St John’s, Sidmouth
An international day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 2-16 located on a hill overlooking the sea in the safe, seaside town of Sidmouth. Non-selective, non-pressure and pastorally excellent, there’s a strong family feel.
St John’s is an international day and boarding school in the seaside town of Sidmouth in Devon. Located on a hill overlooking stunning Jurassic coast, it’s set in 20-acres and surrounded by leafy land belonging to National Trust. St John’s is an IES (International Education Systems) school – one of 26 across three continents: two in the UK with others in South Africa, the States, Hungary, Panama, Spain and Italy. It’s non-selective and non-denominational, and takes kids from 2 to 16.
The curriculum follows the International Baccalaureate ethos with juniors taking the Primary Years Programme (PYP) which encourages learning through inquiry topics and doesn’t require children to sit for the dreaded SATs. Years 7 and 8 follow the CLAVIS programme which incorporates the inquiring values of the IB while preparing them for IGCSEs and GCSEs in years 10 and 11.
It’s very small, catering for just 200 students, 75% British, and the rest international boarders, some permanent and others on short term-long courses. Local pupils are encouraged with a 15% fee discount for families in a 15-mile radius, and there are three routes bussing kids in from the Honiton, Lyme Regis and Exeter area.
The international feel is very much in evidence at the school, not surprising when you consider that more than 12 nationalities are represented among the students, including Equador, Chile, Spain, Iran, Belgium, Mexico, France, Hong Kong and China.
All the teachers and pupils I spoke to see the ebb and flow of this itinerant population as a huge asset for the school, in terms of the boost to their sporting prowess in tournaments, as well as the exchange of cultural ideas and languages.
The day I visited it was the end of half-term assembly, held in their historic chapel. It was a celebratory affair with awards giving, a cake with candles to blow out for the birthday boys and gals, and a sad goodbye to the short-coursers who were heading back home via Heathrow.
There was a lotta love in the room, and the sport’s teacher’s gave a really inspiring speech on the importance of progression, rather than results. He congratulated the various teams on their wins and their losses, noting so much can be achieved with determination and enthusiasm, even if you feel you’ve got zero talent. Though they clearly had it in spades, having just bagged a win against Blundell’s.
Originally a convent, there has been a school on the site since 1914. The main school is a beautiful turreted red-brick building dating back to the early 19th century. Though it’s non-denominational, the place still feels slightly churchy, thanks to the stained glass, roll-top radiators and Gothic windows.
It’s clearly well-loved and showing a few signs of wear in places, so it’s currently getting some TLC: the roof has been replaced along with the carpets, and the separate nursery and cottage which house the juniors has been granted planning permission for a total rebuild.
Sport is a big deal for St John’s – everyone has to take part because in a school this size: they’re needed! Kids do five hours of sport a week and everyone buys in to the ethos they’re all part of a team, from the weakest to the strongest.
There are weekly swimming lessons for all in a heated indoor/outdoor swimming pool which has a new roof that peels back in summer to welcome parents for swimming galas, plus a 5-court sunken sports hall, two tennis courts and 2 outdoor sports pitches. It’s all the usual suspects for the boys: rugby, football, futsal (like five-a-side), hockey and cricket; for the girls: netball, hockey, cricket and rounders. Teams travel to numerous fixtures against other schools including Blundell’s, Plymouth College, and Exeter School.
Rugby is a real hit with international pupils as it’s rarely taught abroad and one pupil returns each year just for the rugger – others have returned back to their home country to play at a high level. (Joe Launchbury, the England rugby player is an alumnus.) It works both ways as the local kids get involved in bi-annual inter-school sports competitions abroad and learn games we don’t play here much, like volleyball.
St John’s is the only south-west school to be authorised to teach the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) which places the emphasis on child-led learning and seeks to give them the tools to acquire knowledge themselves.
Senior pupils study up to 9 GCSEs or IGSCEs of which 5 are core subjects and the remained selected from options.
Class sizes are small with around 16 per class, allowing for lots of one-to-one interaction where it’s needed. The pastoral team meet every Tuesday to discuss the children and if there is a problem the parents are contacted quickly and a strategy devised to help the child. There is a strong SENDco team who were deemed excellent in the latest ISI inspection, and are there to assist parents too, finding strategies (often with a hug and box of tissues) to help their children.
There is no homework for Juniors and no SATs, instead children’s progress is measured using a less stressful computer-adaptive benchmark testing, culminating in a student-led Exhibition in Year 6 devised, performed and written by the students themselves.
The IES motto is “Sapientia Quod Faciendium Facium” which *of course I’m sure you know* means ‘We do everything with wisdom‘ but the school also have another saying: Be the best you can. It doesn’t matter if you’re a B-grade or C-grade student, provided you’re achieving your potential, that’s what matters.
Each pupil from nursery upwards is involved in at least one production each year with the lovely Chapel providing a suitably historic venue for concerts, carols and a popular candlelit Christingle service which rivals Hogwarts for Christmassy atmos. There is a strong choir which performs at events in and out of school choir and this year Junior pupils are performing Shakespeare while Seniors are rehearsing a whole-school pantomime.
St John’s are rightly proud of their recent art results, with 6 of 7 pupils in 2019 achieving an A or A* at GCSE. One girl I spoke to described the facilities as brilliant, telling me how her teacher had gone the extra mile to source a pig’s heart to inspire her latest work, and batik, silk screen printing and glass painting are options. They’re big on music too – 40% of Juniors learning an instrument with one of six peripatetic teachers.
Spanish is taught from reception with the addition of French in Junior school. Children also can’t help but pick up foreign languages by osmosis, from living and learning with the international students.
In Seniors, children are encouraged to go on an exchange, where they will often catch up with friends made on visits to the UK. The options for study abroad read like a travel brochure, with opportunities for annual week-long exchanges in Spain and term-long visits to any of the IES schools.
In 2017 100% of pupils achieved 5 or more A-C grades, and the school is rightly proud of their added value results with 47% of pupils in 2019 achieving 1 or more grades above their predicted grade.
St John’s doesn’t have a sixth form so pupils tend to go to Colyton Grammar or Exeter College if they plan to continue with the IB. Recently a pupil gained a place at the Maths School, for which there are only 60 places available across the UK.
Boarding is from age 9, though most of the boarders are 11 and up, with the capacity for up to 55 boarders, including flexi-boarding. Accommodation sits above the main school and is a single, twin room or dormitory depending on age. It’s currently half-way through a major zhuzhing-up, with the addition of contemporary furniture, integral USB charging and lights, and lockable storage. There are also plans for an integral common room where boarders can go to eat, chill and watch TV.
Phone use is banned during the school day and mobiles are locked away in named drawers outside the boarding area overnight to discourage midnight scrolling and ensure a good night’s sleep.
Boarders can eat in a cosy building called Matron’s or in the Kitchen (aka the dining room) with the day pupils and staff, where all the food is all made fresh on site and caters well for intolerances. They adhere to two sugar free days a week, exchanging cakes for healthier snacks like hummus and crudités.
There’s no Saturday school so kids are free to take a trip to Bath or the Big Smoke, or get involved with activities such as climbing, high ropes, bowling and cinema trips. And there can’t be many schools that have surfing on the activities list – there’s Sidmouth with its shop and cafes, and that gorgeous pebbly beach on the doorstep.
The head, Caroline Ward – known as Carrie to the parents – comes across as quick-witted, warm and genuine. She has two girls at the school, where she has taught for eleven years, having traded a career in IT at Farringtons School for teaching. She still teaches biology and makes a point of greeting the children as they come into school every day “come rain or snow” and knows immediately if they’re having a good day or not – if it’s their birthday, their granny is unwell or if they’re snowed under with GCSE prep. Her aim is for pupils to leave full of confidence and be lifelong learners. As someone who admits to not being sporty when younger, she now sees its potential for making even the tiniest pupil feel valued. Watching her giving out awards in assembly and her interactions as we toured the school, it was clear she is well-liked by staff and pupils alike, and that she takes a huge joy and pride in her pupils. Unflappable, no-nonsense and obviously an adept plate-spinner, I’d be more than happy if my little tribe was in her capable hands.
There is a separate Nursery for 2-4 year-olds with its own play area which is open from 8am to 5pm so plenty if flexibility for working parents.
Tinies eat lunch with the older pupils, who also come in to help out, making for a smooth transition as they move up the school.
WRAP AROUND CARE
There’s a breakfast club from 8am every day and after school club until 5pm. Kids can join activities, including tennis, STEM, public speaking and debating, Carnegie reading award, art & design, seasonal sports fixtures and training and as you’d expect for a globally-minded school, languages.
The size of the school and its international feel make it quirky. Head boy Simon described it as ‘bizarre in a good way’, that said it does follow the familiar tradition of a house system, with all the children from reception to Year 11 a member of one of four houses.
Juniors spend five lessons a week on their ‘Inquiry’, a child-led mixture of written work along with a medium of their choosing, depending on their interests, such as drama or dance. This year’s theme, set by the school, is biodiversity and parents are looking forward to being invited to see the results the children’s Exhibition at the end of Year 6. It’s a brilliant way of engaging the children and allowing them to express their interest across both core and non-core subjects through their learning.
The school have just introduced an innovative maths homework programme for Seniors from Exeter business, Sparx, which uses AI technology to push the higher achievers and help the lower achievers. Because it builds the questions around the responses parents are not allowed to help (sounds good to me!) and there are plans to roll it out into lessons with the introduction of a bank of iPads.
Term fees start at £2250 for day pupils – reception/Year 1; £2800 years 2-4; £3300 years 5-6; £3550 years 7-9; £3650 years 10-11 with a 15% discount for pupils living within 15 miles of the school postcode as the crow flies, postcode to postcode as defined by google. UK boarder fees per term for year 4 are £6900 (international £8650); years 5 and 6 £7050 (£8800); year 7-9 £7300 (£8970); year 10-11 £7400 (£9100).
WORD ON THE GROUND
After assembly I had the chance to speak to some mums over an excellent coffee – a brand created by the school’s entrepreneurial administrator Lameze. Not surprisingly everyone approved of the school’s multi-cultural approach, particularly in the context of Brexit. One praised how accessible the teachers were, saying she she felt she could speak to them about anything. Another mum explained how the children mix well across the age groups, saying it could never become too inward-looking because of the constant influx of foreign students. One had moved her daughter to St John’s because she had pretty much given up at her old school, and St John’s has completely reversed the situation with the child keener than ever to engage.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
The school focuses on family values, nurturing, and above all fulfilling potential through improvement, measuring its academics in terms of added value – how much they can improve a child’s grades from Year 7 to Year 11. While they care about the academics, the focus is inculcating a lifelong inquiring ethos and a global mindset.
Good for: parents looking small class sizes and a genuine family feel; anyone seeking to avoid exam stress at Junior level. Gifted and talented children; creatives who need nurturing and shy kids who need help building their confidence; mid-ability children who are falling through the cracks and need a bit of extra help. Ex-pats and parents who move around a lot looking for continuity; parents looking to foster an outward-looking global mindset in their children.
Not for: kids who need a big gene pool and are used to the benefits of living in a city; the purely academic and non-joiners; parents who want the prestige that goes with an older established school and all mod-cons.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! See for yourself at their Open Evening at 4-6pm on Wednesday 13 November. St John’s are also happy to offer personal tours throughout the year.
St John’s School, Broadway, Sidmouth, Devon EX10 8RG Tel: 01395 513984