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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 - as if we’d asked them if they enjoy getting dressed. 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 ...

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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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Since 2013, David Brazier BA MSc PGCE. Studied English and American literature at the University of Kent; MSc from Reading University. 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). Prior to this, he was head of English and drama at Crosfields School in Reading and assistant headmaster at Davenies in Beaconsfield, Bucks.

Chatty and amiable, he makes no secret of his clear intention to advance the school dramatically, 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 – applications for year 7 doubled within his first three years and there is a waiting list for the first time in the school’s history.

He is the first head with no connection with School of Economic Science (SES), the philosophy that the school was founded on – although he insists he is spiritual. What he’s done, agree parents and staff, is take the founding principles and ‘sharpen 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. Wife, Lizzie, is a leadership and management consultant; two grown-up children, one a maths teacher.


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. Thirteen plus entry by similar tests in year 7. Pre-tests available at both stages (in year 5 and year 7) for those prepared to commit to a place here.

Entry into the sixth form requires a minimum of grade 6s at GCSE plus interview with the head of sixth form and headmaster. This also applies to 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.


Almost half leave 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. Occasional sixth form Oxbridge or medical places (three medics in 2020); otherwise to a range of courses from acting to actuarial science.

Latest results

In 2020, 44 per cent 9/7 at GCSE; 50 per cent A*/A at A level (75 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

Despite the selective entrance criteria, academic promise has never been the be-all-and-end-all here, with the school valuing boy’s strengths, wherever they may lie. All teaching is underpinned by a philosophical and spiritual ethos that means boys are encouraged to focus constantly 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), meditation and quiet time, which is a major feature at the start and end of every day.

Traditional range of subjects on offer at both GCSE and A level, 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 (those coming up from the junior school have already learned some) 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 four hours a night in sixth form) and if it’s not up to scratch, boys can expect a detention.

No talking down to pupils whatsoever during our visit, although some parents told us that while there are plenty of stars among the staff, a handful are old-school ‘and not so well-liked'. 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.

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

Learning support and SEN

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 EHC plans,’ 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 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.

The arts and extracurricular

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 - 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 the usual school choirs, orchestras, ensembles and bands and around a fifth of boys learn an instrument with a peripatetic teacher. Electric guitar and drums particularly popular, although head is pushing for less gender stereotyping (which basically means more strings). Opportunities to perform publicly, 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.

Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to clubs run by a mixture of staff and sixth formers - magic club, comic club and military history clubs among the less predictable. ‘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 takes up the cadet force; a popular DofE 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’d expected.

Plenty of leadership and team-building days. In year 8, they have a service day in which they assist the groundsmen with practical tasks like fence-building and gardening, while in year 9, a Stepping into Manhood formal dinner allows the boys and their fathers to experience formal dining with an inspirational after-dinner speaker. A trip to Lucca, Italy, presents a scenic opportunity to year 10s 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.


Sport is pushed hard, with facilities including lake, tennis courts, rugby pitches, cricket squares, Astro 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 though a sports hall is under development. 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). Boys regularly go on to get sports scholarships. But 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.

Ethos and heritage

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, inclusivity and discipline

The boys' form tutors are at the heart of pastoral care. ‘I’ve never experienced such understanding and support from a teacher,’ said one parent, while 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. 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 (yes, really). 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.

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 – 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, confident 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, with listening skills clearly deep-rooted. ‘Boys here are kind, generous and determined – it’s the reason I chose the school,’ said one parent. ‘My son has blossomed. No more hunched shoulders. He walks square,’ said another. There is, say boys, ‘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.

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.

The last word

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 it’s about 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.

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
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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