• Bülow Blog
  • About Us
  • Contact Us
  • Deutsch
Have a question about this school or want us to help you?
18 July 2022
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools in Profile: Worth School, a Stunning, Caring Catholic Boarding School "With A Small C"

Greetings from Oxfordshire!
Before we wish you all well on whatever sun-drenched plans you have for the summer, we wanted to bring you another jam-packed newsletter, including both a school profile and podcast, to provide some food for thought over the summer months. There will be one more podcast and written profile heading your way too next month, focused on all things Oakham School, so keep your eyes (and ears) peeled…
But for now, we’d like to take you with us to Worth School in West Sussex, where we had the recent pleasure of spending an idyllic day under Britain’s blue summer skies. And of course, don’t forget to listen to our complementary aural profile of Worth School in our latest podcast episode!
School with a view!
The Setting
Worth School really is glorious — perched on a ridge in West Sussex, the school’s Victorian building is approached via a wide, sweeping drive, affording idyllic views over the valley and to the hills beyond.
We’re not the only ones that think Worth School’s beauty is worthy of adoration: Worth School is a Catholic school, and its buildings are actually on the site of the equally striking Worth Abbey — a remarkable 1970s modernist building designed by Francis Pollen — and its still-functioning Benedectine monastery. As our tour guide explained, “it’s a Benedectine thing” to be surrounded by natural beauty and plenty of space, and Worth School has both of those by the bucket load.
Reminiscent of a UFO - Worth's spectacular Abbey!
A Hogwarts-style building, complete with wood panelling and ornately carved ceilings, is home to the odd boarding house and school reception, while more modern outhouses are incorporated sympathetically into the school’s sprawling 500-acre grounds. From the school’s main campus, there is, quite literally, not another building in sight — just rolling fields full of sheep and horses.
Seen from campus - green fields with the school's own horses
But what’s perhaps most remarkable about all of this, is that it exists only 20 minutes from Gatwick airport, and about an hour from both Heathrow airport and London. Worth School really does have the best of both worlds!
Strong values: Worth is "Catholic with a small 'c'"
What (we think!) Worth School is all about
On the outside, Worth School looks like a classic English boarding school, with all the usual benefits on offer: a beautiful setting, stellar facilities, and top class education. But to properly understand Worth School — and what sets it out from the crowd — you need to understand its history.
Worth School was originally born out of the Benedictine monastery it now shares a home with, but since the late 1950s the two have been distinct, albeit influential, entities. Worth’s Catholic heritage remains a key foundation of the modern school, but, as headmaster Stuart McPherson told us on the podcast, “there are two ways of spelling catholic: one with a big ‘C’, and one with a small ‘c’.”
Textures of Worth: the main house's spectacular wooden ceiling
The fact that “the small ‘c’ encompasses the big ‘C’,” means that today, Worth School is not just for Catholics, or even Christians — it’s a boarding school for children of all religions and none, and the catholic values that underpin the school are easily applied to a secular context. “We’re a universal school, the christian foundation articulates itself in a set of values — stewardship, humility, silence (listen more than you talk), worship (have an attitude of gratitude), community, and service — that are welcoming, supportive and encouraging for everybody, regardless of their relation to or lack of relation to the Church,” explains headmaster McPherson.
Nothing old-fashiond about this school: view from the amazing Spencer Building
It’s a big claim to strike this balance — staying true to a Benedictine ethos, while welcoming all pupils — but students at Worth that we spoke to supported their headmaster’s words. Antonius, an IB student, told us that you do “encounter religion the whole day”, but it’s up to the individual pupil on what terms they want these encounters to occur. Seba, an IB student who is an atheist, for example, told us she’d never felt left out for her lack of religion, and that she views the prayers that start and close the day as “more of a gathering” than anything else. Emily, herself a Catholic, concurred: “The religious stuff is more about values, how you treat each other and members of staff,” she told us on the podcast.
Refreshments during and after games: the school's mobile cafeteria ;-)
In summary, Worth does ask its pupils to sign up to a set of values, but while these stem from religious texts, really, we think they make the school deeply human. As well as the classic attractions of a traditional British boarding school, Worth also has an atmosphere and student body that considers contemplation and morality more deeply than others.
A refreshingly different understanding of what it means to be academic
The Academics
Worth School’s welcoming ethos also stretches to its selection process: though competitive, the school is not highly selective, and headmaster McPherson is deeply wary of the mindset that places “everybody on some sort of league table”.
“I think you have to be careful how you look at academic results, either as a parent in your own child, or institutionally as a school or country,” he said. “There are some people who think you can measure the quality of a school with a league table, but I don’t think human experience in the world bears that out.”
Amazing art thanks to an amazing art department
Nonetheless, when looking at Worth within those confines, the school performs impressively. In 2021, 59 per cent of pupils achieved GCSE grades between 9 and 7, and 58 per cent achieved A star or A grades at A Level. That year, the average IB score was 36. In 2019 (the last year that exams took place), 50 per cent achieved between 9 and 7 at GCSE, and 28 per cent achieved A star or A grades at A Level. The average IB score was 35.
About 25 per cent of the year take the IB, particularly Europeans. The school is therefore working on integrating the A Level and IB classes with joint tutor groups, so that Europeans used to mixing with lots of British pupils don’t suddenly find themselves confined to their European friends at the top of the school. (German pupils we spoke to, for example, said that they did notice when they started doing the IB that they spent more time with other Germans.)
Maths and the sciences, especially Chemistry, are strong here
All GCSE pupils have to take Religious Studies, but otherwise there’s a strong selection of subjects available, including Latin and various modern languages which can be taught by specialist external tutors if they aren’t catered for in-school.
Lots on offer beyond the classroom. Football one of Worth's strenghts!
The Extracurriculars
Lots of British boarding schools tend to define themselves by their extracurricular offerings, but pupils we spoke to at Worth didn’t feel the need to wax lyrical about the various activities they take part in or the dominating aspect of the extracurricular schedule — they just seemed to love Worth itself.
This balance is really refreshing to encounter, but it’s probably more representative of Worth pupils’ grounded and rounded outlook on life, rather than a lack of activities on offer!
The school used to be very theatre focused, but sports are now on the up, with quite a traditional array gaining the most participation. According to head of sport David Burton, football, hockey, rugby, cricket and golf are most popular, though fencing, horse riding and basketball are undervalued successes. Perhaps influenced by headmaster McPherson’s own love for the sport, there’s now a fully-fledged golf simulator on site that complements trips to the nearby golf course and driving range.
Fabulous creative offer, also outside the classroom!
Evening and weekend activities are diverse and many of them outdoor and water focused, as you’d expect from a school just down the road from the grand Ardingly Reservoir. Sailing, kayaking, and paddle boarding are all popular options.
Music — centred around the Abbey choir’s performances — seems to seep out of every classroom’s window, as around half the school learns a musical instrument or takes singing lessons. And for those whose tunes might provide a less peaceful soundtrack to the West Sussex countryside, there’s a soundproofed band room!
View from the brand-new Spencer Building onto school
Interdisciplinary collaboration is encouraged in extracurriculars; for example, art students will often work with the science or DT departments to make kinetic sculptures. And all are supported by really dedicated teachers; many we encountered in the arts had been at the school for over ten years.
One of Worth School's boarding houses
The Boarding
Just over half of Worth School’s pupils are boarders, and it’s best to let the pupils speak for themselves on this one. When we asked Seba and Emily what boarding at Worth was like, their immediate response was an enthusing: “Oh my god… It’s amazing!”. Their boarding houses are, they said, “one big sisterhood”, where anyone can ask anything of anyone and find all their wishes and needs answered.
Boarding at Worth isn’t strict, but it certainly isn’t pushing at the liberal boundaries either. Younger years have to lock their phones in pouches only teachers can unlock for the duration of the school day, and also hand them in overnight. Before Year 10, pupils cannot go out to nearby Crawley or further afield without a teacher, and in Year 10 they can only go in groups. Popular activities on the weekend include trips to Thorpe Park adventure park, go-karting, paintball, and “incredible” cinema trips. Visiting London and Brighton is allowed, but requires parental permission and advance notice to housematrons.
Textures of Worth School - lights in the dining hall
There are ten houses in total, with day houses and single-sex boarding houses throughout the school. Older students congregate around the very swish new sixth form centre, which provides them with communal study areas as well as a quiet library — and of course, beautiful views!
The whole school eats lunch together — “veggie and vegan options are great, and there are amazing puddings”, we’re told — although there is also a school café just up the hill for those after a quick snack.
A truly serene place!
Our view on a student suited to Worth School
With its serene setting and the welcoming arms of its religious foundation — in addition to all the usual academic and extracurricular offerings of a top British boarding school — Worth could be particularly liable to the critique that boarding schools are “bubbles” that don’t prepare pupils for the real world.
When we asked headmaster McPherson about this, his contemplative response summed up what, for us, makes Worth different: “If you are somewhat protected from the rough edges of life: existential fear of war, famine… Is that a bad thing? If what you get instead is an opportunity to understand more about who you are, how you relate to others, and how you can give yourself to other people and learn things like patience and humility, doesn't that make you ‘world ready’ as well?”
That, then, is the sort of pupil Worth would be suited to — one that would do well under this interpretation of world readiness; this inquiring, soulful, contemplative, and wholesome preparation for life.

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter
Interested in our insights, opinions and stories related to English boarding schools? Then why not sign up!
von Bülow Education
Holbrooke House
34 - 38 Hill Rise
TW10 6UA

Tel: +44 (0) 203 9534063
Email: info@buloweducation.com