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26 March 2021
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit School with Both Feet Firmly in the 21st Century

Hello from spring-like Oxfordshire!
Schools have reopened here in the UK, and we are so pleased — the sound of children playing is amazingly cheering. (As is the quiet in the home...!) This month we’ve been speaking to lots of schools, all of them equally thrilled to have pupils back on site. From our conversations, we’ve got a bumper package of podcasts, features and a profile for you — starting here with our thoughts on Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. Don’t forget to also check out the final parts of our online schooling series, which look at how schools have been keeping their extracurriculars and cultural ethos alive in lockdown. Enjoy!
Stunning: overlooking the Ribble Valley from the school's back garden
The Setting
Stonyhurst College is in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley in Lancashire, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the north of England. With its historic market towns, 14th century abbeys, and rolling green hills, the Ribble Valley is, apparently, where the Queen would retire if she could. For visiting parents, it is also a foodie hotspot.
Stonyhurst College itself is just as beautiful as its surroundings. Approaching from the small village of Hurst Green, it’s impossible not to exclaim when the school comes into view: a castle-like cluster of Elizabethan buildings at the end of a long driveway, lined by formal water gardens. It’s impossible to take it all in — Stonyhurst’s estate spreads over more than 1,000 acres.
A real WOW-school, as we like to say at von Bülow: Stonyhurst College from the air
About one hour north of Manchester airport and one hour northeast of Liverpool, Stonyhurst College sells itself on the “wellbeing, safety and happiness that comes with life in the countryside” rather than its proximity to these big cities. Apart from Hurst Green village at the end of the drive, where pupils go for coffee, there’s not much within walking distance to distract from the fresh air and school life.
One of the school's stunning libraries
What (we think!) Stonyhurst College is all about
First and foremost, Stonyhurst College is a Jesuit school, and has been for hundreds of years — it was founded in 1593! This heritage is very much still a living part of Stonyhurst’s identity, and the Jesuit teaching influences all aspects of the school. But what does that mean in practice?
Firstly, it’s about purpose — Jesuit pupils are encouraged to make a difference, and to use their education to make a difference. As John Browne, headmaster at Stonyhurst told us: “It means asking what are you going to do to change the world?… It’s about, what are you going to do with those GCSE grades or that first class degree from St. Andrews?”. At the end of the school day, pupils take part in an examen prayer, reflecting on the day they have had; what they are grateful for, what they are sorry for, and what they wish for tomorrow. As Mr Browne pointed out “in the secular world, they call it mindfulness, but it’s very ancient!”. Similarly, each week, the chaplaincy team at Stonyhurst send out the specific “virtues” that pupils should focus on enacting that week.
Croquet on the lawn amid the splendid scenery
In other words, the Jesuit influence at Stonyhurst College is a mindset and guiding ethos — it’s not about making pupils spend hours at prayer. Instead, Stonyhurst is a modern school with an ancient history, and a truly holistic approach to education. The development of pupils’ characters, as well as their responsibility to the wider world, is key.
Hands-on education: using historical artefacts in classes
The Academics
Stonyhurst College is a non-selective school that offers both A Levels and IB, as well as the IB career pathway.
In 2020, 63 per cent of pupils achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE; 49 per cent A or A at A level (74 per cent A or B). The average IB score was 36. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 44 per cent of pupils achieved between a 9 and 7 at GCSE; 26 per cent A or A at A level (57 per cent A or B). Then, the average IB score was 35.
These solid results are unsurprising in a school that has a rich academic history and some truly exceptional facilities to hand. There are four libraries at Stonyhurst College, three of which are of historic importance. Because of the school’s place in English Catholic history, Stonyhurst claims that its collection of artefacts and books make up the oldest museum in the English-speaking world. Teachers and pupils have access to objects such as clothes worn by Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold; paintings by Turner and Rembrandt, the largest private collection of Dürer etchings, an Egyptian mummy, and a first folio of Shakespeare from 1623.
Stunning libraries abound - the school has several historic and modern libraries
However, we like the fact that despite this heritage and access to historic objects, Stonyhurst’s teaching is definitely forward-looking. The focus is on individualised learning, and the school has brought AI teaching programmes into the classroom. One such programme we heard about helps identify and target gaps in pupils’ knowledge. Before a lesson, pupils will take a short quiz on the topic they’ve been studying; the programme then identifies where exactly they’re making mistakes, and feeds that back to the teacher to help guide the next lesson. Scaling that up across multiple classrooms and year groups, and Stonyhurst College has a pretty impressive data grip over its teaching!
There is, of course, a Jesuit principle at the heart of Stonyhurst’s lessons, the five steps of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm, or IPP: context, experience, reflection, action, evaluation. These principles are also at the heart of Georgetown University in the US, which was founded by an old Stonyhurst boy!
Fencing within the hallowed halls: sports, music, art, theatre all great here!
The Extracurriculars
Like the academic facilities at Stonyhurst College, the extracurricular provision is also out of the ordinary. There’s a double court indoor tennis dome, providing training space all year round for tennis enthusiasts; a working observatory; an indoor rifle range; bouldering; an indoor swimming pool; croquet lawns — the list goes on!
Top theatre!
Extracurricular at Stonyhurst College is divided into four strands: creative and performing arts, sports, adventure and service. The creative and performing arts are much cherished, and again, there’s a strong history. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, is an old boy and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins also lived on site. Stonyhurst College always has an artist-in-residence, and there are some serious dancers who are trained up at the school via Phoenix Dance Academy.
Great tennis all year round
Track and field — making use of the Ribble Valley — is popular, as are the core sports of rugby, netball, hockey and cricket. For service and adventure, there’s CCF (compulsory for the first two years) and Duke of Edinburgh, as well as links to community care groups and charitable fundraising, in line with the Jesuit pupil profile. “What we would like is everyone to have an experience of a number of things, because they might not know they liked it,” is the ethos, says Mr Browne.
Fantastic music!
The school is also particularly proud of its clubs, which it encourages students to set up in the safe environment of school, as a sort of test run for what they might want to do at university and beyond. There’s the usual debating society, as well as drone club and talks from the likes of the Brexit secretary and a Hollywood film director.
Cozy rooms for the younger years
The Boarding
Between a third and three quarters of pupils at Stonyhurst College are boarders; the school is currently running at 495, and the aim is to get to 500. Some day pupils are weekly boarders; they are welcome to stay past 9pm, and often come back to school on Saturday night for social events. A true boarding school, then!
...and single rooms for the senior years
The set up for boarding at Stonyhurst College is quite unusual — rather than vertical boarding, year groups (called “playrooms”) share one house, so do not live with pupils in different year groups. (Year group mixing is facilitated by house — or “line” — competitions and extracurricular events.) When Mr Browne took the helm five years ago, the practice was reviewed, but the school decided it was the best way to do things. The idea behind this horizontal boarding is to keep hold of pupils’ childhoods for a little longer: “You can keep your 14-year-olds a little younger by keeping them all together,” Mr Browne explains. There are also serious considerations of safeguarding — Stonyhurst College says that boarding within year groups helps reduce any risks there might be.
Beautiful school with real Hogwarts-appeal!
Our view on a student suited to Stonyhurst College
While most of the school’s pupils come from families with some sort of religious or spiritual upbringing, not all do. The impression we get is that while Stonyhurst is probably not going to appeal to the strict atheist, many of its Jesuit principles can be readily applied to a secular mind — it’s about compassion, purpose, service, reflection, and community. For that reason, we think Stonyhurst would suit lots of different pupils, and particularly anyone who would benefit either from the individualised care the school can give, as well as its tendency to push pupils to think a little deeper about everything they do. Stonyhurst College is not for the teenager desperate to get to Manchester or Liverpool every weekend — instead it’s about big hearts, muddy knees, and intellectual, as well as spiritual, curiosity!

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