Leighton Park School, Reading
Muddy says: A progressive first-name-only Quaker school with 65 acres in the centre of Reading, with impressive results in STEM and creative subjects.
LEIGHTON PARK SCHOOL, READING, BERKSHIRE
Leighton Park School is a co-ed boarding and day school for ages 11–18. There are 506 students with a 60/40 split between boys and girls, 132 of whom currently board. The wrap-around care is phenomenal: day students can stay as late as 9pm, plus weekly, flexi and full boarding options. There is a co-ed house for the Lower School (Years 7 and 8) and single sex boarding for Years 9 and above with girls in Reckitt House and boys in School House.
The school is set in 65 acres of parkland. Yup, 65! The kids get to lessons in golf buggies (only joking), but the campus vibe means children have time to stretch their legs and decompress between lessons. The LP site is described as ‘one of the two lungs of Reading’ (the other being the University right next door) and the green open space is definitely a huge tick in the box and rare for a town school.
It’s one of 10 Quaker schools in the UK, but it’s not a religious school (in fact, there are currently no practicing staff or pupils) and is open to all faiths. It is, however, founded on Quaker principles: respect, integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, truth, and sustainability (I hope you’re writing these down). These values provide the foundations for life at LP: the value placed on individuality, the collective moments of silence – it’s a different approach to education that some might not be ready for. Keep an open mind because Head Matthew Judd is big on all those things and academic rigour.
The headline news is the super-fly Michael Malnick Centre for music and media (named after an Old Leightonian who left a gift to the school to fund bursaries). It’s a jaw-droppingly stunning space and a superb new asset for a school so passionate about music and creativity. An impressive 33 peri teachers come in to teach over 260 music lessons a week – including the accordion for one pupil and euphonium lessons are also on offer! Cue a cacophony of noise at every break. The kids love it.
LP is also very strong in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics as well as Creative Arts. In fact, they’re taught in very similar ways, realising that problem solving, technical know-how and creative thinking apply both ways. I love that!
Jazz handers are well catered for. Once a year the school does a massive dramatic or musical production (they alternate) and judging by the photos, they look incredibly professional, and fully inclusive too. Chicago! was a big hit in 2020 and, word on the street, suggest Guys and Dolls could be even better in 2022! There are opportunities galore for performers, backstage and tech crew to get involved. House Music – a cross between a rugby scrum and a concert – is also one of the highlights. When the school alumni include Brit award winner Laura Marling, and actors Eliza Bennett (Nanny McPhee), Jim Broadbent (what hasn’t he been in?), there’s a lot to aspire to.
I didn’t get the impression that LP was an overtly sporty, but the advantage of smaller schools is there are at least lots of opportunities for students to represent in sports teams. So children who might not necessarily be deemed ‘the sporty one’ actually get a look in.
That said, the school offers an Advanced Performer Programme (APP) for gifted sporting types competing at county, regional or national levels. Around 30 students get additional focussed support in their chosen discipline and small group training sessions from PE staff as well as being excused from the extensive after school hobbies programme to attend their offsite sporting commitments.
As you might expect with such amazing acreage, the school isn’t lacking in things to fill the space! The Michael Malnick Centre for music and media is the jewel in the crown, plus a modern dance studio. You’ll also find a floodlit astroturf used for cricket, hockey and football, 22 tennis courts, a cardio fitness centre with top-of-the-range running and fitness machines and a strength and conditioning suite. Not forgetting acres of pitches to help burn off that boundless energy. The school’s 25-metre indoor heated pool and cricket pavilion have been spruced up over the summer and will re-open in October 2021.
The music and media building has seven new practice rooms, three new classrooms, a Radio 1 style live lounge, a media production room, a green screen and extended foyer which can be used for exhibitions and performances. Plus the instruments in there are just incredible – anyone had a go on a theremin, a silent guitar or a transacoustic piano recently?! No wonder the kids are champing at the bit.
The STEAM Innovation Room is also relatively new, with over 20 computers in flip-top desks and some impressive display space intended to support engineering GCSE students by exhibiting prototype products for them to study from a design, technical, scientific, mathematical or any other relevant point of view, for that matter. The school already has superb links with big business through its iSTEM+ hub, so I think this is a great opportunity for the our teens to see what problems industries are trying to solve and see into the future.
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.
Like all schools, Covid has meant schools have needed to tweak their boarding provision. Leighton Park is no different, but they are blessed with options. Leighton Park’s lucky Lower School kids (Years 7 and 8) get to enjoy the newly renovated Fryer House. This is a co-ed house with three triple rooms for girls and five triple rooms for boys, all en-suite. We’re rtaher liking the sound of the comfy cinema room and snug. From Y9 and above it’s single sex boarding with the girls in Reckitt House and the boys in School House.
In the past, day kids would also have full access to the boarding houses, but to keep Covid safe, they’ve created Year Group Hubs – which are common rooms with comfy sofas and chill out space for students to chat with their friends. Last but not least, one of the boarding houses has been transformed into a Sixth Form Centre for study, sleep, and, whatever the kids call socialising these day.
Leighton Park says it’s ‘selective but not highly selective’ and I definitely didn’t feel that pressure cooker element. Yes, there’s an entrance exam to ensure pupils will cope with the work, but the interview carries weight. It also boasts superb learning support via the Individual Learning Centre..
Class sizes are small. No more than 20 and just seven in 6th Form. It was another odd year GCSE and A-Level students in 2021, but LP pulled some impressive results out of the bag – 93% achieving A*-B at A-Level. Music students hit the high notes with 80% getting A* top marks and 100% Distinction */ Distinction in Digital Music Production Level 3 BTEC (four out of five students opting for both subjects). GCSE results were good too with 88% achieving 5-9. Once again the students nailed the STEAM subjects – 76% of chemistry, 74% of physics and 54% of maths students were awarded 7-9 (A*-A) grades.
Hailed by the Government’s league tables as the best performing school in Berkshire and ranked in the top 3% nationally for the academic progress. The school is one of only 8 in the UK who has appeared in the top 100 every year since the league table began.
Say hello to the ever-so-stylish and utterly charming Matthew Judd (ex Haberdashers’ Aske). He’s been in the hot seat since 2018. He is a man full of ambition for LP, outward-looking, forward-thinking and laser focussed to bring the best out in both the pupils and staff. What’s he been up to? Deep breath – he’s run a huge consultation to learn how best to articulate the school’s ethos, resulting in a complete rebrand, developed a strategic plan to take the school to 2035, commissioned master planners to advise on the use of existing buildings, changed the shape of the school day to create a more efficient timetable, launched an outreach programme to encourage non-LP students to benefit from the school’s events and facilities, and introduced new bus routes to help families from Gerrard’s Cross, Beaconsfield and Marlow reach the school more easily. It’s safe to say, he’s been busy.
There are a number of Quaker practices which the school partakes in, including the morning ‘Collect’ where staff and students gather in the hall to have quiet time and reflect, or where a person can have ‘Ministry’ where they stand up and speak without being interrupted. It’s a powerful idea, especially for a particularly shy or awkward child – how wonderful to simply have the right to be heard. Note to self: embrace Quakerism at home?!
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’ – just a lot of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Expectations are clear and discipline is robust. At first glance, it can almost seem hidden, but it is in fact quietly iron clad. They don’t wear a uniform, either. Apart from a school sweater and jacket for those in Years 7 and 8, the dress code is smart business attire – conservatively embracing individuality but parents will appreciate the affordability factor.
The school also embraces diversity with student-led LGBTQ+ Sixth Form groups and a week long whole school celebration of diversity in the Summer term. A new Diversity and Inclusion Officer is joining the School in 2021 to further embed diversity into all aspects of Leighton Park life.
There are some lovely quirks within the grounds a lovely orchard with beehives 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. Let’s not forget the Peace Pole, made from a fallen oak tree, it was commissioned to mark the school’s 125th anniversary.
The 90 hobbies on offer can get pretty whacky too. Alongside traditional activities like sport, music, book club and Duke of Edinburgh, there’s corset making, digital media production, coding, mindfulness and FIFA club. An overwhelming list, but never a dull day to be had here.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Quite simply, excellent. Available from 7.30am to 9pm. Day pupils can arrive for breakfast at 7.30am and stay for activities, dinner, prep and just hanging out with their friends, and only have to leave when the houses are locked at 9pm.
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. Not forgetting the 12 bus routes covering Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, South Oxfordshire, nudging into Surrey, Hampshire and a London service for weekly boarders. The safety net is there, if like me, you’re juggling work, school and home life and drop more balls than you keep in the air.
Fees: Juniors (Y7 and 8) – £6,745 per term for day students, £9,175 for weekly boarding and £10,565 for full; Seniors – £8,220 for day; £11,070, weekly and £13,110 for full. Fees include all meals for all students regardless of whether they board or not.
WORD ON THE GROUND
They rave about the school’s lockdown learning programme. Pivoting and adapting the curriculum online and even consulting with parents as to how the school can help. They listened, adapted and the the feedback is glowing. Feedback from the pupils? Well, one said the food is blinking amazing (I am liking her priorities). She admitted it’s a different approach (we’ve moved on from food) 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.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children who might not fit the typical school model – individualism is celebrated here. Those kids that need a more nurturing, gentle and positive environment, there is definitely a sense of calm and openness about the school that resonated with me.
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, this might be a red flag for some parents if they feel their child needs more formality.
Dare to disagree? Take a look for yourself: The next Open Mornings are on Sat 25 Sep (9am-11am) and Tue 12 Oct (9.15am-11.15am); Sixth Form Open Evening Tue 12 Oct (6.30pm-8.30pm) and Y7 entry Taster Days Thu 14 Oct.
Leighton Park School, Shinfield Road, Reading RG2 7ED. Tel 0118 987 9600.