the sixth-form run clubs, among others. 'Manhood', 'character' and 'character-building' are terms much in evidence here. ‘Gets teenage boys, all noise and go and fast paced, to meditate in silence,’ said one parent.

School food is vegetarian (those SES foundations again) and we enjoyed a mean vegetable lasagne and salad. Some boys love it; others are less keen. But one thing’s for sure, says the head – they don’t get that weighed down feeling after lunch and there won’t be any cases of food poisoning here.
Boarding, which was weekly only, closed in July 2016.

Pupils and parents

All but one pupil came west when the school moved, and the catchment area still stretches far to the east, with school run buses helping to keep it that way. The rest use public transport, with three-quarters arriving by train (the station is opposite the school) or public buses, which stop right outside. Hardly anyone dropped off by car. Ethnic and social mix is typical of the area – that is, predominantly white, with some Asian, African-Caribbean and Chinese, among others. A mixture of different faiths, notably those (Hinduism, Buddhism) on which the SES drew heavily. SES a non-issue among parents these days, though, with only a couple of members left. Parents range from the super-rich to those working all hours in modest jobs to get their boys in. Lively and sociable PTA, including annual ball, quiz nights etc. ‘They want the parents to be part of the school,’ said a parent.

Boys are lively, creative and sparky, but well-mannered and disciplined when they need to be, with lots of heads down in the classes we observed. No talking over each other among the boys we spoke to, with respectfulness and listening skills clearly deep-rooted. ‘Boys here are kind, generous and determined – it’s the reason I chose the school,’ said one parent. Plenty of confidence, but not a shred of arrogance in the boys we met. ‘My son has blossomed. No more hunched shoulders. He walks square,’ said a parent. Emerging very much as young men, not youths, the boys told us there is ‘a spirit of looking out for each other – it’s very supportive, almost like a big family.’ Not for the kind of child who thinks they can do it all on their own, this is a school for those who are willing to ask for help.

Entrance

Around 160 applicants for 70 places in year 7. Selection on the basis of entrance tests in English, maths and verbal reasoning plus interview with the head. In fact, the interview can outweigh the entrance test if it is felt the boy has 'character' or other gifts which the school feels would benefit from its distinctive educational approach. ‘We’re looking for a renaissance man vibe – boys who like singing, sport, leading, speaking confidently and valuing what others say too,’ says the head. From 2016, pre-tests required for 13+ entry.

Entry into the sixth form requires a minimum of six B grades at GCSE plus interview with the head of sixth form and headmaster. This requirement extends to the boys already in the school and some are encouraged to look elsewhere or helped into more vocational areas if the school feels that A levels are not appropriate.

Exit

Between a third and a half leaves after GCSEs for a clutch of comfortable reasons – access to the IB, wanting more practical courses, or just having been there since age 4. Majority who leave go on to colleges or co-ed school sixth-forms. None to Oxbridge in 2016. Courses wide-ranging. In 2016, ranged from anthropology at Durham and neuroscience at Nottingham to philosophy at London as well as one to music college. Other destinations include SOAS, Edinburgh and Brunel. As in previous years, several to study medicine.

Money matters

Not a rich school, with lower-than-average fees. But whilst the pot for scholarships and bursaries has historically been correspondingly small, it is growing, with five academic and sports scholarships in the year we visited. School aims to support with means-tested bursaries those who could otherwise not come or who have financial problems once accepted.

Our view

Although not as distinctive and different as it was in the SES-focused days of old, this relatively small school is still set apart from the norm, with spiritual principles influencing every aspect of curricular and extracurricular life. That’s not to say it isn’t academic – the current head makes sure of it - but, as one parent put it, ‘It’s not a school that makes boys who don’t have academic excellence feel any less of a person.’ In short, it’s all about the individual, helping boys grow into the best adult men they can be, both spiritually and intellectually. Two pieces of advice for parents – first, acquaint yourself thoroughly with the ethos and second, take note that the head, who has brought about sweeping changes, sees the school as being very much on a journey. ‘Come back in a few years and I think you’ll find something really magical,’ he told us. We think he could be right.

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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
Aspergers Syndrome [archived]
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders [archived]
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Delicate Medical Problems [archived]
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
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 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

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