Pangbourne College, Berkshire
A co-ed day/boarding school with naval traditions nr Reading, Pangbourne College's emphasis is on 'joining in' and good manners. Tick, tick.
PANGBOURNE COLLEGE, PANGBOURNE, BERKSHIRE
Does it get more perfect than a school on the edge of a riverside Berkshire village with train links to Reading, Oxford and London and minutes from the M4? Say hello to Pangbourne College a co-ed day and boarding school with strong Christian and military values, set in the North Downs. Just 430 kids from 11-18 years roam in 230 acres of Victorian and 21st century buildings, playing fields and woodland – plus the Thames on their doorstep. The school welcomes children of all abilities into classes that average 15, so there’s plenty of attention lavished.
Oodles of space for starters, but also four cricket squares and a modern pavillion, six rugby pitches, two grass football pitches, astroturf hockey pitch, a newly refurbished 25m outdoor pool, plus squash, tennis and netball courts. Oh, if you head off site, there’s shooting, Equestrian Club and Boat Club on a six mile stretch of the Thames for aspiring Pinsents and Graingers.
There’s been a significant investment in the fabulous Music Centre – nicknamed the Cheese Grater – to the tune of £2m which includes recital hall, practice rooms, recording facilities, classrooms, ICT suite and the College’s Steinway pianos. It’s one of only a handful of schools in the UK with its own marching band. Music and sport are incredibly strong here and it’s not really surprising given its naval college heritage.
Like all schools the development wishlist is long. But they’ve been beavering away this summer to refurb the pool which now has a lido vibe (changing rooms are next on the hit list), the science and study blocks have had a much needed facelift, and the grounds have been spruced up. Although dull, a new heating system has been installed in the Study Area and new signage and fencing have gone up too – so lots to tick off the to-do list. Next up? All the classrooms will be upgraded, one by one, throughout the year. If they could send their team to my house, I would be grateful.
Pangbourne College has historically been regarded as pastorally strong and academically OK, but the Head has been on a mission to recruit staff to suit his vision to shake up this aspect of the school, and it’s starting to get some bonza results. The 2018 GCSE haul saw 41% snagging 9-7 (or A*-A). But can we give it up for the english, maths and science departments: the kids smashed it, with a record pass rate. Want to know about the A-Levels? Of course you do. Well, 2018’s Upper Sixth produced the best A*-B ratio since 2011, at 54%, and 21% were awarded A*-A. There is a real sense of purpose to ensure the children are stretched academically but not hot housed.
Pangbourne has 7 boarding houses (a Junior House, Dunbar, for 11 -13 year olds and 6 Senior Houses, 2 of which are for girls). They’re all small in terms of numbers and the school prides itself as being very family-oriented, with full time houseparents many of whom have their own families in the mix. I had a sneak around one of the newer houses and the communal spaces are light and bright while the study bedrooms are compact (and typically teen messy), all named after ships and ports, like Harbinger, Port Jackson and Illawarra. The bedrooms are called cabins, common rooms are gunrooms, the dining hall is the mess hall, kitchens are galleys and casual clothes are always referred to as scruffs. Nautical but nice.
I had a long chat with head Thomas Garnier and he seemed lovely. He’s been in the job for 13 years, is very smart and witty – educated at Radley, served in the Royal Navy and was housemaster at Abingdon School. His approach is more evolution than revolution, knowing he has a great school with great kids. But he’s on a mission to make it better. The aim is to increase the number of girls – currently a third of the school population – by adding a third girls’ boarding house, but the student population will not exceed 500. He’s also looking at the timetable, fees and Saturday school, questioning if pupils should be relaxing after a busy week. I liked him a lot and he’s not afraid to make change.
Quite a few actually! Pangbourne College’s naval background for starters. The school was originally set up a 100 years ago to train young officers for the Merchant Navy and later the Royal Navy too. Not so much of that goes on now, but there’s a nautical flavour to the place. The kids wear naval uniform, regular parades (roughly once a month), the school marching band, Divisions named after ships and a love of rowing and sailing. But the sense of community, self discipline, courtesy, pride in one’s appearance all have the military feels about them too. Although there is a little standing on ceremony, the vibe of Pangbourne is not so stiff.
The kids have three uniforms. Now I know it’s hard enough getting your head around one plus all the sports gear, but THREE! Day to day the children where No2s – black trousers or skirt, blue shirt and a blue jumper with epaulettes. For parades, there is a dress uniform with hat called, the No1 and Rec Rig (traditional blazer and tie), worn to away matches. The No1 is eek expensive but I’m assured second hand options are available in the onsite uniform shop.
What else? Well, there is a bar for the Sixth formers on campus! Yes, you heard me right. On a Thursday night, they can have a couple of small glasses of wine or beer. It’s all perfectly legal and it allows the pupils to drink in a safe environment, and has to be better than kids smuggling tequila into dorms, right?
More you say? OK, there’s a Combined Cadet Force (consisting of Army, Royal Navy, Air Force and unusually Royal Marines) that is compulsory for all children in Y10 where they undertake basic training, such as drill, command tasks, weapon training, fieldcraft and map reading. The College chapel is pretty spesh too. A modern ship shaped building, it was built to honour those who died in the Falklands War, and opened by the Queen in 2000. It’s a stunning space and the royals have visited on many occasions. Her Maj, returned last year for the 100th anniversary service. It doesn’t get more showbiz than that! It’s worth noting, that it’s not all pomp and ceremony, sport and music. Drama, art and design are all impressive and I love the fact you can study film, business and psychology.
Wrap around care:
The school day starts at 8.25am until 6pm Monday-Friday, including sports fixtures and Saturdays finish at 4pm. A free bus runs to and from Pangbourne Station with direct links from London Paddington, Reading and Oxford, plus mini buses pick up from Wantage, Newbury, Basingstoke and Henley/Twyford (additional charge). Plans are afoot to bus kids in from Maidenhead, Bracknell and Wokingham. Cheers from stressed out parents whizzing around the countryside on the school run. There’s no flexi boarding but part, weekly and full boarding are all options.
Word on the ground: Happy parents at this very inclusive, non-hot-housey school. The parents I spoke to love how normal Pangbourne College is. Many of the families are hard working parents who just scrape together the fees each term and they rub along with some of the others who are from more privileged backgrounds. The head is popular and the parents I talked to dismissed the idea of Pangbourne not being academic enough.
Fees: Fees per term are £5,885 rising to £8,295 for day pupils and £7,390 for part boarding. Full boarding starts at £8,290 rising to £11,730. Expect to pay extra for music tuition, learning support and some extra curricular activities like horse riding and the Boat Club.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who are looking for an all-round education for their kids in a rural school that’s big on manners, community and caters for the sporty and non-sporty alike. Pangbourne College is small so children are known and cared for well and the good transport links will have frazzled parents clicking their heels.
Not for: The marching and naval traditions are strong, so you’ll either love or hate that element. But the values – kindness, selflessness, moral courage, initiative, industry, resilience and integrity – are attributes I’d love my kids to have in life. Being in a gorgeous 230-acre site in Pangbourne, there’s a slight Berkshire ‘bubble’ that’s more rural idyll than real life.
Dare to disagree: Oh be my guest! The next open day is Saturday 22 September. Have a nose, and then let me know what you think.
Pangbourne College, Pangbourne Hill, Pangbourne, Reading RG8 8LA. Tel: 0118 984 2101