FEATURE: A golden milestone for St Benedict’s Catholic School
Fifty years ago a new secondary school opened in Bury St Edmunds. It had just 89 pupils and part of it was still a building site.
At first staff and students made do with no playground, gymnasium, music room or handicrafts room.
This year, as St Benedict’s Catholic School celebrates its golden jubilee, how things have changed.
Impressive exam results have made it the best-performing secondary school in Suffolk.
And a letter from education minister Nick Gibb praises them for another success.
The school is in the UK’s top five percent in the new Progress 8 rankings between Key Stages 2 and 4.
There are ten times as many students as in the early days – approaching 900 since it merged with St Louis Middle School last year.
St Benedict’s has not only evolved into one of the Suffolk’s most successful schools but also takes pride in being one of the most diverse.
Students and staff come from backgrounds that span numerous countries including Poland, India, China and Indonesia.
On International Languages Day pupils run classes teaching their own languages to their schoolmates.
“It really enriches the school,” said Kate Pereira, head of St Benedict’s since last September.
She is only the fourth headteacher in 50 years.
Francis Pardon was the first, followed by Paul Rossi, then Hugh O’Neill who taught there for 33 years and became head in 2009.
“This is a vibrant school with a lot going on, where children feel comfortable to be themselves,” said Kate.
“There is laughter in the classrooms and chatter in the corridors. That has to be a good sign.
“Our Christian values underpin everything we do ... respect, tolerance, love, compassion and faith.”
As the only Catholic secondary school in west Suffolk St Benedict’s serves a vast catchment area that also includes parts of Norfolk.
Almost half the pupils are from the Bury area, but well over 100 come from Newmarket, 70-plus from Sudbury, and over 90 from Thetford. Others travel in from Haverhill, Stowmarket, Diss and Ely.
Students and staff from outside the Catholic Church are also welcomed.
Business manager Christine Kennedy, who is not Catholic and one of the longest-serving staff members, said it has always had a very welcoming feel.
Chair of governors, David Dawson – also a non-Catholic – became a governor eight years ago when his son Matthew was a pupil.
“Inclusiveness is a very important feature of the school,” he said. “About two-thirds of our students are baptised Catholics, and a third are not.
“And we have many different nationalities.We are certainly the most diverse school in west Suffolk.”
St Benedict’s started out as a secondary modern, and its first big milestone was going comprehensive in 1971.
The original building has been extended and extensively redesigned to cope with growing needs.
Today’s staffroom used to be the kitchen, The school’s chapel – always open as a peaceful place for reflection and prayer – was once a uniform cupboard.
Extra classrooms have been built to accomodate more pupils, and ICT suites are among the other changes.
Closure of west Suffolk’s middle schools brought the biggest single influx of students.
Years 7 and 8 are now taught at the old St Louis school in St Andrew’s Street, while Years 9 to 13 are at Beeton’s Way.
Head of sixth form Jack Gingell, who has taught at St Benedict’s for more than 30 years, says he has seen massive changes.
When he arrived, after working at two fairly tough schools in Liverpool, his first impression was how laid-back it seemed.
“It was much less strict than my previous school. No-one bothered too much about uniform – any shade of black, white or grey seemed to be acceptable.
“And the way the staff dressed was much more relaxed. Only the head wore a tie.”
The students’ uniform changed to its distinctive green in the 1990s when new sweatshirts were introduced.
St Benedict’s sixth form, which currently has 170 students, has been rated outstanding by Ofsted.
Almost all go to university, with a high proportion for a state school gaining places at Oxford or Cambridge.
The school has a specialism in maths and computing, and is also very committed to art and music.
Students’ artwork, from jewel-like stained glass windows to stop-you-in-your tracks paintings, lines the corridors and staircases.
Teaching of RE is very strong and has earned the school a gold quality mark. It also has its own lay chaplain, Matt Spiller.
Community work is encouraged with students volunteering for local charities and good causes.
A tour of the school reveals the huge enthusiasm of staff for their subjects and special projects.
Head of humanities Kevin Murphy says they encourage students to “have a passion and do something about it”.
It led to one organising an appeal for sleeping bags, quilts and tents for refugees in Calais.
School trips can be anything from pilgrimages to Rome, skiing holidays, or visits to First World War battlefields,
A recent tour of Ypres and the Somme proved emotional for one boy who found the grave of a family member killed in 1917.
Science students may soon be reaching for the stars with plans to set up a giant telescope at the school.
“It would give brilliant images and the wider community could use it as well,” said chemistry teacher Elspeth Coogan.
Sport and exercise are a priority, with teams excelling in rugby, cricket and hockey, and indoor fitness suites .
Students using the treadmills at Beeton’s Way look out through huge windows over the playing field.
The same wide open view is shared by the learning support area for pupils with special needs.
Another success story is the learning resource centre, formerly the library which was once being considered for closure.
Books now share the space with computers, but schemes to promote reading mean it now has the highest book loan rate of any local school.
St Benedict’s golden jubilee celebrations began in January with a Mass at Bury Cathedral, and will continue later in the year.