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St. Leonard's School

by Stuart Crawford

St Andrews, the "auld grey toun" and jewel in the crown of the ancient Kingdom of Fife, is famous for three things: its University, founded in and the oldest in Scotland, its golf, being the home of the Royal and Ancient and golfing Mecca for golfers worldwide, and for St Leonards School, internationally recognised as one of the leading schools the United Kingdom since its foundation in 1877.

The St Leonards School campus is attractively situated near the centre of the town, surrounded by the walls of the old Abbey. There are stunning views to the surrounding countryside and nearby beaches and coastline, and of course all the facilities of the town and University are close at hand. Also located on the same campus is the preparatory school, St Katharines, which has its own boarding houses and teaching buildings but shares many of the senior school's facilities like sports pitches and computer laboratories. There are just over 240 pupils at St Leonards, split between 170 or so boarders and just over 70 day pupils, with an additional 70 pupils at St Katharines, including 18 in the nursery.

The school has eight houses for both boarders and day pupils so that all feel fully integrated into the academic, social, and cultural aspects of school activities. Flexible boarding arrangements allow day pupils, when necessary, to take all meals in the school and to board for short periods. Academically, St Leonards believes in providing each pupil with the resources and opportunity to follow his or her individual career path, understanding clearly that no two students will be the same.

Consequently, the policy of the school has long been to provide the finest facilities available across the full curriculum, and this combined with small class sizes allows St Leonards to offer high quality education on an individual scale. Examination results are predictably excellent; over 97 per cent of pupils achieved A - C grades in examinations in the last four years. Sports play an important part in the St Leonards curriculum too. The choice is huge. Hockey, lacrosse (St Leonards was the first girls' school in Britain to introduce it), and tennis are the staples, supplemented by a variety of individual sports including swimming in the school's own heated indoor pool.

Unsurprisingly, golf is a major interest, and pupils have privileged access to all the golf courses of St Andrews, including the famous Old Course. Indeed, St Leonards was the first independent school to found its own golf club, in this case affiliated to the Scottish Ladies' Golf Union. Other activities, ranging from yoga to abseiling, take place on at least one afternoon per week, and every week day an "aesthetic hour"is set aside to enable students to pursue interests in the arts.

Mary James, who has recently announced her intention to retire, has been the Headmistress of St Leonards since 1988, moving from Queen Ethelburga's School near Harrogate where she had also been Head. Married to Lawrence James, the writer, she herself is a former pupil of the school she now runs. After St Leonards she was one of the first women undergraduates at York University, where she gained a first class degree in history before going on to Oxford for further research. She is understandably enthusiastic about the school she heads, citing its innovative and pioneering academic energy, the confidence of both the institution and those who are part of it, and its beautiful environment as vital aspects of St Leonards character.

She firmly believes that the pupils' "graceful way of living" is an important part in the scheme of things, and that her charges are imbued with a sense of robustness, self confidence, and of making a contribution to life. Historically renowned as an all girls school, St Leonards has recently broken with tradition and has admitted four boys to the sixth form. The Headmistress freely admits that, having been an advocate of single sex education for many years, she has changed her mind on the issue. She asserts that women have more than proved that they are as clever and competent as men and therefore they no longer need different treatment in educational terms.

Her belief is now that co-education can be extremely useful in allowing men and women to understand each other better. According to pupils, the arrival of boys met with no more than a short lived frisson of interest amongst the girls and they're now regarded as fellow pupils, part of the scenery as it were. With boys in the sixth form and also in the nursery at St Katharines the school will now seek to make St Leonards co-educational throughout over the next few years.

Another recent innovation which has been a tremendous success was the establishment of the Sixth Form College in 1999. Upper and lower sixth forms are now established in sixth forms houses, with a total of 108 students of both sexes in the 17-18 age bracket. Dormitories have been replaced by individual rooms and pupils are encouraged to be more self sufficient in respect of their studies and to a large measure take responsibility for planning their own lives. They are treated very much more as students rather than school pupils, and the school believes it is excellent preparation for University life.

The Headmistress' vision for the future of St Leonards encompasses hanging on to what she calls the school's "pioneering" traditions together with the steady introduction of positive, innovative, change. She is clear that a good education should help young people to live together harmoniously and comfortably, and that is what St Leonards will strive to achieve in the new century. Immediate plans are for the development of the Sixth Form College and progress towards full co-educational integration.

Asked what her contribution to all of this has been, Mary James modestly says that most of it was already in place when she took over as Headmistress. She does think, though, that she may have softened and modernised St Leonards and advanced academic standards. She is also proud of the excellent relationship between staff and pupils, adults and children. One thing is for sure; a visit to St Leonards quickly confirms that this famous Scottish school is fully equipped in all areas to face the future with confidence.

S W Crawford 2000

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