The Marist School, Sunninghill
An academically strong day school for girls with co-ed nursery, The Marist School, Ascot balances intellectual firepower with kindness and community.
The Marist is an academically impressive catholic girls’ day school close to the centre of Sunninghill (east of Ascot) for children 2-18 years old. Originally founded in 1870 (moving to Berkshire in 1947) by the Marist Sisters – a religious order of Catholic sisters established in France to provide for the poor and uneducated – only a third of children who come here are now catholic, with all religions/non-religions welcome. The school houses 290 seniors, 175 in Prep and Nursery on a 55-acre woodland site.
It is deceptively spacious, with extensive woodland and green space to enjoy. Sportswise, the huge multi-purpose sports hall is the star of the show with floodlit courts, astroturf pitch and an onsite 22-metre indoor swimming pool (what happened to the other 3m?), with all kids having lessons right from Nursery to Senior and kids as young as three able to join the after-school swimming club. This is a major boon for the school – how many of us struggle to get our kids in the pool every week? Sport is particularly strong and The Marist are formidable on the pitch. Is it any wonder when so many of the girls compete in county and national squads – hockey, netball, swimming and more.
The arty offering is strong too with a dance studio, art and ceramics studio with kiln and darkroom. The Music and Drama Centre is impressive too with its music recording studio, rehearsal space, individual practice rooms and an 80-seater theatre. They’re also incredibly lucky to have music teacher Ron McAllister, who comes from a professional background having worked at the brilliant South Hill Park, just down the road in Bracknell. His creative brain and musical know-how is a superb resource for jazz handers and aspiring musicians to tap into.
Forest School and the outdoors plays a huge part in school life across all age groups, but is used a lot by the younger children who also get to enjoy the sensory garden and willow dome classroom, too. But the Outdoor Learning Coordinator has plans to create a field study centre for senior pupils to use the grounds for practical studies. The school also boasts an outdoor amphitheatre, a rather unusual asset but lovely for parents to come along and see alfresco performances. Close your eyes, take a sip of Pinot, and you could almost be in Verona.
On the surface, The Marist appears quite traditional – it’s the boater hats and blazers – but there are sparks of forward thinking and innovation which is key to Principal Jo Smith’s vision for the school. From subject matter, activities and tech to new ways of learning and teaching, personal and academic growth comes from being curious and implementing change when it brings something new and worthwhile to the table. It creates a frisson of excitement and an energy that is infectious. The results in STEM subjects are very good, there are some funky co-curricular activities like TedTalk Club, robotics, biodiversity and group of girls took part in a pilot Google project to design an app that fulfils a need, currently unfulfilled. The future is bright for Marist female entrepreneurs. Watch this space.
I also love the fact that in addition to netball, The Marist girls play football, hockey and cricket. As a nation we have exceptional role models in these sports, but not all schools offer the opportunity for girls to play them.
The mission of the school is ‘Living life in all its fullness’. In essence, they want the girls to work hard, take risks, learn from failure, be kind, be resilient and the best version of themselves. You can’t argue with any of that.
The bright, airy and colourful Early Years school has its own space within the grounds, but in using shared facilities it avoids a sense of them and us. There is co-ed Nursery for ages 2-5) that is open all year round – you can see the visible signs of relief from working parents of toddlers.
The Prep introduces the girls to a creative curriculum. A what? Basically, you take an idea – a book perhaps – and apply aspects of it across as many subjects as possible, helping to develop critical thinking from a very young age, gluing together subjects and learning. Brilliant. I also have to applaud the creativity of the staff. The library alone is like tip toeing into an enchanted garden.
Take one small, selective school, add small class sizes – only 20 per class, with specialist teachers, all of which helps produce healthy crop of GCSE and A level results. In one of the most challenging years ever for exam students, GCSE results were still impressive with 16% Grade 9 (A*) and 65% Grades 9-7 (A*-A). A Level grades were also top notch, with 54% achieving an A*-A and 88% A*-B at A Level. Am impressive 33% of students achieved straight A*-A grades. It’s no wonder The Marist is ranked 7th in the UK by The Telegraph. As for the next chapter, the majority of last year’s sixth formers (77% if you like a stat) have hot footed to prestigious Russell Group unis.
There’s a lot of talk of excellence here – but the pressure cooker is dialled right down. Yes they want girls to smash the glass ceiling and achieve stellar results, but without compromising on being the best versions of themselves, giving back to the community and supporting one another. There’s definitely an inclusive, family atmosphere here and the pastoral standards are as high as the academic ones. A few years ago I’m sure that view was unfashionable, but in the light of today’s stressed and anxious children it’s a selling point.
A new Principal’s in the hot seat – Jo Smith. She took over in Sept 2019 (just before the pandemic). As a mum of three girls, her perspective as a head and parent is a positive one for the school. She’s a quietly determined woman who is energised by innovation. Jo feels it’s her duty to empower young women to be fearless, smash the glass ceiling, and challenge themselves. Growth mindset and excellence ‘as a habit not an action’ create the foundation for the pupils and staff to develop new ideas. She is proud of the school’s and the girls’ achievements and is now working on her wish list of developments to help The Marist School grow in terms of numbers and facilities – new Sixth Form Centre, dining hall, Geography Field Centre and a brand new entrance.
Hopefully, lockdown learning is a thing of the past, but The Marist was able to offer a full day of online classes, extra curricular activities, assemblies and pastoral care during school closures. Putting their positive pants on, now the girls are back in school, they feel a blended approach of digital and traditional classroom teaching will give them the best of both worlds and nurture those all-important skills employers love. Also, let’s stop talking about a ‘Lost Generation’. When I spoke to Jo Smith, she felt strongly that we should focus on the good. Yes, it’s been a challenging year, but our kids have shown resilience, ingenuity, as well as new ways to connect with people and learn. Amen to that.
I’m not sure Catholicism counts as a quirk exactly but as one of only a handful of Catholic day schools in Berkshire it’s certainly a USP. There are three sisters who still live on site and attend services, sit on the governing body, and are a good listening ear for the pupils. I always imagined a Catholic girls school to be heavy on the fire and brimstone – but that’s not the vibe here. Although uniform expectations are high, and make up is no no, the sense I get is that everyone’s happier knowing they don’t have to worry about all that. In an age where looks are judged by likes and follows, it feels like a weight off everyone’s shoulders.
Pastoral care and wellbeing is strong here, and I love that there is a mentoring system for new seniors. Everyone in Year 7 gets a Year 9 Marist Mentor plus all girls from years 7-13 are buddied up in a ‘lily group’, groups of six girls from across the years who meet regularly for social support and peer mentoring. In essence, it’s a micro House system but more personal and sociable. The wellbeing of staff is also taken seriously too, with yoga, art, running and other mindful activities available. Not quite a spa day, but we’ll take it.
The Marist wants to be affordable to working parents, so the fees are lower than the Berkshire average. The 2021 fees all include lunch; Nursery-Reception £3,400 per term; Years 1-2 – £3,900 per term – including swimming and dance. Years 3-6 – £4,360 per term; and Senior School – £5,280 per term – including swimming. Music lessons and some extra-curricular activities cost extra. The school also accept Child Care Vouchers, give discounts for paying lump sums in advance and you can also spread the cost by paying termly fees on a monthly basis.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Plans are afoot to extend provision further but currently, girls can arrive from 8am and the school day ends at 4pm, with study and after-school clubs running until 6pm. The lunch break is slightly longer so that lunchtime activities can be squeezed into the day, too. There are also clubs and care available for the little ones (extra charge) but gives stressed out parents juggling work/ life and school runs plenty of options. Plus The Marist busses in kids in from Camberley, Maidenhead, Virginia Water, Taplow, Windsor and Wokingham areas. No hair raising school runs. Phew. The routes are regularly reviewed to scoop up children who need a ride .
WORD ON THE GROUND
Excellent feedback from parents, who delight in their happy, grounded kids. The mix of small classes, innovation, academic excellence and a lack of social pressure hit the sweet spot. They love how calm the school is. Everyone doing their thing without the shrill sound of overexcited, screaming girls. Pickups by car can be tricky, as the car park is small.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Kids who are up for the challenge – with small numbers, comes opportunity to play instruments, have a go at sports and be part of the community. Plus parents looking for a school that has acres of space without it being in the middle of nowhere.
Not for: It’s not a school full of brainiacs, but those children who really struggle academically might find the pace tough here. The Marist welcomes all religions (Catholics only amount to 35% of the pupils) but the school is underpinned by a strong Christian ethos which you’ll either buy into or not.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! The next school Open Day is Fri 30 Apr.
The Marist School, Kings Road, Sunninghill, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7PS. Tel: 01344 624291.