Leighton Park School, Reading
A progressive first-name-only school with a seductive 'Double Excellent' rating. Set in 65 acres, this Reading town centre school is big on values, individuality, with consistently impressive results.
Leighton Park in Reading is a co-ed boarding and day school for ages 11–18 – recently rated ‘double excellent’. Less shouty than some local senior schools, but is a bit of gem. This town centre school is set in 65 acres of parkland (yup, 65!) and is described as ‘one of the two lungs of Reading’ (the other being the University of Reading right next door) and the green open space is definitely a big tick for an urban school.
There are currently 530 students, of which 133 board, who get to whizz to lessons in golf buggies (only joking). But the campus vibe means they have time to stretch their legs and decompress between lessons. The school buildings are a typical juxtaposition of old (mostly Victorian) and a mish-mash of modern additions spanning the decades. Some ain’t pretty, but then some are beautiful, so just blink at the appropriate moments.
It’s one of 10 Quaker schools in the UK, and although it’s not religious (there are currently no practicing staff or pupils) but is a values-led education based on Quaker principles: respect, integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, truth, and sustainability (I hope you’re writing these down). These values provide the backbone to life at LP. 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.
Excellent and getting better all the time. LP is very strong in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, maths and art). In fact, they’re taught in similar ways, realising that problem solving, technical know-how and creative thinking apply both ways. I love that!
The STEAM Innovation Room is relatively new with over 20 computers and some impressive display space 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. The DT workshop is also superb with every cool bit of kit you could wish for.
Arts, Music and Drama
The Michael Malnick Centre for music and media is the schools jewel in the crown. It’s a relatively new asset, providing seven practice rooms, three 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?! 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! Kids love, it’s a great asset for a school that loves music and creativity as much as LP..
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. Guys and Dolls was a big hit in 2022, no mean feat given the rave reviews for Chicago! in 2020. 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.
As you might expect with such amazing acreage, the school isn’t lacking in things to fill the space! You’ll 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, strength and conditioning suite and a top notch dance studio. 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 recently spruced up too.
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.
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. LP’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. The comfy cinema room and snug is interior goals for any style obsessed tween/teen. From Y9 and above it’s single sex boarding with the girls in Reckitt House and the boys in School House. 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.
Previously, the house system was attached to a physical house but there has been a ‘conscious uncoupling’ with the students leading the charge in establishing their new virtual houses. They have chosen their house colours, names and mottos and there’s a member of staff in the role of House Clerk. The move was simply to improve the house experience, with a greater sense of belonging..
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. Average class sizes are 16, and as low as seven in Sixth Form – lots if individual attention which pays dividends on results day. It was the first normal-ish year for GCSE, A-Level and International Baccalaureate students in 2022. The IB scores are in and the three IB students achieved an average 39.33 from a maximum of 45. The global average is 31.98 and one pupil Phillipos Makridakis scored 41 and is off to study Biomedical Science at the University of Warwick.
While we await this year’s results GCSE and A Level results, 2021’s grades were impressive – 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.
The emotional and mental wellbeing at LP has always been a top notch. Since my last visit they have continued to beef up the provision. The Hub offers a quiet space for the Lower School to hang out, The Den is superb extension of the Learning Support department for kids to retreat if they need to regroup and recharge under the glow of the pink neon. Add in the collective moments of silence and the leg-stretching walks between lessons gives everyone the opportunity to decompress and prepare for their next class. The polar opposite of an academic hot house..
Head Matthew Judd (ex Haberdashers’ Aske) has been at Leighton Park for four years and he’s as stylish and charming, with the energy of a man half his age. He’s outward-looking, forward-thinking and laser focussed on bringing the best out in both the pupils and staff. What’s he been up to? When I first met Matthew in 2018 he had a to-do list and wish list as long as his arm and has ticked them all off – even with pandemic disruption – and now developed a strategic plan that takes the school to 2035. The next big project is a £5m Sixth Form Centre and a £6m Activity and Wellbeing Centre with his eye on an LED floor that light up the different courts. It’s a sports hall done the LP way to offer more than traditional sports, so pupils can have a go at other activities if they vehemently hate team sports. Matthew has also appointed a Head of Partnerships and Outreach who is reaching out into the wider community so that non-LP students can benefit from the LP’s events and facilities. It’s safe to say, they’ve been busy. Matthew genuinely loves this school. Under his leadership he has implemented small and big improvements, all aimed at making the LP experience great for the students,. staff and parents. He’s a joy to be around, ambitious and get stuff done.
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 was appointed in 2021 who has been started to roll out initiatives, events and projects to ensure difference is celebrated.
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, 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.
ISI REPORT: What can I say, it’s glowing. Inspectors nosed around Leighton Park in November 2021 and the ISI report awards it top marks with a ‘Double Excellent’, flagging up both the quality of pupils’ personal development and their academic progress. It’s also the best performing school in Berkshire, according to Government league tables, and is ranked in the top 3% nationally for the academic progress.
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.
TRANSPORT: Breathe a sigh of relief and say goodbye to the school run. The bus routes cover Ascot, Henley, Maidenhead, Camberley, Hook, Thatcham, Goring, Stoke Row, Datchet, Shiplake and there’s a taxi route from Marlow. A Weekly Boarding service also runs from West London, Gerrards Cross and Beaconsfield. 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): Day £7,150 per term, Weekly boarding £9,725, Full boarding £11,22. Seniors: Day £8,715, Weekly £11,735, Full £13,895. Fees include all meals for all students regardless of whether they board or not.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents love the sense of calm and that each child has an opportunity to shine. A lot of schools talk the talk about individuality but they feel LP walks the walk. Naturally there’s a frisson of excitement when new building projects start and they love that they’re not tearing their hair out trying to work and school pick up deadlines. 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? The next Open Mornings are on Sat 24 Sep (9am-11am), Fri 14 Oct and 11 Fri Nov (from 9am). The Sixth Form Open Day is on Tue 11 Oct (from 6.30pm). Taster days for Y7 entry Thu 13 Oct and Tue 15 Nov. Taster Days for Y9 entry Thu 10 Nov.
Leighton Park School, Shinfield Road, Reading RG2 7ED. Tel 0118 987 9600.
You might also like