We love this forward-looking, progressive school that puts as much emphasis on STEM subjects as it does sports. Academically, St Faith’s is flying and, on our visit, we met engaged, chatty children bubbling with confidence.
The historic university city of Cambridge is rapidly becoming a world-leading FinTech and bio-tech hub. St Faith’s is on the outskirts (which makes traffic more manageable), on Trumpington Road. Founded in 1884 and initially made up of four large Victorian houses, the school now has various purpose-built add-ons across nine acres of land (plus there are a further 20 acres of sports grounds a few minutes’ walk away).
The spectacular new space-age £2m STEM hub – which has a glass-roof observatory, six telescopes and virtual reality headsets for pupils to study astronomy – is used for science, maths, computing, engineering, art and design.
The understated and very likeable Nigel Helliwell has been in charge since 2011 (this is his third headship; previously he was head at Brentwood Prep School). The more we talked, the more impressed we were. He has no hint of ego and is rightly extremely proud of the recognition that St Faith’s has been awarded recently. But – crucially – he also believes that the school has a profound ethos of caring for the children and that it should be a happy place for them. Mr Helliwell is retiring - in September he'll be replaced by Crispin Hyde-Dunn, who arrives from The Dragon in Oxford.
Unlike many prep schools, there is an almost 50:50 balance of girls and boys. The main entry points are at 4+, 7+ and 11+. Register as early as possible for 4+ entry, because places are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. In other year groups, the application deadline is 30 November in the year before entry; the school typically receives three applications for every place available.
Academics and senior school destinations
St Faith’s stands head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to STEM, which has been embedded in the syllabus for years (we hear that it receives frequent feedback from senior schools on the benefits). The school is leading the way with engineering as a core curriculum subject from Year 3 (taught by those whose first career was in the industry), with the aim that children leave ‘with flexible creative minds’, says Mr Helliwell.
Rather brilliantly, St Faith’s has also pioneered national training courses for teachers that bring together what children have already learnt in maths, science and computing. We like the sound of the annual STEM Fair, where Year 8 pupils are tasked with inventing something that would make the world a better place. The computer teacher has written his own syllabus and boys and girls start to learn programming age five, so they are all fluent by the time they leave.
The school doesn’t prepare children for Common Entrance, which frees up the timetable; staff teach ‘top down excellence’, meaning they plan lessons for the highest ability of the class not the middle as is more usual practice. Pupils have embraced this change and academic standards have risen (staff are very motivated: ‘It is in their DNA to be on the ball,’ says Mr Helliwell).
Rather than an iPad for every child, state-of-the-art classrooms have computers that rise up from the desks when required. The thinking is that this is less distracting for younger ones and they can type using a proper keyboard.
When it comes to the arts, everyone performs in at least one school play every year, and learns at least one musical instrument. Languages are strong: Spanish is taught from age four, French from 10. The top year embark on a 10-week carousel of Mandarin, Arabic and German too.
About 90 per cent of the children get into their next school of choice and, as the Cambridge market is almost as competitive as London, this is impressive. Half of pupils go to The Leys (down the road and part of the same foundation), the rest to other sought-after Cambridge schools (The Perse and St Mary’s) and boarding schools (around 10 to 15 per cent). An average of 28 scholarships are won each year. Tellingly, around 10 per cent of the parent body were once students here themselves.
St Faith’s has invested heavily in sports coaches to ensure that all teams, not just those at the top, are taught by first-rate staff. And it is really paying off: the school reached 20 national finals last year, won both the U11 boys and the U12 girls IAPS national hockey finals and has two Olympian hockey players.
One of the most in-demand clubs on offer (with both pupils and parents) is the Goblins, where boys and girls design, build and race electric go-karts called green goblins as part of a national competition.
Inclusivity is a key tenet of the school, with all Year 8 pupils becoming prefects and given some form of responsibility. Certificates are handed out to children who show acts of kindness (holding a door open, say, or being supportive to others). In Years 3 to 8, everyone is allocated one of four houses, and between the teachers, tutors and heads of house, any issues that arise can be sorted out.
St Faith has 20 different mother-tongue languages and large number of pupils are bilingual (some trilingual), making for a rich, multicultural mix.
The school runs a hugely popular breakfast club where parents and children can come in from 7.20am and eat together before work and lessons. This is generally accessed by around 80 families and is a fantastic social initiative, especially for new parents. Around 25 per cent of pupils cycle to school, which is encouraged.
There are formal ties with six local primary schools (on our visit, St Faith’s was running a STEM day for one school where all pupils from a single year group were sitting down for science, maths and engineering lessons), plus it’s a lead school in the network of computing excellence, working with 20 schools to develop their IT infrastructure.
Over the past 16 years, St Faith’s has also partnered with a township school in South Africa, where it has built up pupil numbers and introduced initiatives such as a hot-food programme to ensure the children are fed before they go home. Year 7 and 8 students visit every other year.
St Faith’s is soaring: we really got the impression that because things are going so well within the school, it has the capacity to look outwards and onwards. Of the three Cambridge preps, this is a real contender for the top spot.