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St David’s College

Muddy says: Check out this co-ed day and boarding school for ages 9-19 set in stunning surroundings - a magical place where community is of the essence

What? Where? St David’s College is a co-ed day and boarding school for ages 9-19 set in the beautiful surroundings of Llandudno. The school is a breath of fresh air – far from trumpeting exam results, this is a magical place where community is of the essence. The school places huge value on supporting each other, on sport, art and (how cool is this?) 4×4 off road driving in a spectacularly battered old Land Rover.
Resident in the rather splendidly romantic Gloddeath Hall, seat of the Mostyn family since the 15th century, the school was founded by John Mayor in 1965 with the aim of offering a whole-person education based on Christian principles and outdoor education, to boys who needed an extra helping hand. Twenty years later, girls were welcomed into the fold and the school hasn’t looked back since.
Situated in the most fantastic area (you’ve got the whole of Snowdonia as your playground!), the school has 260 pupils, with 40% of them making the most of the boarding facilities. Pupils come from the local area, with a large number from London, the Midlands and everywhere in between. 40-odd overseas pupils make up the difference, and the school is very much set up to support boarders – it is only a five minute taxi journey to the local train station, three hours to London, an hour or so to Manchester and Liverpool airports, and staff are happy to escort pupils to all of these hubs not only every half term but for exeats too.
Facilities: ….are impressive. Unsurprisingly, the huge acreage offers numerous rugby, hockey and cricket pitches, tennis courts and netball courts. There is a sports hall, weight training room, even a bouldering wall! Rugby is the team sport taken most seriously, with a growing relationship with the regional rugby team, but the school is no stranger to elite athletes in other disciplines and has successfully supported national and county cricket and tennis players, as well as students representing GB in sailing and equestrian events. Indeed, while not a specialist sports school St David’s can support the finest, most enthusiastic sportsman or woman – I cite an example of the Headmaster’s own son, who regularly dedicates over twenty hours a week to his sports. As with other areas of education – art, drama and music – the school absolutely supports each child in whatever endeavour they excel at.
Music and drama are strong, with plenty of performances to take part in and a recording studio for serious musos. An impressive DT block offers woodwork, a forge for metal work, and everything else students could possibly need (Product Design is very popular, with many taking it for BTEC and beyond.) They are equally well set up for art and photography, with a lovely pottery studio. Really, all skills are more than catered for, and artistic talent is explored and celebrated. A big thumbs up for the student who employs taxidermy as a hobby!
And now onto the main event…With the feeling of a PGL (remember those?) on overdrive, these lucky students get to enjoy the most spectacular outdoor education programme I’ve come across outside of an American summer camp. With sessions four times a week, plus a whole day every fortnight dedicated to fun and frolics, pupils take part in sailing, kayaking, climbing, canoeing, gorge walking, caving, surfing, wakeboarding, skiing, white water rafting, mountain biking and more! This is a hugely outdoorsy adventure-loving school, with the sea in one direction and Snowdonia the other. Quite literally, the country is their oyster. How many other schools have specialist outdoor ed teachers on staff, with kayaks, canoes, wetsuits and wet rooms on site?
A huge advantage for boarders, especially the school’s overseas contingent, are the weekend trips organised by the outdoor ed department – instead of boarders going home or packed off to guardians for exeats, they can follow their leaders climbing the foothills of Snowdon or stomping around Snowdonia.
This is most definitely a school for those who want to get involved and, after only a few hours at the school, it was clear to me that they would not only be encouraged to participate but made to feel that they will achieve.

Academic results: While remaining proudly academically non-selective, results are still good. Small pupil numbers mean that class sizes are rarely larger than 15, with only one class in Years 5 and 6, expanding to two classes in Year 7 and three in Years 8 through 13. In the Sixth Form most pupils take a mixture of A-Levels and BTECs, with many taking an additional City and Guilds qualification. There is real passion and encouragement for entrepreneurship at St David’s, starting with the Tenner Challenge in Year 10 and ending with students winning the prestigious BTEC Business Student of the Year award.

 

While not a highly rigorous environment, super-structured to within an inch of its academic life, it is clear that the school has created an educational model that works. If you have a high achieving child who loves to participate in other areas of school life, St David’s is perfect. While the school can absolutely support children’s learning in all areas (including the academic arena), if you are after a formal, very traditional education it may not be for you.

 

The provision for children with dyslexia is superb. Around 60% of the student body have learning needs, and the school offers over two dozen specialist teachers who work with pupils on a one to one basis. Even for those without additional needs, learning is holistic. The school’s ethos is 100% child-centric; the focus is not on the final product of years of schooling but on the successful child as a whole. The school, and parents, want St David’s pupils to grow up happy and confident. For them, success is not a stream of A*s; it is the child who was predicted an E but passes both with a C and a qualification in driving a power boat! While each child looks different (think our favourite taxidermy teenager), each has confidence in the area they excel in.

 

For leavers, the focus is on ensuring that there is a range of options for further study. While most go on to universities, such as Bangor or Loughborough (Chemistry, Business, Design and Sports Science are popular), the school knows that there is a world beyond university and other options are always on the table, including training contracts, apprenticeships and creative arts courses. Success in City and Guilds often leads to a path straight into industry.

 

Boarding: Around 40% of pupils board, a figure that looks to rise towards 50%, and boarding happens from Year 5 all the way through to Year 13, although they do admit it is harder to recruit junior boarders. A new girls’ boarding house is being built to keep up with demand, and while flexi boarding is not on the table, there is sometimes opportunity to stay overnight after late activities or rehearsals. The school sees itself firmly as a boarding school, with a true commitment to everything that entails, especially the family-feel that develops around it. Unsurprisingly, weekends are hugely popular with all the in- and out-of-school activities on offer, and many day pupils will be seen around school on Saturdays.

Headteacher: Andrew Russell is the man at the helm, having been here for, believe it or not, 27 years. A former competitive cross country runner, he has taken on almost every job there is at St David’s, from maths teacher to cricket coach to Head of Year to House Master (a role he says is the best ever; he valued the privilege of being entrusted with the upbringing of someone else’s children). The House Master in him remains, as he refers to his own home as the school’s ‘fifth boarding house’. He is, dare I say it, resident ‘dad’ for all of the kids.

His energy and dedication are remarkable – along with his wife he runs the active alumni society, has three young children at the school, teaches entrepreneurship and drives the local minibus on the school run three times a week. As far as approachable Heads go, Andrew is it. Oh, and he has a stunning office overlooking the valley! He is very open about the fact that he chose the school for this hands-on lifestyle, that he has spent a very happy three decades at the coalface of education and his real passion is seeing the children learn – that the lightbulb moments don’t come along that often in the role of Head.

He clearly embraces the fact that this is a relatively new school, free of baggage and, in the year that it celebrates fifty years since its first pupils graduated, is going from strength to strength. His respect for the students is obvious, as is his love for the family feel of the school. He has no intention of expanding the small student body – while there is no emphasis on academics during the entry procedure he does interview each and every child, spending as much time as possible with them during their taster day, looking for that spark, that inquisitive character. ‘Don’t be scared of failing,’ is his mantra. ‘Be scared of never having tried.’

What else?

The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme is huge here – and I mean huge. Unsurprisingly for a school with such an extraordinary outward-bound ethos, they are all set up for expeditions. All Year 9 pupils take their Bronze award, culminating in an expedition abroad, often to Morocco, Finland, France or Italy, with students helping to design their own trip. In Years 10 and 11 all pupils work towards their Silver award, and then Gold in Years 12 and 13.

For an independent school, they are pretty down to earth here. There is an impressive provision for bursaries and, with some children fully funded through their Local Education Authority, it makes for a healthy mix. While there might be plenty of children from a privileged background, a recent McLaren F1 in the car park attracted lots of selfie-taking rather than envy.

Quirks: First up on the quirkily-cool front is the 4×4 off-road driving course. Kids as young as nine can learn how to drive a fabulously beat-up Landy (don’t worry, it has a roll cage, emergency kill switch, bucket seats and full harnesses), and the older ones can train for their instructor qualification, which looks pretty impressive on their CV. A great way to help with confidence, communication and leadership skills, they even made me take a drive, and I can tell you it’s pretty good fun! Courses in 4×4 and motorbike maintenance are on offer too.

This is a school where boundaries are pushed (in a good way), kids are stretched (in all ways), and the individual is absolutely embraced. Indeed if ever a school should be proud of calling itself holistic, this is it.

Fees: Boarding £8,120 – £11,630, Day £3,930 – £6,230. Additional support starts at £150 a term for small group support and £470 a term for 1-1 support.

Word on the ground: Parents I spoke to love the community and family feel of the school. They like that it is small, and of course they like the outdoorsy opportunities. They are also quite clear that despite the multitude of activities, academics do not take second place. This is not a school just for strugglers and stragglers.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Parents who value a school with a serious sense of community, both within the school grounds and beyond. It is a school that offers a myriad of opportunities in all areas of education, so if sport, art, music, drama, DT or climbing Snowdon are your thing, add it to your must-see list. This is a school for those who want to get involved, to have a go, and who will, in the words of the school, ‘discover the freedom to flourish.’

Not for: Children who aren’t joiner inners. Although it will support the academically able child, you’ll want to take advantage of everything else that is on offer here. Children here identify as a family, they make no judgements and have no cliques.

Dare to disagree? Find out for yourself at their Open Days on Mondays 23 Sep and 18 Nov, from 10am. Sign up here for your place www.stdavidscollege.co.uk/openday.

St David’s College, Gloddaeth Hall, Llandudno LL30 1RD, Tel: 01492 875974, www.stdavidscollege.co.uk

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