Reading Blue Coat, Sonning
Muddy says: It's hard to find fault with this boys day school in Sonning. Inclusive and amazing results. Impressed.
READING BLUE COAT SCHOOL, SONNING, READING
The name is deceiving because Reading Blue Coat isn’t actually in Reading. OK, so it’s not far (about 10 minutes down the road), but it’s not urban instead you will find a sprawling rural-ish day school. Set in 46 beautiful acres that stretches down to the River Thames in the village of Sonning, it’s a selective boys day school (sixth form is co-ed), founded in 1646 by Richard Aldworth. His mission was to provide a free education to 20 poor kids. Today, the school has swelled to 760 – including 14 foundation scholarships, worth up to 100% of the fees. The school’s invested heavily to modernise old buildings and add flashy new facilities – including a 23-classroom block and a new DT and IT space. Oh, and George and Amal Clooney are neighbours… just saying.
Impressive. There’s very little left that hasn’t had a facelift. It’s a really modern campus with teaching facilities that are fresh-out-of-the-box. The Regency mansion is home to the library and Headmaster Jesse Elzinga’s office. And as stunning as this is, your eyes are drawn elsewhere. The dedicated two-storey classroom block (named after the school’s founder) has a few eco credentials, spacious, light rooms with views across the playing fields and River Thames. There’s even a geology and psychology building. Who knew rocks were so interesting? But the kids love it, so they brilliantly converted an old building into a dedicated lab with stunning oak beams.
The headline news is the smart design and technology building, providing 3 workshops full of essential kit from traditional tools to cool tech, like 3D printers and laser cutters. Some of the concept furniture displayed was jaw-droppingly good. The IT building provides 4 computer suites and (news just in) Reading Blue Coat is partnering with Google to bring more innovation to the classroom, helping prepare the pupils for the digital world.
On the sports front, the grounds are immaculate with a number of pitches for rugby, football, hockey, cricket and netball and a mahoosive sports hall with climbing wall and state-of -the-art gym. Rowing is big (watch out for the Reading Blues at Henley Regatta) – it would be rude not to given its proximity to the water – and there’s a new boathouse on-site. If you head down there, brace yourself for a steep climb back up to the main school.
Reading Blue Coat is sporty, but you don’t have to be a top athlete to enjoy your time here. It fields loads of teams for matches and there’s the chance to enjoy other activities including golf, archery, shooting, squash and swim in their funky pool with retractable roof.
Love drama? Then you’ll love it here. The 6th form musical’s the hottest ticket in town with productions in the middle and lower schools too – think Grease, The Tempest, Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Canterbury Tales, Blood Brothers and Hamlet. So it’s exciting to hear work is about to start on a new 300-seater performing arts centre. Watch this space.
As you would expect from a selective school, the results are wow. It was a record-breaking year for A-level results with 83% achieving A*-B and 96% at A*-C. At GCSE, an awesome 65% of grades were A*/A with 90% of all grades achieving A*-B. Where do they go on from here? Most (if not all) go on to Russell Group universities to study. It’s definitely a school for bright kids to thrive. That’s not to say they only take the cream. The selection process – through interview, assessment and references – is designed to discover ambitious, intellectually curious kids who’ll play an active part in school life. The result is a buzzy, can-do atmosphere.
Jesse Elzinga is fairly new to the job, having arrived in September 2016 from Harrow where he was the academic deputy head. His approach is more evolution than revolution, knowing he has a great school, great kids with an outstanding reputation. But he’s on a mission. He wants to increase the number of foundation scholarships. Brilliant. Jesse grew up on a farm in America’s Mid West, snaffled a bursery to attend Harvard and then received a scholarship to Oxford. So don’t think ‘I can’t afford it’, apply to Reading Blue Coat, you never know. He wants the school to be academically inspiring – working with Google and using YouTube in lessons to challenge thinking and prepare the kids for jobs that don’t yet exist. And finally service, to fuel a desire to give back and take care of their community and people less fortunate. Richard Aldworth would raise a glass to that.
The original uniform was a blue coat, cap and some fairly lairy yellow stockings. Don’t panic this is NOT what they wear today, but the Prefects play dress up on special occasions (don’t tell anyone, they actually love it). For the eagle eyed, you might notice the coat of arms is slightly different throughout the school. It only took 370 years for someone to notice, but work has started to create ‘the one’.
Love dressing up in uniform and getting your hands dirty? Good news, you can join the Combined Cadet Force (Army, Navy and Air Force) here. The boys and girls love it, ultimately because it’s a lot fun. But while we’re standing attention, I should say it also develops confidence, character and leadership.
They’re really good a public speaking and debating. Good skill to have, right? And there’s lots of support for anyone keen to get involved, with opportunities to compete nationally and internationally. Teams have travelled to Canada and Hong Kong. I suspect the kids probably put forward a persuasive argument (sorry).
Lots learn an instrument or sing. And there’s opportunities to flex your musical muscles in a 60-strong choir, Chamber and Treble choirs, Barbershop group, Concert Band, Swing Band as well as rock and pop groups. The list is long.
What I loved about Reading Blue Coat is that it fits around family life. Days start at 8.35am, lessons end at 4.10pm and there’s lots of co-curricular activities to enjoy until 6pm including alternatives like Duke of Edinburgh, Young Enterprise, public speaking, Lego robotics, film club and producing for the Aldworthian magazine. They can also grab breakfast in The Dining Room from 7.30am, if you dashing for a train in the morning. The fees, £5,373 per term, are on the lower end of the day school scale making it an affordable option for working families (exams, lunches, trips and music lessons are all extra).
Word on the ground: The parents are clicking their heels with delight – the GCSE and A-Level results are consistently outstanding and they’re producing confident, well-rounded individuals. Pupils past and present give it the double thumbs up too, with the Combined Cadet Force and sport getting glowing reviews. In fact, I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t like it – event the ISI inspector was bowled over.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: I’m hard pushed to think of a boy or sixth form girl who wouldn’t love it here. It’s friendly, inclusive, has amazing facilities and pristine playing fields. It’s academic but the style of teaching and huge amount of sport and extra-curricular activities mean the kids have a ball too.
Not for: Boys who prefer a fully co-ed experience or who are after superposh everything. Anyone wanting to drop their kids off at the beginning of term and pick them up 6 weeks later. There’s no boarding provision. Plus it’s a healthily competitive environment, by which I mean the children need to want to progress – bright students are welcome, disinterested slackers need not apply.
Dare to disagree: Oh be my guest! There’s an Open Day on Saturday 7 October at 9.30am. Have a gander and see what you think.
Reading Blue Coat, Sonning Lane, Sonning, Reading RG4 6SU. www.rbcs.org.uk