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  • St Edmund's School
    St Thomas Hill
    Canterbury
    Kent
    CT2 8HU
  • Head: Mrs Louise Moelwyn-Hughes
  • T 01227 475601
  • F 01227 471083
  • E admissions@stedmunds.org.uk
  • W www.stedmunds.org.uk
  • A mainstream independent school for pupils aged from 3 to 18
  • Boarding: Yes
  • Local authority: Kent
  • Pupils: 580
  • Religion: Church of England
  • Fees: Day £9,027 - £19,671; Boarding £20,202 - £31,716; Choristers £21,249 pa
  • Open days: Please see website. Visits welcome by appointment at any time.
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • ISI report: View the ISI report

What says..

Rebranding means the school is no longer marketing itself as a music and drama school, and no longer describing itself as non-selective. But while all the families we spoke to were aware of the change, none felt that a more academic bent was at the expense of less able pupils, or non-academic activities. ‘I think this is an additional benefit to the school. The music and drama department is just as excellent as it was,’ says one parent.

Read review »

What the school says...

Children learn effectively when they are happy and motivated. To enable this, we provide a lively, challenging education in a safe, nurturing environment for boys and girls aged 3 - 18. We have high expectations for excellent academic achievement and for enthusiastic involvement in extra-curricular activities; we are renowned for outstanding opportunities in music, drama and the creative arts. We are a friendly school with a family atmosphere and by valuing each pupil in our care, we help them develop the skills and independence to attain their goals and achieve at the highest levels. The boarding community is vibrant and happy where boarding for boys and girls, aged 8 to 18, can be on a weekly, flexi, or full basis. Overlooking the historic city of Canterbury, St Edmund's is situated in the heart of Kent with high speed rail links to London. ...Read more

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Other features

All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

Choir school - substantial scholarships and bursaries usually available for choristers.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head of school

Since 2011, Mrs Louise Moelwyn-Hughes (40s). Previously senior deputy head of The Perse in Cambridge, and spent 13 years in various roles from year head to housemistress at Marlborough College, following a degree in classics at Cambridge. Now immediately dismiss the picture you’ve formed, because she’s far from the Cambridge to Perse public school head you’re imagining. Still has the accent from her humble but bookish Belfast background, and says she didn’t really know what Cambridge was when a teacher suggested that her schoolgirl love of ancient Greek could be a ticket there.

Utterly comfortable in her own skin, seems to enjoy being different to the pack. ‘I do things my own way, I call a spade a spade,’ she says. No airs, no grandstanding, just that type of quiet authority which can bring a room to silence just by sitting still. ‘A quiet powerhouse,’ said a parent. ‘She attends many events, but never seeks to take glory from those who organise - so at a chapel service, she may be sitting in the back pew while the lovely chaplain does his bit; same at junior school concerts, there to show support and cheer them on, but lets the master give the thanks and praise. Very respectful, but she watches everything, and seems to know everything.’

She’s been responsible for some record-breaking results, and a 20 per cent increase in pupil numbers in the last three years. Parents describe the school as ‘better in every element’, and the transformation as ‘quite extreme’. ‘I can’t speak highly enough of her,’ said one. ‘She has turned the school around, and changed the whole ethos, and it’s clear teachers have a lot of respect for her.’

Another said: ‘It is always quite obvious to me that she knows the students individually, as is the tremendous respect both students and staff members all have for her. I have met very few people in life who display such grace and level of consciousness in their dealings with others.’

Remarkably she has also transformed her home life, with two children produced during her time in post, and these toddlers are now curbing her hobbies of squash, running, walking and reading.

Academic matters

There is now an ex-Perse triumvirate at the top. Deputy head Ed O’Connor joined in 2013 from head of sixth form at Perse, and 2015 saw Matthew Jelley, previously deputy head of Perse’s Prep school, becoming head of St Edmund’s junior school. The pre-prep is also under a newish broom – Julia Exley joined as head in 2013 from Northbourne Park School.

Three leaders from this academic heavyweight is bound to have an impact, and the head makes no bones about the fact that she is stepping up expectations. ‘Perse is in the top 10 academically, St Edmund’s will never be that, but I am looking to raise the bar so that people feel tested,’ she says. Rebranding means the school is no longer marketing itself as a music and drama school, and no longer describing itself as non-selective.

But while all the families we spoke to were aware of the change, none felt that a more academic bent was at the expense of less able pupils, or non-academic activities. ‘I think this is an additional benefit to the school. The music and drama department is just as excellent as it was,’ says one parent. ‘It’s a great turn around, without losing the school's comprehensive ethos,’ said another. ‘There is no feeling that you can settle for what you get - if you are predicted a C you have to try to get a B or higher.’ Sixth formers told us that they would be heartily congratulated for a C grade if that was the best of their ability. ‘Everyone has their own target grade which they are pushed to exceed,’ said one.

We heard particularly strong praise from parents of dyslexic children. ‘They are very good at identifying but not labelling,’ said one. Another described a child who was struggling with the GCSE curriculum, but through what was described as ‘learning tailor-made to him’ went on to win a place at Cambridge. Moelwyn Hughes says she expects higher academic standards to result in more pupils with special needs, as it will encompass more students with Asperger's, many of whom are in the highest academic band nationally.

Should your child fall behind, it won’t be seen as your problem. In this instance, the head says they find out what is behind it and put in a lot of pastoral and academic support. ‘We don’t say to parents you are going to have to supervise this, we make it our business to turn things around,’ she says.

When some pupils were struggling in French, her response was ‘Let’s throw Arabic at it’. These pupils took a Cambridge Certificate in Arabic and Middle East studies instead. ‘Four kids got distinctions. It’s a Perse way to take something which looks higher end and give it to kids who are struggling, it builds confidence,’ she says. It might also be testament to her teaching, as the children studied with her. She dismisses her own mastery of Arabic with an ‘oh that’ wave of the hand.

As well as Arabic other new subjects the head has introduced are economics, politics and Greek. At A level there are 26 subjects to choose from, the EPQ and an option to do the AQA Baccalaureate. The most popular A levels are biology, history and photography. Maths and theatre studies are also strong departments. In 2016, 33 per cent of A level entries achieved A*/A grades; at GCSE, 28 per cent of entries were A*/A.

There’s no hiding place for teachers. ‘If a parent complains about staff performance, I call the teacher in immediately and tell them and I deal with it,’ the head says. Teachers are left to their own styles, as long as it works. Music teaching is said to be ‘inspirational’ and the head of junior school music was running a lively class investigating scores from Bond films when we visited. A sixth form economics class was studying the cement market, and the teacher was relaxed about some having earphones plugged in as they worked, as he said they were all turning in A*/B grade work.

‘There are some fabulous teachers, and there have been some teachers whose tenure has been short because they just weren't up to the job. That's what we call progress. They use different techniques for different children - above all it’s not a one size fits all school,’ said a parent.

The junior school has its own bright and cosy classrooms, and the curriculum includes swimming, music, dance and French from the earliest years. In years 3 to 5 subjects are extended to include geography, history, IT and Latin. There is some streaming – we saw year 5 maths groups tackling number problems on paper in one set, while another was learning weights and ratios through making biscuits. The artwork on display in a variety of media is notably good.

In the upper half of the junior school - years 6, 7 and 8 – lessons are taught in a separate block in the upper school, where they can use the senior’s science, art and design technology rooms, and all lessons are taught by subject specialists.

Games, options, the arts

Go in with your eyes open. It’s a small school so you can’t expect to have top flight teams. Some parents mourn the lack of rugby – the school plays football and hockey instead, which works better in a mixed year group of just 65. ‘There’s lots of sport there if you want to do it, but you have to be realistic, they are not going to beat the massive teams,’ said one parent. For the top level players it can be frustrating, but a parent of one of these is pragmatic about it, saying, ‘Even in big schools they are only going to get one or two county level players. And they are doing a lot to improve, such as getting in professional coaches.’

Music is strong, as you might expect in the school which educates the choristers of Canterbury Cathedral. There’s a purpose-built music school with a recording studio. It’s big on theatre too, with theatre studies well subscribed, and a full size theatre with five wings and a green room to perform in.

Some parents would like to see more trips, though one reeled off an impressive list her children had taken part in - skiing in Italy, drama trip to New York, music/language trip and watersports to Spain, Rua Fiola survival adventure, Christmas trip to Lille, language trip to Switzerland, and history trips to Portsmouth.

Saturday morning school is now optional. It’s not charged for, pupils don’t have to wear uniform, and the activities are the likes of international cuisine, technology, art, film making, sport, and music. One-third of day pupils come in for it.

Boarders

There are 140+ boarders, over half of whom are from overseas. There are flexi, weekly, and full boarding options. Junior boarders (11-13) live in School House, a wing of the main school building. Senior boarders live in the main school building or in the nearby Clare, Sunfield and Gorsefield Houses. Boys’ dormitories have views over the fields to the cathedral, through arched mullioned windows. Girls overlook the changing rooms. Boys have ensuites, girls don’t. The boarding rooms are fairly cramped, but there’s a big common room/kitchen and sixth formers have separate studies shared between three or four people. After optional morning school on a Saturday, afternoons are free, and Sundays see outings to London museums, Bluewater, ice skating and so on. The 26 choristers (boys only) live separately in Choir House within the cathedral precincts, with a timetable which includes 20 hours singing, attending evensong six days a week, and recordings.

Background and atmosphere

The school is centred around a High Victorian building with its own chapel. The exterior is grand, and there are commanding views across the fields to Canterbury Cathedral. But the senior school interior has stained carpets, holes gouged out of plaster, some cramped classrooms shoved into unlikely parts of the old building, and is frankly scruffy. If you’re doing the circuit its shabbiness will be evident among the more glitzy schools; but current parents don’t notice it and see it as all part of the warm, family atmosphere. The head has made staffing and small class sizes a priority, and says increased pupil numbers in the last two years will now fund refurbishment.

It’s a school with a smile on its face, a great sense of ease and happiness pervades. ‘It’s as friendly and warm as a prep school. Every single teacher knows me and you just feel welcome,’ said one parent.

Will you fit in? One parent describes it thus: ‘It’s not a competitive school. If you want to be told that your child is number one at everything, don't come here. If you get your kicks from being told you’re better than everyone else, it’s not for you. If you are a show off, don't come here. There's no pride in being better than someone else here – it’s about being better than your own expectations and about being part of the school.’

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Praise for the pastoral care from parents was overwhelming. One child missed several months of school owing to health problems in his GCSE year, and he was given one-to-one teaching on his return to enable him to catch up. We also heard about a teenager who had derailed; the response, as the parent described, ‘Spending days after talking, planning, resetting goals and wiping the slate clean for a new start. At all times protecting his dignity and his self-esteem. Within days all teaching staff adopted a completely different set of rules for him, and never mentioned earlier failings.’ Moelwyn Hughes says: ‘I’m a big fan of meeting with parents and the pupil and deciding what we’re going to do.’

Another family had to deal with bereavement, and the parent said: ’I can categorically say that had it not been for the pastoral care and time and attention Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and her housemaster provided to him, and what he gets out of the school community, his world would be a far worse place than it is today. I am eternally indebted to Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and St Edmund's School.’

And lots of parents told us that the head will always seek out children and congratulate them individually on a big achievement in their own sphere. ‘It’s the little touches you don’t normally get in a senior school,’ said a parent.

Pupils and parents

People tend to stick with the school. At transition last year, 52 out of 54 came up from the junior to senior school last year, and around 10 new pupils join at this point.

International students represent 28 nationalities – there are larger groups from China and Germany, but kept no bigger than 15 students - and also students from Thailand, The Congo, Kazakhstan, Russia, Nigeria, Poland, Belgium and France.

It’s not a school where you need designer clobber for the school run. One parent described the parent body as ‘trying to do the best for their children. Very mixed finances, not all necessarily finding the school fees that easy, and not doing it for the social cachet of being an old boy. Very few pushy parents, certainly not seeking advance for their own child at the expense of another.’

Another described the school gate as ‘friendly, warm, no parents whinging in your ear “my child wasn’t the shining star …”’

Entrance

Usual entry points (3+, 7+, 11+, 13+ and 16+) plus other year groups when places available. Junior school entry is based on assessments on a taster day to gauge academic levels; nearly all juniors move up to the senior school with no entrance test. At 11+ entry for outsiders (a few join at this stage) there are formal entrance tests (verbal and non-verbal reasoning) and consideration is given to Kent Test results. Year 9 entry involves tests in maths and English, and a guideline requirement would be common entrance marks of around 60 per cent or above (although you don’t have to pass common entrance). Sixth formers need A*/B at GCSE in the subjects they wish to study. On top of that, head says personality and character is part of it. ‘It matters the mix you have. I take the opportunity to meet every kid so they recognise that I chose them,’ she says.

Exit

Nearly all juniors join the senior school. All sixth formers go to higher education including conservatoires and drama schools, and popular university destinations are Manchester, Reading, Exeter, King's College, Royal Holloway, UCL, Durham, Bristol and Canterbury. Two to Cambridge and one to Yale in 2016.

Money matters

Scholarships from 10 per cent to 50 per cent of the tuition fees for both day and boarding pupils are awarded in academic, music, sport, art and drama categories, and occasionally to all-rounders. These can be topped up by means-tested bursaries for those currently at the school. Discounts offered to children of clergy, members of the armed forces, and third and subsequent children.

Our view

Which of the effusive quotes to use? We’ve seldom seen such overwhelming praise for a head, and for pastoral care, from parents. Nor such a sense of a cohesive parent body without factions. Not for you if you want a school high on social cachet and entry to society by school tie, or smart teas after thrilling wins against top flight teams. But if you want a school which is going to take great care of your child, and get the best out of him/her, whether s/he’s a Cambridge or C grade student, definitely one for the shortlist.

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