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Exploring 90 Years of Academic Success At St Francis’ College


Absolutely heads to Letchworth Garden City to meet James Nichols, Head of St Francis’ College, to discuss faith, teaching philosophy and a special anniversary

Could you give us a potted history of St. Francis’ College?

The College was founded in 1933 by the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, a congregation of Roman Catholic sisters. The Sisters, led by Sister Elizabeth, the founding Head of the College, acquired the leasehold from the then Letchworth Corporation, and dedicated the school to St. Francis de Sales. In 1983 the running of the College was transferred to an educational charity, St. Francis’ College Trust, run by a board of Governors, and at this point the College became multi-denominational, welcoming students of all faiths and none. In May 2022, we transferred to be part of the Inspired Learning Group consortium of schools. In September of this year, we will be celebrating our 90th anniversary.

Where is the school located and do you often make full use of what’s around you?

The College is located in Letchworth Garden City, the world’s first Garden City. The Garden City Movement was the brainchild of Sir Ebenezer Howard who envisaged people living harmoniously in small towns which accommodated all the residents’ needs whilst maintaining a connection to the surrounding countryside. The first such town was built in Letchworth in 1903. The College’s buildings, sports fields and gardens are set in over seven acres within the Letchworth Conservation Area, giving students plenty of space to run, walk and chat with friends, or to just sit and enjoy the fresh air. Our facilities include a 330 seat West End-style theatre (coincidentally where Sir Laurence Oliver, one of Britain’s most acclaimed actors of the 20th century, made his debut performance in 1924), a 20-metre indoor heated swimming pool, gymnasium, dance studio, hockey pitches and five courts for both tennis and netball. Our location makes London, Brighton and Cambridge easily accessible, and there are numerous outings to theatres, galleries and activity centres. 

J Nichols
St Francis’ College Head, James Nichols

How long have you been Head at the school and why originally did you want to work there?

I have been Head since September 2022. I was fortunate to have worked in the College as Deputy Head before that, from April 2021 until Mrs Goulding retired at the end of the 2021/22 academic year. As Deputy, I already knew what a fantastic place the College was and how wonderful the staff, students, parents and sense of community was at the College. As such, it was an easy decision to apply for the role. I was honoured that so many members of our community publicly backed my application and that our new trust, the Inspired Learning Group, had the confidence in me to drive the College forward onto the next stage of its growth. 

Does St. Francis’ College have a particular ethos behind its teaching philosophy?

As one of the top all-girls’ independent schools in the country, St. Francis’ prides itself on building intellectually creative minds through rigorous and supportive teaching, with a focus on close individual care. Our academic achievements are outstanding and we have a solid tradition of academic rigour. Our students go on to their first choices of university each year, with between 10% and 20% attending Oxford and Cambridge.

However, we believe that academic success should be balanced with personal success in everything the students do. So, we have developed a growth mindset culture (the belief that intelligence and achievement can grow through effort, good teaching and experience), which permeates the whole school from prep to sixth form. Our students learn to set their own aspirational targets and we encourage them to nurture self-belief. This means good results happen naturally. And it is this philosophy and approach that has become an essential part of the St. Francis’ way.

What role does faith play at your school?

We are a school with core values which apply to all religions and whilst we do have a Christian history and ethos, we warmly and proudly welcome students of all faiths and those of none at all. We have a weekly assembly in our beautiful Chapel, though this is more reflective rather than religious. We focus on the core values that unite all people – tolerance, inclusivity, charity, acceptance, diversity and supporting one another. At the end of each term, we do have a special service to mark Easter and Christmas and there is also a Staff Chapel Group for those who want to express their faith with others.

The school building

Do you often see pupils stay with you from Nursery through to Sixth Form?

We do! One of the highlights of the Year 13 Leavers’ Supper is hearing from those students who have been at the College since they were three-years-old, now leaving to depart for university. Whilst it is great to hear from all students and their journey, there is something special about those who have been at the College for 15 years and how they have come to thrive as a result of being at the College for so long.

During Early Years, how do you look to instil a love for learning?

When it comes to the Early Years, we recognise the importance of nurturing a child’s love of learning. This stage is a critical period for a child’s growth and development, as they naturally seek to learn about the world through hands-on experience. Our goal is to create a safe and welcoming learning environment where children feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and emotions. Effective communication and a tailored curriculum are at the core of our approach, whether it be in our everyday interactions or our carefully planned provocations. Our learning environment is designed to ignite curiosity and cater to the individualised needs of each child. We are able to adapt resources and activities that encourage exploration and provoke questions. By tapping into a child’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder, we provide endless opportunities for learning through play. With the guidance of skilled practitioners, children are empowered to take control of and facilitate their own learning. Our ultimate aim is to ignite a lifelong passion for learning in every child in our care.

What curriculum do pupils follow as they progress through the age groups?

Students broadly follow the National Curriculum, though we have our own adaptations as a private school. For example, students do live Sciences from Year 5, as well as begin Latin and Food & Nutrition. All students study French from Year 2. The curriculum in each subject is designed to be relevant, engaging and academically stretching for every student so that they make the very most progress possible. Combined with expert teachers, small class sizes and an extremely positive learning community atmosphere, this translates into excellent outcomes at the end of each Key Stage.

Science Today
A science lesson in full flow

How important is the co-curricular at St. Francis’ College?

At St. Francis’ we believe that given the right stimulus, the right environment, the right focus and support, and with effort and commitment, our students can be anything they want to be. A girl’s inherent talents are characteristics that she can cultivate through her efforts, and our talented and dedicated teachers nurture the individual interests our pupils are naturally drawn to throughout our co-curricular programme. This includes enviable opportunities to travel on an array of educational trips, both in the UK and abroad. Regular courses and talks give students the chance to try new activities throughout the year. So, with independent learning, practice, exploration and creativity all our students have the chance to grow and excel, exceeding their own expectations…

What can tell me about the boarding environment at the school?

You can board at St. Francis’ from Year 6, and there is the option of weekly or flexi-boarding. The Boarding House, which is located in the main school building, has a lovely family atmosphere supported by experienced boarding staff and academic tutors. We have a superb catering facility with a varied and delicious menu to suit different tastes, so boarding really is ‘home from home’. Boarding comes with a built-in social life, which means that girls live with their friends – a recipe for fun! Extra-curricular activities are extensive with numerous opportunities to get involved in new hobbies, developing skills and interests. And, again, our location between London and Cambridge means there’s always something exciting happening on weekend trips.

Is there something in particular that you believe makes St. Francis’ College stand out?

I would have to say it’s our strong community ethos. From the minute you walk through the front doors of the school you can feel it – a delightful haven of peace and calm. We’re a school with real values that we live by every day. At our heart is a warm and friendly community of teachers and students who really do care about each other and who value the unique qualities of each member. It’s the kind of school where friendships are made for life. In particular, for our students we’re a support network which allows them to feel safe and nurtured, prepared to take risks in pursuit of their dreams, and we’re with them every step of the way.

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Picture of Mark Kebble

Mark Kebble

Mark's career in journalism started in 2001 when he landed a role on a small lifestyle magazine in Angel, North London. Soon enough, the magazine was purchased by a larger organisation and Mark found himself promoted to editor at the tender age of 23. He later became group editor, working on magazines for Angel, Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate. He was also involved in a launch in Hadley Wood and a major new group website, later becoming Group Hub Editor. In 2021, Mark joined Zest Media Group and oversaw the launch of many Absolutely titles across the UK. To date, Mark has launched in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Essex, Yorkshire and Cheshire. When he does have some free time, Mark is also the Chairman of an amateur football club in Surrey and is also a fully qualified FA football coach.
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