All change

St Joseph’s College was crowned Independent School of the Year 2015. Andy Colpus reflects on the reasons behind its success

When an initiative was first launched in 2011 to provide more affordable private education and increase pupil numbers at St Joseph’s College in Reading, our staff, pupils and parents could scarcely have imagined the impact it would have across the school. 

So we were stunned when our transformation resulted in two wins at the TES Independent School Awards 2015 – the entire school community is truly delighted to have clinched accolades for Financial/Commercial Initiative and Independent School of the Year 2015.

Being recognised in this way is a huge honour for any school, but for St Joseph’s College it is an endorsement of all the hard work that has already been done – and is continuing – to redefine our school and strengthen its foundations for the years ahead. 

The first step in our transformation was a major one. In 2011, St Joseph’s became a fully co-educational school for 3- to 18-year-olds, having previously been a girls’ convent school. At this time a new head of prep school was appointed and a new bursar and headmaster joined in 2012. 

A bold decision made by the board of governors cut school fees by 17 percent. In my view, being able to make independent education more affordable has been a key element in our transformation. Today, pupil numbers stand at just under 500, increasing from just over 300 girls in 2010 – and we now have a male-female split fast approaching fifty-fifty. But the changes we have made to admissions and fees are only part of the story. 

Under new leadership, St Joseph’s embarked on an extensive programme to improve all aspects of the school’s infrastructure. 

Although it may appear counter-productive to reduce fees at a time when a school’s facilities need updating, our long-term investment programme was the first in over 10 years and it was key to the success of the initiative.

In 2013/14 we opened a new early years centre for children aged 3-4 years entering the prep school and revamped the dining hall. The college hall and adjoining chapel were refurbished and, over the summer of 2014, work began on a new sixth-form centre. Prep and senior classrooms were updated too, as part of an ongoing programme, and the school grounds were enhanced with new landscaping and signage. An extended day and a holiday club now provide wrap-around care throughout the year and we have launched a number of new extra-curricular activities too. 

A campaign we called ‘Things are happening at St Joseph’s’ proved a great way to communicate the positive impact of change through a mix of traditional marketing activity and social media channels. We were keen to continue attracting new pupils to our school, but we also wanted to work more effectively to meet their needs once they got here by giving staff easy access to the information they need to do their jobs. We use a management information system supplied by SIMS Independent, which all staff now use to record and store data. The prep school previously had a separate database for this.

Being able to make independent education more affordable has been a key element in our transformation

Our admissions team found having a more centralised store of information particularly useful as they can analyse a wealth of detail, such as where our pupils come from and notes from parents on why they chose the school. This has enabled them to target marketing activity, track enquiries and even plan new bus routes to encourage pupils in to the school. With everything in one place, staff can find the information they need quickly to make informed decisions that support pupils’ learning. 

The long-term, strategic plan at St Joseph’s College to reduce fees and increase investment may have, on first glance, appeared counter-intuitive. However, our success in the Independent School Awards underlines that while the road to transformation can be a challenging one, the school’s journey towards excellence is well underway. We are set to continue shining a bright light on British independent education, using our award together with our out-of-the-box thinking as a springboard for future developments and further growth.

 

Andy Colpus is Headmaster at St Joseph’s College, Reading W: www.sjcr.org.uk

Independent School Awards W: www.isawards.co.uk 

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