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La Retraite School was founded in 1880, in Clapham Park, by Les Dames de La Retraite. They were sisters who had travelled from France with the aim of establishing a girls' school in South London. Their religious order had been founded by Catherine De Francheville in Vannes in 1674.
The sisters enabled women to go on retreat and thus escape from the burdens of their everyday life, contemplate their relationship with God, and return to their duties enlivened by the intercession of the Holy Spirit. From the start, the order had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart and this special feast day is celebrated annually at the school. In 1794, one of the La Retraite Sisters was martyred for her devotion to the Sacred Heart. The new French Republic had tried to suppress any interest in this kind of devotion.
La Retraite School soon gained an excellent reputation and the school began to grow. The sisters first bought Oakfield House, previously owned by the family of the Victorian portrait painter, De Lazlo. This now forms the heart of the convent next door to our school. By 1897, they had bought The Oaks which was pulled down in 1935 to make way for the new school chapel and dining hall (in the undercroft below the chapel).
In 1904, a third house called Springfield House was bought from the family of the famous music hall artist, Dan Leno, who was known as "the funniest man in the world and champion clog dancer". The Sisters were also lucky enough to buy the huge field behind the school site which is now our sports pitch. The house next door, Burlington House, was soon purchased and linked with Springfield House, although not until the 1970s.
La Retraite School was now well established with a reputation for an innovative and challenging curriculum which inspired the girls to go on to university and study for the professions at a time when there were limited spaces for women. In 1913, the Western Block and the gymnasium were completed. In 1915, the school had 132 fee-paying pupils who were either day scholars or boarders and when La Retraite was visited by inspectors in 1920 they wrote: "The school authorities are to be congratulated on the amenities of the school buildings and grounds" The gymnasium was considered "the finest in London".
During the Second World War the school was evacuated, via Clapham Junction Station, to Horndean, just outside Portsmouth in Hampshire. The La Retraite Sisters continued their work of education and organising retreats, and after the war, when the school returned to Clapham Park, it became a two form entry Grammar School recognised officially by the London County Council.
Above: Picture of La Retraite sisters attending mass at La Retraite school chapel - Date unknown
In the 1970s, when selective education was abolished in London, the school became a comprehensive school, La Retraite High School. Its status changed again with the changing political climate. In the 1990s, it became a Grant Maintained school with a new name, La Retraite RC Girls' School, independent of the local authority. In 1997, whilst it was grant-maintained, it set up its own Sixth Form, the first secondary school in Lambeth to do so. In 1999, it returned under local authority control by Lambeth Council as a Voluntary Aided school in the Trusteeship of the RC Archdiocese of Southwark. In the 2000s, boys started to be admitted to the 6th Form.
The school has grown from strength to strength as it has expanded. Year on year new buildings have been constructed or old buildings have been re-developed providing our students with the most up-to-date facilities with specialist areas for a range of subjects.
In the last decade alone, the school has seen the following changes:
- In 2010, we opened a brand new Sports Hall.
- In 2011, we converted our former gymnasium into two classrooms, a further ICT teaching room and three new offices.
- In 2011, we successfully secured a capital grant to create a new Library and two new classrooms adding further to our rapidly expanding footprint; this was completed in 2012.
- In 2013, we obtained a further capital grant for the construction of a new Performing Arts Block for Music, Drama and Dance which has transformed our provision for the Performing Arts.
- In 2015, we converted our playing field to a multi-purpose sports pitch which has had a hugely beneficial impact on the teaching of PE & Sports and which has also benefitted a wide range of local clubs had which has put La Retraite very much on the local map for sporting activities.
In 2016, we finally, for the first time, had over 1,000 students on roll (ranging from ages 11 to 18) which is a testament to the school's ever-increasing popularity amongst both Catholic and local communities. By 2021, this number has increased to over 1,150 students.
In 2019, we were one of about 50 pilot schools and colleges around the country, that was selected to deliver new T Level courses... with this came over £1m of Capital Funding to further develop the school. So in 2020, the year of our 140th anniversary, we opened the Aya Centre - a dedicated Sixth Form space and classrooms designed to accommodate the new T Level qualifications - Digital and Childcare & Education. These state-of-the-art facilities allow us to give students the excellent tuition they need for these innovative new courses, and also provide study spaces to help motivation and concentration. At the same time, we rebranded our 6th Form to become 'La Retraite 6'.
In early 2021, the announcement was made that we have been selected to offer two further T Level courses from 2022 in Construction and Health & Science and from 2023 a further T Level course in Media. Again, with these courses comes further capital funding and in the summer of 2021. we were given further approval to construct a brand new building, the Novello Building, which will accommodate new teaching spaces for the three further T Level Courses on offer as outlined above.
Our vision is to expand further to accommodate the increase in students and hope to obtain further funding over the coming years for a new Art & DT block, a whole-school Reception area with associated administration offices and a school hall. The plans are ready but we just need the green light and associated funding to go - so watch this space!
The tradition of La Retraite, reaching back to the 17th century, and our modern approach to the education of those students in our care intermingle to provide an atmosphere where students learn best, where they grow and develop into thoughtful and responsible Christian women determined to play a significant role in the 21st century.