Full house at St Mary’s As­cot

Country Life Every Week - - Schools -

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.

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