With teaching methods tailored to each pupil's strengths, opportunities to build leadership skills from an early age and no barriers to pursue traditionally male-dominated interests, Malvern St James — a leading independent girls' school, just over the Worcestershire border — is a popular option for Gloucestershire parents seeking a well-rounded education and positive learning environment for their daughters.
Head of Prep, Belle Bedford, explains how its single-sex education system supports girls in their formative years — and the specific ways MSJ empowers and inspires its pupils to become strong and successful women.
What academic advantages does a single-sex education offer?
Before teaching in a single-sex school, I didn’t truly appreciate the enormous benefits that a single-sex education has. I had heard the usual things that one hears about all-girls’ education: that pupils will have less distractions and reduced gender stereotypes. But it wasn’t until I came to MSJ — until I was here in the building, in the environment and experiencing it all for myself as a teacher — that I really saw what a magnificent opportunity it is for girls to see out their school years in this learning environment.
The tailored teaching methods, school culture, focused learning environment, endless opportunities and
lack of gender stereotypes make Malvern St James Girls’ School a hive of
strong, independent, positive and empowered young women, who are building up
momentum to go out there and live the life they desire — to change the world, if
that is what they want to do.
As a teacher, you see it firsthand, particularly at Prep level: in a mixed setting, boys tend to dominate the teacher’s time and attention, not always intentionally, but this is often the case. Boys benefit from the balance that girls bring in this setting, but I've seen that girls thrive and blossom in a single-sex environment.
There is a real sense of sisterhood, looking out for one another, working together and building one another up.
Have you found that girls are more likely to pursue STEM subjects than in a co-educational setting?
I think the choices that girls make are influenced by their learning environment as well as contextual factors. The learning environment that pupils experience at MSJ is one of no gender stereotypes and offers a vast range of opportunities, including in the STEM areas.
At MSJ Prep, I think that many of our pupils do pursue more STEM activities and extra-curricular clubs than they might do in a co-educational setting, as they follow their interests and are not thinking about what the majority of girls are or are not doing, compared to boys.
How does MSJ Prep foster a supportive and empowering environment for its students?
As a school, we foster a supportive and empowering environment by nurturing individual strengths; providing a positive and inclusive atmosphere; encouraging a love for learning; and offering personalised attention.
come to MSJ, they are not here to fit an MSJ mould; every pupil is unique. We, as educators, are here to
give these girls the best possible start in life and set them up so they can
go out into the world as well-rounded, academically and emotionally capable
When a pupil starts with us, we get to know them and their strengths and areas for development — and we take time to learn about their interests. Following this, the education they receive is tailored around them. The key is outstanding teachers that have positive communication and relationships with their pupils and parents. When a teacher knows a pupil so well, they can tailor the learning to their needs, they can support them pastorally and develop their social and emotional skills.
MSJ Prep has limited numbers and we purposely keep our classes smaller so that we can deliver this. As a school, we create a sense of community so that pupils feel supported in their academic and personal growth and are empowered in their educational environment.
How does MSJ Prep help students develop leadership skills and build their confidence?
MSJ Prep facilitates leadership skill development and builds confidence through various strategies. Starting right from MSJ Minis, we provide opportunities for pupils to take on responsibilities on a day-to-day basis.
From Year 1 upwards, every class has a Form Captain. The Form Captain is voted in by the rest of the class and all of the Form Captains — known collectively as the Prep Council — meet every week to discuss points raised by their own classes and ways to make MSJ Prep a wonderful place to be.
It is lovely to attend these meetings, as the pupils take such pride in the responsibility that comes with the role and very proudly wear their Form Captain badge — particularly the younger pupils, who ensure to move their badge over onto their P.E kit for the P.E lesson, of course!
As well as this, different year groups have other smaller responsibility roles that change each day. Pre-Prep have Pet Monitors, Captain Tidy and Helping Hand, for example; Year 4 and 5 have Buddy roles, looking out for others on the playground and overseeing the Buddy Bench.
The older pupils in MSJ Prep have larger roles: in Year 6, we have the Prep Leadership Team, which is made up of a range of different positions — a Wellbeing Ambassador, Sports Captain and Skipper of a ship, to name a few.
Throughout pupils’ time in the Prep, we are feeding in different leadership opportunities and activities year-by-year, all building their confidence and skills. I find that encouraging participation in extra-curricular activities, public speaking and group projects throughout the department helps to enhance communication and leadership abilities.
At MSJ Prep, we have incredibly supportive and caring teachers. We also foster a culture of teamwork here at MSJ and recognise individual achievements. Each week during our Prep Assembly, we celebrate pupils and award Work of the Week, Friendships Flower, Sportswoman of the Week and more, as all this recognition helps to instil confidence in our pupils.
How does the school challenge gender stereotypes in its curriculum and extra-curricular activities?
We challenge gender stereotypes by offering a diverse and inclusive curriculum and extra-curricular program that doesn't limit subjects or activities based on gender. We want to provide the opportunities here at MSJ Prep for girls to explore a vast range of experiences and give them the chance to explore STEAM subjects.
The youngest pupils in MSJ Minis follow a creative curriculum and last term had an engineering and building role play area, for example.
Wherever possible, we try to showcase diverse gender roles and achievements; whether it be in the news, more locally or within school, to help break down these stereotypes. We want our pupils to see a range of possibilities, regardless of traditional gender norms and create an environment that fosters equality and respect.
What academic and extra-curricular programmes does MSJ Prep offer and how does it empower girls to pursue interests that are traditionally male-dominated?
MSJ Prep offers a well-rounded curriculum and diverse extra-curricular program to empower girls and challenge traditional gender norms. Academically, we provide strong emphasis on STEAM subjects, encouraging girls to explore areas of science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.
In extra-curricular activities, we offer a mix of arts, science and mathematics clubs, allowing girls to develop skills traditionally associated with male-dominated domains. Over the past few years, we have run: Coding Club, where girls built their own games; STEM club, where pupils designed and built two go karts for the Prep Playground; Maths Club, a chance for girls to take part in additional maths activities and games that reflect their learning in class, like getting out of an online escape room, solving real life problems and investigating theories. Our younger pupils had to work out if there were more trees or more people at MSJ, carrying out data handling around the school.
At MSJ Prep, we try to tailor our clubs around the interests of our pupils, so this term for example, we have two Sixth Form pupils running a Chinese Club. As a school, our senior school pupils are very involved with the Prep pupils and I personally think these relationships are extremely important for both parties. For our younger pupils, it inspires them and gives them excellent role models to look up to. The Sixth Form girls deliver talks to MSJ Prep about subjects they are passionate about and why they chose to study them. These kinds of experiences broaden our younger pupils' perspectives. Through internal Sixth Form speakers and a range of external guest speakers, along with school trips throughout the terms, we offer exposure to our girls to the more male-dominated fields.
I feel that by fostering a supportive and inclusive environment, we are able to instil confidence, self-esteem and a sense of empowerment in our girls, motivating them to pursue their interests and aim for careers, irrespective of traditional gender roles.
What is the most rewarding part of your role as Head of Prep?
Promoting a positive school culture, supporting dedicated educators and building a strong sense of community in MSJ Prep is very rewarding, as this has a lasting impact on both the school and the lives of the girls here. The most rewarding part of being the Head of Prep though, has to be witnessing the growth and development of young minds. Guiding and shaping their educational journey; seeing pupils thrive academically and personally; and contributing to their formative years is deeply fulfilling.
At the end of Year 5, all the girls in MSJ Prep present a Leadership Presentation to the rest of the girls in the Prep and all the Prep staff. This is a presentation that they prepare completely independently and is them telling us all why they would make a great leader and why they should be part of the leadership team when in Year 6.
The girls really get to demonstrate their individual flair in these presentations. For example, some sing reasons as to why they are responsible, some involve the audience in games as to why they would make a fabulous leader, others bake cakes in the colours of their Ship and incorporate this into their presentation. Some of the pupils choose to use technology and others do not, but every single pupil presents — and within their presentation, they reflect on their time here.
The pupils gain so much from this experience, as do those younger pupils all watching and looking up to these Year 5 girls, eagerly waiting for it to be their chance in a year or so’s time. It is an extremely proud moment for me as I think back to when I welcomed each girl to MSJ Prep — many of them were tiny little people and I am now seeing them as responsible, confident, capable, happy and secure girls.