A leading independent school on the outskirts of Cheltenham, St Edward's Senior School prides itself on delivering an excellent education and pastoral care for all its students, aged 11 to 18.
With the school enjoying an excellent reputation, SoGlos picks the brains of its headmaster, Matthew Burke, about everything from the benefits of independent schooling to how parents can find the perfect school for their child.
Meet the expert – Matthew Burke, headmaster at St Edward's Senior School
Having studied at Prior Park in Cricklade and Bath and a handful of universities both in the UK and overseas, it would be fair to say Matthew Burke has not left education since the age of four. Before becoming head of St Edward's Senior School two weeks into the lockdown of April 2020, he taught at schools in Bath, Jersey, Abingdon and Hadley Wood and was the director of education for Inspired Learning Group.
He's married to Dawn, who is head of Newent Community School, and has two daughters who attend St Edward’s. Burke follows Portsmouth Football club which he says makes it very difficult living in Cheltenham for two days every season – and, having gone to school in Bath, he supports a rugby team that make it tough to live in Gloucestershire almost every day of the year.
Can you tell our readers a little about St Edward’s Cheltenham and what it can offer for students?
St Edward’s is, by design, a relatively small school, therefore class sizes do not exceed 20, year groups do not exceed 60 but it's large enough to provide a wealth of opportunities for all our students. Because of our size, every child is known as an individual by name rather than simply a number and this matters to us.
We are not academically selective in the way all our competitor schools are - and this again is intentional. We not only back ourselves to add value to every student who we have the privilege of teaching, but our size creates a more inclusive community, reflecting not only the area in which we are based but also the world in which our children will go into when they leave us at 18.
With 20 different GCSEs on offer and 24 A Levels, there genuinely is something for everyone – and that's before you begin to explore the co-curricular offerings, which include 50 clubs a week! Affiliations with Gloucester Rugby Club, Cheltenham Town Football Club, University of Gloucestershire and the Cheltenham Education Partnership enable us to make links and form relationships with the institutions that matter to our community.
Our membership of The Society of Heads, Independent Schools Association and Independent Schools Council also provides our students with the opportunity to challenge themselves against the best in the country, as well as their peers and local students.
We have secured many awards in the last year around our community engagement, wellbeing provision and leadership. We were also finalists in the UK Independent School of the Year award, and myself a finalist in the TES Head of the Year, as well as securing World Class Status from High Performance Learning.
Most recently, we have entered into a partnership with Arts International to support the development of expressive arts at St Edward’s, enabling both students and staff to benefit from residences with West End stars. Having partnered with the Everyman Theatre last year, we had our outstanding school production at the theatre recently, with our production of The Addams Family musical - a truly incredible opportunity for our students.
In Sixth Form, our students have the opportunity to complete the Ivy House Future Leaders course. Having been a pilot for them last year, we are currently the only school in the area offering this invaluable course, supporting our young adults to build a bridge between education and the world of work. What we offer at St Edward’s is a genuinely personalised, educational experience, with the child at the heart of all we do.
What do you think are the main advantages of independent schooling?
The main benefit is centred around just that – being independent. We are genuinely independent, meaning the decisions we make about the subjects we offer, how we offer them and the fact we can focus on life outside the classroom as well as in it is what attracts families to us. Yes, there are certain external factors by which we are judged but it means we can be a school for individuals rather than simply an individual school.
It allows us to genuinely have ambitious aims and aspirations for our students and not simply look upon them as a means to an end – with that end being a league table position for public examination results only. Being independent enables us to have more flexibility when recruiting staff and students and by our nature we can genuinely be a school that a whole family can attend.
Independent schooling in the UK is so diverse; there is a school that is right for everyone and whilst there is an element of selection as we are fee-paying, there are scholarships and bursaries available in most schools. The direction of travel now is to move more towards bursaries to broaden the intake as scholarships should be more about the prestige and recognition of talent, rather than simply a way of securing a bigger remission on fees.
It must not be forgotten that independent schools are businesses and most of us have one source of income – fees. We have a fixed amount we can use for scholarships and bursaries, but we cannot overspend on this as it would be taking funds away from important resources and experiences.
For me personally, the largest benefit that I see as a head - but also a father - is that the students can be individuals. They are not simply a number and a means to an end for a school to boast about their academic output when we all know that's simply one aspect in the role of a school.
Can you tell us about your pastoral care for students?
At St Edward’s, pastoral care takes centre stage in all that we do. Rather than pulling back in this area, we have invested in it – and those investments are proving to be worthwhile. We created a wellbeing hub last summer bringing our wellbeing nurse, medical nurse, pastoral and achievement coordinator under one roof, as well as our two wellbeing dogs!
Every member of staff is a form teacher who understands the importance of that role for our students as well as parents. Last year we restructured our senior team and created the post of director of pastoral to ensure that a senior member of staff has sole responsibility for the pastoral care of all our students.
Over lockdown, we invested in a platform called 'Student Voice' which provides our students with pastoral support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and they make use of it; we have a counsellor who spends 2 days a week with us; and on top of that, every student and their parents are invited to attend a personal meeting with me once a year when we talk about their progress, how they are doing and what else we can do to support them.
This academic year, we reworked our rewards and consequences procedures and have involved all staff and students in that process. Ensuring that the students have a voice, feel listened to, and also know they have someone they can speak to creates an environment where they feel safe, secure and where they can fulfil their potential.
What advice would you give to parents seeking the perfect senior school for their child?
Being honest, I don't think the perfect school exists. No school gets things right all the time and I think the best way to judge a school is how it responds and learns from its experiences. Parents know their children better than anyone else and although they spend a great deal of their time at school, I believe parents know what type of environment best suits their child and this will be different schools for different children.
I would encourage parents to visit schools and make judgements for themselves, rather than simply listen to others or act on reputation because although a school may not work for one child, that does not mean it would not work for another.
Senior schools should be more than about academic outcomes because when students leave at 18, they need to be prepared for life after school. If the sole focus of the school has been on securing the best academic outcomes, they will not be successful, life-long learners when they leave. I would also encourage parents to speak with current parents and students and also the staff. I can talk in interviews such as this about how I see St Edward’s, but it is the staff who deliver that experience on a day-to-day basis.
What school plans are you most looking forward to in 2023?
These are exciting times at St Edward’s as we have recently joined the Alpha Group of schools securing a significant sum of money for capital investment. Our new library is opening its doors very soon and plans are being finalised for enhanced sport, art and technology facilities within the school. Having joined at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am also looking forward to a more settled year when things can run and operate as close to normal as possible.
Having created new middle and senior leadership structures, I am excited to see these embedded – it's important to remember to look after our body of staff as well as the students and parents we serve. Having promoted staff internally into significant roles in the last year, it is a positive message to send out about the opportunities that may come their way. Through creating clear pathways for staff development, it positions our staff in the best possible place to progress in their careers, should they wish to.
And finally, how do parents find out more about St Edward’s Cheltenham?
The first place to visit would be our website at stedwards.co.uk, where they can arrange a visit to the school and a personal tour with myself. We have various open events during the year and details of these can also be found on our website – or you can contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It would also be worth speaking with some of our current parents who can give you their honest view on the educational experience we provide, to see if St Edward’s might be the right school for you and your family.