The Abbey School, Reading
Abbey School was the first Berkshire school to go under the microscope for the Muddy Best Schools Guide. To make sure you are fully in the loop in terms of developments and updates, here are the latest facts, figures and insights. Obviously you’ll want to enjoy the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalism again *ahem*, but they also have a couple of open days coming up – April 28 and May 5 – so you can check them out for yourself.
Here it is! The first of the Muddy Berkshire Best Schools Guide reviews.
Per the muddy mantra, these reviews are not fluff pieces with highlights taken from the school prospectus. Each one is tried, tested, visited. I interrogate the staff, children and parents – hell, even the strapping young man mowing the lawn – to get you the inside scoop and help you make a more informed choice about which school is right for your mudlets.
First off the blocks is The Abbey School, an all girls’ independent in Reading for girls 3-18.
THE ABBEY SCHOOL, READING
What? Where? The Abbey school is an independent girls’ day school in central Reading, taking kids from Nursery through to Sixth Form. The school is spread over several sites – the Nursery School in Knell House; the Junior School in its own multiple buildings – including the newly acquired Abbey Gardens to accommodate Reception and Y1; and then the Senior School a couple of minutes drive down the road. There’s a large intake here – 358 girls in the Junior school rising to 717 in the Senior – with several coach routes bringing in girls from Berks, Hants, Oxon and Bucks. Many Senior girls come on the train to the swanky new Reading station – about a 15 minute walk to the school.
The school buildings are largely Victorian villas blended (well I thought) with modern additions – the Senior school being the most impressive-looking (lead photo at the top). Though there is some outside space (the Junior school provision being particularly good with a new astro and play equipment), don’t expect acres of bucolic playing fields – this is a proper city school and space is not what you’re buying into. When I quizzed some of the girls I met on the day about the lack of outdoor space, it didn’t seem to even register, so busy they were with what the school does have to offer. A lesson learnt I guess – you can’t miss what you can’t measure.
Facilities: The Junior School (up to Y6) has recently expanded and bought Abbey Gardens, a Victorian villa to house Reception and Year 1 children, which has a brand new astro for the school. There’s a large drama studio with ballet barre which connects to the music room next door, a science lab, computer suite, a small but cosy and well-equipped library, and two separate dining spaces.
All the classrooms were light and spacious and the Nursery had a nice homely feel to it. I stuck my head into several classes in the Junior School and the overall atmosphere was of engaged and focused children at ease with their teachers. There was a nice hum of brains ticking and lots of chatty participation and interaction going on. Certainly any girls I spoke to in the corridor or classrooms were confident and chatty – comfortable in their own skin and their school I’d say.
Across at the Senior school, there’s a newish building at the front of the school with 8 modern classrooms, 3 Art studios, kiln room, Graphic Design ICT suite, and a Conference Room (I did notice a lot of debating posters dotted around the school!). The science block has 12 labs – they’re keen on science here, with biology using cutting edge 3D teaching with the whole 3D glasses thing going on.
The Sixth Form common room was pretty flipping awesome – a far cry from what I can remember of my swirly-carpeted, damp ridden common room way (way) back in the day. The girls have a massive open space to hang out in, with loads of sofas and shelving to divide the room up into cool little hubs. A buzzy canteen, work stations with PCs dotted around for the girls to use freely, music playing and a really nice vibe about it. Almost made me want to go back to school (I said almost… nothing will make me want to repeat double maths, shudder).
There’s a full size floodlit astro for hockey and athletics, recently refurbished 25m swimming pool with 3m diving board and springboard, gym, netball and tennis courts and a dance studio. Sport is strong here – the U16 girls have previously been Berkshire Netball AND Berkshire Hockey Champs, but swimming and athletics are also well supported. A few mums I know with sporty girls in other schools say the Abbey’s sporting reputation and clout is well known (and well feared at matches!).
For budding actresses there are two drama studios and there’s an enormous main school hall with lighting rigs etc where full scale productions are put on. The girls recently made headline news, performing Beauty And The Beast the night before Emma Watson’s Disney blockbuster launched in UK cinemas. No pressure then. The musical was a triumph, with three sell-out shows, great vocal and acting reviews and a herculean effort from the costume designers and the textiles department to produce the cracking wardrobe.
There’s the usual array of peripatetic music teachers with promises to find any musical tutor to weird instrumental choices (flashback to my parents having to live through my saxophone phase – ouch). I popped into a music class for a wee chat and it seems that music is taken seriously, particularly classical – at Senior School the Orchestra, Choir and Concert band take it in turns to do a summer European tour and there’s a major musical production every two years. At the Junior School there’s a chamber choir, orchestra and instrumental groups.
Uh, pretty darn good. For GCSE: A* 52%; A*- A 83%; eight girls gained a clean sweep of 11 A* grades. A Level: A*-A 71%; A*-B 90% Half of all students achieved straight A*/A grades. And in IB: a 39 point average, with one student being one of only 200 (out of 144,000 candidates worldwide) to achieve a perfect score of 45 points (She has gone on to the IBM apprenticeship programme).
Rachel Dent (above) started in September 2014 as Head of The Abbey having been Deputy at the Senior School and Head of Sixth Form when she joined in 2006. Remarkably she’s only the sixth Head in 128 years! We chatted for about 20 minutes and I found her to be very open and straight talking, and passionate about the school and the girls. She handled a recent tragedy in the school with strong leadership. She is definitely the kind of woman I would be happy knowing my daughter was getting guidance from when I wasn’t around. No-nonsense but with a wicked twinkle in her eye!
Over at the Juniors I also met Nicola Dick-Cleland (above) the new(ish) Junior School Head, having been promoted after three years as Assistant Head. Formerly a psychotherapist (too easy to joke about how useful that will be in the job), she seems to have a grounded approach to education. When we walked around the school, the girls naturally gravitated towards her and similar to Rachel Dent in Seniors, she was sensible with a firm and steady leadership style, but also lots of fun. They seemed to work very well together. I liked her emphasis on letting the children stay young as long as possible and not putting too much academic pressure on them.
I think if you’re used to thinking of private schools as having bucolic grounds, the biggest quirk to The Abbey is that it simply doesn’t have it – a town-centre school has many benefits but space isn’t one of them. But I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of outside space they had managed to wiggle in here and there. And on the plus side, being so central, the girls grow to understand how to stay safe in a city and become mature young adults. If you can’t offer grand vistas and roaming, you have to work doubly hard to offer the other stuff. And the other stuff here is impressive.
Finally, The Abbey is the only all girls independent school in central Reading – not so much a quirk as a fact! So no boys twanging bra straps, and a whole lot of smart ambitious girls – head girls, and various prefect roles, even the person who shows around prospective parents has to apply and be interviewed for the ‘job’ so I’d say it’s quite competitive. Academic excellence is a given here. That may or may not suit your daughter’s personality and what you want for her.
Academically girls can choose at Sixth Form between IB or A level – there’s a pledge to timetable all desired combinations. The Abbey is a Pilot school for the IB in Global Politics. I was particularly impressed with the school’s trail blazing attitude towards apprenticeships and not assuming the traditional university route is right for everyone. It’s a school ready and willing to embrace a brave new world.
Wrap around care:
The school has relatively short days – it’s hometime by 3.30 (Reception – to Y2) or 3.45pm (Y3 onwards) unless you’re staying for after school clubs. There’s actually an ethos to this, which is that The Abbey encourages a life outside of the school gate. So where some private schools will keep kids until 6pm and do everything within the grounds, The Abbey sees a benefit in experiences away from school.
However, if you’re a working parent there’s a school supervised homework club (no charge) for those that want to stay until 5.45, along with various after school music, drama and sport activities. Sixth Formers can stay in Sixth Form Centre or Library for independent study as and when they like. In the Junior School, you can pay extra for a morning session (7.45-8.30am) with or without breakfast (a princely £3-3.50!) There’s also an after-school session from 3.45-5.45pm for £8 including a snack. Seniors can can buy breakfast from 8am (unsupervised).
Fees: Average and on a increasing scale as you go up the school. Junior School prices are from £4,150 (Y1), £4,620 (Y2), £4,770 (Y3-4), £4,810 (Y5-6). Senior School prices for all years are £5510 per term. If you’re interested in the Nursery, a full day is £3,370 going up to £3,950 for a 4+ child.
Word on the ground: The whisperings from parents reflect the very positive ISI report that came out in October 2014 – they excel academically and pastorally too. A couple of mums I spoke to felt the school had continued to shift to a more well-rounded balance – not relying on its academic credentials but continuing to increase its sports and extra-curricular activities in particular. The lack of space didn’t bother any mums I chatted to, and one suggested in comparison to other nearby town schools, the space was far better than most.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Free thinkers. The Abbey puts massive emphasis on getting girls ready for the world, creating independent, street-smart, well rounded women. Those who like progress – a brand new uniform has come into force and it’s ruffling feathers!
Not for: Those looking for acreage. There’s very little outdoor space in the Senior school, so if your idea of the perfect school includes gamboling children in rolling fields, this isn’t the place for you. Also, The Abbey is oversubscribed as a school and so has the ability to take in clever, ambitious, driven girls, so you’d want to make sure that your daughter wasn’t going to struggle to keep up with the pack.
The Abbey School, Kendrick Road, Reading, RG1 5DZ. Tel: 0118 987 2256
The Abbey Junior School, 30 Christchurch Road, Reading, RG2 7AR. Tel: 0118 931 3111