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27 February 2021
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Haileybury, a Great School That Won't Stand Still

Hello from sunny Oxfordshire!
Things are looking up in the UK at the moment — we’ve vaccinated nearly 20 million people at the time of writing, and our cold snap of snow has turned into the early signs of spring. Even better, schools are reopening on March 8th as we ease ourselves out of lockdown!
If you haven’t already, do check out the first part in our new mini-series, Boarding School at Home. We’ve been interviewing schools, teachers, students, parents, and education experts to find out how British boarding schools have been teaching online: how they approach it, what parents and students think of it, and what education experts say is best practice.
We also spent an extra bit of time this month with pupils and the headmaster of Haileybury School in Hertfordshire. We’ve known Haileybury for years at von Bülow and now the school is going through a really exciting stage in its development that has seriously impressed us. Read on to find out more!
Strategic headquarters: the headmaster's office
The Setting
It’s not for nothing that Haileybury was the recent star of a six-page architecture spread in Country Life magazine, the glossy mag that’s an essential feature of countryside drawing rooms and coffee tables here in the UK. Designed by the same architect of the National Gallery in London, William Wilkins, Haileybury’s beautiful neo-grecian buildings and copper-domed chapel surround a vast quad of immaculately cut lawns. The school, Country Life says, “bears a striking formal comparison” to Edward III’s upper ward at Windsor Castle. Set in 500 acres of Hertfordshire woodland, new buildings and seemingly endless sports fields have been carefully integrated into the historical campus.
Haileybury is definitely proud of its looks, and works hard to maintain them. A firm of architectural historians came around two years ago to do a full audit of the site and its landscape; with their help, headmaster Martin Collier is laying out a 15 year plan, to ensure new state-of-the art facilities work in harmony with the existing buildings.
Glorious colours: the school in autumn
The school has also been addressing its empirical past. Originally home to the East India College, Haileybury was where the East India Company trained young men to maintain continuity of empire. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the school has been facilitating open discussions with pupils about this. It remains to be seen what will come of it.
Haileybury is ultra accessible. It’s home village, Hertford Heath, “hasn’t got much to say for it really,” we’re told, but Hertford is three kilometres away and has everything necessary to entertain boarders on the weekend.
London is only 20 miles away; a train into Soho or Victoria takes 50 minutes. The airport connections are strong, too. Stansted and Luton are both around 30 minutes away, while Heathrow is around an hour, depending on the traffic.
This boarding life - a girls dorm
What (we think!) Haileybury is all about
Haileybury has always been a good school, but in recent years, with the arrival of new head Martin Collier, it’s really upped the ante and is now right up there with the best. This is a school that is always striving to improve, to be the best it can be — goalposts which we feel are constantly edging northwards!
Haileybury’s approach is strategic and big picture; whether it's online school, new buildings or extracurriculars, Haileybury takes a step back and considers ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ before implementing the best options. Mr Collier is frank about his ambitions, and he has the strategy (and funds) in place to continue fulfilling them.
This ambition means the environment at Haileybury is intense and full-on. It’s a busy school and a big presence in pupil’s lives. But that brings huge rewards — dynamism and change are embraced, and constant progress is a requirement not just of pupils but of the school itself.
Despite the grand surroundings, Haileybury isn’t stuffy or formal. “It’s a down-to-earth school and that’s what we want it to be,” says Mr Collier, which is something we at von Bülow Education wholeheartedly agree with. It’s impossible to get bogged down in traditions when you’re constantly looking for new challenges and achievements in the way that Haileybury is!
Much used and loved - Haileybury's gorgeous library
The Academics
Haileybury’s academics are where Mr Collier’s presence has probably been felt most. The school is much more selective than it used to be, and has also implemented a serious teacher training programme in the last two years. (“Observation, reflection, training, and development,” Mr Collier tells us.) The results speak for themselves: in 2020, 79 per cent of pupils received between 9 and 7 in IGCSE; 49 per cent got As at A Level, and 78 per cent achieved A to B. The average IB score was 38.
In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 65 per cent of pupils received between 9 and 7 in IGCSE; 38 per cent got As at A Level, and 71 per cent achieved A to B. The average IB score was 37.
Collaborative spirit: girls at work
Haileybury is not just training pupils to pass exams, however. The school has taken an analytical approach to the curriculum and is expanding its education far beyond the syllabus. “A school that is strong academically is one that is developing its curriculum to suit the ideas and interests of its pupils,” Mr Collier said when explaining his vision to us.
An example of this is Haileybury’s Stan-X lab, in collaboration with the University of Oxford and Stanford University in the US, where A Level and IB pupils are contributing to a global research project that uses fruit flies to understand the cause of pancreatic cancer. Like all things Haileybury, there was a strategy behind the Stan-X introduction, which was inspired by a trip Mr Collier made to the US. “In the UK I’ve always felt that science is taught with a glass ceiling on it… Instead, we want to teach by research, not just so children can pass exams. Also, and crucially, we can train children not just to be scientists but entrepreneurs,” he says.
Academic investments are ongoing, with a £15m science centre in the works and the recruitment of “the best” teachers who are all equipped with iPads etc.. Students rave about the small class sizes and individual attention they receive from teachers, the majority of whom live on site. “The teachers are so, so accessible,” Emily, an IB student told us. “They give you the feeling that they even expect you to come for help. It’s really clear how much they enjoy teaching.” Emily’s impression was confirmed by her peer, Antonia, who said the relationship with her teachers is “so, so different” to her old school in Germany. “You feel as if you know them personally. They’re much nicer and you can even crack jokes with them, something I never would have done with my teachers back in Berlin!”
Hockey big for boys and girls
The Extracurriculars
Haileybury’s facilities are exceptional, so it unsurprisingly has a gold star reputation for music, sports, DT and art. For boys, hockey and football lead the way, while the girls’ teams excel in tennis, hockey, netball and lacrosse. But more niche clubs have really strong attendance rates too: an online chess club is an absolute hit, as is the outdoor programme, website coding courses, and law society, which regularly gets 40 or 50 attendees.
In some ways, Haileybury has quite a severe approach to extracurriculars — part of each tutor’s job is to ensure their pupils are engaging with what Haileybury has to offer outside of the classroom, and “it’s not going to be a happy experience for the child if they’re not”, Mr Collier says.
Football amid a spectacular backdrop
If this sounds pressured, the strategy behind it is well-meaning. “We have to take one step back and understand why we put on such a broad extracurricular programme for children in school,” says Mr Collier. “The answer is it’s part of the broader education for a child. We’re trying to give children scenarios by which they will learn in different ways.”
Pupils at Haileybury have told us that the “unbelievable range of activities” did lead some of them to take on too much at first, but they soon adjusted their expectations. “There’s a lot on,” Antonia says. “It was really tiring at first! I just wasn’t used to the pace. But now it’s fine of course.” Overall, they know they’re very lucky. As Antonia told us, “Recently in psychology society we had an external medical expert talk to us about serial killers, it was fascinating. That a school can offer these kinds of talks is simply amazing!”
Who wouldn't want to eat in a dining hall as amazing as this!?
The Boarding
Haileybury is what it calls a “proper boarding school” — of around 800 pupils, 600 board, and the school has a strict policy that does not accommodate flexible boarding. “It’s the same rules for everybody,” Mr Collier says, who feels strongly about this. “It’s about creating a boarding community. There would be no point if in a room of four, two children weren't there for half the week, because that would be breaking the community up.”
Boarding houses are single sex, but the boy to girl ratio in the whole school is now 50:50 for the first time in the school’s history. Boarding houses range in size; some will have as many as 70 pupils. Trips to Cambridge, London or Hertford on the weekend are popular. All pupils we spoke to are keen to mention the quality of the food — pasta, salads, veggie options, meat options, finger food and soup, every day. “The food has a deserved reputation for being very good!” Antonia says, while Emily raves about brunch. “A hot breakfast, with pancakes and croissants — the best meal of the week!”
Spiritual respite: the school's chapel
Our view on a student suited to Haileybury
Haileybury is definitely a school that asks more from its pupils than others we know. Both inside and outside the classroom, a pupil at Haileybury is expected to give it all. Pastoral care is strong, and the school is keen to emphasise that “different kinds of people make for a better community”, but a pupil suited to Haileybury clearly needs to have a certain zest for life about them.
“Someone who will flourish academically, enjoy the pace of our curriculum,” says Mr Collier. “There’s no point someone coming here who is not going to keep up or engage and participate with the holistic education. We take people who are going to come and play their part in the community, and take advantage of all the things we offer outside of the classroom.”
For us, that’s the key thing — there is just so much on offer at Haileybury and at such a high level. For any able and enthusiastic pupil happy to rise to the challenge, you couldn’t ask for a better school.
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