Hello from Oxfordshire!
November for us has meant the start of our second national lockdown — a little harder to bear than the first, as the dark nights draw in and the weather takes a turn towards winter. Fortunately, schools and universities are staying open this time around, and luckily for us, we managed to visit Cheltenham Ladies’ College in Gloucestershire before lockdown was announced.
As the girls were taking a well-earned half term break from the classrooms when we were there, we chatted to a couple of students on Zoom afterwards, to get a better sense of what makes a Cheltenham girl tick, as well as hear their own thoughts on their school.
To fully immerse ourselves in all things Cheltenham Ladies College, we also invited the girls’ inspiring headmistress, Eve Jardine-Young, to join us on our latest Tea With The Head podcast, which you can listen to here.
Girls on their way to class // picture courtesy of CLC
Founded in 1853, Cheltenham Ladies’ College has all the historic grandeur you would expect from a school of its age. On the main site, where all lessons take place, three leafy quads are surrounded by beautiful Gothic, Victorian and Regency buildings — as well as a strikingly modern, glass-fronted art block. Vaulted ceilings, marble checkerboard hallways and stained glass windows abound, providing a Harry-Potter esque backdrop to Cheltenham girls’ everyday lives.
However, unlike many English boarding schools with similar historic weight, Cheltenham Ladies College is not an island entire of itself — the school is right at the heart of Cheltenham town, a Regency spa town in the Cotswolds that has grown into a vibrant professional and cultural hub.
Textures of CLC #1: painted stones in the corridor
Separate to the main school, there are 15 other sites within a ten minute walk across town, including the boarding houses and the vast health and fitness centre.
In many ways, the setting means the school has the best of both worlds — access to Cheltenham town, plus its jazz, literature, science and music festivals programme, bursts the bubble of boarding life, while the size of the school’s main site creates the feeling of a private enclave within the urban centre.
Cheltenham has fast train connections to London, around 100 miles away, and the school is less than a two hour drive to Heathrow airport. Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and Oxford are all within an hour’s travel.
Sports galore - in-door climbing hugely popular here! // picture courtesy of CLC
What (we think!) Cheltenham Ladies’ College is all about
Cheltenham Ladies College is undoubtedly one of the UK’s top tier boarding schools. However, rather like its setting, we think the school’s success is multifaceted. Despite being large, we felt it was very personable; as well as stellar academic results, there seems to be a genuine focus on the broader meaning of an education; and despite its legacy, the school and its community feels contemporary and in touch with the wider world.
Headmistress Eve Jardine-Young told us how she wants the girls to define themselves beyond the subjects they study and their exam results, and our conversations with students showed us she isn’t just paying lip service to this idea. When we asked the sixth formers to tell us a little bit about themselves, they spent as much time enthusing about their interests and extra curriculars — from debating to gospel choir to American politics — as they did about their academic subjects.
Cheltenham Ladies College’s single-sex education isn’t uncommon in the UK, but the school is clearly aware that it is nonetheless somewhat at odds with modern society. We liked the self-analytical way the school and its headmistress are constantly analysing and questioning this, making sure the model is still beneficial to the girls, rather than taking it for granted as “tradition”.
Engineering is big here, too - building cars included!
We were particularly taken with Eve’s explanation during our podcast interview that a single-sex environment encourages girls to do things they might be held back from — whether subconsciously or consciously — at a mixed-sex school. For example, all 18 sports on offer are available for the girls, rather than some that would be dominated by boys, and Cheltenham’s strong uptake of STEM subjects at higher level is noticeable. As Charlotte Coull, Cheltenham’s head of admissions, asked us: “Would you get 35 girls signing up to build a full-size Caterham kit car in a co-ed school?”
Although clearly an elite school, Cheltenham Ladies College’s community is a broad church — students come from more than 400 different schools, and 45 per cent are international from over 30 countries. Each of the girls we spoke to emphasised how the exposure to different lives, ideas and cultures is one of their favourite parts of school life.
Overall, Cheltenham Ladies College is a school with intellectual curiosity at its heart. It fosters an adult, independent, almost university-like environment where girls are really encouraged to take every thought and idea — whether for a new society or a piece of academic work — further. Life at Cheltenham is certainly intense, but that intensity isn’t one dimensional. Instead, the enthusiastic and diverse community makes for an engaged and highly contemporary atmosphere where academic success is a byproduct of the girls’ wholesale enrichment, rather than the end goal itself.
The natural sciences are very popular here
It’s hard to fault Cheltenham Ladies College’s academics. In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 90 per cent of GCSE grades were between 9 and 7, 72 per cent of A Level grades were A* or A, and the IB average was 40.
The school introduced the IB in 2008, and it has been a success: last year’s results meant Cheltenham was named the top boarding school in the UK for the IB. Around 40 girls, or 30 per cent of each year, now take it, creating a tight knit “community within a community”.
As we mentioned, interest in STEM subjects is particularly strong at Cheltenham Ladies College, where half the girls do chemistry for A Level or IB and recent lecturers from top universities have come to give talks on volcanology, climate chemistry and pheromones. All girls do Latin in the first two years of school, and there are a profusion of languages on offer thanks to specialist language coaches, including Arabic and Russian.
One of the school's beautiful, spacious class-rooms
When we asked students what the teaching style at Cheltenham Ladies College was like, they emphasised the amount of support they receive, something which can often be lacking in highly academic environments. As one girl put it: “If I ever need help on anything my teachers are there, they truly care that we understand what we’re learning.”
Another said she had often been impressed at how quickly teachers noticed if someone was struggling, but were equally ready to take things beyond the syllabus when the girls were ready. “There are so many circumstances where you finish the course but they want to expand your thoughts, do the next thing,” she told us. “They’ll talk less and you’ll talk more, it’s a forum for discussion really, it’s really nice.”
The result — and thanks to a serious professional guidance department — means Cheltenham girls end up at top universities across the UK, with the US becoming an increasingly popular choice.
The school's grand meeting, theatre and lecture hall
Extracurricular at Cheltenham Ladies College certainly means more than just sports and the arts. One of the girls we spoke to set up a netball camp near her home in Uganda, while another helped to organise a mock election during the British general election. During the climate change strikes, girls were allowed to go out and actively participate in them as a school. Law society and debating are popular choices, and lots of Cheltenham girls go on to be top lawyers after their experience at school. Girls are also encouraged to get involved with the local community, spending at least one hour a week doing so at sixth form.
A student immersed in her work in CLC's beautiful art studio // picture courtesy of CLC
In the impressive art block (which was built in 1999 but looks as though it could have been built yesterday) there are ceramic studios, food and nutrition labs, screen printing labs and the new Engineering, Enterprise and Technology department where girls work on design prototypes and product launches.
The sports facilities are certainly impressive, though we got a sense from girls and teachers that sport takes a slight backseat to exercising the intellect at Cheltenham Ladies College. Nonetheless, the health and fitness centre is vast and incredibly professional, including two enormous sports halls, five squash courts, a spin studio, swimming pool and newly installed climbing wall. As well as hockey, netball, and lacrosse, girls can take up rowing, badminton, fencing, golf, basketball and much more.
Equestrian is huge here! It's Cheltenham after all...// picture courtesy of CLC
For those keen on riding, the town of Cheltenham is one of the UK’s riding hotspots, thanks to the namesake racecourse and local countryside. The school doesn’t have its own stables but does have a riding team.
On the main site, the Parabola arts centre has a 300-seat theatre, dance rooms and a small gallery. Music is an intrinsic part of the school, and most girls will play a musical instrument, just for fun or to a high level. There are more than 900 individual music lessons scheduled per week!
Textures of CLC #2:a beautiful staircase in the main house
Cheltenham Ladies College is big and predominantly boarding — of 840 students, only 20 per cent are day girls. Day girls have their own house, but share all lessons and the full extracurricular schedule. We were told it's not uncommon for close friendships to form between day girls and boarders, who might spend weekends at local girls’ houses.
The boarding houses are a big part of Cheltenham girls’ lives, as they go back “home” for lunch and supper (with a quick break on the main site) and the large number of international students mean they never empty out on the weekend. But this doesn’t mean girls are restricted to socialising with their housemates, as house mistresses are able to arrange sleepovers or have girls from other houses over for dinner on request.
The school's gorgeous library
The sixth formers we spoke to said they really liked the way their houses were dotted about town, as it meant they feel like they “aren’t always at school” and grabbing a coffee in town means they have a “more normal teenage experience”.
We thought that Cheltenham Ladies College’s approach to technology was really innovative, as the school takes direction from its students in order to keep up to speed. There are peer mentors in each year group called “cybers”, who have a particular interest in social media and technology and who work with the teachers to make sure the regulations on things like mobile phone and laptop use are appropriate. There are still some blanket rules, however — no one is allowed phones during school, other than for research in lessons or the library, and younger girls are only allowed phones at certain times of the day (to match the time zone of their family back home, for example).
Textures of CLC #3: ornate glass doors and windows
Our view on a student suited to Cheltenham Ladies’ College
Lots of schools are quick to say they don’t attract a specific “type” of student; in far fewer is it genuinely the case. But when we asked Cheltenham students what they thought a “Cheltenham girl” was like, their answer was unanimous. As one of the sixth formers put it: “One of the big things is that there isn't really a “Cheltenham girl”. Everyone is so different and has their own interests… The people you meet here, you've never really met anyone the same.”
When pressed a bit further, they added that independence was definitely valued (something the school helps develop) and that intellectual curiosity was a trait they all shared. (One sixth former compared it to her previous school, where “you were the weirdo if you put your hand up”, but at Cheltenham, “everyone enjoys learning”.)
The girls' thoughts were very similar to the impression we took away of them and the school itself. Cheltenham Ladies College would be ideal for anyone who is intellectually hungry and curious about the world around her. It is not necessarily the place for girls focused on sport or music above all else, but more suited towards those keen to flex their intellectual muscles and expand their horizons.
This doesn’t mean applicants to Cheltenham Ladies College need to have big egos or a tonne of achievements to their name already. As Charlotte said: “It’s about the glint in the eye, they don’t have to be noisy about it”. Or, as Eve responded on our podcast: “We’d love them to be academically fairly able, but more important than developed ability, is that we’d love there to be headroom for further development. Girls who are open minded, not afraid to be wrong, not afraid to make a mistake.”
Textures of CLC #4:a gauge to tell the weather
This approach is not for everyone; girls who prefer a slower pace and constant guidance might feel overwhelmed at Cheltenham Ladies College. When we asked the sixth formers whether they ever felt like this, there was a brief silence before they laughed and admitted that, at times, of course they do. But they were quick to add how great the pastoral care was and how many opportunities there were to relax — and then were on to the next exciting thought they had to share.