St Joseph’s College, Reading
An impressive co-ed all-through school in Reading town centre that's big on wellbeing, has deliciously low fees and fits in with family life.
St Joseph’s College is an independent Catholic co-ed day school in central Reading, taking kids from the age of 3-18. The school’s contained on one site with the Prep and Early Years tucked away in its own dedicated area within the grounds. The numbers are small with 600 boys and girls across the whole school – with children bussed in from all over Berks, nudging into South Oxon and north Hants. Some older kids come by train and there’s a handy shuttle bus waiting at Reading Station to whisk them to off class.
A former convent school, founded by the Sisters of St Marie Madeleine Postel to educate girls, St Joseph’s went fully co-ed in 2010, changed its name and reduced its fees by 17%. Yes, you heard me, the fees went down. I know, bonkers. But just rejoice! Hard working parents looking for an independent, small school, but struggling to afford it, were suddenly back in the game. Although there is some outside space, don’t expect acres of bucolic playing fields. This is a city school and space is not what you’re buying into.
There are three buildings: the Early Years Centre is a well-designed modern nursery with a small-but-perfectly-formed playground for the nippers to let off steam. The Juniors are in a purpose built building next door and the Senior School is adjacent in the imposing four-storey Victorian building – with its warren of staircases, corridors and classrooms.
There’s a recently refurbished indoor pool, all-weather astro pitches for hockey and tennis, a gym, plus two fields and netball courts. Everyone needs good neighbours, and St Joseph’s has lucked out with the University of Reading on their doorstep, so they also get to use their facilities too, including their Fitness Centre, spin studio and all the outside space you could wish for.
MUSIC, ART, DRAMA
Music and drama are BIG and the swanky new Music Centre is proving very very popular. Judging by the amount of instruments being played and rehearsals going on, there’s a lot of creative talent being nurtured. We are sure the 13 new pianos will be put to good use. If you have an interest in an instrument, the school will find someone to teach it. Plus there are lots of extra curricular opportunities to get involved in choir, folk, wind, brass and pop bands. St Joseph’s has partnered with the London Mozart Players which gives musicians the opportunity to take part in workshops, play alongside pros and attend London Mozart Players’ concerts in London. An A-level music student thought it was awesome that the school recruits professional musicians to record music they have composed for their exams. How brilliant is that?
Drama excellent here too and it’s cool to take part – onstage or behind the scenes. There was a lot of buzz about the school production of Made In Dagenham, with boys and girls flexing their musical, dramatic and technical skills to the max. So it’s good to see Musical Theatre qualifications available alongside Drama and Theatre Studies, Music and LAMDA. The rehearsal room is a good size and the theatre is full of period charm.
The overall atmosphere was of engaged and focused children at ease with their teachers. There was a nice hum of brains ticking and lots of chatty participation and interaction going on. Certainly the Y13 children who showed me around were confident and chatty and eager to tell me all the things they loved. The school’s longest serving teacher Mrs Kesel (Music) and Mr Cunningham (RE) whose near death experience white water rafting in Mongolia give them both ‘legend’ status.
Early Years and Reception can be found in a light-filled, spacious modern building. The rooms are big, colourful, they get to enjoy their own outdoor space with an age appropriate adventure playground. Specialist College staff provide Music, French and PE and the children make weekly trips to the Prep library. The staff are amazing, the children are happy and they seem to love their safe bubble.
Next door in the Prep, a purpose built building offers good flow and well-proportioned classrooms, set over two floors. It has its own Assembly Hall, sports court, ICT suite, music and art room. But it’s good to share, so the younger kids can hop over to the Senior School to use the science labs, tech room, sports facilities and have lessons with specialist teaching staff. The whole school also get together for assemblies (known as collective worship) and big events, to reinforce the all-through school vibes. Transitions to the Senior school have been good in spite of Covid, but work is being done to improve socialisation of young teens.
It’s worth addressing the Catholic issue. I have to admit, I thought it was going to be heavy on the fire and brimstone. Wrong! (Clearly watched too many historical dramas.) This is not a school full of ‘Holy Joes’. All faiths or none are welcome, but the foundations are fundamentally Christian in terms of learning, looking out for one another, sense of community, service and self worth. Some parents will shortlist St Joseph’s because it’s Catholic, but it’s not the majority. To be honest, if my kids lived life following this moral code, I’ll be doing cartwheels. Plus the lay chaplain is a great asset for staff and kids to turn to if they need an ear. Every couple of years there’s a school trip to Rome and the choir get to sing in the Vatican. A story you could dine out for years, Catholic or not.
It’s not particularly interested in the bragging rights of results and league tables. The focus is very much on preparing the children emotionally, mentally and physically for their future. The school works hard on the 5 Cs – communication, collaboration, commitment, confidence and compassion. If you nail them, you’ll set for life, with the capacity to learn new skills as you go (it never stops, does it?). But while we’re here, we might as well look at those results, because they’re pretty darn good. For GCSE: 9-6 (A**-B) 88%. Latin, Sciences, Food Prep and Nutrition, Art and Music all producing excellent results. A Level: A*-B 80% – well above the national average. Stand out subjects are Further Maths, ICT, Economics, RE, Theatre Studies and Music. It’s worth noting, it is consistently listed in the Top 60 schools for valued added.
Most of the kids go on to higher education and the Y13s I spoke to were giving Oxbridge a body swerve for modern unis (with a cracking social life). But students have snagged apprenticeships at Vodafone and accountancy firm BDA. Getting paid, on the job experience and your degree paid for – it’s the holy grail!
Entrepreneurial thinking it also encouraged Young Enterprise offered in Year 12 and 13, plus there is a full Duke of Edinburgh programme and a real life application of STEM skills as teams are entered annually for the F1 in Schools Challenge and CyberCenturion education initiative. What I’m trying to say? The school’s emphasis on teaching the kids to be independent thinkers with the confidence to follow their own path are skills that will enable them to succeed whatever choices they make. It’s not about what is expected, but what is right. Props for that!
The pastoral care is exceptional, and I love the fact that St Joseph’s is a Wellbeing Centre that prioritises the mental health of both the pupils and staff and training is given to spot the signs if individuals are struggling. Early intervention and the right support is crucial, particularly for teens. Knowing the school recognises the scale of the problems young people face, is impressive. The health and wellbeing of the kids is paramount, and the importance put on it is a big plus point for me.
Headteacher Laura Stotesbury (above) joined St Joseph’s College in September 2021 from Prior Park College in Bath where she was Deputy Head (Academic). Barely enough time has passed to warm her new academic throne. That said, she’s certainly made an impact with the pupils who raved about the positive changes she had made. Namely, that they, the pupils, have been given a voice and that assemblies were now lead by them not the teachers. She’s an incredibly likeable, down to earth character and although keen to crack on and get things done, she’s busy observing, listening and talking to all the staff to get a look under the deepest darkest rocks of the school. She’s brimming with energy and enthusiasm. The Sixth Form Centre is being refurbished to offer social and silent spaces, the ‘vintage’ science labs are next on the list for modernisation and the STEM facilities generally are a priority. Laura also wants to beef up the sports offering and create more opportunities to compete. Her own children attend the Prep school, so as head and parent she is fully invested in ensuring the very best for the school.
The Sisters have moved out, but one woman from the Order of Sisters of St Marie Madeleine Postel still lives on site. Sister Helen is actively involved as a school governor and can often be seen at mass. It’s like having your grandma for a visit and never going home, which sounds a bit odd, but the pupils and staff are incredibly fond of her.
A town-centre school has many benefits but space isn’t one of them. But I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of outside space they had managed to carve out. And on the plus side, being so central, the children grow to understand how to stay safe in the urban jungle.
Girls now play football and cricket, playing in mixed teams, and single gender for their own competitions – and they’re really good. Not only were they undefeated for the whole of the 2018 season, the U16s team won the Reading Football League in the same year. They’ve also competed with the top 32 independent schools in the country. The Boys have continued to progress with their sport with their first ever 1st XV Rugby this year. And the U13 Football side managed to qualify as one of the top 24 independent schools in the country in 2019.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Amazing! Frazzled parents constantly juggling work and children, you’ll want to kiss the staff because St Joseph’s is a blessing. All pupils can arrive from 7.45am for Breakfast Club (lessons start at 8.20am). The littlies can head home from 3.20pm (Early Years to Y2) and 3.40pm (Y3 onwards). Book into after school clubs (you pay a bit extra) and you can swoop in at 5.15pm or 6pm. The Early Years Centre is also open until 6pm and runs throughout the school holidays too. There’s also a separate Holiday Club – run by St Joseph’s staff – for all Prep pupils up to Y6 that was a godsend for working parents over the summer. Up to 90 kids per day enjoyed activities – which had absolutely nothing to do with the ice cream van visiting every Friday. *wink wink*.
As for the Seniors, there’s a variety of co-curricular activities to enjoy and study in the library until 6pm is free of charge. Plus a Young Leaders Programme to add more skills to their life after St Joseph’s toolkit.
Last reviewed by inspectors in 2018 so no doubt due an inspection very soon. Click here for the Regulatory Compliance review (2018) and the integrated report (2014).
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
No major surprise to see mobiles and other techy bits and bobs are not permitted in the prep. Once you move up to Senior school, there’s a bit more flexibility. Phones and other mobile devices can be used in class, but only if invited by the teacher. Otherwise they stay away and on silent. They can have a scroll during breaks in the common room and Sixth Form Centre, but having your mobile is regarded as a privilege and the kids generally tow the line. I’d say there’s a healthy amount of common sense applied that allows teenager the security blanket of their tech without wreaking havoc.
Fees: Brace yourselves, because I’ve never seen figures like it while reviewing independent schools: Seniors (Y7-13) £4,180 per term (that’s £12,540 for the year!); Juniors £3,474 (Y3-6), Infants £3,210 and a half day in Early Years is £2,445. Seriously good value.
Scholarships are available but don’t expect a discount off the fees. St Joseph’s gives each scholar £100 to spend on something that supports their talent. Tickets to a show, books, courses, equipment etc. Incentivising the child not the parents feels pretty special.
St Joseph’s also award postelarships alongside scholarships; these are awarded to pupils which recognise and reward effort and enthusiasm for learning.
WORD ON THE GROUND
No murmurings of discontent during my interrogations. They feel they get exceptional value for money. Great teaching, the emphasis is on life skills, kids’ wellbeing and the family feel is ticking all the boxes. If they were being picky, they felt a broader range of extra curricular activities could be offered. But the school is already in discussions with the children about what they would like to do. It’s all very democratic.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Free thinkers. St Joseph’s College puts a massive emphasis on getting the boys and girls ready for the world, creating independent, caring, well-rounded individuals. You won’t find these kids following the herd. They’re taught to find their own path and that the measure of success is in their own fulfilment.
Not for: If you’re looking for an academic hot house, stonking acreage, or boarding options, then St Joseph’s isn’t the place for you.
Dare to disagree?! Have a look for yourself: The Early Years/ Prep Open Morning is on Tue 20 Jan 2022 (9.30am-11am); Senior School Open Morning is on Thu 10 Feb (9.30am-11.15am). Get organised and book now.
St Joseph’s College, Upper Redlands Rd, Reading RG1 5JT. Tel: 0118 966 1000.