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Relationships with teachers is the magic ingredient. ‘Small and nurturing rather than pushy and hot-house,’ summed up a parent. We sat in on an English lesson on love poetry – nearly every pupil chipped in with fresh ideas. Over in maths, answers to quick fire challenges came in so thick and fast it almost felt like a game show. Budding artists will be in their element. Large sun-drenched studio with a feast of student work to inspire from all angles, plus separate classrooms for textiles, photography and sixth formers. New director of sport has grand plans to redevelop... 

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What the school says...

St Margaret’s School in Bushey, Hertfordshire, is an independent day and boarding school for pupils aged 3 to 18. Founded in 1749, it is one of the oldest independent schools in the UK. As well as day places for all ages, there are a range of flexible boarding options available for both UK and international pupils from the age of 11.

St Margaret's enjoys a rural setting with 60 acres of private grounds which features a range of sports facilities (including its own Sports Centre with a 25m swimming pool, gymnasium and dance studio), woodland and historically-significant Grade II Listed buildings with modern facilities. The School is within easy reach of London and all major UK transport links. Extensive private coach services are offered to pupils across four main routes in the Hertfordshire and North London areas.

Pupils achieve excellent academic results at St Margaret's and more than 80% of leavers go on to attend their first choice destination, which are typically Russell Group universities.

There is no typical St Margaret’s pupil; all are valued individually by our qualified and committed staff. However, they are all dedicated young people who strive to succeed in all that they do and are passionate about topics facing them today. The quality of care at St Margaret’s School enables pupils to grow in an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding and leave equipped with the confidence, aptitude and skills they need for life and for work.
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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 2020, Lara Péchard BA MA PGCE (40s). Studied the IB at Anglo European School, Ingatestone. Degree in modern history and politics with economics and an MA in US history, both from Southampton (Erasmus scholar in second year, studying history at the Sorbonne, Paris). PGCE from IoE. Loyalty in no short supply, it seems, as she stayed in her two previous schools for a decade each – Portsmouth Grammar as history teacher, moving up the ranks to assistant head and head of sixth form, followed by Norwich School where she was principal deputy head.

A love of history (‘even as young as 8’) led her into teaching, while the ‘family feel’ and ‘sheer space’ led her to this school. Any headmistress-y stereotypes go straight out of the window – she’s just a bit too, well, cool (sorry, other heads). Pupils lap it up – ‘she gets us,’ ‘not stuffy or formal and does very open PSHE sessions.’ Parents agree - ‘she’s so connected to them – my daughter speaks highly of her,’ said one, while others value her ‘responsiveness’ and that she is ‘really trying to get more parents involved in the school and with each other, which didn’t really happen before.’

Had barely made footsteps in the plush carpet of her stylish grey office before Covid hit. But the school’s solid digital foundations, a quick-thinking management team, a willingness to flex and a strong pastoral bent all softened the blow. The timetable was the clincher, she reckons – ‘I know from experience that, as a parent, you really need structure to hang your hat on.’ Taking the school into co-ed territory has also kept her busy - ‘It’s a hard sell getting boys into a girls’ school,’ she admits, but this was never a precious, overly feminine environment (‘you never hear terms like “ladylike”,’ said one parent) which should surely help.

Lives on site with husband Ian, a CFO, and their two boys, both at the junior school – the eldest was one of the first boys to join. Enjoys cycling and keeping fit, along with travel and cooking. If she can make food (especially the pastries and salads) anywhere near as good as the school’s, we’d accept a dinner invitation – ‘I know, right? My dad was a chef so I know good food!’

Entrance

Half of the year 7s come up from juniors (automatic entry unless school thinks they won’t cope); the rest are external applicants. Online CEM test and an interview in the autumn term of year 6. Smaller cohort joins in year 9, and school is ‘happy to consider a mid-year application’ (of which they are seeing more since Covid). Currently no waiting lists. Went co-ed in 2020, starting with juniors and sixth form, expanding to the remaining years in Sept 2022. Double figures (just) of both genders join at sixth form when you need six 6s at GCSE (7s in the subjects to be studied; 8s if those subjects are maths or sciences).

Exit

About half de-camps after GCSEs, mainly for the excellent local state grammars or for co-ed (school hopes that will change now that they’re co-ed too). Vast majority of year 13s to university, around 80 per cent to Russell Group. UCL, Imperial, Manchester, Leeds, Bath and King’s College London all popular. At least one medic most years, though none in 2021. One overseas in 2021 – to Wake Forest, USA. One or two to Oxbridge some years. Biomedicine, business, history and arts abound, and they have some strong engineers and computer scientists too.

Latest results

In 2021, 69 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 64 per cent A*/A at A level (94 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 62 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 36 per cent A*/A at A level (70 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

Relationships with teachers is the magic ingredient. ‘Small and nurturing rather than pushy and hot-house,’ summed up a parent. ‘A lovely school – the children like their teachers and like their lessons,’ said another. Pupils talk about their teachers with real warmth – ‘they take time to get to know us as people, always stopping to say hi in the corridor,’ ‘they all love their subjects – it really shows,’ ‘they really want you to do well and get to know how you work,’ etc. Helps that all run at least one club or society – anything from Spanish and knitting (yes, that’s one club not two) to biomedical society. Also helps that it’s cool to be clever here. ‘The culture is to want to work hard and do well,’ said a mum. Tracking and targets all keep things ticking along nicely behind the scenes, and there are clinics, revision sessions and one-to-ones for those that need it, as well as stretch for the brightest.

We sat in on an English lesson on love poetry – nearly every pupil chipped in with fresh ideas. Over in maths, answers to quick fire challenges came in so thick and fast it almost felt like a game show. And in science, every lab had a practical going on, with pupils eager to talks us through the fizzing test tubes.

Classes average 20 in each – 22 max. ‘Very good on languages,’ said a parent: French and Spanish from year 7, from which pupils pick one in year 8 (German, Chinese and Latin also available at GCSE). Pupils are set in these, and maths, from year 7. Nine is the usual number of GCSEs, though some do eight. Art, business studies, computer science and drama all popular options. Best results in sciences, maths and English lit. Many do an HPQ. All sixth formers start with four A levels though all but a quarter drop one by the end of year 12. Maths, sciences and psychology get good numbers – as do history, economics and politics. Maths gets best results. Around half do an EPQ. ‘Some parents say they think the school could be more pushy for their children – but most of us don’t agree,’ said a parent.

Learning support and SEN

The SENCo (shared by junior and senior school) and her assistants are praised by parents for really getting to grips with pupils’ diagnoses and recommendations, then training up and guiding the teaching staff, as well as sharing relevant data. ‘All the teachers know what to do to help her - for example, when she finds it hard to concentrate she’s allowed to get up and refocus before she carries on,’ said a parent. Some of the 15 per cent of pupils with SEN may also be offered one-to-ones (only costs extra if they have to bring in external experts) and the opportunity to drop a GCSE. The grade 2 listed site can make wheelchair access tricky though we’ve seen worse and school says it can always adapt timetables to make the most of downstairs classrooms. No EHCPs when we visited.

The arts and extracurricular

Floor to ceiling windows were being fitted onto the new music block on the day of our visit – this bright contemporary space will have a performance area, music classrooms and practice pods with all the mod cons. Singing is big here, with multiple choirs (including a staff choir), and about 40 per cent learn an instrument. Concerts galore – everything from lunchtime performances to the Prefect Christmas Music Tea out in the community. Annual whole school musical, plus smaller plays split across lower and upper school, and a more serious sixth form one. LAMDA popular, and it’s not unusual for the school to have pupils who star in TV, West End and film productions. We watched pupils prepare for A Noel Coward performance – all thoroughly immersed. But we got the impression music gets more air time – ‘the music teacher really tried hard to connect with the children during lockdown, getting them to do virtual videos, and the concerts are always incredible. But I think drama could do a better job at encouraging the shier ones to get involved,’ reckoned one parent.

Budding artists will be in their element. Large sun-drenched studio with a feast of student work to inspire from all angles, plus separate classrooms for textiles, photography and sixth formers (where one pupil talked us through her Covid-themed portfolio). ‘It’s really brought out the creative side of my daughter,’ said one parent. Some go off to art college, others into architecture.

Good breadth of clubs – all the usuals plus 3D printer club, F1 race car building workshop and South Asian Society where you can learn to Bhangra dance. Trips also plentiful in non-Covid times – includes expeditions, tours, exchanges and day trips.

Sport

On the up, thanks to a new director of sport who has grand plans to redevelop the 60 acres of playing fields as cricket and rugby grow across the school. Watch out too for the rise of water polo alongside the existing busy schedule of swimming galas in the indoor pool located in the sports centre over the road, which also houses a sports hall and gym. ‘Not a school known for its sport – though by no means awful either – so I for one will be watching with interest,’ said a parent. Main sports are football, hockey, athletics and netball; cross country ever more popular. Recent alumni include a WAGR ranked golfer and international tennis player. ‘Shame there’s not much dance – my daughter loves dance,’ said a parent. Everyone seems confident the transition to include boys will go smoothly – ‘it’s not as if this has ever just been a netball school,’ said a mum.

Boarders

Around 10 per cent boards – vast majority are full boarders, with less than a handful weekly though school is looking to change that (and flexi is on hold until Sept 2022 due to Covid). Most are international from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Nigeria, Italy and Mexico among others. These pupils get the three upper floors of the main house to themselves where, off the seemingly infinite wide corridors, we saw huge common rooms, study areas, clean bathrooms and one or two bedded dorms. You’re left feeling they could probably triple their boarding numbers and it still wouldn’t feel cramped – no wonder it’s been possible to organise a whole wing for the incoming boys. With the exception of one very modern sixth form common room, there’s something decidedly 1950s about the whole feel – almost like a film set in places. Weekends are kept busy with visits to eg theme parks, London and trampoline parks but a sixth former we dined with said staying put can be equally tempting ‘with all the green space.’ Boarders do particularly well on value added, usually growing by two grades academically. EAL highly praised.

Ethos and heritage

Founded in 1749 as a charitable foundation to help orphans, making it one of the oldest independent girls’ schools in the country. In 1895, it swapped its St John’s Wood plot for one in more rural Bushey, commissioning Alfred Waterhouse - one of the most celebrated architects of the day - to design the main school building which now sits in the middle of the 60 acre site. Additional buildings – for science, maths, art etc – added over the years, some more aesthetically pleasing than others, but with everything you could wish for and more. As long as you don’t expect state-of-the-art whizziness and are happy with some quite dated areas (sixth form study areas are like stepping back in time), you’ll be suitably wowed. The overall feeling is of space – masses of it, both inside and out – which is a major pull for families, especially the more London based.

A few grumbles about school not being transparent about going co-ed when parents accepted a place but it’s hard for schools to find the right moment. In any case, everyone feels it’s going well so far. ‘It’s so friendly here – I love it,’ said one boy, while a mother of a boy about to join in year 7 told us, ‘it felt a bit of risk because it’s such early days for it going co-ed and they don’t yet have the experience, but the ethos and facilities are so good they won us over.’

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

This is a small school where teachers know every child – and if that’s not as good a start as you can get pastorally, we don’t know what is. ‘They understand their needs – nothing really gets missed,’ said a parent. Form tutors and heads of year keep an extra eye on things, and there’s a school nurse, counsellor and wellbeing officer (the latter based in the new wellbeing hub). Pupils do their bit too, with sixth formers acting as pastoral mentors to younger ones.

A student led diversity group was born out of the BLM movement which is working with pupils, staff and alumni. Student voice also agitates for change around eg uniform (mainly relating to gender issues of comfort), though we can’t imagine there’s too much to get het up about with the sensible, practical navy attire (and smart dress for sixth formers). The RAP Project was in on the day of our visit, covering everything from friendship issues to the Me Too movement and consent. Police officers had been in the day before to talk about bullying – ‘we initially thought, “why on earth are the police doing here?” but actually it made us realise bullying really is very serious,’ said our tour guide earnestly.

Not super strict, and even less so since Covid, with mutual respect seeming to take the place of the need for long lists of rules (and in any case, this hardly feels a school full of hellraisers). But of course the school is not immune from adolescent issues. ‘Vaping seems to be the newest thing,’ says head. Drugs? ‘No, thankfully, but I’d be a fool to think it’s not happening.’ On most issues, school takes the sensible view that prevention is better than cure, and parents say for the most part it works.

Pupils and parents

Families fall within a radius of about 10 miles – as far as St Albans in the north, Potters Bar to the east and Harrow to the south. More than ever come from Watford. Many are first-time buyers of independent education and majority are professionals (mostly dual income) including accountants, doctors, dentists, solicitors and property consultants. ‘Fewer tiger parents than in other local schools and when you do get them, they’re not in-your-face,’ reckoned one. Parent community historically weak but the new head is determined to make up for lost time, having already introduced a PTA, coffee mornings, meet the head drop-ins and a parents’ book club.

Pupils we met were polite and articulate – some really quite shy; others more spirited and chatty. Over lunch, several asked us almost as many questions as we asked them – and that’s no mean feat, we can tell you. Diverse ethnically, which is widely celebrated – ‘we looked at a several North London schools and this was one of the most diverse, such a wonderful mix of children from different backgrounds and different parts of the world,’ said one parent.

Money matters

All entrants are assessed for academic scholarships on the basis of performance in the entrance exam. Scholarships also available in music, art, sport, STEM and drama. Fee remittance up to £1,000 a term. Means-tested bursaries also on offer.

The last word

A small, warm and kind school where children reach their potential in a wonderful setting. Emphasis is on a family feel and making full use of its space, both inside and out. New dynamic leadership and a move towards co-ed are proof it’s not complacent but you can rest assured it will never join the North London pressure cookers – ‘they focus on the journey itself, not just the destination,’ said a parent.

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

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Special Education Needs


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