Exclusive Interview with the Headmaster of St Anthony’s School for Boys
It was a great pleasure to speak with the enthusiastic and dynamic new head of St Anthony’s School for Boys, Mr Richard Berlie on 11th March 2022. Having taught mostly in sixth form colleges, secondary schools and boarding schools throughout his career, Mr Berlie has now adapted to heading a preparatory school and all that younger boys bring to the table.
Although he has been a teacher for over 20 years and held various roles in Senior leadership, this is his first headship and he has started off with a bang having achieved a record number of entrants into some of the most sought after schools in and around London. After just 2 years in office, Mr. Berlie has transformed the school, implementing a new system that seems to be working very well.
Mr Berlie took up headship at the school at a time when both the school and the world were in a state of flux. Taking up a post as head of a reputed boys’ school in the middle of a world wide Pandemic was no mean feat. He had to not only adapt quickly to taking the school on to online platforms but also to manage the 11+ contingent that year when the whole process for admissions in selective secondaries was changed suddenly.
Right from the beginning of the interview it became clear how passionate and committed Mr Berlie is and the changes that have taken place at St. Anthony’s are a testament to his hard work and dedication.
Mr. Berlie firmly believes that children, should from a young age, be encouraged “to be curious and inquisitive as we persuade them to ask questions, to engage them intellectually, to get them thinking and involved in ideas…” To not be shy and to try to understand not just the subjects that they are interested in but to be stretched to many different subjects. He believes that this is how children gain the confidence to express themselves, to improve their communication skills and speak out more confidently which are key skills that prepare them for what the future holds. Mr Berlie also emphasises the importance of children having the ability to see and acknowledge another person’s point of view, even if they do not believe or agree with it, they learn that they must respect it. With an open door policy, the children are fully aware that there is a safe environment for them to come to if they need to talk. He is an open minded headmaster, both liked and respected by students and parents.
His love of teaching and history in particular (he is after all a Cambridge history graduate) does see him escaping occasionally from his office, back to the classroom to teach. In the main, he concentrates on general historical topics with Year 6 during which, he introduces discussions related to controversial current topics as well as, WWII, the 09/11 attack and other more recent political issues. Richard lives in Southwest London with his family, 2 (naughty) Dachshund dogs and runs 5 kms early morning before hopping in a train to Northwest London.
You took over headship at the school during the Pandemic. How challenging was it to deal with, when organising online school and how did you support the Year 6 leavers during that time?
It was a challenging time but I came from a school where we had moved to blended learning on Teams even before the first official lockdown. This involved training teachers and setting protocols that ensured pupils’ learning was maximised using new technology.
At St Anthony’s we moved the entire curriculum online so that the virtual timetable matched the real one, and this included Joe Wickes’ style PE lessons. We were conscious that parents working-from-home had responsibilities to despatch which was why we wanted to occupy the children, as much as possible, for the full school day.
Sharing good practice amongst teaching colleagues helped to build confidence and generate new ideas. Online lesson observations by senior colleagues ensured a high standard in the delivery of teaching and learning.
The school had its best results in a long time, at the 11+ exams last year. Do schools also include waitlist places when publishing their results? Please could you explain to prospective parents how you managed to change things around at St Anthony’s Boys so quickly considering you had to deal with 2 years of disruptive teaching and also sometimes on different platforms?
The 2022 Senior School outcomes both at 11+ and 13+ have been the best in about 20 years (Catherine, Deputy Head Pastoral has worked here since 2001). Senior schools tell me which boys are placed on the W/L and these are NOT included in our stats unless it is translated to a firm offer – this happened with UCS last week where we moved from 9 to 10 offers.
How did we change things round:
- Setting high academic expectations for boys – ensuring lessons were interesting and encouraged curiosity, and a willingness to take risks with ideas
- Clear communication with parents based on their son’s academic and personal profile. Advising parents to apply to a range of schools (super competitive ones and those less so) so that they had options on the table. Demystifying the process was a key aim and talking to parents about schools’ reputations today rather than how they might have been perceived 5 or 10 years ago.
- Meticulous attention to VR/NVR skills and time management. This included early morning Pre-Test Clinics (ISEB 13+) in the autumn term. Much of the preparation is embedded into the English and Maths curriculum since Year 3 and made more explicit once boys are in Year 6.
- The creation of a Faculty system in September 2021 (with Heads of Maths, English, Science, Humanities and the Creative Arts) led to a curriculum overhaul leading to greater coherence and focus on pupil progression from Reception all the way to Year 8. Boys are encouraged to grow in knowledge and understanding of subject areas whilst learning to appreciate the interconnectivity between disciplines such as Science and Theology, Geography and Politics.
- A very strong co-curricular programme (hobbies and clubs) including the introduction of debating and critical thinking. The school in introducing Robotics into the Year 7 and 8 Science curriculum in the summer term, and a Robotics Club and advanced coding for boys in Years 4 – 8.
Are you able to tell parents how you set about preparing the boys for the exams? What extra support do you offer children and parents?
A rigorous English and Maths curriculum overseen by experienced Heads of Faculty who understand the 11+/13+ examination system.
Preparation of exams starts to become more explicit during the course of Year 5 where boys are encouraged to show workings or develop longer written responses. There is particular focus on getting them to answer the question set. Regular practice under timed conditions helps to build pupils’ agility and confidence.
Having in place a strong academic curriculum that cultivates genuine love of learning (inquisitiveness, if you like) sets the culture of the school. It is obvious when children have been ‘taught for the test’, certainly from my experience working in senior schools such as Ampleforth, Emanuel and Dulwich, where interviewers want to see from pupils an authentic and genuine commitment to learning.
A St Anthony’s education is an holistic one which promotes traditional subjects whilst recognising boys will live in a world where they will need to be tech-savvy and creative.
Are there plans to change the structure of the school with the common entrance exams beginning to dwindle in popularity and with some of the senior schools / secondaries doing away with the 13+ altogether?
We plan to continue with Common Entrance for the time being even though the number of schools mandating it is dwindling. Having said that, nearly all 13+ Destination Schools like the rigour of the CE curriculum and ask for the exam results which will help with Year 9 setting.
The CE curriculum and examination structure is an excellent preparation for GCSE. Many of our teachers come with a secondary background taking boys through material they may not cover until Years 10 or 11.
What are your views on tutoring? What is the approach of the school to external support for students sitting competitive exams
I am neutral on the matter for two reasons: I do not wish to trespass on the prerogative of parents, and from a purely pragmatic perspective I know it happens. The moment a few families do it there is pressure on others to do so for fear of not doing the best by their children. And some targeted tutoring can be very helpful so long as the tutor does not contradict advice offered by the school.
Is the co-ed nursery at St Anthony’s Girls, the only entry path into St Anthony’s Boys? Is there a 7+ entry point at the school?
We have seen much greater interest in 7+ entry as well as 11+ entry. Numbers sitting our 7+ exams ran well into double figures and we are seeing traction from families who currently have children in state primary schools but want to make the switch to the independent sector. One Year 8 boy who came to us via this route has just won a major academic scholarship to Bedford School and offers from Dulwich, Berkhamsted and Mill Hill.
Do the St. Anthony’s Boys and Girl’s school have a joint team/staff/facilities? What else do both schools do together?
A Reception Hub is in place for both schools which enables joint curriculum planning and the sharing of good practice. Reception staff from both schools meet at least once a term and SASB hosted a meeting of north London Reception teachers last term.
There was a joint concert for the schools last term and a Carol Service was held at Hampstead Parish Church. Pupils enjoyed interview practice with teachers from the sister school i.e. girls came to SASB and boys went to SASG.
There are plans in place for shared ventures including plays, concerts and trips.
How many 11+ students from St. Anthony’s move within the Alpha Plus Group? For example to Wetherby Senior?
There were 14 offers from Wetherby Senior to St Anthony’s boys this year, most of which were for 13+ entry. Most of the boys will go elsewhere but it is reassuring for parents to hold an insurance offer.
Would you consider having wrap around care for the younger ones, for example an early drop off (breakfast at school) to both help working parents and to avoid congestion and help ease the issues with pollution on Arkwright road?
In principle, this is a good idea but it requires careful planning especially when it comes to staffing. Budgets have been under pressure recently but it may be something we look to do in the medium term.
Given that space is at a premium in the area, the school is fortunate to have both a swimming pool on site and a new turf football field. Do all sports fixtures happen on site now or do the children still have to travel for training and weekly sport?
We continue to make use of the facilities at Brondesbury for rugby, football, hockey, tennis and cricket.
The school offers 5 different sports activities, that are subject to change every term. How are the offerings chosen? What does the school do to support children who play at an elite level?
Games, recreational and competitive, are a very important part of the life of the school. Every boy is encouraged to participate in team sports and our prowess on the prep school circuit is legendary.
Autumn Term – Football, Basketball, Squash, Swimming, Table Tennis are played as competitive sports with other Schools. Extra-curricular clubs such as karate and playground games are also offered.
Easter Term – Rugby, Hockey, Cross-Country Running and Swimming are played as competitive sports with other Schools. Extra-curricular clubs such as Boxing, Karate, HIIT Club and playground games are also offered.
Summer Term – Cricket, Tennis, Athletics and Swimming are played as competitive sports with other Schools. Extra-curricular clubs such as karate, Swimming, Running Club to the Heath, HIIT Club and playground games are also offered.
We stretch and challenge more able in the following ways;
- Differentiation in PE, Swimming and Games lessons
- Enrichment group on TEAMS to discuss sport and performance in more depth
- Local and national competitions such as IAPS events, ISFA Football Competitions, London Schools Athletics, Prep4Sport Football at St. George’s Park and many more
- Weekly fixtures for Years 3 to 8 where teams are split into ability
- International sports tours such as Football to Madrid and Barcelona and Skiing to Austria.
- Regular trips to watch professional sport such as – Saracens Rugby and England Cricket at Lords
With a part diamond structure in place i.e. a mixed nursery branching off into two single sex schools, what is the likelihood of that structure coming together as a co-ed sixth form again?
I think it a very good idea for both prep schools to grow into a mixed senior school that offers GCSEs and A levels. I believe there will be demand for an independent co-ed Catholic school that offers strong pastoral care, and excellent academic and co-curricular provision.
There are concerns among parents that bullying at the school, particularly in the past has gone uncorrected / been dismissed. How does the school now address any issues raised by parents?
I can only comment on my time as Head where the culture amongst boys and staff is one of mutual respect, drawn from an understanding that each person is bestowed their dignity as a creation of Almighty God. When I arrived at St Anthony’s a (Good) Behaviour Policy was instituted which deals with transgressions and the rehabilitation of broken relationships.
There is a zero-tolerance approach to bullying at St Anthony’s; it is not prevalent in our school but nor are we complacent. Vigilance and early intervention is key.
What is the tenure of teachers like at the moment at the school? In the past, we were given to understand that there was a high turnover with overseas teachers coming in for a period of one to two years and then moving on. Has this changed and if so how?
There was a high turnover of teachers last year given the restructure of academic departments into Faculties. We are expecting a much smaller staff turnover in July. We are attracting young newly qualified staff (from the UK) and more experienced colleagues crossing over from leading prep and senior schools.
Where does St Anthony’s sit in the Alpha Plus hierarchy of schools? With over 15 schools here in the UK and in the US, are all schools treated equally in terms of investment in facilities etc?
St Anthony’s is the oldest school in APG and is unique in combining a Catholic and liberal ethos. We are fast re-gaining our reputation as a place where individuality, even quirkiness, is allowed to flourish within a context of high academic standards and success. The two are not mutually exclusive!
Most boys at independent schools come from fairly privileged backgrounds. How does the school ensure they grow with a social, moral code of conduct and to that extent, what community outreach projects are the boys involved in?
The School Council, which is boy-led, organises a number of charitable fund-raising events each year most notably the Christmas Fayre which raises thousands of pounds for worthy causes.
Although predominantly Catholic, St Anthony’s school only has a student population that is 40% Catholic. An inclusive school, it welcomes boys from all faiths and all cultures and denominations. The school occupies a generous plot at the top of the hill where Fitzjohn’s Road meets Arkwright Road and is one of the few private schools to be able to boast a decent sized swimming pool on the premises. In addition to this, a fantastic art room with light streaming in, a good sized playing area in the junior school and large airy classes throughout the school puts St Anthonys in an enviable position where facilities are concerned and space is at a premium. Hand in hand with this is a school where new management is ensuring that changes are being put into place throughout, resulting in it now becoming a school where pastoral care is slowly coming back to the forefront alongside a steadily growing focus on academics. St Anthonys Boys is now becoming a solid contender as a feeder into some of the most highly sought after academic schools in the country. Results this year have been at a record high.
With the establishment of the co-educational nursery at St Anthony’s Girls’ School, many children enter the boys’ school and the girls’ school (subject to assessments) from this affiliated nursery. The main point of entry to the boys’ school is at Reception, when they enter via a selective assessment (4+) and most leave at aged 11 (Year 6) for their secondary choices with a few moving as usual via the 7+ route though these numbers are dwindling under current leadership. While some schools have opted to withdraw the 13+ entrance point, St Anthony’s still has the option for pupils to stay on up to Year 8 which provides children with the opportunity to mature that little bit more, gain more self confidence and be emotionally and cognitively ready to make the transition to secondary school. Annual progress tests run by GL and CEM which are both adaptive and standardised are used to track development trajectories of the children and are also used to extend support when necessary. The curriculum and extra clubs on offer have expanded vastly and the school now offers a range of options including vex robotics, computing and a range of sporting and music related clubs. There are a number of sports fixtures and children often play against local schools doing fairly well when they do.
All in all the school is very much on the up and is most certainly one to watch.