A modern tradition – St Mary’s School, Shaftesbury
Joël Lacey visits St Mary's School, Shaftesbury to find a fascinating mix of ancient and modern
Published in January ’14
Almost irrespective of fashion trends, an issue that often vexes staff at schools with teenaged female pupils is how older girls will seek to wear their skirts shorter and shorter in a designer application of Aristotelian reduction to the impossible. At St Mary’s School, Shaftesbury, the issue is rather the reverse: the older the girls get, the longer and longer they try to wear the school’s trademark kilt.
If this seems at odds with the wider world, the spirit within the girls at the single-sex school on the Dorset/Wiltshire border is clearly healthily independent. Perhaps this is why it is an issue about which the school’s Head, Richard James, seems relatively relaxed. As the first male lay Head of a Mary Ward school – of which there are four in the country, he has by position, by necessity and by choice a rather different outlook on life from many heads.
His role is to balance the deeply traditional values that lie at the root of the school’s existence with its role in turning girls into young women ready to face the ever-changing challenges of the modern world.
The school was founded in 1945 by the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (see below) and almost immediately moved to its current location. The main school building was built in 1886 and was originally the home of a family of gin, later vinegar, distillers: not the usual location for a Catholic girls’ school.
Many single sex schools – at least many formerly boys-only schools, have opted to go co-educational. Research shows that putting girls into a classroom has a positive impact on boys’ education; the reverse, however, is not the case, and St Mary’s is happy to remain a girls-only school. It has spaces for both boarders and day pupils, although day pupils may later come to board in the sixth form.
St Mary’s has around 300 pupils, around half of whom are Catholic and half are from within the Anglican Communion. Faith is a fundamental part of the life of the school – there is a resident priest from Thursday to Sunday, a full-time chaplain and a visiting Anglican minister. Girls are prepared for confirmation services which are held in the school’s own impressive chapel (or at Salisbury Cathedral for the Anglican girls). Each pupil is assigned a ‘guardian angel’ – an older girl who will be their guide in the early stages of their time at St Mary’s, and each year there is a Rite of Welcome for new girls and staff.
Academic achievement is important – last year saw the girls achieve 100% passes in all subjects at GCSE, and 94% at grades A*-C, (100% A*-D at A Level), but St Mary’s is not an examination factory. Richard James wishes for each girl to achieve the best that she herself can achieve and – in terms of university access, the school’s stated (and often successful) aim is that girls achieve: ‘places at their first choice universities including Oxford and Cambridge’.
This academic achievement is a happy outcome from – not the sole purpose of – the girls’ time at St Mary’s. Drama, the arts and music are all encouraged amongst pupils at the school, as the Head’s welcome on the school’s website states: ‘We encourage and inspire every girl to fulfil her potential in all she does. We offer a broad academic curriculum with an exciting range of activities for boarding and day pupils and girls leave St Mary’s as independent, confident and resilient young women prepared for life beyond school.’
It should be stated that whilst the structures for the education side of the school are clearly driven and guided by the staff, the girls themselves also do a huge amount of independently organised work – both around the school and in the wider community and world. Each house chooses its own charity for which it is to fund-raise and some of the girls have had the opportunity to visit charities which they have supported in Rwanda, Chile, India and Zambia over the last three years – each girl who went on the Chile trip, for example, raised £3000.
There are six houses at St Mary’s, one – Hewarth House, for the younger girls (aged 11-13), four houses for the main years (13-17) and then Mary Ward House for the upper sixth form. Each house has a House Mistress and two House Assistants from the staff, and a Captain and Prefect Team from the senior pupils.
At this point, it is worth exploring the notion that the school would probably cease to run at all smoothly in the absence of cake. When being taken around the school by the Head Girl and one of her deputies, it became clear that cake appeared to be not just a seemingly vital foodstuff, but also a social lubricant of almost miraculously effective status.
Birthdays, triumphs and tragedies, revision, study, departures and returns all appeared to be fuelled by tea and cake; the Head’s wife received special mention for her own quote – legendary – unquote cake offering.
If this all sounds a little like a girls’ boarding school from the enormous canon of fictional girls’ boarding school books, it’s because there is always an element of truth behind the cliché. However, whilst the unknowing reader might infer from the above that St Mary’s is fiction made flesh, the rooms and ‘cubies’ (the curtained-off bed chambers in the Hewarth House dorms) of the pupils are not wall-to-wall pink princesses’ palaces, they are girls’ rooms as you would find in any home,… just more of them.
Richard James also points out that the arrival of social media means that girls – especially boarders, can still keep up with out-of-school friends (of either sex) and further that social occasions organised with other schools by the girls themselves prevent the students either individually or collectively from becoming isolated.
On a more fundamental level, though, this is no collection of giggling girls preparing futures predicated on being swept away by the man of their dreams; the corridors of the arts block (and indeed the main hall) are hung with assured, impressive and sometimes challenging works of art; the language block is a polyglot mix of far-from-simple concepts and sentences; the student-produced newspaper is no dumbed-down tabloid; the library is immensely well stocked, and equipped with little private study cubby-holes where serious work is done; the science blocks are modern and well-used. Meanwhile, everywhere one looks are girls joining societies and clubs, taking part in activities, learning musical instruments, taking part in plays and musicals – whether as cast or crew, and generally filling each minute with a Kiplingesque sixty seconds run.
The same zeal is applied to matters sporting – the school’s floodlit Astroturf pitch, gym, hall and swimming pool offer the opportunity to as many girls as possible to find a sport in which they can compete. A disproportionate number of St Mary’s pupils are qualified lifeguards, for example.
Part of the reason for this activity is the immensely strong sense of community and family fostered in a school where two-thirds of the girls board. This does not breed insularity, though. With fifteen per cent of pupils coming from overseas, there is also a strong sense of the outward-looking about the school; indeed, in the school welcome pack for new pupils, this element is one third of the stated aims that each pupil should strive for, in order to be a valuable member of the community: ‘be kind and caring; look outwards, not inwards; be a giver, not a taker’.
The community element of the school is an indication of how important it is that girls seek to influence their own destinies. They hold regular meetings – both within houses, twice a week, to organise the smooth running of the house, but they are also involved in meetings with senior staff on matters concerning the running of the school.
One of the recent fruits of this increased consultation with the girls was when Richard James floated the idea for discussion of replacing the kilt-based uniform with something more contemporary. The unanimity with which the proposal was rejected is a rather nice metaphor for the pupils at St Mary’s: confident young women who are happy and well prepared to take their place in the modern world on their own terms, neither forgetting nor belittling the importance of traditional values.
Mary Ward and the IBVM
The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, often called ‘the Loreto Sisters’, was founded by Mary Ward in 1609. Her dream was to begin a new kind of community of women religious – an independent, self-governing congregation patterned after the model of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Mary Ward was imprisoned by the Inquisition and initially condemned by the Church, as the idea of uncloistered nuns was far from universally popular. The houses at St Mary’s Shaftesbury are named after places with which she is associated (Hewarth, Givendale, Harewell, Mulwith and Newby Houses), with the exception of the upper sixth form house, which is simply called Mary Ward House