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Where does school’s heartbeat lie, we asked, sport, drama, music or academia? None of the above, according to girls – but all are drawn together by a common thread of enthusiasm and a ‘can-do’ attitude. As with any high- flying girls’ school worth its proverbial, much focus placed on ensuring mental well-being and happiness and girls show strong understanding of the balance between ‘competitive edge’ and being more relaxed: ‘It’s a bit like the relationship between…

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What the school says...

St Albans High School for Girls is an independent day school which is affiliated to the Church of England. Our vision is to provide an exciting and challenging education that fosters independence, creativity and risk-taking within a caring community. We encourage girls to set themselves ambitious goals, both intellectually and personally. We promote critical and creative thinking,and place a strong emphasis on independent research and investigation. Our commitment to the creative arts is evident in our new performing arts, design and technology centre. When your daughter comes to us, she will be nurtured by expert house mistresses and tutors who will take an overview of her academic and personal development. The High School is a vibrant and supportive community where girls thrive. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2014, Mrs Jenny Brown (40s). Educated at North London Collegiate before reading English at Oxford. With both parents English teachers ‘it was the very last thing I wanted to do,’ she says, instead taking a job at Robert Maxwell’s publishing house (thankfully too young to invest in pensions) – ‘the last word in really dull jobs’. Escaped to teach English at Cranleigh (‘like coming home’), followed by Highgate School, South Hampstead High, Channing and St Paul’s Girls where she was director of senior school. Still adores the ‘sheer joy’ of teaching and takes a ‘gluttonous’ approach to indulging this passion, teaching year 7 creative writing (‘she makes girls really think’, say parents), and parts of the A level syllabus to sixth form: ‘incredibly useful to keep in touch with what’s going on around school…and for my sanity’.

Fell in love at first sight with the ‘extraordinary combination of high achievement and civilisation’ she found on arrival at STAHS, notably the distinct lack of ‘neurotic’ girls. Feels that school’s geographic location plays large role in comparatively pervading grounded atmosphere: ‘It beats with the same energy and ambition as a London school, but being that little bit further out lowers the temperature a bit’.

Statuesque, stylish (a coincidence that her outfit was colour coordinated to her office accessories?) and, according to parents ‘ferociously intellectual’, looks for girls ‘with headlights on’ to join school. With this as benchmark, she is on full beam. Prolific member of the twitterati and frequent commentator on all things feminist, oft quoted in national newspapers on subjects such as sexism in the workplace (waded in on recent high heel debate). One half of the Good Schools Guide’s first set of identical twin head teachers – her sister, Jane, is head at Wimbledon High ('it’s lovely to be able to share ideas’). Lives in Highgate with playwright husband, Ben, and enjoys theatre, literature (muses ‘who would I head towards first in Heaven – Shakespeare or Donne?’) and a weekly swim in Hampstead Ponds. Writes poetry ‘when creative space allows’. Two children, one in sixth form, one at university.

Head of prep since September 2015, Mrs Judy Rowe (40s). Educated at North London Collegiate School and Durham University. Has taught in Zambia and was previously head of lower school at Belmont, Mill Hill Prep. Businesslike, chatty and in the running for sportiest prep head of the year – running, canoeing and cycling are just a few of her weekend pursuits. Parents say she has opened formerly firmly closed doors to them (‘we are actually invited into the classroom now – before, there was a line in the playground that we weren’t allowed to cross’) and changed prep beyond recognition – and all for the better.

Academic matters

With girls selected from 4+ and places fiercely fought over at 7+ and 11+, school is firing on all academic cylinders from the get-go and is certainly not for the faint of heart. Even the youngest pupils buzz with intellectual curiosity and are stretched accordingly. And STAHS girls don’t all wait until they get into the senior school to start notching up achievements: 2016 saw them win the Creativity in Science prize at the eastern region Big Bang Science Fair; in recent years school has been placed second and third out of 600 entries in the GSK Science Competition and every girl for the past three years has successfully gained the Bronze Crest Award from the British Science Association, generally for students in years 7 to 9. All that and they still manage to squeeze in an impressive number of music and LAMDA exams.

French from reception and Mandarin now on curriculum from year 4. Specialist teaching for science, ICT, languages, music and PE from the start sees girls moving independently around the junior school from a young age, with setting for science – taught in bright new lab – from year 5. Parents, ‘blown away’ by science teaching, say staff can get even the most reluctant scientist ‘totally absorbed’. Class sizes slowly expand from a maximum of 20 in reception to 24 in years 3 to 6. Unsurprisingly ‘very low’ numbers on the SEN register but school able to support mild dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia through mix of one-to-one and class based work. ‘ACE’ (additional curricular education) groups not only support girls in need of extra help but also push the top half dozen or so girls in each year group with a focus on additional problem solving and advanced reading. All girls also screened upon entry to year 7, with general approach to SEN mirrored in senior school.

Sensible approach to homework in junior school, with between 20 and 40 minutes of ‘research based’ homework most evenings. Head takes dim view of tutoring and holiday hothousing, instead encouraging parents to lighten up by providing list of suggested activities – making scrambled egg or writing a thank you letter as arduous as it gets. Senior girls report homework to be ‘reasonable’, as are staff when it comes to endorsing the occasional extension.

Scholarship is the first of school’s three key values and can be found in spades in senior school. Despite (or perhaps due to) head’s determination for girls to ‘keep it real’ and focus on things other than just academic studies (as if to prove this point one of our guides had just got her busking licence, with plans afoot to hit the lucrative South Bank on weekends), results are stellar. In 2017, nearly 59 per cent of all A levels were graded A*/A and 83 per cent A*/B. History, RS and maths most popular subjects; surprisingly small language take-up. Twenty subjects on offer at A level, including less traditionally academic options such as fine art, drama and theatre studies, textiles and food technology. GCSEs no less impressive, with nearly 92 per cent graded A*/A or 7-9 in 2017. IGCSEs in all core subjects, plus history and modern languages. Mandarin available as twilight option with GCSE taken in year 9. At least one language compulsory at GCSE and most also choose a creative option. Most take nine or 10 GCSEs with average class sizes at this stage between 15 and 18, becoming much smaller at A level.

Newly appointed director of higher education and careers ensures girls are pushed ‘out of their comfort zone’, with all departments teaching ‘university stretch’ at A level and ‘second to none’ Oxbridge preparation according to head – as proven by seven Oxbridge offers for 2017 entry. Girls declare support during the university application process ‘amazing’, with each being allocated to a specialist in their chosen subject for bespoke guidance throughout: ‘invaluable’, said one grateful sixth former. Next step is ‘to invest in tapping into our alumni to boost careers offering,’ says head.

Games, options, the arts

Where does school’s heartbeat lie, we asked, sport, drama, music or academia? None of the above, according to girls – but all are drawn together by a common thread of enthusiasm and a ‘can-do’ attitude. Sport high on the agenda right from early prep days with ‘very broad’ offering not just of netball, lacrosse, athletics, dance and gym on curriculum in the prep, but also karate, fencing and ballet, giving girls a competitive edge when they move through to the senior school. Despite the fact that games pitches are a 10-minute walk from senior school, girls manage to participate in every sport imaginable, with the focus ‘heavily competitive’ when it comes to lacrosse and netball. Unusually, compulsory games all the way through to sixth form, at which point pupils can opt for eg zumba, yoga, swimming, dance or ultimate frisbee. Whilst not nestled amongst vast playing fields, impressive facilities for an urban school include new sports pavilion, dance studio, fitness suite, large, traditionally equipped sports hall, netball courts, lacrosse pitches and 25m swimming pool, also used by prep pupils. Prep has its own cross country course – with pre-lesson runs three mornings a week (run on Tuesdays if you want to try to beat head). Competitive fixtures for all (up to four teams fielded in most year groups right from prep – ‘if you want to take part, you can’) produce all manner of silverware year on year.

Drama also extremely popular at all levels. Major school productions – which tend to err on the side of mainstream – in recent years West Side Story, Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma, draw girls to participate with great gusto in all elements, from costume, make-up and tech to performing in the orchestra pit (‘always amazing’). Annual house drama competition follows a theme, recently children’s literature, and is scripted by year 12s, with all year 7 girls in the cast. Senior performances take place in Jubilee Hall which can seat up to 350, with prep pupils strutting their stuff in the beautifully adapted new (2016) Lodge building developed from a former caretaker’s house, now home to many junior concerts and year group plays where, we are assured, ‘everyone gets a good innings – nobody’s stuck in the chorus’. At time of writing, school boasted two members of National Youth Theatre. Super serious music in very smart senior music block, with girls streamed according to musical aptitude from year 7 and top set taking early GCSE in year 10. Over 500 senior girls take peripatetic instrumental lessons each week, with plethora of choirs (chamber, gospel and everything in between), bands and orchestras in which to showcase their talents.

Superb art displayed in bright, inspiring studios – with A level artists benefiting from their own serene space, akin to a London art college. Is art allowed as a third A level? We are assured this is not frowned upon: ‘that’s something I feel strongly about,’ says head, ‘it’s a discipline.’ Similarly high standard on display in prep school, where every spare inch of space is adorned with a delightful junior masterpiece. Outside of the classroom, co-curricular programme doesn’t disappoint, with girls able to spread their creative, sporting and intellectual wings to their hearts’ content plus CV boosters like D of E, Model United Nations and EPQ. Prep boasts impressive range of options, with outstanding forest school provision (on and off curriculum) the jewel in its crown, thanks to its stunning wooded grounds and dedicated outdoorsy staff.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1889, school moved to current site in the centre of this popular (and, in parts, quaint) commuter town in 1908. Close links maintained with both the diocese and St Albans School (boys). Quirky mish-mash of buildings from trad Victorian to uber modern, plus one or two less appealing 1970s additions, straddles a quiet residential road, with girls moving seamlessly and sensibly between the various sites. A tour of the school takes in an impressive mix of facilities from the separate sports complex to stunning rotunda building – all floor to ceiling glass – where pupils can work, socialise and treat themselves to something from the on-site Starbucks or sandwich bar. Super library for years 7 to 11 has studious, traditional feel and is extremely well resourced. Sixth formers have their own kitchen and common room, plus library offering selection of newspapers, magazines plus copies of all A level texts. Smart, navy uniform worn by girls up to sixth form, when pupils are allowed to dress ‘appropriately’ down.

Head hits nail on head, describing atmosphere as ‘relaxed formality’. Less rarefied than expected given lofty league table position – possibly because of urban location: head says girls ‘live with in-built risk all the time’. In fact, were it not for the glittering facilities one could almost mistake it for a top state grammar and indeed head encourages collaborations with local high achieving state schools such as STAGS, QE Boys and Loretto College: ‘we are perceived in community as a pillar’, she says.

Prep occupies spectacular rural site in village of Wheathampstead, a four mile drive down country lanes from its big sister. Stunning country house setting nestled amongst 18 acres of lawns, woodlands, adventure playgrounds and a meadow. The only school we have visited where head keeps spare pair of (spotty) wellies for visitors.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

As with any high- flying girls’ school worth its proverbial, much focus placed on ensuring mental well-being and happiness and girls show strong understanding of the balance between ‘competitive edge’ and being more relaxed: ‘It’s a bit like the relationship between Venus and Serena Williams,’ said one. Head highlights relationships between pupils and staff as ‘exemplary’ and a key factor in school’s positive atmosphere. House system integral to pastoral structure – starting in the prep and travelling all the way up – with housemistresses key points of contact on all matters pastoral. Pupils assure us that they are in no respect of the ‘cookie cutter’ variety, in fact that they are ‘positively encouraged to be quirky’ and that ‘school accepts differences both inside and out of the classroom'. ‘Supportive’ used time and time again to describe overall ethos of school with all differences of race, religion (assemblies are multi-faith) and sexuality (LGBT Society present and correct) seemingly taken in its stride. In addition to staff, there are external counsellors two days a week and pupil mentors aplenty from the raft of school and house officers, plus head girl and three deputies, voted by a combination of pupils and staff to trained and signposted youth health champions.

Likewise in prep, environment strikes balance between high achieving and nurturing, with buddy systems and buddy families, a playground squad to ensure everyone’s joining in and a school committee which meets fortnightly. Oh – and better food than the senior school (apparently).

Pupils and parents

Majority of pupils from hard working, often dual income families from across the demographic range (lots of professions and City) but, quips head, ‘certainly not oligarchs.’ With disproportionate number of only children amongst the cohort, prep parents can be somewhat ‘tigerish’ according to one parent – and as for the prolific class Whatsapp group? You have been warned. Localish contingent still in majority but around one third of applications now from families living in London boroughs eg Finchley and Totteridge plus as far afield as Luton, Hitchin and Potters Bar. These pupils arrive on one of a fleet of 10 buses. Pupils we met showed a delightful mix of intellect, empathy and groundedness – and not a jolly hockey stick amongst them.

Entrance

Oversubscribed (applications on the increase and a very high acceptance rate) and highly academically selective with main entry points 4+, 7+ and 11+. For entry into reception, girls assessed in an informal multi-task session. Head adamant that they are ‘not looking for girls who are pushed, prepped or tutored’. Additional class added at 7+, with online assessments in maths, English and reasoning and school looking for ‘girls who will do well at 16 and 18’. Thirty-five per cent of joiners at 11+ come in ones and twos from state primaries and independent feeders include Beechwood Park, Manor Lodge, Radlett Prep, Holland House and Palmer’s Green to name a few.

Senior school unashamedly a place for ‘very able girls who can engage intellectually’. There are 120 year 7 places up for grabs with about 40 moving up from prep and around three applicants for each remaining place. Prep pupils sit the same exam as external applicants for the purposes of scholarship selection. Came out of North London Consortium in 2015 (‘we have to make very fine judgements and the papers were not interesting or lively enough to discriminate’, says head). Candidates sit English and maths papers, with the former including ‘a task that absolutely cannot be prepared for’ and around two-thirds are interviewed before final offers made. Around 15 places up for grabs in sixth form, with minimum of A grades at GCSE in chosen subjects required and A* for those taking maths A level.

Exit

Almost all from prep to secondary, with just a small handful each year to boarding or state. Early heads up if staff feel pupil unlikely to thrive in fast paced senior school (usually a good handful are advised to look for pastures new – but parents say it’s rarely a surprise). Around a fifth leave after GCSEs, heading for co-ed, boarding or just a change of scene. At 18 all progress to higher education, with 10 to Oxbridge in 2016 as well as five medics and two vets. Other popular destinations are Leeds, Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Nottingham.

Money matters

Means-tested bursaries up to 100 per cent available. Scholarships for academia and music from year 7 and academia art/DT, games and drama in sixth form. Prep parents delighted that majority of after-school clubs now free of charge and speak highly of good value before and after-school care offering (7am to 6pm). Many grumbles though about high pricing of school coaches and recent hefty annual fee increases (particularly painful for those with multiple daughters), and although senior school fees now in line with other comparable schools, prep fees comparatively on the high side – perhaps the price of (hopefully) avoiding the 11+ mayhem.

Our view

Under the driven eye of Jenny Brown, STAHS has become a genuine competitor in the London day school scene with results and Oxbridge success on the up. Send your daughter here and watch her soar, but keep fingers firmly crossed that school’s new highly competitive agenda doesn’t override the ‘nurture factor’ that makes it currently stand apart from the hothousing rest.

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Special Education Needs

We have a qualified specialist teacher who undertakes diagnostic assessments. Girls are given individual and group tuition tailored to suit and accommodate particular needs. Nov 09.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
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
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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