St James Senior Girls’ School in Kensington combines holistic practices with modern teaching. As a result the pupils at this independent school are well-rounded, confident and calm – quite a feat for a school full of teenage girls!
Here Jemima Boost speaks to the new Headmistress of St James Senior Girls’ School, Sarah Labram.
Congratulations on the new role! Can you tell me a bit about the school and its philosophy?
We have been established for nearly 40 years: it will be 40 years exactly in January 2015. From its inception, there has been a philosophical and spiritual element at the heart of the school and this aspect of the school is just as relevant and important in this day and age when young people’s emotional well-being is increasingly difficult to maintain. What we do goes hand-in-hand with academic achievement because if our pupils are very unhappy, anxious or stressed, they can’t fulfil their potential and we want every girl to achieve the best possible results they can.
Our priority is to ensure that all our pupils are well and happy. So, we give them all regular opportunities to experience stillness and one of the ways we do this is through meditation. We also teach mindfulness and, at the beginning and the end of every lesson, we have a period of silence when everyone sits quietly for a couple of minutes.
How is meditation incorporated into the school?
It’s completely optional. It’s not offered until the Spring Term of Year 7 so that our pupils can make an informed decision as to whether they want to practise it or not and it’s not something that a ‘new girl’ feels that she has to say ‘yes’ to. We explain to parents and girls exactly what the practice is, which is a mantra-based meditation introduced through the School of Meditation. Some of our pupils have already been introduced to meditation through their own spiritual traditions and, equally, if they don’t want to meditate that’s fine too. But everybody is given the opportunity to sit quietly at the beginning and end of every day for five minutes or so to contemplate, pray or simply be still.
Is there more of a sense of calm among the girls because of this?
People who visit the school do say that it feels calm. Obviously we have a lot of teenagers at St James and some days the energy levels are quite high! However, the regular moments of stillness do allow the girls to get some ‘distance’ on the issues that all teenagers face. It’s rare to be in Year 10 or 11 and not be anxious about exams but what we want to do is help the pupils put their anxiety into perspective so that they can step back and concentrate on one thing at a time rather than feeling completely overwhelmed.
We also have philosophy lessons, which provide an opportunity to discuss all kinds of important issues and questions. We do not promote a particular set of beliefs and there’s no requirement that the girls must believe any particular concept but we do try to make the lessons practical and useful, for example, we might talk about how to make good and wise decisions. We draw our resources from a broad range of wisdom traditions – we might use a quotation from the Bible or the Dalai Lama, for example. We’re not a school of a particular religious denomination: our school is very multi-cultural and we have girls at St James from many faith traditions and some with no particular faith. Everybody’s faith tradition is valued and the girls are naturally very respectful of each other’s traditions and backgrounds. As a school, we emphasise unity in the sense that we share an essential humanity and foster that spirit in all aspects of school life.
It seems like a very unique way of educating?
Yes. One of the things we promote is our ‘Learning Tree’, which takes a holistic view of learning. Up at the top, in the branches of the tree, we have the academic attributes that pupils need to learn, for example if a pupil is writing an essay she might have to evaluate or synthesise information. At the bottom of the tree, in its roots, we have the emotional characteristics that are needed to succeed academically such as resilience, confidence, concentration, enthusiasm and managing distractions – this is particularly important now, in the world of the internet and mobile phones. We encourage the girls to think about these different attributes and consider how they might develop them in practice. The overall aim of this approach is to encourage the discovery of depth and breadth in a pupil’s understanding.
What are your plans for the school going forward?
In 2016, we’re planning to open a new Sixth Form Centre, which will be in a separate building to the main school. It will have a basement with changing rooms, a very open and spacious ground floor with a common room and staff offices. On the first floor, there will be a hall big enough for the whole Sixth Form (which we hope will grow to about 50 in each year), as well as studies and teaching rooms on the first and second floors. When the Centre is complete, we will re-locate our library into the current Sixth Form common room and move our Year 11 pupils back into the main building, which will free up a lot of our playground space. We will also build another science lab and expand some of the smaller class rooms. We have also just created a fantastic new drama studio.
We are in the process of making the house system a more integral part of the school which is a great way to strengthen ‘vertical’ relationships and provide leadership opportunities. We buddy up Year 6 girls with Year 9 girls in the same house and Year 7 girls with Year 10 girls, and we have house lunches once a week. House Captains and Deputy House Captains are also playing a more important role in the running of the house system.
What about changes to the curriculum?
We have recently introduced Computer Science and PE at GCSE. Computer Science gives the girls the opportunity to create apps, learn how to code, design and make computer games and build websites. We also teach ICT and Computer Science to Years 6-9 and have had experts from University College London visit us to take lessons.
One of the things at the heart of the school is our study of classical languages, including Sanskrit – we’re one of very few schools in London that teaches the ancient language, even up to A Level, and we are delighted that two of our leavers have gained places at Oxford University this year to read Sanskrit. We also teach Latin to almost everyone up to Year 9 and Classical Greek to the most able linguists, from Year 8.
So there’s a real combination of the old and new?
Yes, everyone has to move with the times and everything has to evolve but we’re also preserving what’s genuinely best about a traditional British education and presenting the girls with the best classical literature, poetry, art and music.
How do you make sure people find their niche?
We find that girls do come with their own unique blend of passions and abilities. We have lots of clubs: arts, sport, music, drama and for pupils in Years 6-9 drama, art, dance and music are all offered within the timetable.
Our leavers go on to do a wide variety of academic courses; girls pursue everything from art foundation courses to music technology. One of our former pupils is a very talented singer who is now at The Royal College of Music studying opera. We also have girls who go on to be vets, doctors and scientists (about 38% of our girls go on to do medicine and science related courses).
We give our pupils the self-confidence to be who they are and, because of that, they can go on to study the subjects that really interest them. The girls do find their niche naturally and genuinely embrace and support each other’s differences. The essence of St James has always inspired a spirit of service in its pupils. This is a common trait among our alumni who contribute a huge amount to society in so many different ways.
St James Senior Girls’ School, Earsby Street, London, W14 8SH; stjamesschools.co.uk