Since 2021, Dr Michael Gray, BA, MA, PhD. Joined from Harrow School where he spent eight years, starting as a politics teacher, then head of politics and finally becoming director of studies. Prior to that he taught history and politics at Halliford School and St Edward’s, Oxford. This is his first headship.
Educated in the state system it was an influential history teacher who ‘ignited his passion for the subject’ and he went on to gain first-class honours in history from King’s College London, remaining in London for his MA, PGCE and PhD (all from UCL Institute of Education). ‘I love studying,’ he says – he’s currently learning Swahili. Had ‘never set foot in an independent school’ before his PGCE placement at King’s College School Wimbledon, ‘It was a huge influence, the pupils were so engaged.’ Abiding interest in education generally, particularly holocaust education – it was his PhD topic and he has published two books on the subject in addition to numerous academic papers. Long-standing connection with Rwanda grew out of this and he travels there frequently. Lives in Hereford with his wife, an NHS doctor.
His study is in the Old Deanery, looking out over the statue of Edward Elgar to the Gothic beauty of Hereford Cathedral. Moved his standing desk (‘better for the back’) to the front window from where he can see pupils as they come and go, ‘I gauge the mood of the school by looking at them.’ Pupils say they see a lot more of him too. Likes a walking meeting - round the Cathedral Close. ‘He’s out and about much more – he comes to so many things.’ Teaches - year 9 history, public speaking and supervises coursework and Oxbridge preparation.
Not a rebel for its own sake we thought, but restless, questioning and unafraid to disrupt established hierarchies for the greater good. He’s certainly shaken things up (pace of change described to us as ‘quite brisk’) and despite departure of some popular old hands from among the teaching staff he seems to have carried the vast majority with him.
Parents say: ‘He has so much vision and energy, he’s so positive. Everyone sees him striving for what is best and he inspires others to raise their game.’ ‘He has introduced new ways of learning and they are already making a big difference to academic standards.’ ‘He’s big on values, but in a practical rather than abstract way.’ ‘A very good communicator.’
Driven by his Christian faith (describes himself as a ‘conservative evangelical’) which he says, ‘aligns with HCS’s purpose and values.’ The headship comes with its own stall at the cathedral and he also worships at another local church. Strong commitment to public service - he is building partnerships with the wider community and state schools, opening up lectures and other academic events and extracurricular activities such as CCF. Says he wants HCS to be ‘educationally ambitious’ without losing sight of its ‘kind and friendly’ ethos.
A huge football fan, he no longer plays the game but is an avid supporter of Leeds Utd – a Leeds shirt sits on a chair by the door in his study. Says he reads ‘deeply, rather than broadly,’ and is fascinated by leadership; he believes it’s something that can be taught – up to a point, ‘You can learn from theory, but successful leadership is about authenticity, not fitting into a mould.’ In our conversations with pupils, staff and parents one of the most frequent epithets used to describe Dr Gray’s own leadership was ‘inspiring.’ We agree.
At 11+ external candidates are examined in English, maths and VR; all are interviewed. Unless there is a particular cause for uncertainty children from the junior school, or pupils join late in year 5 or 6, they are offered a place without taking entrance tests though all are interviewed. Successful candidates at 11 can defer their place to 13+ if in a prep school elsewhere, and there is also a separate entry procedure at 13 (not CE). For the sixth form at least six 6s at GCSE with minimum of 4 in English and maths are required plus references, interviews etc.
Most pupils stay on for the sixth form although a few may depart post-GCSEs – either for a change or else to study subjects not offered by school. Places are generally filled by those coming in the opposite direction. Majority to university for a wide range of courses, mostly Russell Group – Nottingham, Belfast and Warwick popular. Three to medical/veterinary school and four to Oxbridge in 2022, including an impressive 17-year record of organ and choral awards.
School reports that more students are also exploring degree apprenticeships and global post-18 opportunities such as US universities.
In 2022, 58 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 57 per cent A*/A at A level (80 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (last pre-pandemic results), nearly 50 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; over 70 per cent A*-B at A level.
Teaching and learning
Hooray for the new digital strategy! Not what we were expecting to hear quite so frequently from staff and parents alike. Dr Gray and his team seem not only to have got all the technology running smoothly, but also everyone on board and enthusiastic. Every pupil has a laptop (purchased by parents) that is fully integrated into teaching and learning throughout the school. Initial parental concerns seem to have been allayed, ‘We worried about children spending so much time on their screens – at home and school – but then it’s the same for adults.’ IT department has been augmented, as has school’s Wi-Fi network.
Setting for maths, science and languages; ‘gentle’ setting in English with one class for those who need extra support, most classes are mixed ability. Most take 9-11 GCSEs. Latin from year 9 and offered at GCSE and A level; ancient Greek taught via a club – GCSE available, likewise Chinese, Russian. French and Spanish for all up to year 9 with trips to language schools in Montpelier and Salamanca in preparation for GSCE orals.
Most popular A levels are psychology, art, geography, business, maths. Chemistry and biology also get plenty of takers. History not as popular as it is at other schools. Numbers have recently increased for language A levels – 10 or so each for French and Spanish at the time of our visit – Spanish teacher told us that more boys are opting to do languages, ‘They see how speaking another language can help in all kinds of jobs, including the armed forces.’
We enjoyed observing a year 7 geography lesson – pupils working on their laptops and collaborating via OneNote, using location software to track plastic ducks (cargo that went overboard from a ship) as they traverse the world’s oceans. In this and all the other academic lessons we saw – maths, English, chemistry – technology was being employed with skill and creativity – adding real value but not dominating teaching and learning. Uploading teaching materials has significantly reduced the need to lug textbooks around, but school by no means paperless, writing by hand still important.
English department occupies its own delightful little world in a medieval corner of the school. Quotations are painted on the staircase walls and a boxed-in fireplace with glass window (formerly a tuck shop) has been transformed into a display case with red velvet curtains. At the time of our visit it was a WW1 theme showing a poet’s writing table in a bunker – incredibly effective, it looked like he’d just popped out. At Christmas there’s a Dickensian tableau. We were glad to see there’s still a place for the occasional maverick, non-digital teaching aid.
Another of Dr Gray’s introductions is the HCS Diploma. Accredited by the University of Buckingham it’s a non-examined sixth form enrichment programme comprising academic research projects and practical skills and has proved very popular. Pupils learn everything from interview techniques and how to have a difficult conversation to how to change a car tyre and basic plumbing, though not at same time (successful participants are awarded their own radiator key). School maintenance person was recruited to teach plumbing and loves this new aspect of his role. Parents approve, ‘There’s a lot more going on to prepare them for the wider world.’
Futures (very much not careers, we note that this word seems to be falling out of favour with schools) department has been re-energised. Work placement options are now ‘more formalised’, likewise links with local industries. Good programme of talks, many from former pupils, on subjects from creative arts to cyber security. Plenty of information and encouragement to consider apprenticeships and other non-university routes as well as studying in Europe and the US – ‘Sometimes it’s the parents, rather than pupils, who need educating on these.’ Biomedical Society invites guest speakers such as A&E doctors and preparation for medical school, law and Oxbridge aptitude tests and interviews is, according to sixth formers, ‘brilliant.’
Learning support and SEN
Parents told us that SEN and study support had been an area in need of improvement, ‘The handover from junior to senior school wasn’t as good as it could be and teachers didn’t always know about individual children’s needs, but that has changed for the better.’ Some new appointments have been made and the Learning Skills department is now much more proactive and responsive. School can support pupils with mild dyslexia or literacy difficulties, numeracy difficulties and organisational challenges, mild autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) or mild DCD, mild ADHD/ADD or other neurodivergent disorders.
Digital strategy has also helped some pupils with eg dyslexia, ‘Because information is already loaded onto devices there’s not so much copying,’ said one parent. Emphasis is on a holistic approach with all staff kept informed about individual pupils’ needs and how to support them in class. Most support is in small groups and becomes more subject specific from year 9 onwards.
The arts and extracurricular
Drama is a popular GCSE option and over 100 pupils take LAMDA lessons. Year 7s put on a Shakespeare play annually in the Old Deanery Garden, there’s a junior play for years 8 and 9 and major annual production (a musical every other year) for years 10 and up. Sixth formers run a drama club for years 7, 8 and 9. We had the pleasure of seeing rehearsals for an upcoming production of Chicago, to be performed in Hereford’s Courtyard Theatre – a great opportunity to work in professional setting and with an external choreographer and technicians. Lead roles are double cast to spread the stardust. Smaller productions are staged in the school’s studio theatre.
School’s reputation for musical excellence is well deserved and cited by many parents as a deciding factor. Expectations are set high in the junior school and that continues to the seniors. Practices for the various choirs and other music groups take place before and after school and at lunch break, in fact on the day of our visit there seemed to be singing going on somewhere all the time. House shout (singing competition) every couple of years is organised by sixth formers and takes place in the Cathedral – quite the venue. Friday whole school hymn practice is a firm favourite. Symphony and string orchestras, quartets, ensembles and other groups cater for instrumentalists of all abilities Lots of drama and music outreach work goes on with local primary schools too. A good number choose GCSE music as an option and nearly all gain top marks. As elsewhere, A level music attracts barely a trio, but results also exceptional.
Very impressive art on display throughout the school. Around 15 take A level art and results are excellent; DT A level attracts just a handful. The pottery class we watched was sleeves up, aprons on and satisfyingly messy as year 8s got to grips with making ugly-mug plant pots. We suspect this will remain a no-go area for the digital strategy.
CCF is second oldest in England and compulsory for all in year 9 (it’s on the timetable). Pupils can choose between RAF (‘you get to fly a plane!’), navy and army divisions. No shortage of army personnel to come in and talk to pupils on eg helicopters. No clash either between CCF and DofE which is also ‘huge’, almost all (95 per cent) do bronze and around 30 per cent continue to gold. Scheme is enthusiastically supported by teachers, ‘living in Herefordshire they’re keen on outdoor activities,’ parents and even former pupils who return to help. Gold award culminates in either two weeks in the Spanish Pyrenees or Lanzarote (to learn scuba diving). In addition, there’s an ambitious programme of trips to eg Iceland, New York and Kenya, ‘We try to keep costs down and make even ski trips educational.’ Deputy head adept at skilful timetabling to ensure minimum clashes between drama, choir, sport and other activities, ‘We keep the pupil at the centre and make things work.’
Combination of city location and flood-prone riverside playing fields is clearly sub-optimal, but there’s a large sports hall on site and full programme of matches against the likes of Monmouth School, Cheltenham Ladies’, Malvern and Cheltenham College. Inter-house sport competitions are also keenly contested. Hockey, rugby, football, cricket and netball are the main sports; non-team options include equestrian and fencing. Tennis and netball courts nearby in the Bishop’s Garden (on a long lease - very accommodating of him). Fair bit of bus travel to use facilities elsewhere is unavoidable but wasn’t raised as a serious negative by pupils or parents. Around a third of pupils take GCSE PE; sport BTEC also offered in sixth form. Right school for the super sporty? The question elicited a variety of responses from parents and pupils. School says that a ‘large number’ of its talented pupils are also competing at county, regional and national levels. They are supported via an athletic development programme, on-site physiotherapist, one-to-one coaching, visiting speakers on sports nutrition and similar.
River Wye may put a dampener on the playing fields, but it’s a boon for the school’s rowers who get to practice on ‘the longest straight bit of river outside Henley.’ Rowing has a long history at the school, first recorded in 1876, and is currently in ‘great shape’ with recent triumphs at Henley and National Schools regattas.
Keeping girls interested in sport is a challenge for all schools and HCS is working hard on inclusion and finding ways to engage all girls, not just the most talented, in physical activity. Alternatives such as basketball, badminton, recreational rowing, pilates and fencing are also offered alongside team sports to maintain interest and engagement.
Well, this was a first – the prelude to lunch with the boarders was a 20-minute minibus ride into deepest rural Herefordshire. School’s impressive new boarding house, a former hotel, is on the edge of the village of How Caple. Apparently, boarders’ parents are generally rather pro their teenaged offspring being kept away from the temptations of city life (such as they are in Hereford). What the boarders thought they kept to themselves – those we met were polite and smiley, but not exactly forthcoming.
Wilmot House is a very spacious and well-appointed 18th century pile with an enormous ground floor communal living and dining area – ample room for table tennis, table football or relaxing with friends. Also on the ground floor is the laundry, a music practice room and a rather soulless ‘wellbeing room’ which featured a single bed and a bean bag. Large grounds with facilities for basketball and other games. Planning permission has been granted for an extension, biomass boilers are on the cards and space is earmarked for a MUGA, firepits and other delights (possibly for whole school use?). Separate girls’ and boys’ areas upstairs – doors keychain operated. Dorms are large, light and very comfortable, beds are full size, no squashing up needed for any six footers. Ensuite trios/quads for youngest boarders and spacious singles for sixth formers.
Still a slightly fresh paint, institutional air upstairs - corridors and stairwells somewhat stark and unadorned, but a year or so of occupation and some pictures on the walls will see to that. During the week boarders are normally at school all day and have lunch with the rest of the pupils, but if our lunch was anything to go by the food provided in Wilmot House is delicious – the chef works hard to give everyone a taste of home and numbers are small enough for individual preferences to be accommodated. Weekend trips to nearby cities such as Oxford, Worcester, Bath as well as go-karting, Ninja Warrior, Abba Revival etc. Once a month there’s a ‘stay at home weekend’ which means just that – it’s a chance to go on ‘lovely walks.’ Do you like lovely walks we asked our lunch companions? Apparently, they do. Boarders invite day pupils for sleepovers or to go on trips and with parental permission can go to friends’ homes.
Ethos and heritage
One of the oldest schools in the UK – its origins are entwined with those of the cathedral (it would have been founded to educate choristers) and may thus go back as far as the late 7th century, although first documented reference is from the 14th century. Benefactors include King Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Charles I who gave money for buildings and scholarships. The cathedral is effectively an extension of the campus – pupils are in and out of there nearly every day for assemblies and music performances, threading through tourists and townspeople in their smart navy blue and gold uniform. Getting to know such a historic place of worship intimately is an important part of pupils’ education; year 7s are primed before they start with treasure hunt and a welcome booklet about its history.
A lot is packed into a fairly small area. Architecturally things don’t exactly flow and are never going to be flashy, but it seems to work. The Zimmerman Building, a large 1930s former telephone exchange (planning controls for historic sites must have been very different then), lends itself particularly well to school use. Very good science labs and other facilities.
Refurbished sixth form centre, blonde wood and a very calm atmosphere, offers spaces for silent study and quiet discussion and gives students a base of their own. There’s also a very popular new diner-style café.
School’s decision to re-start boarding had surprised a couple of the parents we spoke to, although HCS has a longstanding tradition of visiting international pupils staying with host families (this is still offered as an alternative boarding option on website). It’s a brave move; head says there’s room to increase numbers a bit, but HCS will never be anything but a day school with a small boarding contingent. Nevertheless, the boarders from Brazil, Guinea, Rwanda, China plus regular visitors from Colombia (who come for a month in year 9) are made very welcome and add positively to the school’s cultural and ethnic diversity.
Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline
‘Pastoral care is at the heart of what we do,’ says Dr Gray and he has implemented a much more joined-up approach which sees form tutors working closely with heads of year, school counsellor, medical centre and parents. School counsellor is available two days each week, pupils can self-refer and sessions are confidential unless there is evidence of potential risk. Tutors and parents can also refer pupils but the onus is on encouraging a pupil who is having difficulties to make the first step themselves.
The HCS digital revolution does not extend to mobile phones – use in school is forbidden for all pupils apart from sixth formers who can ‘use their phones discretely without permission from staff’.
Parents say that pastoral systems are clearly communicated and that they feel their children are known as individuals. Pupils too are fully aware of how to access support should they need it, ‘We can talk to our friends or teachers.’ Size of school and family atmosphere make it less likely that any child would struggle unnoticed parents felt. Nature of site means it’s probably not ideal for anyone with serious mobility issues.
Struck us as perhaps a little more conformist in atmosphere (by consensus, not compulsion) than some schools we’ve visited which may account for relative lack of serious disciplinary issues. Parents describe HCS as ‘understanding’ and ‘compassionate’ and school says that it supports pupils who are questioning and exploring their sexuality and/or gender, according to individual needs ‘as determined by themselves and their parents working together with the school.’
Pupils and parents
All sorts, lots of different backgrounds, ‘normal working people.’ Many travel in from Welsh borders, Leominster, Ledbury and surrounding villages – school bus service covers a wide area. Tradition is important, school’s Christian ethos is made unusually explicit on website and as the name suggests, attendance at the cathedral is part of the deal, but it’s a welcoming place for pupils of many different faiths, or none.
Former pupils include bishops, cricketers, musicians and artists, several Welsh mystics and (it is believed), religious poet Thomas Traherne – there’s a lovely window dedicated to him in the cathedral. Also, television antiques expert Kate Bliss.
Regarded as ‘good value’, by parents. Academic scholarships worth 15 per cent of fees available at 11+, 13+ and 16+. Other scholarships worth 10 per cent of fees for music, sports and all-rounders (also for art and drama at 13+ and 16+). A number of bursary awards and some Ogden Trust bursaries for science students joining the sixth form. Previously a direct grant school and actively fundraising to broaden access.
The last word
Always a popular choice for its small classes, friendly atmosphere and exceptional music, HCS has recently leapfrogged ahead via skilful deployment of technology and new teaching strategies. Building on strong academic and pastoral foundations, visionary leadership means this historic school is set fair to provide a future-facing academic and creative education to many more generations of Herefordshire (and international) families.