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 498 students with a 60/40 split between boys and girls, 149 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 in five co-ed Houses.
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 the new-ish 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 opened at the start of the Spring term, and is a superb new asset for a school so passionate about music. 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 March (squeezed in just before lockdown), following on from last year’s Treasure Island! 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 new dance studio, a 25-metre indoor heated pool, 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 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 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 children 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.
The library stretches over a series of six rooms on the upper floor of the main Old School building, also home to school reception, and the headmaster’s office – a surefire way of ensuring it stays quiet!
The school is co-ed ‘to the core’ and this includes co-ed Houses. Boys and girls, day students and boarders, share the downstairs recreational hangouts in each House, but upstairs in three of them is single sex accommodation, with one dedicated to girls, and two to the boys. 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). Plus there are five adults stalking the floors of each House, one living on each floor.
The boarding house I saw was fine in terms of space and facilities having had a lick of paint – part of a rolling refurbishment programme. The big news is the investment for January 2021 – 25 new beds are being created in Fryer House, the lower school House for Years 7 and 8. It’s a little later than planned due to the coronavirus, but soon enough the youngest LP pupils will be catching some quality zzz in stylish new triple dorms with en-suites.
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. As you would expect, the 2019 results are excellent, 31% A*-A at A-Level, and the highest proportion of top-level GCSE grades (7-9 equivalent) for 14 years. The students nailed the STEM subjects – 81% of Combined Science, 74% of both physics and chemistry, and 66% 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 27th nationally for the academic progress of its 2019 leavers, 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 Matthew Judd (ex Haberdashers’ Aske). He’s been in the hot seat since September 2018 and fell in love with Leighton Park when he visited five years ago as a schools’ inspector (his one and only previous visit to Reading). He loved how unique the school is and how relevant the Quaker principles are today. He wants LP to be ambitious, outward-looking, forward-thinking and, ultimately, 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 (watch out for new uniform next year!), 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 and Beaconsfield 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. If a child breaks the rules (nobody’s perfect), the PSCHE programme gives students a lot of support to make the right choices, giving them a sense of maturity. 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.
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 are attached to one of the five boarding houses. They 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) – £6,255 per term for day students, £8,590 for weekly boarding and £9,985 for full; Seniors – £7,620 for day; £10,360, weekly and £12,390 for full. Fees include all meals for all students regardless of whether they board or not.
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) 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 from the comfort of your sofa at Leighton Park’s Virtual Open Evening on Tuesday 16 June (4.30pm-5.30pm) or check out the Park once Boris allows schools to reopen for visitors on Saturday 26th September at the Annual Open Morning.
Leighton Park School, Shinfield Road, Reading RG2 7ED. Tel 0118 987 9600.