Pangbourne College, Pangbourne
A co-ed day/boarding school with naval traditions nr Reading, Pangbourne College's emphasis is on courage, community and creative thinking. Tick, tick, TICK
Does it get more perfect than a school on the edge of a riverside Berkshire village with zippy 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 naval values, set in the North Downs. Just 455 kids from 11-18 years roam in 230 acres of Victorian and 21st-century buildings, playing fields and woodland – plus the River 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 a Boat Club on a six mile stretch of the Thames for aspiring Pinsents and Graingers.
There’s been a significant investment in the buildings on site – the academic block has been transformed from vintage relic to contemporary learning hub, the Music Centre – nicknamed the Cheese Grater – includes a recital hall, practice rooms, recording facilities, classrooms, ICT suite and the College’s collection of 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 refurbishing the pool which now has a lido vibe, 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, new fibre cable is being installed to provide whizzy, reliable internet connection and new signage and fencing have gone up too. So lots to tick off the to-do list. Work is due to start on a new Sixth form café and an audit of the buildings is being done to carve out the space for a new girls boarding house.
For the kids who studied for exams only for them to be cancelled, we salute you. Pangbourne College has historically been regarded as pastorally strong and academically OK, hard work and determination from staff and pupils is paying off. The 2021 GCSE haul saw delivered a 97% pass rate and a crop of pupils awarded straight sets of grade 9s (the very highest mark). Want to know about the A-Levels? Of course, you do. Well, 45% were awarded A*-A with six students going on to Durham University, and one stand out student snagging a place at the University of Cambridge to study Natural Sciences. My brain hurts just thinking about it.
What I was particularly impressed by was the emphasis on offering less traditional subjects to study like Film and media studies, and introducing the kids to enterprise, entrepreneurship, and apprenticeships.
Pangbourne has seven boarding houses (a Junior House, Dunbar, for 11 -13-year-olds and six Senior Houses, two 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 newly refurbished 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 gun rooms, the dining hall is the mess hall, kitchens are galleys and casual clothes are always referred to as scruffs. Nautical but nice.
Thomas Garnier has been head at Pangbourne for a gazillion years – OK, almost 16 years to be precise. A popular head, he’s smart, witty, a calming influence (a much-needed trait in the job), immaculately turned out and incredibly tall. Thomas was educated at Radley College, served in the Royal Navy and was a 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. He has boosted the number of girls – now nudging towards 40% – but the student population will not exceed 500. Academic classes have been axed on Saturdays, seeing the importance for the pupils to relax after a busy week. I liked him a lot and he’s not afraid to make change but his steely focus is always on bringing out the best in the pupils and his staff. Character is king here and kindness, selflessness, moral courage, initiative, industry, resilience and integrity for the foundations of the school.
Quite a few actually! Pangbourne College’s naval background for starters. The school was originally set up 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 a 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, 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! 1) Day to day the children wear No2s – black trousers or skirt, blue shirt and a blue jumper with epaulettes. 2) There is a dress uniform for parades with hat called the No1. 3) Rec Rig – a traditional blazer and tie, generally worn to away matches. The No1 is eek expensive but I’m assured second-hand options are available in the onsite uniform shop. The Junior pupils (Year 7&8) wear a separate uniform and Sixth Formers are allowed to wear a suit instead of the No2 uniform.
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, 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 Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards Scheme is also big here. All pupils in Y9 will do the Bronze Award and although optional, many go on to do Silver and Gold.
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 for the 100th-anniversary service in 2017. 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 on Saturdays there are matches only. 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, Maidenhead, Basingstoke and Henley/Twyford (additional charge). Cheers from stressed 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
Many of my friends send their children here – drawn by it’s inclusive, non-hot-housey reputation. The school pivoted swiftly to online lessons during lockdown – cue grateful home working parents many of whom are scraping together the fees each term. On face value it is an impressive looking school, but the resounding feedback is a love for the normal vibe – a place where all backgrounds find common ground. The head is popular and the praise is heaped on the staff and their support of the children.
Fees per term are £6,300 rising to £8,540 for day pupils and from £7,910 for part boarding. Full boarding starts at £9,050 rising to £12,680. 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 Whole School Open Day is on Saturday 18 September. Followed by the Year 7 Open Day on Saturday 16 October. Booking is essential.
Pangbourne College, Pangbourne Hill, Pangbourne, Reading RG8 8LA. Tel: 0118 984 2101