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  • St Mary's School (Shaftesbury)
    Donhead St. Mary
    SP7 9LP
  • Head: Mrs Sarah Matthews (Acting Head)
  • T 01747 852416
  • F 01747 851557
  • E
  • W
  • An independent school for girls aged from 9 to 18.
  • Boarding: Yes
  • Local authority: Dorset
  • Pupils: 212; 111 full boarders; sixth formers: 54
  • Religion: Roman Catholic
  • Fees: Day £15,750 - £20,250; Boarding £20,550 - £31,920 pa
  • Open days: October, November and March
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • ISI report: View the ISI report

What says..

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 school’s Catholic faith, pastoral care is ‘brilliant’ and ‘house assistants are excellent’. ‘Somehow the school makes the girls very caring and respectful.’ Young maths teacher runs a GLEE club. ‘The school needs a bit more singing outside the chapel choir'...

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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.
A visit is a must!
...Read more

What the parents say...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Acting headmistress

Sarah Matthews is holding the fort following the resignation in October 2017 of Mary Arnal 'for family and personal reasons'. Mrs Matthews 'has significant experience in leading schools through significant change, having worked as part of the senior leadership team at Harrow Hong Kong to stabilise the school and significantly increase numbers.' Originally a philosophy and RS teacher, she worked for 12 years at Stamford High School for Girls prior to her role at Harrow.

The new head from September 2018 will be Maria Young, currently 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 school including Bryanston, and was director of music at Simon Langton Girls' Grammar School before joining Worth, where she is also lay chaplain.

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 consistently good. In 2017, 61 per cent of A levels graded A*-B and 41 per cent A*/A. Drama AS level continues to broaden the range of subjects available.

GCSE results also good with 56 per cent A*/A and 7-9 in 2017. Girls do well in English literature, modern languages, science, the humanities and art. Languages department has introduced iGCSE exams throughout and runs a language ‘circus’ where girls can try Spanish or German for a term; six-week taster sessions in Italian and Portuguese also on offer. French 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 head 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 water polo, yoga, pilates and zumba. School will lay on an activity if there is sufficient interest, eg scuba diving. In years 10 and 11 girls 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 throughout the year; teams hold their own and win against much larger schools.

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 a musical instrument, 15 per cent study two and some learn two instruments and singing. Each term, around 40 girls take ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall practical exams. Instrumental lessons rotate through the school day up to year 9, after which they are fixed; 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. Young maths teacher runs a GLEE club. ‘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, Sunday 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 equestrian polo, rock climbing and a young enterprise scheme. French society is very popular and includes a literary circle. Sixth formers can qualify for Leith's 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. D of E awards are a big part of school life, with two-thirds completing these every year. In keeping with school’s Catholic ethos, girls fundraise 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 7 and 8 board separately in individual ‘cubies’; day girls are welcome to visit the boarding house. After this, girls move into one of four 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 are given independence, eg preparing their own breakfast and entertaining outside friends to dinner parties.

Two-thirds 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. Supervised prep sessions on Saturday mornings and plenty to do on weekends. Long, wrap-around green kilts up to year 11 are very popular with the girls; sixth form uniform phased out in favour of smart home clothes.

Boarders are escorted 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 where girls are.

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.’ Full-time chaplain lives on campus, with school’s own priest in residence from Thursday to Sunday. Anglican minister visits once a week to lead the Eucharist. ‘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 puts on a bus to Bath if enough girls wish to go.

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 and 7 come from local primaries, London day schools and boarding preps, eg Leaden Hall. 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 55, with 70 per cent of families within an hour’s drive. Some 15 per cent from abroad, mostly Mexico, Spain and Hong Kong, with a few from Nigeria, Japan and the rest of Europe. There are 25 military families, though no extra bursaries for Forces. 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 nine,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 C grades. 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. 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. Head’s Scholarships ‘for excellence’ plus means-tested bursaries worth up to 50 per cent of school fees are 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.

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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 Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
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
VI - Visual Impairment

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