Usually one would associate a head teacher’s office as being a rather serious and sterile space, but on entering Antonia Beary’s at Mayfield School it’s as if you’re visiting an old friend’s sitting room.
Of course the usual hallmarks of an official office are all here – rows of academic books, framed certificates, piles of paperwork and a large desk. But nestled in amongst these are more familial touches, such as students’ ceramic sculptures, framed photos and a comfy sofa festooned with cushions. There’s even a dog – named Tilly – who is stretched out at Miss Beary’s feet panting happily after a run around the school’s glorious grounds.
Not your conventional head teacher’s HQ scenario – but then Mayfield is no ordinary school…
As I take a seat on the cosy sofa, I’m offered a cup of coffee and a slice of delicious home-made cake. I feel instantly at home and that, as I discover during our chat about the history of Mayfield and its Catholic educational ethos, is very much the way the school wants everyone to feel upon arriving.
Mayfield was established in the 19th century by Mother Cornelia Connelly, who founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus order in 1846.
Cornelia was no ordinary nun, though, having been married and a mother of five children. She founded the Holy Child order as a result of her profound Catholic faith and passion for ensuring young women were given an enlightening education; seeing and appreciating the creativity in everything they did.
Cornelia was already presiding over the Holy Child school at St Leonards-on-Sea when she and a few of her pupils came for a picnic to the Old Palace at Mayfield in May 1863. Within a very short time frame an acquaintance of hers, the Duchess of Leeds, had bought the site for Cornelia.
The restoration of the Old Palace began in 1864, and the ruins of the 14th-century hall were transformed into a church 14 months later.
Although the nuns educated a small number of orphans on site almost immediately, it was not until 1872 that young girls from St Leonards were brought over to be the first pupils at the school.
“The first day Cornelia brought those girls on a picnic here there was one French and an Italian, so even at the very beginning the school has always had that international element,” explains Miss Beary, who has been Headmistress since 2008 and welcomes approximately 20 per cent of overseas students.
“Mayfield has always promoted that sense of feeling part of something bigger, a wider community”
“Cornelia herself was American and opened sister schools in America, Africa and Ireland, so Mayfield has always promoted that sense of feeling part of something bigger, a wider community. It’s all about broadening horizons and giving back.”
Currently, Mayfield has around 28 different nationalities making up the school’s cohort of 400 pupils aged 11 and over.
“For me that is really important as it brings different experiences, customs and approaches to education,” states Miss Beary.
She goes on to say that another of Mother Cornelia’s aims was to drive girls to be the very best they can be.
“Cornelia’s original vision for educating girls was to be respectful and responding to the needs of the age,” continues Miss Beary.
“She wanted them to use their talents in order to move society forward, to reach out to those less fortunate than themselves, and that is still compelling now. Mother Cornelia was very much ahead of her time.”
Miss Beary says the special nun was also determined to ensure young women who attended her schools knew what they wanted in life – an ethos that still runs through the veins of this historical school today.
“Cornelia wanted girls to look at maths and science, she wanted to push the boundaries at a time when most people thought young girls should be sitting at home.
“So that whole sense of helping girls discover what they would like to do in life, and to also discover what they are not good at, and to always try and get better, is something that we still place enormous value on today. Girls need to change the world and we want to give them the confidence to do that.”
Mayfield is an independent senior school which is located on the edge of the picturesque village of Mayfield, East Sussex. It boasts a 50/50 ratio of day and boarding students and is still very much grounded in the teachings of the Catholic faith – despite the majority of girls being non-Catholic.
“A lot of parents choose to send their girls here because of our values and expectations,” says Miss Beary. “That whole sense of wanting the girls to be ambitious and yet support others. It’s not about success at all costs – the pastoral care here is fundamental. You are not successful academically unless your support mechanisms are there underpinning everything.
“Our girls are very good at celebrating others, they know you don’t have to be successful at someone else’s expense.
“But having said that, there is definitely a sense of realism in our education here, too. We tell our students there will be challenges along the way and it’s knowing when to speak and when not to. That element of diplomacy is important, too. We always say we want to be educating girls to be ambassadors – not the ambassador’s wife.”
And although the school produces many high achievers, with the majority going on to university, it’s refreshing to hear exams are not a fundamental focus.
“They are just a piece of the jigsaw,” reveals Miss Beary. “I’m not saying exams are not important – they absolutely are – but knowing how to answer pre-prepared questions is not everything in life.
“When you’re just exams-focused then it’s a real impoverishment of your outlook – it’s just limiting. That pressure to feel you have to be good at everything can be absolutely overwhelming.”
Yet despite having said that, the school’s exam results are hugely impressive, with around 91% of A level pupils achieving between A* and B grades.
“We want to give our girls the freedom to celebrate what they’re very good at, but also the knowledge – and confidence – to know that they can make mistakes.
“If you are perfect then here is not the right place for you. We believe you need the space to make mistakes because it’s preparing you for the real world.”
Miss Beary, a Cambridge graduate, says that Mayfield offers a different approach when it comes to learning compared to most educational establishments.
“We do things in a different way here. Being in a beautiful place like Mayfield lifts the spirits, but with that comes responsibility to give something back – and to make sure you share it and respond to challenges as positively as you can.”
She says in order to get the best out of someone you also have to let them fail from time to time as it allows them to find their own way.
“Art, Music and Drama – they are the subjects that you have to make mistakes in. You can’t be a musician or an artist without making errors.
“And I think for girls it’s so important to make mistakes because if you stick within your comfort zone there will be a huge shock when you go out into the world and try new things. Learning how to fail, pick yourself up, do better, and ultimately learn from your mistakes is so important.
“Our girls are more confident in themselves and also in the choices they are making. And that’s very important for me. It’s about knowing your strengths and not falling into stereotypical subject categories or behaviour just because that’s what society thinks you should be doing.”
But according to Miss Beary, it’s not just giving girls the confidence they need to succeed. It’s also ensuring they have as broad a variety of academic choices and to see the connection between academia and creativity.
“If you want to be a doctor then it’s important to know how to wield a scalpel in ceramics – it’s beneficial. Look at physics and the history of art – there are strong links between the two subjects. It’s only recently that we have compartmentalised things, and it’s detrimental because you need to make links between the things girls do in and out of the classroom – that’s really important.
“My colleagues are passionate about their subjects and want the girls to love their lessons, which is how it should be. But the things they learn outside of the classroom, such as sport or organising shows, those skills – how to get the best of each other and when to step forward, or back – are also essential for life.”
Mayfield is certainly the place to go if you enjoy extracurricular activities. It has an excellent cricket team, which just made it into the Cricketer Schools Guide’s top 20, and will also welcome the MCC later this month for a series of matches.
Its equestrian centre has won more titles than any other school in the UK, and its renowned art and ceramics department has been voted one of Europe’s best.
When it comes to traditional academia, Mayfield’s most popular subjects, at both GCSE and A level, are Maths and Physics, with many going on to read both at Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities. Two pupils were awarded a prestigious Arkwright Engineering Scholarship earlier this year, and last year 71% of its GCSE pupils were awarded grades between 9 and 7.
“The most successful girls a lot of the time aren’t those working 24/7 but those doing lots of other things, too,” adds Miss Beary. “Community service, sports, acting or doing their grade 8 music. The more you do the more you can do. But having said that, it’s also very important to know when to say no.”
In addition to instilling Mayfield girls with positive confidence, providing a wealth of subject choices, and following Cornelia’s original educational and spiritual vision, Miss Beary and her colleagues also place enormous importance on how the girls engage with others.
“Community services are very important to us, not to pass an exam or to tick a box, but so that the girls can engage with others who may not have had the same privilege.”
Their Actions not Words Programme provides opportunities to be involved in service both in the local community and further afield, ensuring that faith in action continues to be an important part of Mayfield life.
“We want actions to be inspired by a sense of justice and integrity, sustained by faith and respect for others,” explains Miss Beary. “It’s them learning just as much as anything. It’s about making links and sharing your gifts. I would hate for the girls to have a sense of entitlement.
“Yes, most have amazing opportunities and it’s important to really broaden their horizons, but it’s that sense of valuing who they are.”
The school also participates in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme and has also established an environmental group called MESSy, which stands for Mayfield Environmental & Sustainability Society.
Miss Beary says that what they learn throughout their time at Mayfield – and most do stay on until sixth form – is carried through into what they do next.
And this is always evident when former pupils – known as Old Cornelians – return to the school for social occasions.
“When you look at our old girls you see the different things they have chosen to do. It’s nice and diverse, and then you discover some have changed direction and that’s OK, too, because we are educating them to have their careers but to also have the confidence to alter their direction if their interest changes.
“We have a very strong old girls network who really care about the school, and they often come back to do careers things and network. Being an Old Cornelian is very useful as it curates everlasting and strong friendships. There has always been that continuity and support with our old girls and is something that has been historically important. That sense of support you have both in school and when you have left is essential.
“We are preparing our girls for the world stage so they can go and work anywhere, and that understanding that you can bring different things to the table is really important. Essentially it’s about wanting the best for them and giving them space to change, grow and develop.”
Miss Beary finishes by telling me she thinks Mother Cornelia would be proud of how her original vision is still very much alive and well today. The links with the Holy Child order are still strong with two members of the current Governing body appointed by the Society.
“That sense of being a school but also a community of people and a family is what we are all about. But we want the girls to be challenged, and to push against the boundaries. We need more strong women to be making a difference. I think the world needs more Old Cornelians.”
Mayfield School Curriculum
- Mathematics, sciences, geography and music are among the most popular subjects at both GCSE and A level.
- Mayfield produces world-renowned ceramicists, has a dynamic Drama Department and an enviable sporting tradition.
- The key to the school’s success is to encourage and nurture creativity in everything they do, inside and outside the classroom. This leads to girls choosing an eclectic range of option choices: Chemistry and Ceramics, or Physics and History of Art.
- Mayfield School is renowned for horse riding, with a purpose-built equestrian centre, including stables and an indoor and Olympic-sized outdoor sand school. The equestrian squad competes on the School Equestrian circuit and in 2019 won the National Schools Team Dressage title.
- There are many clubs to join, including MESSy (Mayfield Environmental & Sustainability Society). Within the last 12 months MESSy has managed to: Reduce food miles; run a Hastings ‘beach clean’; make sustainable beeswax wraps; organise and promote Mayfield Green Day; and raise funds for the Mayfield bee colony.
- • Most Mayfield girls go on to Russell Group, Oxbridge or, increasingly, American and overseas universities, to study all manner of subjects from Architecture to Zoology, with a regular stream of Engineers, Medics and Vets, Lawyers and Economists.
Further History of the School
- Mayfield’s Old Palace was originally a residence of the Archibishops of Canterbury in the Late Middle Ages.
- In 1863 it was gifted to Catholic nun Cornelia Connelly’s religous order, and in 1864 work began restoring the palace and ruins of the medieval Great Hall in order to open a school in 1872 aimed at educating girls to meet the needs of the age.
- Development continued with a Victorian red-brick school building added in 1897, a Concert Hall by 1930, and a suite of other facilities constructed throughout the second half of the 20th century.
- In 1953 the schools at St Leonards-on-Sea and Mayfield merged to form St Leonards-Mayfield School. Pupils remained at St Leonards up to the age of 13 and then transferred to Mayfield to continue their education to 18.
- In 1975 the junior school at St Leonards closed and Mayfield became the school it is today, educating girls from 11 to 18.
- Until the end of the 20th century, the headmistress of St Leonards-Mayfield School was drawn from the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, at which point the school appointed its first lay headmistress.
- In 2015 the historic educational establishment updated its name to Mayfield School.
Visit Mayfield School
The school runs regular open mornings where you can hear from the Headmistress, pupils and staff as well as take a tour of the school grounds. In-person open mornings are planned forSeptember and November (subject to lockdown measures continuing to be eased). To book your place, go to mayfieldgirls.org/admissions/open-mornings
Photographs: Rose Bainbridge; Creative Direction: Lee Smith