This country day and boarding school for girls in Worcestershire is small enough to offer an education that’s tailored to every student’s strengths, while being forward-thinking enough to nurture a generation of girls who can shatter stereotypes.
MSJ (as it’s known) is a small school with less than 500 students; around 70% are British, with the remaining 30% coming from more than 20 countries worldwide. It’s one of only a few UK schools to offer boarding from prep; you’ll find students boarding here from Year 3 through to Year 13 (aged 7-18 years). The majority are day students (60%) coming from the local area thanks to a dedicated minibus service that has routes in and around Gloucestershire, and around 40% are flexi, weekly or full boarders.
The school was founded in 2006 after the merger of two all-girls' schools. Its origins can be traced to 1919 when a group of pioneering women set up one of the first all-girls schools to match the many all-boys schools at that time. It stays firmly committed to the principles of these founders more than 100 years ago, and in delivering a single-sex education that is in a girl’s best interests.
MSJ doesn’t want girls to conform to stereotyped, gender-weighted expectations, and it wants them to have the confidence to put themselves forward in the classroom and on the sports field. As Headmistress Olivera Raraty says, “They don’t have to share leadership opportunities with boys”. It’s a school that looks for girls who are independent thinkers, passionate leaners – more so than scoring 100% in any entrance exam.
This is a school that’s breaking down gender barriers and actively encouraging girls to study STEM subjects. Over 50% of leavers go on to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related degree courses at top universities, including Oxbridge, Imperial, Warwick, Bristol and UCL. It’s a school that doesn’t want girls to feel “boxed-in about what they do next”, and testimonials from alumnae and head girls echo how MSJ allows them to follow their own path.
Headmistress Olivera Raraty joined the school in 2016; she was previously senior deputy (academic) at Notting Hill and Ealing High School, a girls’ school in London. She talks about MSJ being a place where girls do not have to grow up too quickly – “they can be younger girls for longer”.
The school is a member of the Girls ‘School Association. In 2017, the school was rated Excellent in all areas in its ISI’s Educational Quality Inspection.
MSJ is an all-through school with dedicated facilities for each stage of a girl’s education – Pre-Prep for Reception (age 4) to Year 2 (age 7); the Prep from Year 3-6; the Seniors from Year 7-11; and the Sixth Form (Year 12-13).
The school talks plenty about classrooms filled with girls who “will change the world”, and teaching is very much focused on empowerment, confidence and resilience. There’s a balance between being pushed and stretched, but equally they know they will be encouraged and supported. There’s certainly an emphasis here on making learning creative, enjoyable and surprising, so while the curriculum may be academically rigorous, it is also adventurous and fun.
The school is championing STEAM in girls’ education, and adding the Arts into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). It’s taken so seriously that the school has appointed a Head of STEAM, and recently invested in a dedicated STEM centre.
As the school says:
“There is no such thing as a girl’s subject or a boy’s subject and girls are free to follow their inclinations with little of the pressure they might otherwise feel."
There are plenty of examples of STEAM being brought to the fore here. Extra-curricular activities include an A Level science trip to the Cheltenham Literature Festival, a talk Malvern Theatre by a forensic pathologist, and learning about the James Webb telescope at the Malvern Festival of Innovation. Girls are encouraged to enter the Independent Schools Association (ISA) STEAM competition and Teen Tech; in British Science Week 2022, the Year 8s are taking part in the Raspberry PI Mission which inspires children to discover coding.
MSJ understands the value in a broad curriculum and does not let its size limit any offering of subjects. As headmistress Mrs Raraty says MSJ may be warm but it’s “not fluffy”, and the school is proud to teach a variety of subjects that is helping girls to “shatter traditional stereotypes”.
The Prep school benefits from the specialist teaching and facilities of the Senior school, and there is plenty of learning beyond the textbooks and beyond the classroom.
In Senior school, students study English, maths, biology, chemistry, physics, art, design and technology, drama, food & nutrition, French, geography, history, computing, music and religious studies. Languages are strong here. In Year 8, students take up Spanish and can also choose Latin; as they move up through Senior school, girls can also study Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, Italian and German up to GCSE and A Level.
There’s a broad mix of GCSE and IGCSE subjects to encourage the well-rounded learning that MSJ promises. Options include art and design, business, Classical Greek, computer science, design and technology, drama, food preparation and nutrition, French, geography, history, Latin, music, PE, religious studies, Spanish.
In the Sixth Form, there is a choice of pathways, both academic and vocational. Most girls study three A Level subjects alongside the Extended Project Qualification. The school also offers girls a vocational alternative – a Level 3 Diploma in Food Science and Nutrition, BTEC Level 3 National Diploma in Sport (Performance and Excellence) or a BTEC Level 3 National Extended Certificate in Sport (Performance and Excellence).
There are bespoke preparation programmes for Oxbridge, Medicine, Veterinary Science and Law, advice on applying to overseas universities, and the school is a SAT testing centre. MSJ puts a lot of effort into preparing girls for university and the world of work through an enrichment programme ranging from photography to graphic design, Somerville Suppers for teachers and students to discuss topics such as What does it mean to rebel?, and talks by alumni on their careers are MSJ.
Sports facilities are excellent (particularly for such a small school) and include a sports hall, two netball courts, a climbing wall, a swimming pool, a multi-purpose activity studio, three full size lacrosse pitches, two squash courts and a fitness suite.
Girls compete in hockey, lacrosse, netball, football and cricket, and there’s fixtures from A-D squads throughout the prep and senior school. Recreational sport incudes dance, yoga, fencing, strength and conditioning sessions and more.
Equestrian is big at MSJ. It’s hugely proud of its status as one of a few UK schools to deliver a programme focused on eventing, show jumping and dressage. From as young as four, girls can attend riding school as part of an extra-curricular activity; training is held at a nearby riding schools where girls can stable their own horse.
Art, drama and music are brought together under an Expressive Arts programme which encourages every girl to explore her creative side. It’s well supported by some impressive facilities including an art studio, over 20 practice rooms, a specialist percussion room and a large rehearsal space with a Yamaha grand piano. On top of the curriculum, there are up to 10 productions a year, including an annual school play or musical; there are school choirs, a school orchestra and the popular The Ukuladies in a long list of music clubs. In the Sixth Form, every girl takes part in the arts, and a high number continue with an arts subject to A Level.
A school that talks so much about producing well-rounded individuals cannot ignore the co-curricular – and it doesn’t. MSJ has around 30 co-curricular clubs and societies in the prep school alone, and 70 run across the entire school. There really is something for everyone from football, self-defence, choir or horse riding to the Women in Science Society, sailing, horse riding, acapella or pottery. Girls can also broaden their skill set with external qualifications as varied as LAMDA, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and RLSS National Pool Lifeguard Qualification.
There’s also an outdoor pursuits programme (MSJ is in a stunning location, on the edge of Malvern Hills after all) that encourages girls to take part in rock-climbing and abseiling, caving and skiing, snowboarding, kayaking and canoeing, mountain biking, windsurfing, woodland school and sailing.
There are no timetabled lessons on a Saturday but instead there is a Weekend Programme with trips and activities such as theatre, museum and shopping trips to the surrounding area and larger cities like Birmingham and London, Model United Nations Conferences, Sports Matches
Wellbeing is a key area here, and the school recently achieved the School Mental Health Award, delivered by the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools. Various initiatives are in place to promote student wellbeing: staff are trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, there are Wellbeing Champions and Wellbeing Ambassadors to offer peer support for staff and students, and regular mindfulness and wellbeing lessons.
Results are both GCSE and A Level are impressive, and show high levels of achievement (and sign-up) to a variety of academic, vocational and creative subjects.
In 2021, 43% of A Level grades were A*, 75% at A*-A, 90% at A*-B and 98% at A*-C. Subjects in which students achieved particularly well include art (100% A*-A), computer science (100% A*-A), drama (83% A*-A), maths (81% A*-A), further maths 90% (A*-A), music (100% A*-A), Spanish (83% A*-A), sport (100% A*-A), Latin (100& A*-A) and product design (100% A*-A).
Leavers went onto leading universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial London and Bristol and Exeter.
In the 2021 GCSE results, 74% were graded 9 to 7, 32% of the entries were graded 9; 54% 9 and 8; and 74% 9 to 7. 31% of students achieved a clean sweep of grades 9 to 7. It’s interesting to note the high grades across a variety of STEAM subjects and languages.
In art, biology, computing, drama, English language, geography, history, French, Spanish, music, more than 70% of grades were 9-7. In product design and Latin, 100% of grades were 9-7.
MSJ has five boarding houses, each a short walk to the school. Girls can board from Year 3 and there are no enforced exeat weekends, meaning girls do not have to leave unless they choose to. Each house has a dedicated age group of girls, from Batsford for Years 3-7 to Greenslade, a transition house for Year 13. There is a team of staff living in each house offering a different experience to meet the needs of every girl; for the youngest students in Batsford, for example, there is a resident cat and dog, while in Greenslade students have their own bedroom and study area and eat meals inside the house.
Year 11 and 12 boarders are lucky enough to live on the top two floors of the main school building – so they never get wet when going down for meals in the rain! They’re also taught life skills such as washing their own clothes, cooking and managing their finances.
The flexi boarding is popular with those girls coming from slightly further afield, perhaps Oxfordshire, the Cotswolds, or Staffordshire. A nice gesture – all day girls are each given two nights boarding per term at no additional cost so every girl can take advantage of boarding life at Malvern St James (or perhaps then nag their parents to let them stay more often!)
MSJ stands within what was once the Imperial Hotel, which has a certain grandeur about it. It’s located in the small and very charming town of Malvern, on a direct rail route from London Paddington and Birmingham (the train station is opposite the school); Sixth Formers have the privilege of going to town in the evening for a meal with permission.
As well as the dedicated arts, sports and STEM facilities, there is a Sixth Form Centre, dining room and library.
The school accept students in all year groups in Prep, and the main entry points for Senior and Sixth Form are Year 7 (11+), Year 9 (13+) and Year 12. It’s not the most highly selective of schools; girls sit an entrance exam from Year 7, which includes an online Cognitive Ability Tests (CAT4) and written English Comprehension examination;
Turn up for school tour and you’ll be shows around by students, which will give you a wonderful opportunity to chat about the school informally.
Academic, Drama, Music, Art, Riding, Technology and Sport Scholarships are available and there is a Founders’ Awards bursary programme for girls applying for Sixth Form.
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