Celebrations for school that’s grown tenfold in 50 years
Fifty years ago, a new secondary school opened in west Suffolk. 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 in Bury St Edmunds celebrates its golden jubilee, how things have changed.
Impressive exam results have made it the best-performing secondary school in Suffolk.
It is also in the UK’s top five per cent in the new Progress 8 rankings between Key Stages 2 and 4.
There are 10 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.
“It really enriches the school,” said Kate Pereira, head of St Benedict’s since September.
She is only the fourth headteacher in 50 years.
“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. More than 70 of its pupils are from the Sudbury area.
Students and staff from outside the Catholic Church are also welcomed.
Business manager Christine Kennedy, from Clare, is not Catholic and is one of the longest-serving staff members. “It has always had a very welcoming feel,” she said.
St Benedict’s started 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 was once a uniform cupboard.
Extra classrooms have been built, with ICT suites and a learning support area for pupils with special needs among the other changes.
The closure of west Suffolk’s middle schools brought the biggest single influx of students.
Years 7 and 8 use the old St Louis school, while Years 9 to 13 are at Beeton’s Way.
Jack Gingell, head of sixth form, has taught at St Benedict’s for more than 30 years, says he has seen massive changes.
When he arrived, his first impression was how laid-back it seemed.
“No-one bothered too much about uniform, and only the head wore a tie,” he recalled.
The students’ uniform changed to its distinctive green in the 1990s when new sweatshirts were introduced.
St Benedict’s sixth form, which has 170 students, is 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.
The teaching of RE is very strong and has earned the school a gold quality mark.
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”.
One organised an appeal for sleeping bags, quilts and tents for refugees in Calais.
School trips can be anything from pilgrimages to Rome, ski-ing 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.
Sport and exercise are a priority, with teams excelling in rugby, cricket and hockey, and indoor fitness suites.
Another success story is the learning resource centre, which has the highest book loan rate of any local school.
Golden jubilee celebrations began in January with a mass at Bury Cathedral, and will continue later in the year.