Muddy Best Schools Guide
I reviewed Leighton Park School back in the summer and it’s well worth a read if you missed it the first time. Don’t just take my word for it though, they have plenty of open days coming up so you can check them out for yourself.
Something a bit different – my first Quaker school on the Muddy Best Schools Guide. Not what I was expecting at all! Read on…
LEIGHTON PARK SCHOOL
What? Where? Leighton Park School is an independent, co-ed boarding and day school for ages 11–18. There are 455 students with a 60/40 split between boys and girls, 150 of whom currently board. The school offers day, weekly, flexi and full boarding in five co-ed boarding houses (thought that would make you sit forward in your seat! More on that co-ed boarding later).
The school is set in 60 acres of parkland. Yup, 60! The kids get to lessons in golf buggies (only joking) and it’s within walking distance of Reading town centre. Its been described as ‘one of the two lungs of Reading’ (the other being the University right next door), and the green open space as far as the eye can see is definitely a huge tick in the box and rare for a town school. I felt like Lucy discovering Narnia at the back of the wardrobe – it just goes on, and on and on…
It’s one of 10 Quaker schools in the UK. In practice, it’s not a religious school (only a small number of staff and students are actually Quakers) and is open to all faiths, but the school was founded on Quaker principles: respect, integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, truth, and sustainability (I hope you’re writing these down).
These values provide the foundation for aspects of teaching and everyday life at Leighton Park, and as one of the students I accosted on my walk round neatly pointed out: ‘If you take God out of the equation, it’s just about teaching you to live in a nice, respectful way.’ So if you are not a particularly religious family and were doubtful about the Quakerism aspect of the school, I’d say it’s far from over bearing and in fact the opposite. Quakers believe in the immense potential of each individual and that’s probably the overriding element I felt aware of during my visit.
There are a number of Quaker practices which the school partakes in, including the morning ‘Collect’ meeting where staff and students gather in the school hall to have quiet time and reflect, or where a person can have ‘Ministry’ where they stand up and speak without being interrupted. I found this idea a very powerful one, especially for a particularly shy or awkward child – how wonderful to simply have the right to be heard. Throughout the day brief moments of silence are also used to help students collect their thoughts. I wonder if I can get the Mudlets to embrace Quakerism at home?!
Having spent my early years growing up abroad and gone to an international school, I particularly liked the feeling of internationalism at Leighton Park. A fifth of students come from overseas and they represent a staggering 36 different nationalities – Viva la difference!
Facilities: As you might expect with such amazing acreage, the school isn’t lacking in things to fill the space! There’s a 25-metre indoor heated pool, trampolines, a floodlit astroturf used for hockey, netball and basketball, 16 all-weather tennis court and a new cardio fitness centre with top of the range running and fitness machines, as well as acres of pitches to help burn off that boundless energy.
Newer additions include a spinky spanky ICT suite (in addition to the three existing) and PCs throughout the school recently replaced with over 130 new machines, plus 12 new computers installed in the library, a new Food Technology facility and the purchase of 19 new Yamaha pianos in the school’s 125th anniversary year. Phew!
The school buildings are a typical juxtaposition of old (mostly Victorian) and a mish-mash of modern additions spanning the decades. I’ve gotta be honest, some ain’t pretty, but then some are beautiful, so just blink at the appropriate moments.
Planning permission is granted and work well underway for a new Music and Media Centre (MMC) being incorporated into the current main hall, due to be finished in Autumn 2017. I saw the designs which look slick and exciting, and include 10 new practice rooms, 3 new classrooms, a Radio 1 style live lounge, media room and extended foyer which can be used for smaller productions.
The library stretches over a series of six rooms on the top floor of the main Old School building, also home to school reception, headmaster’s office – a sure fire way of ensuring it stays quiet!
A purpose-built restaurant, Oakview, is a result of the school deliberately putting more focus on healthy eating and more money into its catering budget, believing that well fed children are happy children (we have a similar ethos at Muddy Berks HQ). Take a look, it’s pretty swanky.
What else? Music is one of the school’s long standing strengths, and is of an exceptionally high standard. An impressive 33 peri teachers come in to teach over 260 music lessons a week. I met the Director of Music, Rosemary Scales (could there be a better name for a music teacher?!) who has been at the school for nearly 14 years and she was brilliant – full of enthusiasm for her job, clearly a workaholic and she spoke of her students and their achievements with obvious pride.
As she well should given what some of them have achieved, including a Brit Award for former student Laura Marling. She gives them plenty of opportunities to perform with weekly concerts, an annual house music competition and international music tours. There have been tours to Malta, Sicily, Holland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Bosnia. Twice a year the school does a massive musical production and judging by the photos, they look incredibly professional, and fully inclusive too – Sweeney Todd last year saw over 100 student take part.
I didn’t get the impression of LP being an overtly sporty school, but the advantage of smaller schools is there are at least lots of opportunities for students to represent their school in sports teams. So children who might not necessarily be deemed ‘the sporty one’ actually get a look in. The girls’ netball and hockey teams are smashing it at the moment with both senior netball teams playing in the Super 8 League.
There’s also an arrangement with London Irish who use the school grounds to train in return for holding coaching clinics. As a result of nurturing individualism the school will try to facilitate any sporting passions and as a result have turned out a Junior Olympic Shooting Champion! The indoor sports facilities are earmarked for improvement.
Boarding The school is co-ed ‘to the core’ and this includes co-ed boarding houses. Again, this comes back to the belief of mutual respect and the Head insists there are rarely any issues. There are five adults in every boarding house with one living on each floor.
There are shared social and recreational areas on the ground floors – lounge, games room, small kitchenette, lockers – where the boarders (including day boarders) can watch TV, play games and chill out. Boys and girls are housed in separate wings with alarmed doors and if there is a ‘breach’ then it is dealt with swiftly. Well enforced rules, structured bed times for each year group and ‘no go’ areas ensure they are given the freedom to develop friendships but can see a very clearly drawn line (in indelible Sharpie).
I stuck my head into a few bedrooms which were all pretty standard, single study bedrooms for sixth formers while younger students share a room with one to three others. They all had the usual home-from-home comforts – posters, photos, ‘I Love One Direction’ duvet covers.
The boarding house I saw was fine in terms of space and facilities but looked a little tired. Apparently, Reckitt House boarding rooms have just been refurbished with new furniture, carpet, lighting and a coat of paint – I think some of the other houses could benefit from a facelift too.
Academic results: The Head describes Leighton Park as ‘selective but not highly selective’ and I definitely didn’t feel that pressure cooker element that you do in other selective schools. Results are very good. Just under 70% of the kids gained A* to B grades at GCSE. This year the school has seen considerable success in the STEM subjects with 84% of Physics students, 82% of chemistry students and 82% of maths students awarded A*-B grades. Design Technology is hot too with an impressive 91% of students getting A*-B.
In A-Levels 62% of pupils gained A* to B grades and at IB students achieved an average of 34 points out of a maximum score of 45 (set against a worldwide average of 29).
Head teacher: Nigel Williams has been at Leighton Park for an incredible 22 years in various roles (someone give that man a medal, or a gold watch or a week in Ibiza?!) and became Head in 2013. He was open and relaxed and very chatty, and I liked his method of ‘I will trust you until you show me that I can’t trust you’, which seems to be working. He was so jolly I’m not sure I can picture him being stern, but I’m sure that side would emerge if deemed necessary. I wasn’t about it to test it out by spilling my tea on his lovely sofa.
Quirks: Depending on how forward thinking you are the school’s Quakerism could definitely be considered quirky to some. The Quaker values, the value placed on individuality, the collective moments of silence – it’s a different approach to education that some parents and children might not be ready for. I would just say keep an open mind.
Students and staff all call each other by their first names and this approachability permeates throughout the whole school, there’s no ‘them and us’. If a child steps out of line or breaks the rules, it would result in a lot more discussion than at other schools, rather than automatically resorting to punishment. So certainly not soft, but discipline can almost seem hidden.
There are some lovely quirks within the grounds including an artist in residence portacabin and a lovely orchard with bee hives and a seating area under the trees made up of a circle of logs for outside lessons. There’s also about 10 acres of fields and meadows in the immediate vicinity of the school buildings and boarding houses where children can roam free, with a strictly enforced signing in and out system in all the boarding houses.
Wrap around care: Quite simply, excellent. Available from 7am to 10pm. Day pupils are known as ‘Day Boarders’ and each student is attached to one of the five boarding houses. Day students can arrive for breakfast at 7am and stay for activities, dinner, prep and just hanging out with their friends, and only have to leave when the boarding houses are locked at 10pm. So if a parent is running late, they only have to call and they know their child is safe and being fed! All meals are included in the fees. Basically, the safety net is totally there if like me you are habitually running late or have to juggle work, school and home life and drop more balls than you keep in the air.
Fees: Juniors (Y7 and 8) – £5,563 per term for day students and £8,623 for full boarding; Seniors – £6,940 for day and £10,808 for full boarding. Fees include all meals for all students regardless of whether they board or not.
ISI Report: A relatively recent report – the ISI inspected the school in November 2014, and awarded it ‘excellent’ in most aspects.
Word on the ground: I spoke to a mum whose children were at LP. Firstly, she said the food is blinking amazing (I am liking her priorities). She admits it’s a different approach (we’ve moved on from food by the way) that might not suit everyone, but they get results by going a different route. She feels the ethos is really good preparation for uni and the real world in terms of confidence and people skills.
Another mum I spoke to who knew several Old Leightonians made an interesting point that many of them were entrepreneurs. Now you can take this either way – that they don’t handle authority well or that they are independent free-thinkers who like to blaze a trail. I’ll leave you to ponder that one!
I grabbed a few students as they were walking to the canteen and grilled them like a ham and cheese toastie: Teachers very nice and relaxed. They like the fact that they’re treated like adults. Love all the green space and the food is great. If there were any grumblings it was that they felt more money should be spent on sport and less on music, drama etc. which they felt was already well-invested in. One girl said she loved the multicultural feel of the school, and the ease of being a day boarder and being able to come and go in the boarding houses and have a base to go to that felt homely. They all thought the boarding houses could do with an update.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children of more liberal parents who like the idea of their child being given more freedom than they’re likely to get at other independent schools. Children of all abilities who want to be taught in a nurturing, gentle and positive environment – there is definitely a sense of calm and openness about the school that resonated with me in the few short hours I spent there. Quirkier children who might not fit the typical school model – individualism is celebrated here. Music and drama are outstanding and sport is covered off well for a school of its size.
Not for: Well, if you’re not into co-ed schooling you can cross it off your list right now! The school’s unique approach – calling teachers by their first names, co-ed boarding, giving students freedom to roam – this might be a red flag for some parents if they feel their child needs more boundaries. A town centre school might not suit everyone, but given the extensive grounds, you really wouldn’t know you were in the centre of Reading.
Dare to disagree? You can have a look for yourself at one of the school’s regular open mornings – the next one is on Tuesday 15 November. Let me know what you think.
Leighton Park School, Shinfield Road, Reading RG2 7ED. www.leightonpark.com