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  • St Christopher School
    Barrington Road
    Letchworth Garden City
    Hertfordshire
    SG6 3JZ
  • Head: Richard Palmer
  • T 01462 650850
  • F 01462 481578
  • E admissions@stchris.co.uk
  • W www.stchris.co.uk
  • A mainstream independent school for pupils aged from 3 to 18
  • Boarding: Yes
  • Local authority: Hertfordshire
  • Pupils: 500
  • Religion: Non-denominational
  • Fees: Day £10,470 - £17,355; Boarding £18,960 - £29,670 pa
  • Open days: September, May
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • ISI report: View the ISI report

What says..

Bands and groups abound - some students we spoke to were very delighted to go to a gig in North London pub and see one of their school bands on stage. An impressive climbing wall up the whole of one side of a classroom block. But there are also trees in the grounds that are specifically 'climbing trees' - any child welcome to climb in break time if they think they can get up and down. Such a joy to see kids climbing trees in these health and safety conscious days. Not narrowly academically selective, yet clearly a school with an expectation that each child be hungry to learn and participate...

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking Design & Technology Resistant Materials at an English Independent School (GCSE)

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.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2007, Richard Palmer (50s), who first went to St Christopher as a gap student and then went on to get a first in education at Nottingham. He taught science, drama and design technology at several schools, eventually becoming head of DT and housemaster at St John's College School, Cambridge before finding his way back to St Christopher. He became head of the junior school in 2004 and has been head of the whole school since 2007.

Previously chair, now on the committee of the Society of Heads, he is also a school inspector with the Independent Schools Inspectorate, giving him an opportunity to see other schools in action. His office is full of mechanical toys and old cameras - a man who loves design and technology still managing to teach it to all in year 7.

Described by parents as well respected, level headed, genuine and a little shy. He does not overwhelm with charisma or charm but is clearly confident in his decision making and that clear decisiveness feeds down to the school. He allows for things to be liberal without being in the least slack. He wants the school to 'remain distinctive' with a breadth of education and for 'pupils to be able to work and live with difference'. He has some freedom to do this since pupils do not do Sats and they follow the national curriculum only loosely. He wants to create more dynamic middle school years and allow topic work and individual work to continue in those years before exams set in. He is keen to find ways to bring drama and philosophy earlier on in the school. So far from a complacent head, but one with vision and goals.

Academic matters

Not narrowly academically selective, yet clearly a school with an expectation that each child be hungry to learn and participate. Independent learning is encouraged throughout the school by teachers who are enthusiastic, energetic and creative.

Nursery has more space than usual with plenty of outside play areas - grassed, soft surfaced and a covered 'outside classroom' with lots of equipment clearly being well used for learning. Historically Montessori, so lots of practical learning, playing and making but now following the EYFS curriculum with clear evidence of more formal phonic learning and number work. Children seen in wellingtons in the garden as well as in wonderful fairy dressing up clothes. Children change into indoor shoes on re-entering school. Reception children well prepared for reading and writing when they are ready and lots of trips to the junior school in preparation for year 1 transfer.

In the junior school, topic based learning and much creative planning seems to allow students to develop and research ideas, which allows for more independent learning than usually seen in a junior school. Topic learning across all subjects very much in evidence - stretching the topic to music and maths not just in humanities. Small classes - 20 is the average - with a teacher and teaching assistant in each airy classroom. Desks grouped - a sign of collaborative learning with lots of space for carpets, beanbags, making and creating. Early introduction to democracy with class rules and ethos very much child instigated. The junior library is extremely well and widely resourced - a joy in this technology based era - with pupils and parents encouraged to take books out at any time even if the enthusiastic dedicated junior school librarian not available. Interesting to see extension maths in this non-selective school, allowing for more challenging work. Learning support staff (two) in the junior school take pupils out of class but pupils also given in class support.

Five one hour lessons each day in the senior school so no rushing between lessons with bags full of books, and as a result much less tension all round. Extra impressive therefore that they manage to give such a breadth of subjects (though no Latin or RS). Spanish and French expected for all students, where appropriate. Language exchange trips considered a rite of passage and something to look forward to in year 10. Geography trips also popular as is the history war graves trip to Northern France. The trips get more exotic as the students move up the school - Rajasthan one of the most original we have seen. Creative English learning involving role play, drama, filming, and journalism work. Setting in maths from year 7 then more subject setting in year 9. Separate sciences from year 9.

Sciences and maths get particularly good GCSE results as do English, arts and crafts and DT. Parents and students appreciate being able to choose whatever combination of 18 GCSE subjects they want with no timetable limitations or restrictions. Subjects include film studies, additional science, PE and Spanish. At A level there are even more subjects to choose from with the arts and sciences getting particularly impressive results. Career evenings and seminars to help students from Year 11 onwards with choices for further education. Extension classes for Oxbridge candidates and extended project qualification for those with particular interests. In 2016, 35 per cent A*/A grades at GCSE and 23 per cent at A level, with 57 per cent A*-B grades.

Dedicated learning support staff in both junior and senior parts of the school take students out of classes for extra (paid for) lessons as well as supporting in class. Touch typing taught before school if desirable from year 5 onwards and we saw several students with laptops as well as having amanuensis (teaching assistant writing for them - particularly useful in exams). The school takes some 25 per cent pupils with special needs, though these places fill early with cognitively bright dyslexic pupils and a few with autism spectrum disorders or ADD. Pre-screening for children with special needs, so apply by November in order to make sure the school has enough provision in place for individual needs.

Games, options, the arts

St Chris is often chosen is for its wider curriculum offerings. Art, music and drama not considered soft options but very valued subjects. A very lively music department with practice rooms for individual instrument learning as well as much music creation in music technology suite. Bands and groups abound - some students we spoke to were very delighted to go to a gig in North London pub and see one of their school bands on stage. Plenty of opportunities to perform at weekly Morning Talks. More jazz and rock and small ensembles than classic orchestras, although these too exist. Junior school choir and some singing.

A large theatre building ideal for drama classes and huge annual musical productions. All the school involved in these extravaganzas, and if you don't like to be in the limelight, lots of opportunities backstage, in production and stage management.

This school is well known for its visual art department which is marvellously well resourced - sewing machines, pottery studio, printing room, woodwork, metalwork, fine art in very mixed media. A whole room dedicated to displays of their work - and one rather wonderfully designed piece of woodwork even ended up in a shop window to display shoes.

The forest school site is generous and gloriously muddy and wooded and well used.

Despite the non-competitive ethos, successful sports teams despite that definitely punch above their weight for such a small school. Everyone is involved and the theory is that this brings up the weaker sportspeople - evidently it works. Matches against local teams and county games. Netball, rugby, football, tennis, volleyball etc. Swimming pool used from early years up - for swimming lessons and fun swim club as well as squad training. It is also an opportunity for older students to obtain a lifeguard certificate so they can work at school or outside in the holidays. Heaven to find a pool with a very civilised and warm temperature of 28 degrees. More sports in lunchtime clubs and after school - rambling, cross-country, cycling, jogging, dance, canoeing, trampolining, athletics and fitness training. Their spacious green fields much in use when we visited for an inter-school football competition with five games going on at a time.

An impressive climbing wall up the whole of one side of a classroom block. But there are also trees in the grounds that are specifically 'climbing trees' - any child welcome to climb in break time if they think they can get up and down. Such a joy to see kids climbing trees in these health and safety conscious days. Plenty of fruit trees and others growing in the extensive grounds. The apple trees are picked and juiced in October by the students who get a bottle to take home. Other growing areas including a wormery from which compost is made and sold locally or used here. Nothing wasted from vegetarian school lunches. A garden shed designed and built by students made from recycled plastic bottles and bamboo sticks provides a good greenhouse for seeds and plants before planting out. And the role of food is not only evident in the growing and composting, but of course in the cookery suite. The Vege Centre is a serious part of the school curriculum where students are taught to make meals not just bake scones. The enthusiasm for all these extracurricular activities was brought home, according to one mother whose son came home eager to show off his cooking skills one day and another time wanting to make a board game.

Once a week there is an enrichment programme allowing students to choose an activity to explore - film making, jewellery, yoga, tai chi, philosophy, dependent on the interests and skills of current staff, supplemented where necessary by external tutors. These are across the age groups so give an opportunity for different years to get to know each other and perhaps explains the familial atmosphere.

Boarders

Extremely flexible boarding available from year 7 upwards. Where there is space and availability, pupils can choose between 'day boarding' between 7.30am-7.30pm and includes breakfast, supper and supervised homework, flexi boarding just for the odd night, weekly boarding from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon or full boarding. Inevitably more full boarders as the students move up the school, especially for international students. Three boarding areas according to the age of the student, with some 20 year 13 pupils in a separate house on the school grounds, year 11 and 12 students in a very modern and light extension, and younger years in cosy traditional rooms in the heart of the school. Many of the rooms are single ones - privacy being part of the respectful ethos of the school. Kind houseparents and gap students involved in weekend activities, and each teacher also responsible for one Saturday activity a year. Weekly evening activities available include movie night, cookery, games nights. Weekend activities almost always involve a trip away from school. Cooking facilities for snacks available to students, though older students have a good kitchen and cook for a weekly supper club. Meat meals are available for boarders after the vegetarian only daytime school canteen. Despite separate boarding areas, it felt very family-like, with older students and younger all hanging out together. We liked the rule that phones were taken away and charged overnight and only returned in the morning once beds were made (something to start in all homes perhaps?).

Background and atmosphere

Founded during the First World War, this school aims to treat children as individuals, to be non-judgemental and to encourage independence. The Quaker origins of one of the first heads are reflected in Morning Talk three times a week that always involves a period of silence. This opportunity for silence was also seen when we visited: in the middle of a lively lunch, one student rang a bell, the hall fell silent for a moment, and the pupil thanked the hall and the day continued. The right to ring the bell is clearly a privilege allowing for a moment of calm.

Large grounds and airy classrooms with plenty of space also add to the atmosphere of calm. Set in a quiet road in Letchworth, and based around an arts and crafts building with wood panelled rooms, several newer buildings and extensions: a slightly ramshackle group of buildings, with plenty of opportunity to walk outside between classes. Immaculate grounds and planting and freshly painted and very clean rooms despite the fact that many of the buildings are old. The school exudes clean orderliness, which is surprising in view of the reputation it has for being liberal. Students wear their own clothes, call teachers by their first names, are all doing projects and exploring ideas, and there are no bells between lessons, little noise and a great sense of purpose. Teachers appear passionate and engaged, as do pupils. The friendly and efficient catering staff, ground staff and administrators all spoke of loving their jobs. One doesn't sense hierarchy here at any level. Parents said that they appreciate that the school concentrates on things other than uniform and it was one less thing to pay for and worry about. A parent said the school 'has fantastic facilities, is not selective and is all inclusive. What's not to like?'

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

You wouldn't choose this school if you wanted a safe route or wanted to impose on your child, said one parent, but it really works if you trust your child to make their own choices and the school to nurture and empower them. Parents described it as 'non-pushy and non-selective but allows the child to pursue what they most want to do'. The pupils do choose - their subjects, the direction they want to take and how they work best. Classrooms were busy with students carrying out their own projects and working at their own pace. This is possible because the teachers work hard and there is so much mutual respect. First name terms with teachers - we saw pupils open doors for teachers and teachers waiting for pupils in the lunch queue. No pushing and shoving. Older pupils making allowances for younger pupils and sitting together at lunch. More like a family rather than exclusive year groups.

Dedicated head of pastoral care who liaises with heads of year, who in turn meet with advisors or tutors. The fact that students meet their advisors every day means that issues are fed back quickly up the school, and students and parents feel that they always have someone to speak to. Parents we talked to all knew exactly who they could speak to or email with questions or complaints or concerns.

Self-government (a way of introducing democracy and ensuring students are totally engaged in the school) is an important feature of St Chris according to students we met. Anyone can attend the school council, at which student representatives can vote. Any proposals that get passed by the school council go up to a meeting of the entire senior school where each student can vote. Resolutions passed by the school are enacted unless vetoed by the head (which almost never happens). Pupils we met loved the fact that even the youngest child in the senior school could make large things happen - like the building of the cookery Vege Centre.

Pupils and parents

Quite a large proportion commute from north London thanks to trains from Finsbury Park and school buses. Also some from Cambridge, and more who are either local or move to be near the school. A growing number of international students, especially higher up the school, who tend to be boarders. This is not a narrowly academically selective school and students and parents really reflect this - some making sacrifices to have their children at St Chris, some second generation St Chris families, some bursary students, some with quite significant special needs, some with multiple strengths and huge academic ability. Ideal for a family with several children of mixed interests and abilities - how rare to find a school to suit both the artistic child and the mathematician, the reader and the doer, and to value them all equally. Parents said they are 'encouraged to be involved' and 'can pop in at any time to ask questions'.

Entrance

The school has wonderfully popular open days (the head thinks the free lunch helps keep everyone cheerful for the day) and many parents visit several times to get a feel of the school. Applications are followed up with an interview - both of parents and, separately, the child - to make sure that expectations match. All applicants over year 4 are given cognitive ability assessment which is age related. They aim to accept 25 per cent with special needs if the school can match child's needs to school resources. Since all applicants are interviewed, the school looks for a match of school's ability to match the child's needs. Mild dyslexia well supported with extra individual lessons, high functioning verbal pupils with autism spectrum disorder seem to do well, and especially good for anxious children. The head says that 'some children need to be here', and they may well be given a place even if they don't meet the requirement that 'all prospective students need to show cognitive ability of at least 100 standardised score'. Oversubscribed senior school, and years 5 and 6 generally full too. Children with individual needs must apply by November for the following year.

Exit

All early years move onto junior school, and almost all move from junior to senior school. Some movement at 16 as London students get weary of the commute and move to sixth form colleges in the big smoke, and some are just ready for a change or move to technical colleges. Some years as many as 40 per cent leave.

As for further education, interesting split between the large number who go on to do art and those who do engineering, science and maths. The art teacher was very proud to show that every single child who applied to art college got places at every college they applied to (including Parsons in New York, Bournemouth College, London University of the Arts). Some even applied for foundation art courses but were offered the art degree course directly since they were so well prepared by St Chris. A good range of universities - including many from the Russell Group - art schools and one or two some years to Oxbridge or to read medicine. A special extension group prepares sixth formers for entry into the most demanding courses.

Money matters

This school is built on solid foundations with good transparent governance provisions in place. Financially stable and well supported. The facilities show recent and regular investment and maintenance. Despite having to pay for extras like music lessons and individual learning support lessons, parents say that the school does its level best to keep costs to parents down as much as possible. There are some 100 per cent bursaries and small allowances (10 per cent fee remission) for art and academic scholarships for pupils at years 7, 9 and 12.

Our view

Calm and orderly, busy without feeling hectic. Palpable sense of mutual respect between pupils and teachers, between pupils and other pupils and a sense of confident self-respect in the pupils themselves. Passionate, quietly self-confident and articulate students suggested that this was because everyone felt empowered thanks to their role in the school council and self governance. The ethos of respect included the school buildings - extremely well cared for with interesting wall displays, spotless toilets and no sign of writing on desks or chewing gum under desks. The pupils are given a voice at this school so there is no need for graffiti.

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Special Education Needs

Our strengths lie in supporting pupils with dyslexia and dyspraxia, though not severe. Occasionally we incorporate successfully a few pupils with Asperger’s Syndrome.

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
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL)
Epilepsy [archived]
Genetic
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
Not Applicable
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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