Saint Nicholas School, Harlow
Impossible to find fault with this small but facility-packed co-ed through school – from its fun family vibe and outstanding pastoral care to its strong academic results and Famous Five grounds
Sitting in 15 acres of beautiful green and wooded grounds on the outskirts of Old Harlow, co-educational through school Saint Nicholas School comes with views to swoon for and history by the bucketload. The beautiful main building, Hillingdon House, was initially built as a private hunting lodge and stables before being annexed during WWII to nurse wounded soldiers.
Inside the Edwardian façade, it’s very homey, with polished wooden floors, huge fireplace, grand staircase and beautiful glassed doors looking out to the grounds beyond.
There are 470 pupils from 2½ – 16 years, meaning class sizes are around 20 – big enough for discussion and buzz, small enough for attention. Generally pupils come from a 15-mile catchment area, including Loughton, South Woodford, Bishop’s Stortford, Chelmsford and Chigwell.
In the last seven years, Saint Nicholas has opened a pre-school and restructured other buildings on its grounds. The Swire Building now houses the main art room, the science labs, the DT room, the main ICT suite and history and geography classrooms, while Jubilee House is the main Junior block housing classrooms for Years 3–5 and also a dedicated Junior art room and library area.
But this school just keeps on growing, and has recently bought the The Old Stables (above), which sits on the drive. Building work has already started to convert it into school offices and a brand-new nursery, so there’s clearly an appetite for investment here.
FACILITIES & SPORT
There’s a big focus on sports and a sport-for-all philosophy here, and pretty much all sport is delivered on site. There’s a gorgeous 16m outdoor heated and walled swimming pool, though there’s talk of developing a much larger indoor pool with space for spectators in the recently acquired arena.
You’ll find multi-sports courts, predominantly used for netball and tennis, grassed football and rugby fields (the school has hosted ISA national footy games in the past), along with a brand-new cricket pitch and a modern indoor sports hall with cricket nets. There are also ballet barres in the theatre and classes are offered by a specialist teacher to lower school pupils.
The strong emphasis on sport means that all the kids from Reception age onwards get to take part in every kind of activity you can shake a hockey stick at, with external specialist coaches in cricket and tennis, as well as a partnership with Spurs and Spurs Ladies FC. That translates into a very healthy trophy cabinet!
Recent achievements include winning gold in the Key Steps gymnastics competition, nine medals in the ISA National Swimming Finals (the school’s biggest haul to date), second place in the ISA National Plate Final for rugby, and two pupils competing in the most recent ISA National Golf competition for under-7s.
Pupils also compete in ISA horse-riding, show jumping and dressage competitions, along with Junior and Senior ISA National Triathlon competitors.
MUSIC, DRAMA & ART
In sporty schools, arts provision can feel like an afterthought but that’s not my feeling here. There are specialist teachers dedicated to art, music, computing and languages, and the facilities to match, with a modern and airy theatre, DT room, and an art room with a kiln.
Saint Nicholas hosts the annual ISA art competition every other year, and achieves excellent results. This year, the school’s budding artists gained seven firsts and five seconds. All the winners then went forward to the National Finals where they achieved first place and two highly commendeds.
There’s also a lively music department, where wannabe musos get to try out all the instruments, from the double bass and violin to the cello and saxophone. They then get to put their talents to the test in the annual House Music competition, which involves every child in the school.
The school’s drama and musical theatre productions are well-known in the local community (particularly at the old people’s homes who come to visit every year), with multiple productions throughout the year for all age groups.
For the first time ever last year, the school took part in the ISA Musical Theatre competition, where the kids are involved in the production as much as the performance, designing everything from the stage sets and props to the costumes.
Beyond the traditional sports, music and drama, there’s an extensive range of extra-curricular clubs offered every evening after school. From karate, street dance and eco club to coding and construction club.
Examination results over recent years have been consistently strong and have been rising year on year (see the December 2017 ISI Report). In 2020, an impressive 87% of all grades were awarded a GCSE Grade 5 or above, compared to 58% nationally, while 42% of all grades were awarded Grade 7 or above, compared to 26% nationally.
It’s little surprise then that the vast majority of pupils are accepted into their first choice of Sixth Form, which include Bishop’s Stortford College, Herts & Essex and Bishop’s Stortford High School. I’m sure the fact that Saint Nicholas kids have a reputation for good manners doesn’t do any harm either – I had the door held open for me on more than one occasion during my visit.
Saint Nicholas will have a new headmaster from April 2022 in the form of Terence Ayres, above, currently the Headmaster at Lee Hurst Swan School, though already working closely with Saint Nicholas. He has previously worked there as Deputy Head — nice to see that he’s keen to return! In the interim, Paul Wilson has stepped up from Assistant Head, so the school remains in safe hands.
SEN & PASTORAL CARE
Saint Nicholas has a relatively small SEN department, which runs a programme of academic interventions alongside in-class support when required. The SEN department also works with outside agencies such as educational psychologists, depending on individual need.
More prominent perhaps is the school’s pastoral provision, recognised locally as being very strong. For the Middle and Upper school, there’s an Assistant Head Pastoral, with two deputies – that’s a lot of dedicated support for a school of this size. Form teachers also play an important role in overseeing the pastoral care of the pupils within their form. Each year group has two form tutors who mentor them daily, alongside the pastoral leads. There are extended form times on a Wednesday and Friday for either pastoral activities (themed for each half term) or assemblies. Year 6 also have an extra pastorally-led lesson with their tutor on top of this each week. A member of staff delivers intervention, such as one-to-ones, two days per week, and the school also has a link with a counsellor and play therapist who works with pupils whenever the need arises.
There’s also a wellbeing room for breaks and lunchtime, and a Butterfly Garden – a recently redeveloped area of reflection and contemplation. It’s a lovely little haven, built in memory of a Saint Nicholas pupil who had sadly passed away.
At Saint Nicholas, Early Years starts at 2½ years, as pupils enter the pre-school, Little Saints. Classrooms are bright and colourful, with areas for activities from role play and creative arts to sensory exploration and computing.
But it’s outside where littlies are spoilt rotten, with a sand pit, construction area, den building, adventure playground, water play, mud kitchen, bikes and scooters.
My personal favourites? The Muddy Play and Eco Garden (below), both clearly well used and loved by the nippers.
Saint Nicholas offers wraparound care from 7.30am to 6pm, and its site is used by Barracudas during the Easter and Summer holidays – a great option for parents looking for childcare over the holidays. The school also has its own fleet of buses to pick up kids and drop them off again, meaning parents can swan around in their PJs for that big longer.
Being a through school but stopping at age 16 is quite unusual, but Saint Nicholas feels that not having a Sixth Form benefits many pupils, especially as they generally get accepted into their first class of sixth form college anyway.
Although not quirky as such, the staff Christmas panto is a particular fave with the kids (who doesn’t want to see their teachers dressed up in tutus and feather boas?), while the Fireworks Night is a must-see and the annual ball for mums and dads is always a packed-out party.
Fees per term are: Reception & Years 1 & 2 £3,515; Years 3, 4 & 5 £3,645;
Year 6, 7 & 8 £4,040; and Years 9, 10 & 11 £4,405
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents looking for a fun, family-orientated, caring school, with outstanding pastoral care. A school that’s “small enough to care, large enough to inspire”, where a shy child won’t get lost but will be encouraged and treated as an individual.
Not for: Although there is a play hard, work hard ethos at Saint Nicholas, its laidback family approach and relatively small numbers (maximum 45 per year) means that not all children will suit the small pond – some might need to dive bomb into a bigger, more competitive pool.
Dare to disagree?! Be my guest. Book in for Whole School Open Day taking place on 12 March (10am-12pm). Register here.