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With the school set in 55 acres of parkland and approached down a winding, tree-lined drive, there is a sense of leaving the outside world behind as one arrives at an imposing early Victorian mansion. Strongly underpinned by the school’s Catholic faith, pastoral care is ‘brilliant’ and ‘house assistants are excellent’. ‘Somehow the school makes the girls very caring and respectful.’ 

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What the school says...

Set in 55 acres of beautiful Dorset countryside, St Marys Shaftesbury is an inspiring educational environment. Its unique ethos sets it apart, creating a happy and friendly community. Outstanding teachers and excellent pastoral care enable girls to achieve their ambitions in a relaxed but stimulating environment; Oxbridge and Russell Group university success is realised.
At St Marys, girls have the confidence to be themselves, explore the educational opportunities available and take part in all the extra-curricular activities on offer. Girls feel free to take risks, become resilient and independent and at the same time enjoy life-long friendships and being part of a close knit community.
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Since 2018, Maria Young, previously deputy head pastoral and head of boarding at Worth School. Music degree from Durham and a PGCE in music from Cambridge; she has taught music at a variety of schools including Bryanston, and was director of music at Simon Langton Girls' Grammar School before joining Worth, where she was also lay chaplain. She has spent 30 years as a director of music, writing and directing musicals and opera, as well as directing school choirs and taking them on tours around the world.

Academic matters

Popular A level subjects include English literature, history and history of art, geography, fine art and photography. Steady uptake of science, economics, business studies, maths and modern languages. For a small school with pupils of mixed ability, results are usually good. In 2019, 74 per cent of A levels graded A*-B and 43 per cent A*/A - significantly up on the previous year.

GCSE results 49 per cent 9-7 in 2019. Girls do well in English literature, modern languages, science, the humanities and art. Languages department has introduced IGCSE exams throughout. French and Spanish exchanges for those interested.

Parents praise ‘very experienced teaching staff’ for their dedication, openness and lack of pretension. Some have been there for years, but school says the average age is beginning to come down. General consensus is that self-motivated girls are very well supported. ‘If you do want to be bothered [with work], the teachers will bend over backwards.’ One commented that the school ‘hides its academic light under a bushel’, although all agreed that ‘the teaching shines’.

Three dedicated SEN rooms at the top of humanities block helps those with mild learning difficulties (dyslexia, dyspraxia) as well as running revision sessions and helping girls to improve their grades in maths and English. At the time of our visit, 46 pupils (up to three at a time) were receiving EAL coaching.

Games, options, the arts

‘Sport for all’ is school’s aim and girls play all the usual sports up to GCSE plus a few less common, eg yoga, pilates and zumba. School will lay on an activity if there is sufficient interest, eg scuba diving. Year 10s upwards have access to the school’s fitness suite and can begin the sports leaders programme which continues in sixth form for those taking A level PE. Circuit training and conditioning machines used for school’s elite athlete training programme. Large sports hall and 25m pool sit side by side, surrounded by Astroturf pitch, netball and tennis courts. Swimming and tennis available year round. A few girls play hockey at county level and train at the county netball academy, with some year 10 girls put forward for LTA tennis league each year. Regular match fixtures and swimming galas; teams hold their own and win against much larger schools. Dance tuition from professionals.

Stunning, spacious art block opened in 2014; the creative arts are a real strength here and evidence of this hangs in corridors throughout the main school building. ‘Art is outstanding and all visual arts are very good.’ Busy textiles room with lots of sewing machines humming; textiles and design taught in six-month blocks, fine art all year. Photography offered at GCSE and A level and textiles at GCSE. Trips abroad to exhibitions in Paris, Florence and Barcelona for sixth formers.

Excellent music block, with 25 individual practice rooms, small concert space, music technology room and dedicated classroom, plus a well-stocked music library with archive material and CD recordings. Some 60 per cent learn an instrument, 15 per cent study two and some learn two instruments and singing; practice is timetabled. Ensembles include school orchestra, percussion and wind bands plus a rock band; others are formed depending on instruments and girls are encouraged to take the initiative. Everyone sings each week, either in class or as a form. ‘The school needs a bit more singing outside the chapel choir.’ Two school choirs, one of which is the ‘awesome’ chapel choir which rehearses three mornings a week for chapel assemblies, Saturday mass and tours abroad. St Cecilia’s pupils’ concert takes place each year. Regular outreach to primary schools and local choirs, including annual Choral Day.

Extensive range of extracurricular activities, clubs and societies on offer; these include fencing, forest school and beekeeping. French society is very popular and includes a literary circle. Sixth formers can qualify for Leiths Basic Certificate in Food and Wine in well-appointed cookery school. Several drama productions across the age range each year and LAMDA exams are popular. DofE awards are a big part of school life, with two-thirds completing these every year. In keeping with school’s Catholic ethos, girls fund raise and lead charitable expeditions to countries such as Rwanda, Chile and Zambia to work with schools and orphanages. The Mary Ward Lecture Series encourages girls to think through listening to speakers on topics such as war theory, bioethics and religious pluralism.


Boarding arrangements work well; years 5, 6, 7 and 8 board in a junior boarding house which day girls are welcome to visit. After this, girls move into one of the main houses where they sleep in single, double or four-person bedrooms. Some bedrooms are small, but each house has a spacious common room and a kitchen. Rooms rotate regularly and day-to-day housekeeping is efficient. ‘A brilliant woman runs the laundry and the shift system for washing clothes works.’ Parents full of praise for sixth form housemistress. ‘She’s seen everything and can deal with anything.’ Girls in sixth form move into a stand-alone house similar to halls of residence which gives them greater independence, eg preparing their own breakfast and entertaining outside friends to dinner parties.

Half are full boarders, so school doesn’t empty out on weekends, though flexi-boarding is available. Day girls can go home after lessons, but many choose to stay on for clubs, homework and supper. Enrichment programme on Saturday mornings and plenty to do on weekends.

Boarders are taken to and from various airport terminals by school minibus on exeat weekends, at half-term and at the beginning and end of term; those going to London on exeats can travel by escorted coach to Richmond. Parents confirm that school is very aware of girls' whereabouts.

Background and atmosphere

St Mary’s was founded in 1945 and can trace its origins back to Mary Ward, an English Catholic nun who championed the rights of girls to receive an education, despite living in hostile Tudor times. Imprisoned for her beliefs, she succeeded in establishing a school for girls in York before her death in 1645.

With the school set in 55 acres of parkland and approached down a winding, tree-lined drive, there is a sense of leaving the outside world behind as one arrives at an imposing early Victorian mansion. Sensitive efforts have been made to modernise the interior, with glass screens to let in light. Spread around the main house is a collection of buildings ranging from ultra-modern to slightly frayed labs and other older classrooms. New and old nestle side by side and somehow manage not to look incongruous, but the impression is of much brown and green.

In contrast to the school’s cooler colours is its warm, family atmosphere. Teachers, parents and girls alike champion it as safe and nurturing. ‘It’s a very caring school which fosters life-long friendships.’ Walking round, we were struck by the genuinely supportive relationships between girls of all ages. ‘If you could bottle the atmosphere at St Mary’s, it would be invaluable.’

School has reinstated years 5 and 6.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Strongly underpinned by school’s Catholic faith, pastoral care is ‘brilliant’ and ‘house assistants are excellent’. ‘Somehow the school makes the girls very caring and respectful.’ School’s own priest in residence from Thursday to Saturday. The school operates more on praise than sanction,’ said one parent. Any misdemeanour earns the culprit a lavender ticket, ‘lavvies’ to the girls. Punishments range from parental meeting to suspension. ‘The girls want their community to work – we have to deal with so few sanctions.’ Strict on smoking and alcohol, the odd suspension has happened for having one too many at socials with boys’ schools.

Despite being ‘in the sticks’, parents insist their daughters don’t feel cut off as school allows enough freedom. Thirteen-year-olds don wellies and stride off in small groups over the fields for Saturday afternoon shopping in Shaftesbury; older girls catch the train to Salisbury.

School meals served in cafeteria with staff on hand to supervise; good food with several choices including a vegetarian option, plenty of fresh fruit, cheese and puddings.

Girls are allowed mobile phones, but no Skype or Facebook until year 11. School wifi switched off at night. School says that trust between staff and pupils forms the basis of school community; ‘older staff are very good at dealing with any minor teasing or bullying’.

Pupils and parents

Girls joining in years 5 to 7 come from local primaries, London day schools and boarding preps. Intake doubles at 13+ from prep schools such as Farleigh, Sandroyd and Port Regis. Some foreign nationals join the school later. Average year group numbers 35, with 70 per cent of families within an hour’s drive. Some 15 per cent from abroad, mostly Mexico, Spain and China, with a few from Nigeria, Japan, Germany and the rest of Europe. There are some 20 military families and a 10 per cent discount is offered. Parents are a mixed bunch, some wealthy, some not, whilst girls are natural, unspoilt, polite and articulate. ‘The girls like themselves, know themselves and are very confident in their own skins.’


Main entry points are at 9, 11 and 13, although girls can join in any year. Entrance examination day takes place in January and includes tests in maths, English and verbal reasoning plus an interview. At 16, girls need a minimum of eight GCSE grade 4s. The school welcomes children of all faiths, but families must be 'sympathetic to the Catholic ethos' of the school.


Up to half leave after GCSEs. Most sixth formers to Russell Group universities throughout the country, eg Bristol, Exeter, UCL, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Oxford Brookes also popular. Three to Oxbridge in 2019. A good handful to art college each year, eg Bournemouth, Falmouth and Plymouth. Most choose arts degrees; good to see that a sprinkling of girls opts for the sciences, eg anatomy, biomedical sciences, physics and nuclear astrophysics. A small number pursues practical courses such as agriculture, publishing and events management.

Money matters

Usual range of 9+, 11+, 13+ and 16+ music, academic, sports and art scholarships on offer together with one 11+ Catholic Local Primary Scholarship. All-round scholarship ‘for excellence’ plus means-tested bursaries available at school’s discretion.

Our view

In the past we have described St Mary’s as ‘a jolly nice girls’ Catholic boarding school’ but this belies its true character. A reasonably pacey school, St Mary’s is performing pretty well on all fronts, albeit with great modesty. ‘They don’t blow their own trumpet enough,’ remarked a parent. With lower fees than many independent schools, this school is quietly delivering excellent value. Girls wanting to be educated with boys and/or dolled up to the nines should look elsewhere, but those looking for a warm and caring environment where they can achieve and be themselves will be right at home.

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 Mary's is able to cater for pupils of at least average intelligence with mild difficulties of a dyslexic or dyspraxic nature, or mild ADD/ADHD disorders, who can access an academic curriculum. A maximum of two 35 minute individual lessons per week are taught by specialist support staff at an additional charge. There is currently no provision for in-class support. Extra Maths tuition is offered at an additional charge for pupils requiring support in the run-up to GCSE examinations, but is also available for younger pupils with weak numeracy skills.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
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
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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