Full house at St Mary’s Ascot
In my book about girls’ schools in the 20th century, a former pupil of St Mary’s Ascot describes the wonderfully eccentric, if rather snobbish, nuns, the strict rules on toast-making and the weekends with nothing much to do except go to chapel, read Georgette Heyer and play jokes on each other.
Some 40 years on, St Mary’s is oversubscribed—and this without headmistress Mary Breen resorting to trips to Mexico or Madrid to raid their Catholic families. ‘If a school is full, the head runs it. If it’s not full, the bursar runs it,’ she remarks.
Mrs Breen certainly runs St Mary’s with sparkle, affection and intellectual ambition. To go there is to be reminded, at every turn, how very far we have come since the 1970s. Indeed, the strapline on the school website is a quote from the pioneering nun Mary Ward in about 1600: ‘Women in time will come to do much.’
The school’s five houses take it in turns to organise the weekend activities and design an attractive noticeboard to advertise the treats in store: a trip to the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition at the National Gallery, sailing, board games, a sushi school, a pop-up cinema showing two Hitchcock films, a Fulham versus Barnsley football match, soapmaking, climbing and canoeing. Mrs Breen knows that a full-boarding school must make weekends sensational to attract and keep families, so she has invested £35,000 in activities.
The girls can hardly believe their luck: they say they feel privileged to live in this community in which you work hard, aim high, make friends for life and have endless fun. Year 11 pupil Alice Awdry, who gave me a tour, showed off charmingly pretty dorms, SMASH (St Mary’s Ascot School Shop), which sells sweets and stationery, vast, comfortable common rooms with sofas, televisions and bean-bag cushions and the incredible theatre.
Petty rules are things of the past. Mrs Breen says: ‘I like to think that girls would be able to challenge staff on any rules and get a really rational answer.’
The food is delicious, the running track impressive and the system for preparing pupils for leading universities is thoroughly efficient and, some would say, better than at top boys’ schools.