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There is a compact, urban feel, more akin to a London school than a leafy suburban prep. But boy, does it use every inch of its grounds, with pupils in waterproof onesies climbing trees and scanning the woodland for acorns, pinecones and suchlike in the ‘outdoor classroom’ when we visited, while den building areas for older girls are in full use up to the parameter fences most break times. St Hilda’s punches well above its weight when it comes to academics, ably competing with its neighbouring hothouses. ‘The girls have such fun that they don’t even know they are learning half the time,’ said one parent. Certainly not a yawn or glazed look in sight when we visited, although ...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2015, Sarah Jane Styles, previously head of Francis Holland (Sloane Square) Junior School. BA, QTS in theology and MA in philosophy of education. Has also been director of studies at Wheathampstead House (now St Albans High School Prep).

Seen by pupils as ‘fun,’ ‘creative’ and ‘excitable,’ she certainly has vivacity and sparkle. ‘She has a very clear vision of the direction she wants the school to go in,’ add parents, who describe her as ‘focused,’ ‘dynamic’ and ‘straight talking.’ ‘She’s not your cuddly, nurturing head who all the kids go running up to hug, but nor is she at the other end of the scale of being all businesslike and authoratitive – I’d say she’s somewhere in between,’ said one. Does guided reading with younger pupils and teaches mindfulness and English to older ones. ‘It’s important to keep your hand in,’ she says. Has plans to introduce philosophy lessons, having done so successfully in her last two schools.

Lives in St Albans and enjoys cycling and walking. Was a member of the royal navy and now a member of the royal naval reserve at weekends and in school holidays.

Entrance

Up to half of the 20 reception places are filled from the school’s co-ed Bluebird nursery. But there’s no automatic entry, with both Bluebird pupils and potential newcomers all assessed to ensure good fit (sociable, keen to learn etc). Occasional places further up the school, with girls joining from a mix of local state and private schools as parents are increasingly drawn to the academic outcomes of St Hilda’s, along with the small, nurturing, family feel.

Exit

Despite its membership of the Aldenham Foundation, this school is completely independent and does not act as a feeder to any particular school, with girls leaving at 11 to an enviable range of top-notch local independent and selective maintained schools including St Margaret’s, North London Collegiate, Aldenham, Royal Masonic, St Albans, Watford Grammar, City of London and St Helen’s. Multiple offers and several scholarships across the arts and academically are the norm most years. Boys leave the Bluebird at 4 for nearby schools including Northwood Prep and St John’s.

Our view

Founded in 1918, moved a few years later to current location in Bushey High Street in an unassuming Victorian house (originally the home of artist Hubert von Herkomer), which has since had a number of more modern add-ons crammed into the site. The result is a compact, urban feel, more akin to a London school than a leafy suburban prep. But boy, does it use every inch of its grounds, with pupils in waterproof onesies climbing trees and scanning the woodland for acorns, pinecones and suchlike in the ‘outdoor classroom’ when we visited, while den building areas for older girls are in full use up to the parameter fences most break times. Other outdoor highlights include hard and grass play areas, adventure playground paid for by the PTA coffers, and willow den, ‘where younger ones can go at playtime if they’re feeling overwhelmed or shy’ – also used for guided reading in the summer.

The whole scene is testament to the essence of the school – a stimulating, energised place with a real family feel (helped by maximum class sizes of 20 and one form entry). Girls are studious and mature – not a hint of precociousness – but they also have a glint in their eye, are hardy and have plenty to say for themselves. ‘You see every girl’s individual character flourish here rather than them turning into some homogenised prep school mould,’ one parent told us. ‘You’ll be hard pushed to find a girl that doesn’t run in happily through the gates in the morning,’ said another.

As for the buildings, don’t be fooled by the view from the street. Although nobody could argue the school is large, it is something of a Tardis, with a labyrinth of well-equipped classrooms. The hard-working hall doubles up as a dining room (head chef knows all the girls by name, plus their dietary requirements, and delivers crowd pleasing lunches every day) and there’s also Whitby Hall, an 80s construction which houses a well-equipped gymnasium. More surprises lie behind the façade of the swimming pool building - recently refurbished - which somehow hides a good sized, indoor heated pool and spacious and pristine changing areas. The library and science room (you can’t really call it a lab – not a Bunsen burner, microscope or test tube in sight) and music rooms are spacious enough, if not a little bland (but next on the list for refurb), and the classrooms have small windows, many of which look straight out onto hedges, but they are cheery and inspiring, full of examples of girls’ work. There’s also an art room and IT suite.

St Hilda’s punches well above its weight when it comes to academics, ably competing with its neighbouring hothouses. ‘The girls have such fun that they don’t even know they are learning half the time,’ said one parent. Certainly not a yawn or glazed look in sight when we visited, although inevitably the 11+ preparation class wasn’t quite as animated as others. Girls encouraged to learn how to fail ‘because out of failure you learn,’ says head, one of whose (many) favoured acronyms is GRIT (Get Really Into Trying); girls were certainly unfazed in giving us examples of work they’d done that hadn’t worked out as planned. Light homework is set from nursery; 10-15 minutes a night from year 3, rising to an hour in year 6. The after-school homework club, supervised by teaching staff, can help ease the pressure at home. School doesn’t believe in setting pupils, believing it’s important to allow for a child’s different capabilities within a subject (although some differentiation for some maths projects for older years).

Specialist teachers for Spanish, French, swimming, forest school, PE and music from nursery; science from reception; and English, maths and humanities from year 4. All teachers know the girls ‘inside out’ say parents. ‘This was the thing that really won us over when looking at local schools – the pastoral care that stems from this,’ said one parent. Others point to the teachers’ ‘approachability’ and ‘open door policy for parents,’ while girls also have access to a part-time chaplain (from Aldenham School) and their housemistress, plus younger ones get a buddy from an older year.

The school’s size also means that SEN (head prefers ‘ACE’ – accelerated education – ‘because we focus on stretching, challenging and supporting those at the top end as much as those with extra challenges’) usually mainstreamed into the classroom. Plus a range of friendly-sounding ‘clubs’ for areas such as spelling and language enrichment allow pupils who need it to receive extra help without feeling marginalised. Recent scholarships (from all-rounder and academic to sport, music and art) are the proof in the pudding that good things can come in small packages.

It’s not all work and no play, though. This is the kind of school that, on snow days, children pile outside rather than kowtowing to health and safety, which parents feel is an accurate reflection of the school’s home-like culture. In its quest to produce all-rounders, girls are encouraged to do at least one extracurricular club (most do more), with quirkier examples including water polo, Pilates, debating, food club and yoga.

Sport is wide-ranging - netball and athletics (girls represent the borough, and sometimes nationally, in the latter) are flagship sports, with supporting roles from rounders, lacrosse, tennis, hockey gymnastics, ballet and dance, and year-round weekly swimming for all from nursery up. Facilities include two hard courts and, of course, the pool, with sports fixtures requiring more space now taking place at Aldenham School, 10 minutes away. These boast a 400m running track, sports hall and long-jump pit. More competitive fixtures than previously and the provision of Aldenham’s minibuses has made this previously prohibitively expensive exercise feasible, resulting in a more sporty outlook.

Art produces some wonderful results, on display throughout the school. Music goes from strength to strength, with all year 3s learning violin (let’s hope the teacher has a good supply of paracetamol) and 60 per cent of the upper school learn an individual instrument across the range of strings, wind and piano. Orchestra, choir, string groups and ensembles. No whole school production, but plenty of nativity productions, music recitals and plays, with year 5/6 performances taking place at Aldenham, with recent examples including Daisy Pulls It Off and Joseph. English Speaking Board available for years 3-5. Bin Bag Assembly an annual highlight for year 6s, who each design an outfit out of rubbish bags then turn the lot into a fashion show. Day trips in abundance – year 6s were off to Houses of Parliament just after our visit - and residentials include bushcraft camping trip, Swanage, Cornwall and France.

Not a strict school – think values, not rules; ‘We do it like this’ posters, not ‘Do not do this’ ones; but high expectations around uniform, manners, not distracting others in class etc. Some friendship issues – several girls told us about experiences of ‘feeling left out’ or someone ‘being mean to me’ and tried to go into great depth about the detail - but head says they work hard to unpick the triggers ‘as no child is naturally mean’ and they work with families where necessary.

Most parents are from the hard-working middle class, many stretching themselves for their daughters’ education. Lots of first time buyers and a variety of ethnicities, reflecting the local area, although some come from further afield – stretching as far as Kenton, Wembley, St Albans and Chorleywood.

Busy families benefit from the Bluebird nursery which offers wrap-around care 50 weeks a year. Parents of nursery age children can select term time, state school or St Hilda’s school terms to fit in with their situations and deliver flexible childcare. This ethos also spreads up the school with breakfast club (from 7.30am), free early drop off (from 8am) and late pick-up, including tea (up to 6.30pm).

Not a school for parents seeking to be wowed by state-of-the-art facilities and the acres of fields that many preps boast, but expect to be seriously impressed if you’re looking for a small, caring, family-like atmosphere where girls’ strengths are played to and the girls’ capabilities – academic and otherwise – can and do shine. As one parent puts it, ‘The school is small, agile and focused on outcomes which they achieve by fitting the school around the individual girls, not the other way round.’

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