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23 March 2020
by Ferdinand Steinbeis


English Boarding School in Profile: St Clare's School, the wonderful, very different IB school

Hello from Oxfordshire!
Last Monday we visited St Clare's School in Oxford. St Clare's is one of the very first schools we started working with 25 years ago, so needless to say we know it quite well.
St Clare's is fortunate in that, unlike many boarding schools we know, it has a crystal-clear identity. This is a truly modern international school for the more mature pupil with an excellent academic, extracurricular and pastoral offer. Moreover, its location in the heart of Oxford gives St Clare's unparalleled access to the infrastructure and amenities of a one of the most exciting university towns in the world.
Let's take a closer look.
Spring springing at Clare's
The Setting
St Clare's is located along the Banbury Road in northern Oxford, 10 minutes on foot from the city center. We took the train up from central London - travel time door-to-door: one hour and 30 minutes. No doubt, this is a school that is easy to get to from where it matters.
The school's location in Oxford comes with its very own idiosyncracies.
For starters, St Clare"s does not have the conventional 'one coherent campus'- set-up, like most other schools. Instead, the school inhabits 27 buildings, some next to each other, some a few houses apart; some houses are former Victorian residences, some stylish, purpose-built buildings - most notably the gorgeous '121' boarding residence and state-of-the-art science building. Almost miraculously, St Clare's manages to feel both fragmented and cohesive at the same time.
One of Clare's beautiful, victorian boarding houses
Furthermore, due to the lack of available space, St Clare's does not have its own sports facilities. No luscious cricket lawns or olympic-size swimming pools here! This doesn't matter, however, as the school has access to the many excellent sporting facilities available all over Oxford.
St Clare's reception house, seen from the Banbury Road
What (we think) St Clare's is about:
There's no two ways about it - St Clare's is unique among the top British boarding schools. The school is truly international, small in size and with a welcoming, supportive and informal school culture.
Let's take these aspects in turn:
Firstly, St Clare's is one of the most international schools we know. With only 8% British pupils it is one of the few full boarding schools in the UK where pupils from overseas dominate. Unlike other schools with international pupils, St Clare's is rather European with Italian, German and Russian pupils being the biggest national groups. Needless to say, the IB is a major pull for this cosmopolitan audience. As first, british boarding school to adopt the IB and an amazing average of 36.5 points in 2019 to show for it, St Clare's is understandably one of most popular IB schools in the UK.
Secondly, with only 270 pupils, St Clare's is comparatively small. Currently there are only three year groups - Pre-IB, IB1 and IB2. In September, the school will add a new two-year IGCSE programme, which will most likely increase numbers somewhat. However, St Clare's will always be smaller than other IB schools and thus a lot more intimate and familiesque. Everyone knows everyone here.
Spaces of St Clare's - stairs leading to class rooms
Thirdly, St Clare's is known for its relatively informal, down-to-earth vibe. There are few other schools where pupils don't wear school uniform, get to colour their hair green (don't worry, we only saw one girl sporting this colour!) or call their teachers by their first name. But do not be fooled by the school's informality: pupils need to follow the same rules as everywhere else and these rules are enforced with the same vigor as everywhere else. Still, it has to be said that St Clare's affords its pupils more freedom than other schools do. In return the school demands its pupils to be mature and disciplined. This contract between school and pupils seems to work very well.
Fourthly, St Clare's is enormously supportive. Teachers are known to go above and beyond the call of duty to help pupils thrive academically. When we visited we saw classrooms filled with tutorials and math clinics (some of these were one-on-one!). The result of this effort? A stunning 36.5 point IB average in 2019. Another area where St Clare's excels in lending a hand is university applications. The school is famed for having the best careers department in the country with three dedicated full-time staff helping pupils consider UK, US and European universities and courses.
The school's stunning arts department
The Academics
St Clare's = the IB.
St Clare's offers the IB only. No A-Levels here. As the very first school in the UK to offer the International Baccalaureate over 40 years ago, St Clare's has nigh unparalleled deep knowledge of this degree. In fact, the school knows so much that it trains other IB school's teachers!
This specialism has considerable advantages. Pupils get prepared really, really well. Also, with no A-Levels on offer there is no temptation to jump ship when the going gets tough. Lastly, with a school streamlined for one degree allows St Clare's to offer niche subjects to small numbers of pupils. For example, we met a Swedish boy who receives solo Swedish IB classes!
Spaces of St Clare's - the art archive in the arts department.
As mentioned above already, the results are enviable: St Clare's posted an amazing 36.5 IB point average in 2019. And this without being overly selective at admissions. Consider us impressed!
Part of St Clare's success is the school's strong turorial system. Pupils see their tutors on a weekly basis. They carefully assess pupils' progress together and initiate emergency procedures where needed.
And then there's Oxford University itself. St Clare's pupils get access to some of the amazing lectures happening at the university colleges. Interested in politics? Then why not attend Professor Conway's open lecture on Thursday evenings at Balliol College. Computer Science more your thing? Then head straight over to Wadham College on Tuesday afternoons for Professor McColl's open lectures.
...and more art department! Lovely!
In 2019, about 50% of pupils stayed in the UK for university, the lionshare of which went to London universities LSE, UCL, Kings College and Imperial College.
Five pupils received offers to go to Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
About 5% of pupils apply for US universities.
One of St Clare's music practice rooms.
The Extracurriculars
To reiterate the above for transparency's sake: St Clare's lacks a lot of what British boarding schools are so admired for. There are no vast playing fields, swimming pools, design and technology workshops or horse stables here! This can - and does! - turn certain families off St Clare's altogether.
That said, the school is part of one of the best known university cities in the world and has access to its excellent facilities. Interested in football? There's the Oxford City Football Club's grounds for that. Fancy a gym workout? Pupils have free access to state-of-the-art Nuffield sports centre five minutes from school. In fact, St Clare's biggest weakness is in many ways a big strength: the lack of its own facilities due to scarcity of room in Oxford is more than made up by the unique access to the town's excellent facilities.
The school's library.
Still, the extracurricular programme at St Clare's IS different from other schools. All activities are part of the IB's CAS programme, credits around creativity, activity and social service that pupils need to collect to be awarded the IB diploma. St Clare's offers a very wide variety of sporting and creative activities that pupils can opt into. From football to music lessons to creative writing, there's something to suit all personalities and tastes.
Is this enough for the serious sports aficionado or music fanatic?
We believe so. For pupils wanting to pursue a sport more deeply, St Clare's has great relationships with professional teams in Oxford that they can train with. We recently placed a top tennis player at St Clare's who went on to train with Oxford University's own tennis team. Also, the school has a good network of music teachers in and around Oxford and can even cater for more exotic instrument requests such the digeridoo, a recent request!
Inside the stunning '121' boarding house.
The Boarding
St Clare's is nearly a full boarding school with most pupils living in one of the school's 15 boarding facilities seven days a week.
Boarding facilities are first rate at St Clare's. The boarding houses are either beautiful, converted Victorian villas, located along the Banbury Road, or purpose-built accomodation. The undisputed jewel in the crown is the amazing '121' house, an architect-designed, wood-panelled collection of cubes with single and double rooms - all rooms sport ensuite-bathrooms, of course. We cannot remember seeing better!
In front of the '121' boarding house.
In general, pupils in the Pre-IB and IB1 years share rooms with one other pupil and never with someone from their home country. IB2s can choose between sharing or getting single rooms.
Nicer we have yet to see - a double room in '121'.
All boarding houses have their own warden and 11am curfews are strictly enforced. Since all pupils have access to Oxford's manifold amenities, they have to post their whereabouts on the school's own app. Like this, all boarding house wardens know where everyone is at all times.
Modern interior - St Clare's dining hall.
Applying to St Clare's
The school expects all applicants to visit. There is an informal interview, usually with the affable registrar Chris Osbourne and potentially with relevant teachers. Applicants will then do a placement test in maths and English, which will be marked whilst they are still present at the school. If the interview and tests are sufficient, an offer will be made on the spot.
Guitars galore!
Our View
A fabulous, academically strong school with a very unique school culture that allows young adults to be exactly that. And it works, as evidenced by the great IB results!
We are huge fans.
Essential Facts about St Clare's
  • 270 boys and girls
  • 95% boarding
  • IB only
  • One hour 30mins from London Heathrow airport
  • For 2020: £42,204/year
  • https://www.stclares.ac.uk

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