St Michael’s School, Leigh on Sea
This little gem of a prep school in a charming seaside town is all about creating happy, confident kids who consistently achieve well above average in everything from academics to drama.
A small but perfectly formed non-selective co-educational Church school for kids aged 3–11, St Michael’s sits at the top of a residential road in the heart of Leigh on Sea. This charming seaside town is also one the county’s hippest hot spots, thanks to a steady stream of relocating Londoners over the years. One thing that hasn’t changed is the locals’ love of St Michael’s, with many former pupils sending their own children to the school, and some even becoming teachers there.
Founded in 1922 for just 12 day pupils and seven boarders, the school ran until 1972, at which point it was handed over to the Diocese of Chelmsford. Although St Michael’s is a Christian school, it is most definitely open to kids of all faiths (or none at all), so doesn’t require the two years of regular church going that many other church schools insist on. Most pupils are local but a fair few come from the surrounding areas such as Hadleigh, Thorpe Bay and Hockley. Recently, there’s been a lot of interest from parents making the move from London.
The school building with its charming 1930s chapel is modest – I almost walked straight past. However, behind the white brick and red roof façade, you’ll find a lot of school – from a Nursery and specialist subject classrooms to a dedicated music room (FYI, St Michael’s is big on music).
With just 301 pupils, presently made up of 47% boys and 53% girls, class sizes are a max of 20 – big enough for fun and banter, small enough for focussed learning. The school is organised into three sections: the Early Years Foundation Stage in Nursery and Reception; the Pre Prep for Forms 1 & 2; and the Prep for Forms 3 to 6.
The atmosphere at the school is one of fun, happiness and general kiddy chaos, in the best sense of the word. The St Michael’s ethos is that happy kids equal brighter kids. This probably explains why so many grown-up lumina have warm memories of being a pupil here, and send their own children to the school.
Being on a residential road in a highly desirable setting, St Michael’s outside space is limited, especially compared to some private schools with their sumptuous acreage and multiple Astro-turf courts. Even so, the school makes the best of the space it has, with two playgrounds and a newly fenced-in grass area for a friendly game of rounders.
For more adventurous games, kids from Form 4 upwards jump on a coach to enjoy a whole afternoon of games at the nearby Belfairs Woods every week, where St Michael’s also hosts events with other schools.
Participating in both ISA, ISI and Southend Borough Sports events, and with an enthusiastic PE team, there’s a good range of sports on offer – from Kwik Cricket and hockey to fencing and T’ai Chi – while Forms 3 to 6 also go swimming every week at the nearby leisure centre.
For such a bijou school, St Michael’s has brought home some big awards, including the ISA National Skiing Juniors Champions in 2018, while more recently they came third in this year’s Cross Country Borough Championships.
Alongside regular lessons held outdoors, St Michael’s is part of the John Muir Trust Outside Learning Programme, where the kids are packed off to deepest, wildest Essex to study newts, climb trees, build dens and have a riot. They clearly love it, as all of Form 6 gained the John Muir Discovery Award last year.
Facilities inside the school are surprisingly expansive – it’s like a Tardis, with a labyrinth of classrooms found off several stairways and along countless corridors. Yes, some areas may be a bit ‘well loved’ around the edges, but all the mod cons are there, with a well-kitted out Science lab, super-shiny Home Economics room, light-filled art room, generous-sized class rooms, new library and a dedicated soundproofed drama studio up in the eves.
The hall (below), is used for assemblies and also as another classroom, while the small chapel is packed with character and charm, and there are plans for a mini makeover soon.
In fact, the school has gone through a lot of regeneration recently, which includes opening up the Nursery and Reception areas to make bigger, brighter spaces for all the littlies to share. But the cherry on the cake is the brand-new kitchen facility and dining room. Historically, the school has only been set up for packed-lunches, so I can imagine the provided hot meals are a very welcome addition for time-poor parents.
MUSIC, ART & DRAMA
St Michael’s loves its music and it shows. All the kids take part in whole-class music lessons, led by a specialist teacher, where they get to try all kinds of instruments – from the violin and electric guitar to the drums and piano. More than half of the pupils are involved in more than one musical activity each week, either as a member of one of the three choirs, two orchestras, a variety of musical ensembles or with their own individual instrumental lessons.
Headmaster James Mobbs is a musician himself, and passionate about encouraging children to get involved and show off their talents at community events, such as Form 6’s pupils at the Young Voices Concert at London’s O2 and the South East Essex Music Festival at the Cliffs Pavilion.
The school has a dedicated art room, while Forms 5 & 6 get the benefit of a specialist art teacher, Claire Hankey, who was recently nominated for the prestigious Society of Women Artists 159th Exhibition. She’s also a resident artist at the Two Tree Gallery in Leigh, and leads the gallery’s local school community project to display work by pupils in their exhibition space, starting with St Michael’s. Guest artists also come in to teach the kids new ways of being creative – most recently, they spent a day with a visiting artist who creates 3D images from chicken wire (ouch!).
When it comes to drama, there’s a lot going on, thanks to two specialist drama teachers who use a variety of techniques – from tableaux and puppetry to script work. I saw one of the teachers in action on my visit and she’s everything you’d want in a drama teacher – loud, fun and passionate with a capital P. The kids were having a brilliant time, but clearly honing their thespian skills, too, as St Michael’s has a 100% pass rate in the LAMDA Examinations. Performance events include the Form 6 Play, concerts, Christingle service, the Crib Service and the St Michael’s Day Parade.
All of the Nursery and Reception children follow the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus as part of the EYFS school curriculum. I saw some littlies doing ballet and they were so professional as they practised their arabesques – and cute as buttons to boot.
As they enter the Pre-Prep department, kids continue their study of dance and movement throughout the school’s PE curriculum. However, they can also choose to continue to the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus as an extra-curricular activity, where specialist dance teachers provide lessons in ballet and street dance.
All the clubs (other than instrumental lessons) are included in the termly fees. This is to help encourage kids to try out as many different activities as they fancy, and there are a fair few on offer – from chess, drama and languages, to code champions, musical theatre and cooking.
St Michael’s is enthusiastic about immersive digital learning, alongside specialist coding lessons, and so it’s embedded across all subjects, and pupils from Form 3 onwards are all given their own 1:1 devices. In fact, St Michael’s commitment to making technology in the classroom a positive and healthy part of school life has recently seen it become a Google Reference School. This prized status has been awarded by Google to only a small group of schools for their outstanding use of technology in creative, innovative or exemplary ways to drive positive learning outcomes.
Despite the happy, easy-going ethos of the school, academically the kids do very well (see ISI Report from June 2018), which explains why St Michael’s is consistently listed in The Sunday Times Top 50 Independent Preparatory Schools, coming 26th in 2021.
Of course, what most parents are really interested in are the 11+ results, and they won’t be disappointed (though it’s worth noting that the school is pretty candid with parents about whether they should put their child forward for it). By the end of the Prep department, Form 6 kids achieve well above the national average in Key Stage 2 SATs tests in English (90%) and Maths [89%]. For the 2020/2021 cohort, places were awarded to 86% of pupils who sat the 11+ or a selective entry test.
St. Michael’s is a feeder school to Southend and Westcliff Grammar Schools for boys and girls, but also other schools, such as King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford Grammar School for Girls, and Colchester Royal Grammar School, to name just a few.
Kids from Form 3 go to specialist teachers for classes, packing up their books, bags and devices as they go. Not only does this encourage them to become more independent, but it also means they’re that bit more prepared for life at senior school.
Previously Deputy Head at St Christopher’s Independent Day Prep School in Beckenham for 11 years, James Mobbs joined St Michael’s as Head in September 2019. A tall man with an easy manner and a great sense of humour, he’s clearly a hit with the kids, especially the littlies – walking through the playgrounds with him, he was repeatedly grabbed around the legs for a quick hug.
Mobbs told me he was attracted by the music provision at St Michael’s, but also excited about breathing new life into the school, so despite taking over just months before the pandemic hit, he’s wasted no time in making improvements. His achievements so far include the addition of the shiny-new kitchen facilities and dining room; turning the ICT suite into the designated drama studio; providing every pupil from Form 3 upwards with their own device (previously it was just for Forms 5 & 6); refurbishing the Nursery and Reception areas by knocking down walls and opening up the rooms (Kirsty Alsopp would be proud); including extra-curricular activities in the term fees; and making full use of every bit of space available. All this in just over a year? Wow!
Mobbs also has plans to turn the bungalow on the grounds (currently rented out) into another facility for the kids. As St Michael’s is a non-profit organisation, all funds go to improving the school for the pupils who are already there, rather than increasing capacity.
SEN & PASTORAL
Strong. St Michael’s has a dedicated SENDCo teacher and also works with a private speech and language therapist to offer onsite support to children, alongside their parents and teachers. The school has a dedicated SEN space, the Woodland Room. This is a lovely calming area that, along with SEN sessions, is somewhere kids can go for relaxation, mindfulness exercises and breathing techniques.
The school’s library pod – a small, bright and colourful room – is another place where the kids can chill out, and there are plans to create a meditative garden in the next year.
There’s an onsite trained NHS Nurse, not just to deal with the usual bumps and grazes, but also to support families if there are any issues at home that may be impacting on their child.
Form tutors monitor the progress, development and wellbeing of each pupil under their care, so that kids feel they can talk about any issues they might have with someone who knows them well.
The Pre-Nursery accepts children from the age of three, and they then move to the Nursery in the September. Along with the usual nursery activities, nippers here receive specialist teaching in French, music, drama and PE. They also get to be part of the main school and particularly love joining in with the big kids in the whole-school assembly each week. Building on all that they have learnt during their time in Nursery, children make excellent progress in Reception across all aspects of their learning and development, and achieve well above the national average: in 2019, this was 83% compared to the national average of 71.8%.
The Reception base is a buzzing hive of fun and activity – it’s clear the kids are all thoroughly engaged in enthusiastic learning, whether that be practising their phonics or honing their artistic skills with finger paints.
Outside, the kids have lots of entertainment with all the usual must-haves, including a sandpit, waterplay, den building and muddy kitchen.
Kids are welcome into the school from 7.30am, while after-school care goes on until 5pm. An external company provides three to four weeks cover over the summer holidays.
QUIRKS & TRADITIONS
The school is rich in traditions, such as its St Michael’s Day celebration. Every year on 29 Sept, the school celebrates its patron saint’s birthday, with all the kids doing a procession around the block, holding their symbolic handmade flags or pennants, and all the mums and dads are invited along to watch and wave. There’s then an open-air mass, afternoon party, and an evening service in the chapel followed by a Thanksgiving dinner. Blimey.
When it’s time for the Form 6 kids to move on, they’re sent off in style, with a netball match between themselves and the teachers, followed by afternoon tea with the Head. (I thought that only happened in Malory Towers!)
Fees per term are: Pre-Nursery & Nursery £2,658; Reception £3,100;
Forms 1 & 2 £3,623; Forms 3 & 4 £3,875; Forms 5 & 6 £4,148.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents looking for a warm, family-focussed small school that’s big on tradition and a Christian ethos; one where their child will be nurtured and surrounded with the kind of fun, happy environment childhood memories are made of.
Not for: Although strong academically, St Michael’s won’t be the first choice for those looking for the grand or ultra-high tech facilities of some of the larger schools.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest! Book in for a visit during their next Open Week, 3-6 May 2022. To make your appointment, please call Pippa Pearce on 07102 416310 or ping over an email to arrange a personal tour at another time.