‘There’s Something about St. Mary’s’

Article reproduced from Beyond Magazine, August 2012 (Issue 33, Pages 54-55)

From Hollywood actors and pop stars, to Premiership footballers and dancing supremos - what is that makes St. Mary's Catholic High School in Menston such a breeding ground for top Yorkshire talent? Laura Smith discovers the secret to their success and why there really is something about St. Mary's.
All the current buzz may be about London's 'Brit' School, but the truth is that Yorkshire has its very own fame academy – one that has produced so many successful actors, singers and sportstars in recent years that you begin to wonder what on earth they're putting in the water there.
The establishment in question is of course St. Mary's Menston and a quick glance down its list of modern alumni is enough to send talent scouts and A&R folk everywhere rushing to the gates. Forget Britain's Got Talent, this place is absolutely oozing it.
Graduates include Hollywood actors Matthew Lewis and Christian Cooke, artist and author Kate McCrickard, the majority of hit bands Kaiser Chiefs and The Dunwells, young sportstars such as Manchester United's Luke Hendrie and Yorkshire cricketer Joe Sayers, former Emmerdale actress Verity Rushworth – not to mention the acclaimed ballet dancer Dominic North. If that wasn't already impressive enough, you may be surprised to learn that St. Mary's lad Sean Conlon was one-fifth of Simon Cowell's chart topping boy band 5ive, who enjoyed huge hits with the likes of Everybody Get Up and Keep On Movin' back in the late '90s and early 00s.In a world where success is suggested to correlate with school fees – and where top private institutions are famed for producing so many well-known faces – it is particularly interesting to note that St. Mary's is free to attend.
So what is it about this Yorkshire school which makes it such a breeding ground for rising stars?
"I think the great thing is they're so keen to support everybody," says Matthew Lewis, better known as Harry Potter's heroic pal Neville Longbottom. "When I was off doing Harry Potter for months at a time they were very supportive and were in close contact with my tutors to help with schoolwork." Matthew's career has continued to flourish since his school days, recently staring in primetime TV drama The Syndicate.
Leeds United Star Aidan White revealed: "St. Mary's gave me the opportunity to achieve academically whilst encouraging and supporting my development in sport. I enjoyed my years at St. Mary's and will always be thankful for the opportunities given to me."
While Joe Sayers, Yorkshire and England cricketer added: "St. Mary's offers you a priceless opportunity to enjoy and compete in a wide range of sports. Each pupil is able to develop as a player and as a person in the process."
St. Mary's headteacher, Mr R Pritchard, acknowledges there are of course talented children in all schools, but suggests it's down to the mixture of parental and academic nurturing. "We have tremendous parental support and encouragement," he explains. "If you have the encouragement from parents and a push from school it helps." It is not only the famous students who are taken care of throughout their school career, however. Mr Pritchard emphasises that the aim is "to become a 'World Class School' by providing the best care, support and outcome for each individual student."
Perhaps another factor in this abundance of success is the extensive range of creative courses. In addition to the basic A-level choices, students may also complete a BTEC in performing arts alongside a Drama and Theatre Studies A-level. St. Mary's also boasts an impressive range of facilities, including a Performing Arts studio, not to mention a cricket pitch and brand new state-of-the-art floodlit, artificial turf pitch as part of a £750,000 investment in sport at the school.
Indeed, the school has been designated by the Department of Education as a Sports College, in recognition of its outstanding commitment to sport, and now leads a School Sport Partnership of 54 schools. According to former pupil and professional cricketer Joe Sayers: "St. Mary's gives pupils the support and guidance they need to achieve their goals, including beginners or athletes establishing a career in sport."
Assistant head teacher, with responsibility for Sport and the Arts David Geldart, who has been at the school for 32 years has seen many students rise to success over the years but insists it is not just the pupils who become famous faces he is proud of.

He said: "Whether you end up playing for Manchester United or laying bricks for a career, the aim at this school is and always has been to give students the support and encouragement in whatever they choose to do. To me it is not about how famous somebody becomes it is how they emerge from this school as a person and hopefully we give the students here the confidence, encouragement and values to go on and achieve whatever they want to do in life with a positive attitude. There is no secret recipe, I think that in every school there is talent. The success comes in how you nurture that, how you keep children level-headed and make sure they don't waste the talent they have. It is a combination of great teachers, supportive parents and making children feel happy and good about themselves. If a child is happy, they will do better. It isn't rocket science."
Whether pupils have dreams of the West End, West Ham, or simply working in a shop in West Yorkshire, it therefore seems that St. Mary's is a pretty good place to start.


Article reproduced from Beyond Magazine, August 2012 (Issue 33, Pages 54-55)