Our Lady of Sion School, Worthing
This outward-looking all-through school in the heart of Worthing has a unique and well-developed ethos and an eclectic campus full of personality.
An all-through day school occupying an eclectic campus in the heart of Worthing, just a few streets away from the seafront. Founded in 1862 by the Sisters of Sion, it’s part of the worldwide Sion family of schools but no longer observes just the Catholic faith, instead opening to all faiths and none.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most unique and personality-filled schools in the county. The curriculum is flexible and teachers relish the opportunity to be more driven by the children’s interests whilst maintaining academic excellence. The school is bustling but corridors are calm and many of the study spaces have a meditative feel. The more time spent at Sion, the more the school’s unique and outward-looking ethos of Consideration Always comes to life.
The Junior School, incorporating Early Years, is housed in a cosy old manor house a few streets away from the Senior School site. The purpose-built Early Years space is bright and airy, with a huge and colourful open-plan classroom filled with provocations and stimulating installations and activities. A dedicated Reception classroom houses children who are preparing for the leap to junior school life, but there’s flexibility for children who need a little more play and support to stay in the Early Years area and by turn, younger kids who are soaring ahead to join the more focused Reception teaching activities. Outside there’s a free-flow play area and outdoor classroom, partially covered for drizzly days (like the day I visited).
The building has a really lovely, traditional feel about it. The old hall is a delight, a multi-purpose space with a fully-equipped gym lining the walls and a superb wooden floor. Bright and spacious classrooms, many with stunning bay windows, ascend up the building, with Year 6 once occupying the top of the school but now on the ground floor, an adaptation made after a student needed extra support following an injury. Tam Pearson, assistant head and head of the junior school, has just completed an aromatherapy qualification and her office is a homely, scented haven that I didn’t particularly want to leave. I can’t imagine any child feeling anything but safe and secure here. On the second floor there’s an airy coastal-themed library with a wooden mezzanine added by a parent. No tech in sight – this room is all about the books and there’s a fully equipped IT classroom elsewhere. Outside, the spacious playground has an astroturf-style surface which makes it suitable for all weathers.
The Senior School is a short walk away and occupies what was the convent, an intriguing combination of redbrick, ecclesiastical buildings and more modern and unmistakeably ‘schoolish’ extensions. The chapel , with its divine acoustics and thoughtful atmosphere, sits in the centre of the site. Classrooms are more functional than decorative, and impressive additions include two new stunning and spacious science labs, fully equipped, and a fabulously lit art studio in which students just hang out in between lessons, soaking in the creative atmosphere not to mention the incredible standard of the work on display. The library is an interesting basement room with a Harry Potter-inspired entrance, and a shrine to the history of technology featuring the old-fashioned landline telephones most Muddy readers will have grown up with.
The music suite and Sixth Form centre are currently swapping locations, with the latter incorporating a dedicated new entrance. The music suite will join the existing drama studio as a fully equipped, professional-quality space and also have separate booths for individual lessons.
Sion has an impressive sports hall, Astroturf and some hard-standing sports pitches. However this is not a countryside site with acres of cricket, football and rugby pitches. The school makes use of nearby facilities, such as the Splashpoint Leisure Centre for swimming with peripatetic teachers and children are taken off-site for activities like trampolining, spinning and squash. The focus is on developing healthy habits for life, not on excelling at competitive sport.
The drama and art studios are of professional standard and the music centre, currently being relocated, looks set to be too. The school has a very active musical life and students all have the opportunity to study instruments with peripatetic teachers. Requests are catered for – a drum teacher has been added to the roster by request. Pupils learn not just about music, but also how to make music. For drama, pupils take part in whole-school performances and have the opportunity to study for various external examinations including LAMDA.
Results are strong across the board, with 40% of GCSE candidates in 2020 achieving grades 8 and 9, and 98% achieving A Levels at grades A* to C. Sion alumni in 2020 went on to study at universities including Cambridge, Bristol, UCL and Kings College London.
Steven Jeffery was appointed headteacher earlier this year, after taking the reins as acting head following the departure of his predecessor, a doctor of chemistry. Mr Jeffery’s background is in music and he brings a more creative and cultural background than his scientific predecessor. His vision for Sion is for the school to explore its spiritual roots and ethos and he aims to continue the founders’ vision of the school as a place of dialogue, originally between the Catholic and Jewish faiths, and now to all faiths and none.
He’s also very keen to further improve the school’s academic profile. His vision here is for the school and, at it’s heart, the chapel to become a hub of academic excellence for the local community.
Sion has a well-deserved reputation for excellent and award-winning pastoral care. Throughout the school the focus is on growth mindset and the importance of effort, not just achievement. Pupils are celebrated not only for succeeding academically or in sport, but also for their efforts. The holistic ethos is integrated into the school and it’s small enough for staff to know children personally and develop strong relationships with them. A pastoral care team includes a school counsellor and a wellbeing curriculum stretches throughout the whole school, with age-appropriate focuses, workshops and activities. Mobile phones aren’t allowed.
There are numerous after-school clubs, activities and school trips throughout the year and Sion has strong links with the local community. The Junior School is housed right next to a nursing home and the residents enjoy visits from the children and storytelling sessions – these moved to remote projects during lockdown.
The school site is rather unusual, given its heritage and the extensions that have been added, resulting in a charming jumble of building styles and functions. There are also some excellent floors, from the incredibly intricate patterned floor in the old convent of the Senior School to the fantastically quirky tiling in the Junior School.
The Junior school makes use of nearby Worthing beach, taking children to Beach School sessions and sometimes using the beach as an extended classroom. After-school clubs include Eco Club and Dungeons and Dragons. Watercolour Club, Philosophy and Debating.
Junior School starts at £2,965 per term and Senior School tops out at £4,660 per term, making Sion less prohibitive than other Sussex independent schools.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Curious, thoughtful, academic, creative, sensitive and community-minded children will all thrive here and find their intelligence and outlook stimulated and developed while their wellbeing needs are met. Fees are more attainable than some other Sussex schools.
Not for: Super athletic types might prefer a more competitive sporting school. Facilities are thoughtful, unique and top-level in places, but won’t impress compared to some of the pricier, purpose-built independent schools.
Dare to disagree? Head to the next Open Day, dates here.
Our Lady of Sion School, Gratwicke Road, Worthing, BN11 4BL, West Sussex, 01903 204063 sionschool.org.uk