The Marist School,
A pastorally strong day school for girls aged 3-18, The Marist School in Sunninghill carefully balances intellectual firepower with kindness and community.
The Marist is a catholic girls’ day school close to the centre of Sunninghill (East of Ascot) for children 3 – 18 years old. Originally founded in 1870 (moving to Berkshire in 1942) 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 and 175 in Prep on a deceptive 55-acre woodland site that is dominated by a grand red brick Victorian mansion block, with more recent additions bolted on over time.
It is deceptively spacious, with extensive woodland and green space to enjoy. Sportswise, the mahoosive new multi-purpose sports hall, opened by the Duke of York in 2017, 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 Prep to Senior and kids as young as 3 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 dance studio, art and ceramics studio with kiln and darkroom, Music and Drama Centre, complete with 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.
Elsewhere the Forest School 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. The school also boasts an outdoor amphitheatre, a rather unusual asset but rather lovely for parents to come along and see alfresco performances. Close your eyes, take a sip of Negroni, 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. The results in STEM subjects are very good, there are some funky co-curricular activities like TedTalk Club, robotics, biodiversity and group of girls are currently part of a pilot Google project to design an app that fulfils a need, currently unfulfilled. The ideas put forward for this project are mind blowing. The future is bright for Marist female entrepreneurs. Watch this space.
The mission of the school is 10:10. It’s not about a hot housey quest for perfection, but rather a reference to St John’s Gospel, Chapter 10, Verse 10, where Jesus explains his own mission; ‘I have come that you may have life in all its fullness’, shortened to a more understandable motto of ‘Living life in all its fullness’. Some may roll their eyes at the overtly religious reference, but this is a faith school, and it comes with the territory. But in essence, they want the girls to work hard, be kind, look out for one another, be resilient and the best version of themselves. I would certainly want my own children to tick all of those boxes.
The Early Years and Prep have their own space within the grounds but, in using shared facilities, there is not a sense of them and us. A recent tweak to the uniform cements that vision. As you would expect the classes are bright, airy and incredibly colourful. The children are incredibly well mannered and eager to reveal what they’re working on. Relatively new Vice Principal Prep Jane Gow has also introduced a thematic 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. Magic for the little ones and makes me want to hit Hobbycraft and have a go myself (for a second).
Take one small, selective school, add small class sizes – only 20 per class, with specialist teachers, all of which helps produce healthy GCSE and A level results. Fifth in The Telegraph Best Small Independent School in 2018, GCSE results were A*-A (54%), with an impressive 80% achieving A*-B. I particularly love the fact that 60% of students taking Further Maths achieved A*-A. Impressive. As for A levels, A*-A (54%) and A*- C (99%). 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 definitely a gentle, inclusive, family atmosphere here – children are encouraged to come for a taster day to make sure they like the school and settle in well. The ethos is strongly anti-hothouse, and the Head was upfront that pastoral care comes first and everything else follows. A few years ago I’m sure that view was unfashionable, but in the light of today’s stressed and anxious children it’s becoming a selling point for the school.
The Principal Karl McCloskey has been Head of the school for a whopping 21 years. He has worked in the state and private sector throughout his career and continues to have the energy and enthusiasm for the job, the staff and students seemingly an extension of his family. He’s jolly, upbeat and honest about where the school is at – he’s not trying to push The Marist up academic league tables it seems creeping up all by itself, but he is proud of the school’s and the girls’ achievements and has over seen many of the developments here including £2.5m sports hall, learning resource centre, forest school and nursery.
Sadly Karl steps down at the end of this year, but he has created a strong senior team, to ensure the school is on cruise control until a replacement takes up the reins – Wendy Reed the Vice Principal Senior (who has worked here for 18 years, no less) and Vice Principal Prep Jane Gow, both exude kindness and practicality. The next chief has big shoes to fill, for sure.
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 worry about all that. In an age where looks are judged by liked and followers, it feels like a weight off of 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 Guardian Angel plus all girls from years 7-13 are buddied up in a ‘lily group’, groups of 6 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.
Many schools talk about a global outlook, but The Marist practices what it preaches. There are Marist Schools and Orders all over the world and it works like a global support network – certainly makes lessons a bit more interesting and one former Marist girl even stayed with sisters in Fiji during her medical studies, while helping out at a local hospital. How cool is that?
The Marist wants to be affordable to working parents, so the fees are lower than the Berkshire average, I’d say. The 2019 fees all include lunch; Nursery – Reception £3400 per term (including ballet); Years 1-2 – £3900 per term; Years 3-6 – £4360 per term; and Senior School – £5280 per term. 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 to a ride.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Pastorally excellent is the feedback from parents, who delight in their happy, grounded kids. Pickups by car can be tricky, as the car park is small. Most parents I’ve been in touch with know what they have bought into here and are happy with the mix of small classes, individual care and a lack of social and pressure. They also love the how calm the school is. Everyone doing their thing without the shrill sound of overexcited, screaming girls.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Kids who could benefit from a nurturing, supportive, non-hot-house style school. Joiner inners – with small numbers, comes opportunity to play instruments, have a go at sports and be part of the community.
Not for: Big fish who need an even bigger pond – this small, gentle school might not deliver the trashing space your child needs. If you’re vehemently anti faith schools, probably not for your list. If you want boarding or a quirky, liberal vibe, The Marist is also not for you.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! The Prep School Open Day is Thurs 2 May 2019 (9.15am-11.15); Senior School Open Day is Thurs 9 May 2019 (9.15am-11.15) and the Year 5 Taster Day is Fri 28 Jun 2019.
The Marist Schools, Kings Road, Sunninghill, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7PS. Tel: 01344 624291.