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Traditional, didactic lessons with opportunity for interaction and small group work. Plenty of examples of creative learning – we saw a fantastic science display complete with flashing lights. New focus on ‘developing holistic, resilient, reflective, independent and collaborative learners,’ according to school – parents say it means less content, more thinking skills, which is working well. Sport has a strong reputation. But the real development over the last few years has been…

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St Albans is a day school for academically able boys aged 11-18 and girls aged 16-18. Founded in 948, its atmosphere and ethos derive from its long tradition and its geographical position near the historic centre of St Albans, in close proximity to the Abbey and overlooking the remains of Roman Verulamium.

Whilst maintaining very high standards of academic achievement, it offers wide opportunities for development in other fields: the School's sporting record is exceptional and Drama and Music are strengths, with a distinguished tradition in choral music. Emphasis is laid on the use of individual talents in the service of the community, through the Duke of Edinburgh's Scheme and such activities as Community Service; the Partnership Scheme with local primary schools and the flourishing CCF.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headteacher

Since 2014, Jonathan Gillespie (50s). Previously head of Lancing College for eight years and has also taught at Highgate and Fettes College. Degree in modern and medieval languages and PGCE, both from Cambridge.

Not quite old-school (he’s far too friendly and progressive to fit that description), but something about his very presence commands respect and makes you sit up that bit straighter. Even on a Teams meeting (best Teams backdrop we’ve seen yet, by the way – the oldest bit of the school on a glorious spring day, fittingly taken on the first day of lockdown in 2020: you could almost believe you were there). Very much a systems man, he was keen to talk us through the formal structures of everything from staffing and SLT arrangements through to school strategies. Biggest areas of improvement during his tenure so far are in wellbeing and teaching and learning. No longer a teacher himself, though – ‘my job is to be anywhere and everywhere, not a modern linguist’ – but gets stuck into Oxbridge trial interviews. Big on celebrating successes – potentially a full time job in its right own here. ‘Personable,’ ‘authoritative,’ ‘knows the children,’ ‘very involved and always has time for a quick chat,’ say parents. ‘Not someone you want to let down,’ say pupils.

‘The school is his world, which is fantastic,’ one parent told us. ‘But there is an expectation that the school becomes your world as well especially if you’re in a sports team or involved in music. It’s a major time commitment and parents have to be on board with that.’

Sensible (and modest) enough not to pretend to have an objective view about how well the school did during the pandemic (‘it’s still too soon’) but we can tell you parents were impressed – ‘Right from day one, all lessons were online, then over time they listened, adapted and flexed, for example giving kids a bit more downtime and reducing lesson length,’ said one. What luck school had invested so heavily in IT and introduced a ‘bring your own device’ policy just a year before lockdown. Everything seemed to be business as usual from sport (pupils expected to provide video evidence of trying out the challenges) through to music (using remote technology to put on concerts) though head admits, ‘We’ll never take simple daily interactions for granted again.’

A keen sports coach, especially hockey (he umpires at national level), he also gets involved in CCF. Hill walking and golf also take up a fair bit of his spare time, and he celebrates family's Scottish roots by playing the highland bagpipes. Married to Caroline, former civil servant, with whom they have two sons, one who is at university and the other recently commissioned from Sandhurst.

Entrance

Unashamedly selective. Oversubscribed, with over three applicants per place. Main entry points have always been 11+ and 13+, now also 12+. Tests in English, maths and VR and interviews, all on the same day. For 13+, most entrants gain their place via assessments in the summer term of year 7.

Around 100 applicants for 40+ places at 16 – 7s required at GCSE for subjects to be studied at A level, with grade average of 6.6 across all GCSEs taken. And that goes for internal candidates too.

Exit

A laudable 78 per cent go on to Russell Group universities, notably Durham, Exeter, Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds and Warwick, with popular subjects including economics, engineering, history, law, maths and the sciences. Regular success with medicine and veterinary science applications. Nine to Oxbridge in 2021.

Latest results

In 2021, 91 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 84 per cent A*/A at A level (95 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 81 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 59 per cent A*/A (82 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

GCSE grades place the school in upper echelons of league tables. No weaknesses in any subject, with top performers including English, maths, history, geography, music, design technology, sciences and classics. IGCSEs in maths, sciences, languages, history, music and English. Pupils take 10 in total. At A level maths popular and successful, with strong showings in sciences, art, classics, geography, drama, economics, DT, RS, history, classics and English. Languages less popular but interest increasing. All start with four A levels ‘because we find it makes for better, more informed choices for the right three’ (though some stick with four). French, German, Spanish and Mandarin taught on carousel in year 7, with pupils choosing two to study in year 8. Setting from second term in the year 7 in maths and from year 9 in other core subjects – but a bottom set here is still well above average. Computer science has replaced ICT, and there’s much more digital learning generally – and not just due to Covid.

Traditional, didactic lessons with opportunity for interaction and small group work. Plenty of examples of creative learning – we saw a fantastic science display complete with flashing lights. New focus on ‘developing holistic, resilient, reflective, independent and collaborative learners,’ according to school – parents say it means less content, more thinking skills, which is working well. We approve of school’s recent overhaul of approach to feedback – ‘If you give pupils a grade, they tend to look at what they get, look at what their neighbour got, then switch off if they came out worse than them,’ points out head, with all feedback now focusing on ‘What did you do well? What could you do better?’ Slightly unfortunate acronym of DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time) now a major feature of all lessons following testing. Independent research is higher up the agenda too since our last visit – formalised as study skills in year 9, HPQ in year 11 and EPQ (about 80 students did one last year) in sixth form. Drop-in subject clinics at GCSE and A level for most subjects at least once a week. Teaching staff highly praised and observed at least once a year. Homework is at least one hour a night in first form, moving up to two hours a day in sixth form. Absolutely no room for complacency or coasting. ‘There’s a strong expectation that you do your best and nothing less,’ a pupil told us. But we were reassured by one parent who told us, ‘My son was quite shy when he joined and they were brilliant at building his confidence and now we’re told he’s not just good at asking questions but asking good questions.’ High calibre teachers, as you’d expect. ‘Extremely honest and direct feedback on parents’ evening – no hiding, and that’s how most of us like it,’ said one parent. Careers guidance includes detailed help with university applications and that goes for Oxbridge and overseas universities too.

Learning support and SEN

Impressive learning support unit based in the centre of the school with specialist staff who cheerfully and successfully make sure pupils get all the backup they need to thrive. Its positive approach is not to be underestimated – while other schools talk negatively about problems and hurdles, this school celebrates neurodiversity. Support for mild to moderate SEN including dyslexia, dyspraxia and ASD – plus a range of undiagnosed challenges with eg processing. Mentoring available for those needing an extra push to maximise their potential, as well as help around resilience, relieving stress, facilitating study skills etc. Because the admissions process is so meticulous, parents told us they feel confident the school doesn’t take on anyone who can’t flourish here. One EHCP when we visited.

The arts and extracurricular

New music school based in centre of school means you’re very likely to hear snippets of melody as you wander through – bliss. If you’re really lucky, you’ll hear the grand piano being played from the main performance hall. This is a Steinway school and standards are high both for pianists and other musicians, though the department is inclusive of all levels. Lots of practice/lesson rooms plus two hi-tech classrooms and a recording studio. School choir, which includes some teachers, performs at the abbey twice a week, plus there’s the usual orchestra, ensembles and bands etc. Marked improvement recently in strings playing. One parent told us, ‘Our son sings a minimum of three times a week in the abbey – it’s wonderful!’

Drama collaborates with music department for whole school performances. The department – located opposite the school – also puts on regular smaller plays. ‘Not the best facilities, but the head of drama is an awesome individual whose enthusiasm is contagious,’ said one parent. ‘My son has directed, written, starred in… you name it, he’s done it, and loved it.’

Not an art department where everyone’s work looks the same. Everything from fine art to ceramics to DT reflective of individual creativity and personality, making for some fascinating displays. Cooking club is a recent addition.

Outdoor teamwork fostered through robust and popular CCF and DofE. Army and air options available, though parents say RAF wing plays second fiddle to Coldstream Guards – despite the former offering opportunities to take off and fly. Clubs dominated by sports – particularly popular is the open house sports on a Friday after school where you can do anything from table tennis to taking a dip in the pool or using the climbing wall. Pupil led societies are on the up eg classics, history, all producing annual journals. Debating does well, as you’d expect, and the diversity society is increasingly vocal. ‘There are so many clubs and everyone feels really encouraged to try them out,’ said a pupil. Special transport laid on so nobody misses out.

Trips range from classics trips to Italy or Greece through to cadet trips to Canada and Tanzania. School provides financial support where required and plenty of UK options too eg Pen Arthur, a rugged farmhouse owned by the school in rural Wales. Long tradition of sports tours – latest were cricket to South Africa and rugby to South America.

Sport

Sport has a strong reputation. Excels in rugby (D teams in most year groups), hockey, cricket and cross-country for boys and netball, lacrosse and tennis for girls. International reputation in cross-country. Sailing, squash, badminton, aerobics, golf, athletics, climbing and table tennis also on the menu. But the real development over the last few years has been in what the school calls physical literacy, with pupils encouraged to understand movement and ensure they get the right conditioning. A strength and conditioning coach oversees this increasingly nuanced area, evaluating performances and setting targets. So instead of pupils assessing their performance in a game by looking at whether they won or lost by 10 or 20 points, they’re now encouraged to focus on the specific areas they could improve in their training. ‘We no longer define success by how many games we win – it’s just not our philosophy,’ says head. All helped by whizzy sports centre with cameras for analysis of sports play and a pool with motion-capture technology to analyse style, strength, conditioning etc. Sixth formers can train to be lifeguards in the pool and then get a job there in the summer – a nice touch. More facilities at Woollams about a 10 minute drive away, with 75 acres dedicated to impressive pitches (including Astroturf) and courts, plus a spacious and modern pavilion, where pupils who do commit to sport are expected to spend most Saturdays. Non-sporty types need not fear, say parents: ‘My son participates, but he’s not that driven – you have to do it, but you can focus on other things more if sport’s not your bag.’

Ethos and heritage

Originally founded in 948, this is one of the oldest extant schools in the country (so ancient that the first pupils did not speak English) and this sense of history is a great source of pride to pupils. Adjacent to the abbey, the school has some extraordinary rooms and nooks with gothic windows and yard-thick walls. One such is home to the school's small museum. In contrast, there’s the light, contemporary Aquis Court building (former home to KPMG), which the school has acquired and uses for art, with five studios including ceramics and kiln, sixth form centre with private study area and classrooms, with other buildings nestling among well-maintained gardens. Facilities are all outstanding, with some particularly well-equipped new science labs and a spacious junior and senior libraries. Newest additions are the music centre and maths building.

Boarding went in the 1950s, direct grant in the 1970s – girls arrived (mainly from local independents and states) in the sixth in 1991. ‘My daughter could not have been made to feel more welcome,’ said one parent. ‘I don’t know any of the girls who don’t love it here,’ said one female pupil, although it’s generally agreed that more timid types may wilt among all that testosterone. Boys say the presence of girls ‘makes us more mature.’

Atmosphere is buzzy, dynamic and friendly and most definitely purposeful, with students hungry to learn. Increasing freedoms as you go up the school – year 11s can go into town for lunch (although the privilege is quickly removed if they’re not impeccably behaved), keeping the school from feeling remote and elite. Onsite cashless refectory serves an excellent array of food (some of the best we’ve seen) keeping younger ones happy. Breaktimes usually spent in class common room and outside in the abbey orchard (with teachers on duty) at lunchtimes.

Lots of outreach work (school motto is translated from Latin as ‘Born not for ourselves’), involving pupils going into care homes, working with children with learning disabilities etc. Children from local state schools have access to facilities, including pool and science labs. In fact, exceptionally strong links extend to sixth formers mentoring primary school children and staff providing masterclasses in maths, sciences and drama. Student voice stronger than it was, especially on eco-related matters.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Horizontal tutorial system, plus prefects, full-time school nurses, school counsellor, chaplain, two heads of sixth form and lots of senior staff with pastoral roles (all re-jigged since our last visit) reflect the emphasis on pupil support. Wellbeing is a major focus. Diversity and inclusion has climbed up the agenda too – Black History Month, Holocaust Memorial Day, International Women’s Day etc all taken seriously and made much of.

Not a school for rebellious types – boundaries are clear, discipline is tight and they sweat the small stuff including untucked shirts, forgetting PE kit and silly haircuts (except in lockdown). That said, there’s a bit more wobble room at the lower end of the school so that boys can learn from their mistakes. White slip signed by teacher for minor misdemeanours – you have to get this signed by teachers in all lessons (intended as a minor inconvenience). Tiered detention system culminates in a Saturday – few get them. Small numbers of suspensions each year, hardly any permanent. Bullying? ‘Yes,’ says head, ‘because every school does. But if you’re asking me if it’s persistent, then no.’ Parents concur. Communications thorough – ‘perhaps a bit too much,’ felt one, ‘as you can feel bombarded.’

Pupils and parents

About half of pupils from St Albans itself. The rest travel from far and wide, up to an hour each way, mostly north of the M25 – eight school buses transport them in, though growing numbers cycle. There has always been a strong Jewish contingent but school is now more diverse in other cultures and ethnicities. Pupils are interested, sharp, articulate. Parents are ambitious – mostly professional, many first-time buyers, plus a handful whose children would otherwise qualify for free school meals. Good sense of community among parents, if that’s what you want, but easy enough to opt out of the events and parent get-togethers if you don’t. Very strong Old Albanians, many of whom send their sons here and, later, their daughters. Only 13 schools have produced more Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society. Notable former pupils go back to the year dot but recent ones include Sir Tim Rice, archaeologist Lord Renfrew, film producer Mike Newell, General Sir Richard Lawson and Prof Stephen Hawking.

Money matters

Academic scholarships worth up to 20 per cent of fees awarded on the basis of performance in the entrance tests at 11+ and by separate exam at 13 and 16. Choral scholarships by audition at 11+. Art, music and sport scholarships at 13+. School currently assists 53 pupils with a bursary, nine of whom receive 100 per cent assistance.

The last word

Traditional, disciplined and structured, this is a school that demands high standards from all especially in academia, but not at the expense of extracurricular. Far from it, the all-roundedness (particularly the sporting and musical excellence) is a major pull for families far and wide.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

All our pupils are capable of coping with a rigorous academic education carried on at a rapid pace. A pupil with serious dyslexia or dyspraxia would struggle to cope. However, we recognise that even the ablest can experience specific difficulties that could prevent them achieving their fullest potential, and may therefore benefit from some learning support. All new entrants are screened for previously undetected dyslexia and monitoring continues throughout a pupil's career. Where a problem is suspected, a diagnostic assessment is offered, following which, an assessment by an independent Educational Psychologist may be recommended. Sometimes, an able pupil will have developed coping strategies which obscure a problem that comes to light only in later years as the demands of the work become more complex, and staff are trained to spot such emergent difficulties. Various levels of support are available, including one-to-one tuition with a specialist teacher who is freelance but spends all her time at the school. 09-09

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

Who came from where


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