Muddy best schools guide 1: St Joseph’s, Launceston
Here it is! the first of the Muddy Cornwall best school reviews.
As an out of county family, we were totally clueless about the education provisions available in Cornwall. So I did what we all do – googled the school websites (mostly biased), looked to official sources (mostly subscription only) and trawled message boards (mostly arguing and snobbery). If I’d blindly followed their comments, I’d probably be home-schooling the mudlets. Believe me – with the patience of Lord Sugar and zero trigonometry skills that would be a super bad thing. I decided to get out there and get the lowdown myself.
Per the muddy mantra, these reviews are not fluff pieces with highlights taken from the school prospectus. Each one is tried, tested, visited – I interrogate the staff, kids and parents – hell even the man cleaning the windows – to get you the inside scoop and help you make a more informed choice about which school is right for your little darlings.
This feature is by no means soley for prep schools – if you have a brilliant grammar or state school that you think deserves a Muddy review, let me know. I’m all ears.
First in the stalls is the independent St Joseph’s School in Launceston.
ST JOSEPH’S SCHOOL, LAUNCESTON
The setting: Nestled on St Stephens Hill, its close enough for you to walk into the town centre. The school is within easy reach (about 20 mins) from Okehampton, Bude, Bodmin and Tavistock and within 25 minutes of a mainline station to Paddington (at Liskeard).
No Cotehele-like mansion buildings to smack on the front of a glossy prospectus (but that view to the castle is spectacular right?): senior teaching takes place in a typical example of what’s not so stylish about 60’s design. (I’m brutal, I know). However, the original building housing the juniors and nursery is a homely Victorian former convent, with some seriously gorgeous tiled floors and leaded glass.
Co-educational with a roughly 60/40 split between girls and boys, though the ratio of boys is increasing and 50/50 in some year groups. Entrance is from age 3 to 16.
The head: Oliver Scott, is fairly new in office, though not to St Joseph’s. Previously he taught in schools in Milan and London (state sector). He still teaches English, and I’m told by my year 7 mole on the ground that he takes a fully immersive approach which is popular with the kids (don’t ask him about his chess club though!). Words to describe him from those he teaches: welcoming, warm hearted, fun, jolly, trustworthy.
The kids: Deep in disguise as a regular parent, the kids hadn’t clocked me as a spy and hadn’t been primed to suck up to me. I found them calm and well-behaved, helpful (‘Who are you looking for? Are you lost?’ [no I always look like this thanks]). No grunting, no embarrassed nodding. Genuinely happy.
Facilities: Despite being in town, it feels very much like a country school. There are some pretty impressive outdoor spaces to burn off all that energy: a large playground and separate nursery play area and outdoor classroom. A new full-sized astroturf for hockey, football etc, tennis and netball courts and a full rugby pitch in bottom field. The school has a river running through the grounds, a wildlife pond and a productive orchard. In autumn, the kids collect the apples and have them pressed into juice by a local farmer with an ‘unofficial’ cider press.
Well-equipped IT suite, all seniors have their own school ipads, Food Tech, Art Room. A DT update has just taken place, with purpose-built facilities for CAD, traditional carpentry and engineering, and laser cutting.
Teaching: An ‘Outstanding’ report from Ofsted for the early years provision – the Independent Schools Inspectorate described it as an ‘Area of Excellence’. Those in the nursery can expect French from age 3, swimming and ‘outdoor school’ in the orchard. There seem to be plenty of opportunities for the tinies to shine with regular concerts, school trips, and their own Sports Day.
There’s specialist teaching in Music, Drama, Languages, PE, ICT, DT and weekly swimming lessons for juniors and seniors. Optional classes and lunchtime clubs are popular.
The academic results: Wowzers! Outstanding – 2015 GCSE results were the best in Cornwall with a stonking 96% passing 5A*- C. Doubly impressive since St Joseph’s is non-selective with no entrance exam. No child takes more than 10 GCSEs (quality not quantity – this is frazzle free teaching). The staff are very much geared up to meet new curriculum challenges, with current year 9 being first full year facing the new grading structure.
Pupils go on to top tier universities and two of the 12 year 11 leavers in 2014 had Oxbridge offers.
There’s a Gifted, Able and Talented program, ensuring those at the top are stretched. If your little darling isn’t on course for a Nobel prize, don’t worry, the school is very friendly, inclusive and flexible, giving everyone a chance to get involved in something they enjoy and excel in. There’s a spotlight in the school newsletter featuring achievements outside school and dedicated SENCO specialists in both the junior and senior department.
Sport has great leadership: Both Mr Scott and Mr Matthews (PE) are ISA regional representatives: Southwest area sport head and Southwest area sport coordinator respectively. Teams compete at national level. Rugby (for girls too), Hockey, Football, Netball, Swimming and Athletics and Cricket in the summer are all taught, with Tennis, Rockclimbing and Surfing as after school activities.
Music provisions are impressive, especially for a school this size. The choir is very strong (both boys and girls) and many pupils involved in national children’s choirs outside of school. The junior choir have won the Wadebridge Music Festival two years running. Ex- pupils show amazing talent, earning scholarships to Wells Cathedral School, and this year one of six places at the Brit School in London.
The extras: Prep is available until 4:30, and a late prep session until 5:30.
There’s a comprehensive after-school activities programme, offering kids in from Years 1 to Year 11 the chance to try loads of activities from football to sailing, surfing and rock climbing.
School buses are a godsend – especially as parking is horrendous (but apparently better since the car park has been in place). There are seven flexible bus routes and all drivers (DBS checked) know the kids and have parents’ phone numbers.
They don’t call themselves the OJ’s (pah!) but there’s an active alumni organizing events and the recent centenary celebrations saw ex-pupils come from overseas to join in the revelry.
Quirks: While the teaching is solid, with pastoral care at the centre, St Joseph’s is quite a quirky school with oodles of extras like sailing and surfing, which is pretty cool. It’s quite a community and parents get to know each other well – its not unknown for the whole year group to meet for a barbeque on the beach. There’s an active, but not intrusive PTA (Friends of St Joes).
Fees: Extremely competitive – up to 30% less than you might pay out of county with discounts for siblings. No hidden extras – meals are included, but optional trips are at an additional cost and plenty of warning is given. Means tested bursaries are offered. Generous music, sport and academic scholarships are available to juniors (from 7+) and seniors (from 11+) with examinations in January or May.
Word on the ground: Enquiries frequently come from out of county with some families moving to the area just for the school. St Joe’s mums will talk your ear off about how nurturing the school is. Much is made of it being a school that fosters natural talent, but there’s discipline and rigour too. The staff know all kids by name (and where they should be at any given time).
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Those seeking a friendly smaller school. Great academic results with a strong sense of community. Those who like to spend their fees on quality teaching. The Pastoral care is exceptional – pupils come from other schools especially for that.
Not for: Those looking for boarding. There’s no Saturday school either. If you’re not into co-education, you can cross it off your list. Those looking for bucolic grounds and grand buildings might prefer somewhere leafier.
Dare to disagree?! Have a look for yourself at the whole school open morning on Friday 4 March, from 10am to 12noon, ring before or just turn up. For the early years open after noon on Friday 11 March for those interested in Nursery or reception.
Let me know what you think.
St Joseph’s School, St Stephen’s Hill, Launceston, PL15 8HN Tel: 01566 772580