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, READING
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 tucked away in its own dedicated area within the grounds. The numbers are small with 567 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 on the train to the swanky Reading station but there’s a handy shuttle bus waiting to get them to class.
A former convent school (celebrating 125 years on 5 Nov 2019), founded by theSisters 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. In fact, 2019 marks its 125th birthdayThough 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. But there’s no FOMO. The kids I spoke to are not in the least bit bothered.
St Joseph’s College is a warm, inclusive school with a genuine family feel. The fact it takes children from 3 to 18 is unique and special. There are three buildings: the Early Years Centre is a cool, well-designed nursery with a small-but-perfectly-formed playground for the nippers to let off steam. The Juniors are in a modern 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.
The Prep School has one classroom per year group, with class sizes 24 max. It has its own Assembly Hall, sports court, ICT suite, music and art rooms. 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 specialist teaching staff. New Head of Prep, Mark Bushby wants to expand the sharing of facilities and teaching across the age groups to make transitions seamless. He takes up his post in the new year and will become the first male to hold this position at St Joseph’s. YESSSS! We need more trailblazing male role models in KS1&2.
Over in the main building, the Senior School has several large halls used for performances, assemblies and mass. In terms of sport, there’s an 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.
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. So the 13 new pianos that have been delivered 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. There’s always a lot of buzz about the school production (past shows include The Little Shop Of Horrors), with boys and girls flexing their musical, dramatic and technical skills to the max.
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 Y6 and Y13 children who showed me round were confident and chatty – comfortable in their own skin and their school – eager to tell me all the things they loved.
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.) All faiths or none are welcome, but the foundations are fundamentally Christian in terms of learning, looking out for one another, sense of community and self worth. I don’t know about you, but if my kids lived life walking this line 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.
The pastoral care is exceptionally good, and I love the fact that St Joseph’s has just become a Mental Health First Aid Centre. All staff (and parents too) will be trained to spot signs of mental illness. Early intervention and the right support is crucial, particularly for struggling 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 I love that.
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 4 Cs – communication, collaboration, commitment and confidence. 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: 9-7 (A*-A) 45%. A Level: A*-B 59% – well above the national average.
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! 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 of them, but what is right. Props for that!
Headteacher Andrew Colpus (above) joined St Joseph’s College in September 2012 following a seven-year stint as Second Master at Reading Blue Coats. He’s a very open, straight talker, who happily admits he doesn’t always get it right. He took up his post just after the school went fully co-ed and implemented the decision to lower the fees – roughly 30% less than other local indepedents. He still teaches maths (and worked in finance before turning to teaching), so if anyone can make the numbers stack up, it’s him. This gutsy move worked. Numbers have more than doubled and awards have flooded in – four fancy shmancy gongs, including TES Independent School of the Year in 2015. Andrew has also changed the scholarship programme: no lump sum to the parents, £100 now goes directly to the child – rewarding their talent and their effort. No grumbling, you know it makes sense. He’s definitely the kind of man I would be happy knowing my child was getting guidance from when I wasn’t around.
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 coming for a visit and never going home, which sounds a bit odd, but the kids are incredibly fond of her.
If you’re used to thinking of private schools as having huge grounds and sweeping driveways, another quirk is that simply doesn’t have it – 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 and become mature young adults.
Single sex schools rule in Reading. There are loads of them, so having a co-ed option is a breath of fresh air. Since the boys’ turned up, the girls now play football. And they’re really good at it. Not only were they undefeated for the whole of last season, the U16s team won the Reading Football League and reached the last 32 in the English Schools National Cup in the previous year. Holler!
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. You can drop off from 7.45am (lessons start at 8.20am) and it’s hometime at 3.20pm (Early Years to Y2) and 3.40pm (Y3 onwards) Book them into after school clubs and you can whizz by at 6pm. The Early Years Centre is open until 6pm and runs throughout the school holidays too. There’s also a separate Holiday Club for all Prep pupils up to Y6 that was a godsend for juggling 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*.
Fees: Brace yourselves, because I’ve never seen figures like it while reviewing private schools: Seniors (Y7-13) £4,000 per term (that’s £12,000 for the year!); Juniors £3,324 (Y3-6), Infants £3,072.
WORD ON THE GROUND
I wasn’t hearing any complaints from the parents I interrogated. 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 at the Senior School Open Evening on Thu 3 Oct (6.30pm-9pm); Sixth Form Open Evening Tue 22 Oct (6.30pm-8.30pm)