School review: St Mary’s Calne
On the hunt for a nurturing girls school offering strong academic results AND a picture-perfect rural setting? We're looking at you St Mary's Calne.
St Mary’s, Calne is set near the centre of this quiet mid-Wiltshire town. It’s a selective, all-girls school set in 26 acres of elegant buildings and manicured, leafy grounds. Of its 360 pupils aged 11-18, around 120 are in the sixth form, and there’s a boarding to day ratio of 80%-20%. Around 15% of students come from overseas.
Hailing back to 1873, the school is a mix of pretty, older and some sleek, contemporary buildings, all set around the picture-perfect new Lime Kiln Garden, recently designed by parent and Garden Designer Sally Harley-Martin.
Impressive. The site has the unique feel of a small university-campus-meets-desirable country-home. A large purpose-built modern chapel is used for music as well as for worship and assemblies, with chapel Monday-Thursday mornings and Sunday evenings with girls meeting in their Companies (St Mary’s House system) on Fridays.
The modern theatre is well-used, with snazzy retractable seating for added rehearsal space. The sports hall is shiny and fairly new, and feels like a facility for a school twice its size, accommodating a full-size swimming pool and well-equipped gym without breaking a sweat.
Dedicated blocks for art, music and science are all suitably state of the art, but the piece de resistance is the brand-new library by architects Woods Bagot, all buff brick and dark steel providing a chic yet cosy space, with orchard views and smart looking breakaway rooms. Librarian Dr Penny James is passionate about meeting the literary needs of the students, stressing the importance of stocking female biographies and enthusiastically discussing recommendations with a sixth-former. It was a sight for sore eyes to see more books than screens.
Sporty students will love the convenience of the outdoor sports pitches – with 20 tennis courts and both grass and all-weather terrain slap bang on the doorstep.
Due to strict Covid measures on my visit I wasn’t able to visit the dorms but prospective sixth-formers will be pleased to know that the bedrooms in the timber-clad sixth form houses are all ensuite. Dorm facilities for the younger girls are, I’m told, homely, with personal belongings – bedding, pictures etc – strongly encouraged. The number of girls to a room decreases as you rise up the school, with 2-6 per room in years 7-9 and individual rooms from year 10.
GCSE results speak for themselves, with last year 100% awarded levels 9-4; 85% 9-7; 66% 9-8; and a sterling 41% hitting 9s.
Curriculum-wise St Mary’s is a traditional school. It clearly values academic achievement, facilitated by small class sizes averaging around 15, never going above 18 and occasionally as low as 3 for A level. While it is “broadly selective”, with an entrance exam, emphasis is placed on adding value rather than hot-housing top graders. And to this end, one-to-one attention can be given to any students struggling with a particular subject in the dedicated Learning Support Department. Girls are screened for indications of learning difficulties prior to starting at the school to ensure the most suitable help (and to make sure that St Mary’s Calne is the right choice for each girl).
In the Sixth Form students can choose from around 26 A-level subjects, which run even if there are only a few students. Last year’s A levels had a top-notch 100% pass rate, with 28% A*; 69% A-A*; 92% A*-B; 99% A-C. No surprise that so many students go on to leading Russell Group universities, while a few continue their studies abroad, often in the US. Destination university courses show a good spread over STEM subjects, languages, humanities and arts. This year’s Year 13 girls have had offers from at least 9 nine top US universities including Columbia, Boston, New York and Vassar.
Art feels particularly dynamic, with the (very-engaged) sixth-formers retaining their own desks and creative areas in the department. Girls are encouraged to get stuck in and have a go, even if not taking an exam in the subject. An exhibition at a professional London gallery is held every three years (with luxe catalogue to boot) bringing together current students, alumnae and relatives, in a prestigious Calne art family event. The 2018 show was held at the Mall Galleries, and is set to return there this year.
Dr Felicia Kirk, a language specialist who has studied in Europe and the US, has been headmistress since January 2013. She’s a spirited advocate for her school, emphasising individuality and personalised attention for each St Mary’s pupil. The atmosphere she has cultivated feels homely, encouraging and nurturing; it’s a place where everyone genuinely does seem to know everyone else’s name.
No surprises that pastoral care for Kirk is a priority (hard to imagine a head teacher for whom it’s not these days), but I like the fact that peer-to-peer mental health first aid training is also being introduced here – such a good idea. Reassuringly for parents, the training covers knowing when to pass any concerns to adults, should the need arise. There is also an on-site (part-time) counsellor.
Kirk is motivated more by making progress than prizes per se, but she is proud that, for a relatively small school, St Mary’s often holds its own with the big guns – such as the debating team who got through to the National Finals of the ESU Mace debating competition in the last two years.
The main winter sports are lacrosse, hockey and netball with tennis, athletics and rounders in the summer. Lacrosse teams regularly make the Champions League. Swimming and cricket are also popular, and equestrian sports are strong and take place at a nearby stables. Pretty much all sports are taught by a specialist teacher. Their Tennis Academy has been nominated for the National Education Award by the LTA having won the regional round (beating some big name “sporty” schools). There’s also a new climbing wall in the sports hall for the vertically brave.
WRAP AROUND CARE
The day girls here are well-integrated and have the option to stay over whenever they like – and for free if it’s a compulsory late, like a rehearsal. They can be dropped-off from 7.30am in the morning and picked up before bedtime (which varies according to the year group). The School day ends around 5pm, after which the girls have a whopper list of dozens of options of clubs and activities to get stuck into: from aerobics, rugby, yoga, code-breaking, cookery, drama, photography or ski-training to one of 14 musical groups. Weekend programmes start with Saturday morning lessons, followed by a mix of sports fixtures, trips, socials and down time.
The aesthetically-pleasing Sixth Form Houses do no harm in making this something to aim for. There are two conjoined Houses, Florence Dyas House and Helen Wright House, each having their own spacious kitchen areas and common rooms, as well as pool tables, table tennis and study corners .
From time to time girls are encouraged to prepare their own food in the open-plan kitchens, or to host supper clubs, which have become a fun regular feature.
Dress code is non-uniform here, and sixth formers have more freedom to take trips or enjoy more socials sometimes with boys schools Eton, Radley and Winchester. There are House dogs – the latest is Magnus, a Great Dane puppy, which we’ve spotted being taken for a walk round the grounds by the girls.
Hot off the press! You heard it here first that the already lovely Lime Kiln garden will be further enhanced by the addition over the next year of a slatted pavilion that looks straight out of The Modern House. It’s been designed by a pupil no less, and will be available for use as an outdoor classroom.
Year 12 Physicists have been donning oily overalls and building a kit car with next door Springfields Academy. The “Mushy Peas” Young Enterprise Team are doing well with their latest invention – a fun-filled card game to raise people’s spirits during the pandemic – and just last week won “Best Teamwork in the South West” at the Regional Final, having won the County Final. And professional artist and alum Arabella Dorman is collaborating with the school over a large-scale installation “Voices on the Wind” informed by positive ways forward post-pandemic. Finally, students refer to themselves as “Calne Girls” rather than “St Mary’s”.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The school has a solid local reputation for both academics and pastoral care. My moles raved about the effort made by the school throughout Covid, and about attention paid to girl’s individual needs.
£13,760 for boarders and £10,265 for day. Learning support is £39/30mins.
You can view the most recent ISI report here from 2017, hitting ‘excellent’ across the board.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Small class sizes and a strong pastoral emphasis means St Mary’s hits the modern sweet spot for academic rigour without hot housing. In many areas the school manages to compete with much larger competitors.
Not for: In a whole-school cohort of 360, there’s nowhere to hide – joining in and working hard are expected here, so those hoping to slope off quietly may struggle.
Want to see for yourself? Be my guest! Book here for the next Open Day on Saturday 9th October 2021.
St Mary’s School
School Office: 01249 857200
Admissions Office: 01249 857206
Bursary: 01249 857300
Email enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org