Over two decades as Principal, links to King Henry VIII and forward-thinking – there’s plenty to talk about with Katherine Jeffrey as Absolutely Essex visits New Hall School
New Hall School has quite the history. What can you tell us about it?
Despite having been Principal for 22 years, the novelty of this palatial Grade I listed building has still not worn off! The site has existed since before William the Conqueror; changing hands with royalty and landed gentry over the years. The most notable being King Henry VIII who purchased it from the Boleyn family in 1517 and named it Beaulieu Palace. We still have his Royal Coat of Arms in our Chapel, which catches the eye of anyone who visits, history fan or otherwise.
New Hall School was founded in Liège in 1642 by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, whose mission was to educate girls – a radical concept at the time! The Canonesses settled at our site in Boreham in 1799 when it officially became ‘New Hall School’.
Whilst continuing to respect and celebrate our rich heritage, we are dedicated to making strides in innovative and inclusive approaches, such as welcoming boys into our School from 2006 and, in 2013, becoming the first independent school to sponsor a primary academy, Messing Primary School.
What has kept you at the school for over two decades?
Well, the short answer to that is the people. We are blessed to have the opportunity to work with young people from one year old up to Sixth Form. Many of our students have been with us for more than 15 years, and connections with some families span generations. It is a privilege to work with the young people as they make discoveries in their learning and as enthusiasms become passions that they pursue in higher education or employment. Alongside the students, our staff and parents are very much part of our New Hall community.
And, of course, our Grade I listed building and the Grade II Registered Park & Garden are beautiful environments in which to work.
How have things changed at the school in that time?
The obvious change is that the school has grown from a small mixed prep school and girls’ senior school to the all-through mixed school of 1,400 pupils today. The school welcomed senior aged boys from 2006, and very quickly boys made up 50% of our students. We opened our Nursery in 2019 to support both our teaching staff and our families who wanted their children to benefit from New Hall’s unique setting.
Over recent years, the area surrounding New Hall has been transformed by housing, a new road network and the construction of a railway station at the foot of our main entrance, The Avenue. It is exciting for New Hall to be at the heart of a growing and vibrant community.
Today, what does New Hall School offer?
New Hall now really does offer families the “best start in life”, with provision for children from one year of age, all the way through to Sixth Form, and with both boarding and day options. When you also include our wrap-around care and holiday clubs, we really do offer the full package for parents. As a working parent of four girls, I know that I wish that I had this available when my children were younger.
As a Catholic school, with every student, we aim to educate the whole person: academically, creatively and socially, in a community which also nurtures the spiritual dimensions of human life. We believe that every single one of our students has unique gifts and talents and, if they arrive here not yet knowing what these are, we will discover them and help them to develop to realise their potential. Our teachers are inspirational and the curriculum and co-curriculum provide our students with genuine breadth and challenge. Whether their passions lie on the hockey pitch, the dance studio, the science laboratories or in the study of Classical Greek, there is something at New Hall for everyone.
Why do you think the Diamond Model approach works?
At New Hall, children are educated in co-educational classes from ages 1 to 11 and at Sixth Form. However, from ages 11 to 16 they are taught in single-sex lessons. The main benefits of the ‘diamond model’ and five years of single-sex teaching derive from the ability to tailor pastoral and academic provision more sensitively and expertly to the needs of young people going through the physical, emotional and social upheaval of adolescence. Young teenagers are liberated from the negative peer pressure of having to perform in mixed classes. The gender stereotyping of subjects is also removed. Girls and boys follow an identical curriculum and do not learn to perceive subjects as being more suited to either girls or boys.
Outside of the classroom, at all ages, there are plenty of opportunities for girls and boys to socialise and to take part in co-curricular activities together. This really does offer children the best of both co-educational and single-sex worlds.
What would we find in a typical classroom?
A typical classroom at New Hall is full of engaged, enthused students who are keen to learn. They have access to the latest technology which supports their learning and they are led by inspirational and knowledgeable teachers. All students in Years 3 to 13 are given a school iPad and they will use these in most lessons. Not only does this complement their learning, it also allows our students to develop key skills in utilising technology as they work; this is something essential in the post-Covid world of remote and flexible working. The other thing you will find in a New Hall classroom is a supportive and nurturing environment. Our class sizes are small and our teachers know their students as individuals.
How important, too, is what happens outside classes?
Whether it is performing on stage, competing on the sports field, or grappling with new concepts and technology, our co-curricular programme is so important in nurturing the skills and personal development of every student at New Hall. We have more than 200 clubs in Seniors and more than 100 in our Prep Division, ranging from astronomy, coding, and chess, to debating, engineering, and enterprise. With the excellent facilities and expert staff we have at New Hall, we can offer outstanding opportunities across our co-curricular programme, especially in sport, dance, drama and music, but also much besides: we even have our own Farm Club and Leiths Cookery Academy!
We achieve remarkable success across so many sports. We are also ranked among the top in the country for skiing and golf, and earlier this term, our elite swimmers achieved several record-breaking times at the British Swimming Finals. We are also very excited about the plans for our very own equestrian centre.
During the summer of 2023, our dance teams will be representing England at the Dance World Cup in Portugal, and our music department will be hosting the internationally-acclaimed orchestra and choir, The Gabrieli Consort.
Volunteering and acts of kindness in the service of others also play a significant part in our co-curricular programme. Most evenings and at lunchtime, our students volunteer to support our wider community through the New Hall Voluntary Service, NHVS.
Our hugely popular academic societies also play a key role in the development of all our students. We offer clubs that link directly to our curriculum, ranging from art to STEM, and from psychology to theology, and we even have our very own New Hall Politics Question Time. Language and culture often come together through our very popular cookery clubs: Spanish Cookery Club is one of the favourites!
Among the many trips on offer, this academic year has included the geography trip to Iceland, the drama and classics trip to Greece, theology and language trips to France and Spain, and the choir tour of Prague. Our business and politics students visited the United Nations during their trip to the US. This summer, more than 50 students will be taking part in the New Hall sports tour of South Africa.
Yes, certainly our co-curricular programme is one of the many reasons families choose New Hall.
As we approach the end of the school year, what have been the highlights for you?
There have been so many highlights that it is hard to choose. The purchase of a 70 acre equestrian centre, New Hall Park Farm, just over two miles from New Hall is a significant development in the life of our school. This site will enable us to re-open the riding facility that was so valued by our students in the past, as well as offering almost endless possibilities for outdoor learning across the age range.
But the highlights always come back to people, whether that be the children in the Nursery proudly showing off their art display, the striking academic achievements of our students, one of the many shows and concerts across the school, welcoming New Hall alumni back after 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years, or the recent New Hall Parents’ Association Summer Fete which attracted parents, friends and the Beaulieu community.
What are you looking forward to next year?
There is so much to look forward to. A new academic year always brings new students, parents and staff to enrich our community. I am looking forward to the opening of new Chaplaincy facilities in the heart of our historic Hawley Quad, the creation of the tranquil St Francis Woodland at the North of the site, and everyone in this community is eagerly anticipating the opening of the new Boreham Bridge!
And how will you be spending your summer break?
I am looking forward to spending time with my family, reading some of the pile of books at my bedside and practising my French speaking skills.