Good Schools Guide Entry 2018
Since 2016, John Browne, BA (Hons), Bristol (Music) LLB, MBA (49), previously head of St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow. Says it was a blend of accident and design that led him to teaching: as organ scholar at Westminster Cathedral, he ‘fell’ into the choir school by accident, later diverting to law and then an MBA because ‘teachers need to think strategically too’. Taught by Jesuits at St. Ignatius College, it was the Jesuit Chaplain of Westminster Cathedral Choir School who first asked John ‘when are you going to be a teacher?’. This was not to be for another two years as John completed his LLB but as the City beckoned so did music and instead he took up his first post as Assistant Director of Music at Latymer School, returning the Westminster Cathedral Choir School as the youngest Headmaster (then aged 32). From there Ampleforth as Deputy Head and thence to Glasgow and now Stonyhurst – back in the Jesuit tradition.
Strategic thinking very much in evidence both internally - he has made changes to Stonyhurst’s leadership infrastructure and globally - Stonyhurst is opening a school in Malaysia in 2020. He has appointed five new assistant heads to be responsible for pulling pastoral and academic together in each year group (and who follows them through the school), so each pupil is viewed holistically. One parent (a big fan) tells us that when he started, Mr Browne asked a retired Independent Schools’ Inspector to review Stonyhurst afresh and held open consultations with staff and parents. An MBA style approach perhaps, and one senses that continuous improvements will be a defining characteristic of his leadership. Stays on the pulse of the school by meeting five students per week for lunch, which he describes as his ‘five-a-day’. They ‘help him see what needs to be different.’
Mr Browne is a big believer in punctuating school life with unforgettable moments (for him, it was going to the Royal Albert Hall to perform every year). He feels the opportunities Stonyhurst offers, trips to the Vatican for example, are crucial. They light the spark. ‘If you find a child’s passion, the rest falls into place.’ This fits neatly with the overall ethos of the school, its motto, ‘Quant je puis’ (What is the most I can achieve with what I have?) is a dominant backbeat. What can I do to change the world, is what Mr Browne wants his students to ask themselves. The spiritual thinking which underpins this philosophy is clear, but he is keen to stress that while worship is part of the school’s makeup (60 per cent of pupils are from Catholic families), as a Jesuit school it is very much outward looking.
There was no better testament to Mr Browne’s effectiveness than the two boys who were selected at random to show us part of the school. (The selection was so random, in fact, that with the desperate air of an adolescent Just William, one of the boys was furtively and desperately trying to smarten himself up, tucking in his slightly bedraggled shirt as we went along.) ‘The head sorts everything out’, one said, with a knowing nod to the evening academic clinics, designed to help students with work problems. ‘Oh they’ve always been there’, the other pointed out. ‘Yes, but they actually work now, they’re good, they’re longer’, his friend asserted. The pair exuded colossal pride in the school, able to reel off its heritage with enthusiasm you just can’t fake.
Mr Browne’s recreation is walking his dogs in the Ribble valley and spending time with his wife (Marie, a company director) and son. We left him on the day of our visit pondering which object he should take from the vast Stonyhurst collection of treasures, to illustrate a talk he was due to give that evening. He ‘loves objects which tell a story’. He refers to the writers who have passed through (Conan Doyle was a boy here, Tolkien a resident whilst his son was an English Master, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins taught here). Apparently Tolkien’s middle earth was meant to be close to the River Hodder. He wants to bring everything all together, connect the past and present.
Small class sizes, 20 max. Broad curriculum allows students to follow their interests. Psychology A level recently introduced. Languages are strong; around 75 per cent take two languages at GCSE, 14 per cent at A level. The IB Dip is predominantly taken by international students, but popularity is steadily increasing (27 candidates in 2017, compared with 15 in 2015).
At GCSE in 2017 51 per cent A*-A/9-7 grades, 71 per cent A*-B at A level. Lots of A*s and As in maths and economics. IB average was 34 and several candidates achieved 38 points or over. Mixed ability intake (school accepts all siblings) makes results all the more impressive.
John Browne is enthusiastic about how IB educates the whole person. The IB’s Cass components – where students design their own projects around the creative, active and ‘service to others’ modules – are now applied to the whole school. School is also rolling out the IB careers programme.
Academically, each child is tracked and results analysed for patterns. If they are a bit below their target, why? The whole person is looked at, all knowledge, both academic and pastoral, pooled to provide answers (back to those new assistant head roles). For those needing extra help, learning support in the form of bespoke programmes, including use of mentors and educational psychologists, is provided. Parents say some of the teachers are truly inspirational.
If pupils feel they need to brush up on an aspect of the curriculum, the evening subject ‘drop in’ clinics do the trick. Or as the head puts it, if the target grades are down, then a clinic ‘becomes a priority’. Back to the motto again – all that I can – the benchmark is set high for all students and they are encouraged to aspire.
A unique aspect of teaching at the school is its integration with the Stonyhurst collections (started in 1609). Artefacts from these extraordinary collections are deployed to bring the curriculum to life. We actually got to touch Shakespeare’s First Folio and saw Mary Queen of Scots’ Book of Hours. History lessons must be much enlivened by articles such as Sir Thomas More’s hats and the gun powder plot vestments. Art lessons can draw on original works by Turner and Rubens. These and other remarkable items are currently being curated into a small museum (‘The story of the collections and English Catholicism’). The school’s heritage is very much part of the learning experience in the here and now, even the observatory in the grounds is put to full use and ties up with head’s desire to bring together past and present.
Games, options, Arts
Impressive array of sports facilities: tennis dome, squash courts, golf course, shooting range, swimming pool, heaps of sports pitches. Clay pigeon shooting, which used to take place outside the school, is now done on site. Dazzling successes in boys’ and girls’ sport (Rugby won the Lancashire Cup and the girls have just returned from Netball Tour to Dubai). CCF compulsory for the first two years and most continue thereafter. Duke of Edinburgh strong.
Art is nurtured here; there is a live artist in residence and head would like to extend similar hospitality to a poet.
Music runs the gamut with big choirs, big bands, orchestras, ensembles. There are headmasters’ concerts as well as weekly performances. Dance is on offer in all its genres – street, tap, modern, Zumba - with some nicely ambitious productions to showcase those skills (Moulin Rouge and
Wicked). The Stonyhurst dancers also recently got to spend time with the Birmingham Royal ballet (doubtless one of those unforgettable experiences so valued by the head).
There is a good drama space with professional sound and lighting and a chain of performances from the ubiquitous Les Mis, to Fiddler on the Roof and Hedda Gabler. A wonderful Much Ado, condensed into 45 minutes, was performed in a modern style with a Christmas morning setting. Students pitch in from backstage too, with lighting and costumes.
Clubs include politics, philosophy, robotics, astronomy, economics. Impressive range of speakers, recently Professor Robert Winston, historian Lord Hennessy, plus academics and politicians (we imagine Jacob Rees Mogg was thought-provoking at the very least).
Steady stream of big canvass events, like a fashion show with African couture, a literary festival (bi-annual) and all the usual balls. Trips include South Africa, China and closer to home: museums (Louvre!), Houses of Parliament and top universities. Interline (house) competitions in everything from tennis, maths, croquet to poetry reading.
Most of the boarders are full-time so lots of cinema trips and outings to York and Manchester. Boarding houses are called playrooms (a recent review concluded that Stonyhurst should retain horizontal boarding, builds strong friendships across whole year group); Each pupil has a tutor (and an online pastoral log) who meets them in small groups every week. The new assistant heads will preside over this process to ensure everything is joined up.
Boarders start off sharing five to a room; single rooms for older pupils. Rooms are fairly trad, many have magnificent views over the grounds. ‘Every morning it looks different’, one pupil said. Some corridors and rooms have had a basic refurb: carpets, fresh paint and the faint aroma of Travel Lodge. More will follow suit. Boys’ and girls’ rooms differ only in that the girls have made theirs cosier. Showers and loos not palatial but in good order.
Girls’ boarding area has rooms clustered around a central glass office with staff on duty – very reassuring, we thought. Sitting room looked comfortable and there was a well-equipped, homely kitchen with washing machines. Day pupils also have a desk in the boarding areas.
Background and atmosphere
Founded in 1593 in France, the school moved to its present site in the beautiful Ribble valley in 1794. The building and its grounds, with their formal waterways, have a stately grandeur that certainly inspired former pupil, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the description of Baskerville Hall, the family seat in The Hound of the Baskervilles, is based on Stonyhurst.
The library in main use has a very grown up feeling, but the other ancient historical libraries are something else. The fact that students get to have seminars in these rooms must set the tone for high achievement. Wonderful college chapel, St Peter’s, lends a Brideshead grandeur.
Multi-million pound restoration developments are the norm here. Like any great estate, its treasures need to be maintained and extensive projects are ongoing to give its ailing beauties, such as the canals and the baroque gardens, some TLC.
There can be no radical modernisation in a listed building and it is all the better for it. True, the school’s ‘slightly worn in places’ interior vibe prevails - indeed, approach it with the wrong mind set and certain corridors might seem a little gloomy. Nevertheless, classrooms are cheery, there are decent science labs, dance and drama studios, and don’t forget all those incredible sports facilities.
Plenty of wall displays, not dominant or dazzling but interesting; we commented on some pictures of famous scientists to a couple of pupils. Shame so few women scientists, we think, looking at all the men displayed. ‘What’s the name of the woman who was part of the team who discovered DNA? She should be up there,’ we say, racking our addled brains for her name. ‘Oh, you mean Rosalind Franklin’, came the reply, barely missing a beat. (Yep, we think to ourselves, impressed, that’s the one.)
The playrooms at break times certainly seem friendly places, a mad throng of chat. Parents enthused about the seamless blend of day and boarding and liked recent initiative to invite day pupils to spend three nights in the school for free.
On site health centre. Lots of school talks and workshops for students on walking tall, building resilience and looking at the nuances of behaviour; how you can subtly exclude someone and the impact that can have. The latter being particularly relevant to the complexity of girls’ friendships. Head of pastoral/boarding said the girls will flag up concerns about others and it’s a very supportive environment. The real aim is to give students the skills to deal with issues themselves. Mild concerns were expressed in this area by one or two parents who suggested perhaps students needed ‘a bit extra’ pastorally; others thought the same for the academic side of things (some pupils need extra cosseting, some need pushing). Mr Browne’s five new assistant heads should go some way to bridging this perceived gap.
Phones are allowed during the day, but must not be taken out in lessons or they will be confiscated. In the evenings, phones permitted but wifi is switched off.
The spiritual runs through the school, mass is celebrated each week and each playroom goes on an annual retreat. Yet although many parents say the school lives the Jesuit ethos, some felt its Catholic values should be celebrated more and ‘shouted about’. We imagine it’s a delicate balance for the school between inclusivity and celebration.
Pupils and Parents
Pupils mainly come from the north of England and London (families looking for something less pushy). Good mix of international boarders; recent increase in European pupils who come for the IB.
Overseas parents are emailed frequently, relaying what their children are going to be studying and details of their performance. Parents in the UK described the comms as superb, saying you heard back from a teacher within a couple of hours of emailing.
The chain of connection goes on well beyond leaving Stonyhurst; many parents are themselves former pupils. School has the second biggest alumni association after Eton (always handy for work placements). The head sees all ex-pupils as ambassadors for the school.
The pupils we spoke to seemed a down to earth and diverse bunch. The head refers to the first hockey team, ’the cool kids’, lobbying him to help with the refugee crisis. He was keen to impress the importance of the real commitment on them (helping is not a whim). The end result was the head of the Jesuit refugee service came to give a talk and the village is now looking to host a Syrian refugee family.
One third of students come from school’s prep, Saint Mary Hall, the rest from other schools. Entrance exam plus reports and reference for candidates at 11+, 13+ and 16+. Overseas students are assessed for English speaking to check that they will be able to tackle the subjects with ease.
Leavers go on to study a broad spread of subjects at universities all over the UK. York, Manchester, Bristol, Exeter and Newcastle currently popular. Four to Oxbridge in 2017, plus two medics. International students to universities in Europe and US. Popular subjects seem to be management/ business studies.
Boarding fees in line with similar schools. Scholarships (music, sport, academic and all-rounder). Scholarships and means tested bursaries up to value of £3 million annually for students who would benefit from all that Stonyhurst has to offer but whose family would find the finances a struggle.
An outward looking and inclusive Catholic boarding school where students are encouraged to become their best selves, give back to the world and aspire to great heights academically.