Reading Blue Coat, Sonning
Muddy says: It's hard to find fault with this boys day school in Sonning. Inclusive and amazing results. Impressed.
The name is deceiving because Reading Blue Coat isn’t actually in Reading. OK, so it’s not far (about 10 minutes down the road), but it’s not urban instead you’ll find a sprawling rural-ish day school. Set in 46 beautiful acres that stretches down to the River Thames in the village of Sonning (yoohoo George Clooney), it’s a selective boys’ day school (co-ed sixth form), founded in 1646 by Richard Aldworth. His mission was to provide a free education to 20 poor kids. Today, the school has swelled to 785 – including 14 foundation scholarships, worth up to 100 percent of the fees. The school’s invested heavily to modernise old buildings and add flashy new facilities – including a 23-classroom block and a new DT and IT space.
Impressive. There’s very little left that hasn’t had a facelift. It’s a really modern campus with teaching facilities that are fresh-out-of-the-box. The Regency mansion is home to the library and new Headmaster Peter Thomas’s office. And as stunning as this is, your eyes are drawn elsewhere. The dedicated two-storey classroom block (named after the school’s founder) has a few eco credentials, spacious, light rooms with views across the playing fields and River Thames. There’s even a geology and psychology building. Who knew rocks were so interesting? But the kids love it, so they brilliantly converted an old building into a dedicated lab with exposed oak beams.
The headline news is the smart design and technology building, providing three workshops full of essential kit from traditional tools to cool tech, like 3D printers and laser cutters. Some of the concept furniture displayed was jaw-droppingly good. The IT building provides four computer suites and Reading Blue Coat is partnered with Google to bring more innovation to the classroom, helping prepare the pupils for the digital world.
On the sports front, the grounds are immaculate with a number of pitches for rugby, football, hockey, cricket and netball and a mahoosive sports hall with climbing wall and state-of -the-art gym. Rowing is big (watch out for the Reading Blues at Henley Regatta) – it would be rude not to given its proximity to the water – and there’s a new boathouse. If you head down there, brace yourself for a steep climb back up to the main school.
Reading Blue Coat is sporty, but you don’t have to be a top athlete to enjoy your time here. It fields loads of teams for matches and there’s the chance to enjoy other activities including golf, archery, shooting, squash and swim in their funky pool with retractable roof.
Love drama? Then you’ll love it here. The 6th form musical’s the hottest ticket in town with productions in the middle and lower schools, too. Think Grease, The Tempest, Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Canterbury Tales, Blood Brothers and Hamlet. So it’s exciting to hear work is about to start on a new 300-seater performing arts centre. Watch this space.
As you would expect from a selective school, the results are impressive. The last three years of A-Level results have been the best in school’s history, with the 2017 results breaking all records. This year’s A-level results saw 24% hitting the A* jackpot; 64% achieving and A*-A and 93% awarded A*-B. Wowzers! At GCSE, 52% were awarded top marks – grades 9-7 ( A*/A in old money) with 94% achieving grades 9-6 (A*-B) . Where do they go on from here? Most (if not all) go on to Oxbridge and Russell Group unis to study. It’s definitely a school for bright kids to thrive. That’s not to say they only take the cream. The selection process – interview, assessment and references – is designed to discover ambitious, intellectually curious kids who’ll play an active part in school life. The result is a buzzy, can-do atmosphere.
A new head, but not brand new to Reading Blue Coat School. Peter Thomas is a reassuringly familiar face having joined the school in 2015 as Second Master. It took the reins in September this year – and what a year for that to happen? But where changes in leadership can cause a wobble, you can feel a collective sigh of relief from the staff, students and parents that, although new to the top job, he’s not new to the school. I really liked him.
Peter’s down to earth, approachable and has real life experience outside of teaching. He flipped burgers to fund his gap year, started his working life as a police officer and later joined the teaching profession. He started that new chapter at Judd Grammar as a geography teacher, before moving onto Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire and then Reading Blue Coat. Peter’s leadership style is very similar to his predecessor’s – with plenty of humour and compassion. Qualities that have been essential while running a school during a global pandemic.
The original uniform was a blue coat, cap and some fairly lairy yellow stockings. Don’t panic this is NOT what they wear today, but the Prefects play dress up on special occasions (don’t tell anyone, they actually love it). For the eagle eyed, you might notice the coat of arms is slightly different throughout the school. It only took 370 years for someone to notice, but work has started to create ‘the one’.
Love dressing up in uniform and getting your hands dirty? Good news, you can join the Combined Cadet Force (Army, Navy and Air Force) here. The boys and girls love it, ultimately because it’s a lot fun. But while we’re standing attention, I should say it also develops confidence, character and leadership.
They’re really good a public speaking and debating. Good skill to have, right? And there’s lots of support for anyone keen to get involved, with opportunities to compete nationally and internationally. Teams have travelled to Canada and Hong Kong in the past. I suspect the kids probably put forward a persuasive argument (sorry).
Lots learn an instrument or sing. And there’s opportunities to flex your musical muscles in a 60-strong choir, Chamber and Treble choirs, Barbershop group, Concert Band, Swing Band as well as rock and pop groups. The list is long.
What I loved about Reading Blue Coat is that it fits around family life. Days start at 8.35am, lessons end at 4.10pm and there’s lots of co-curricular activities to enjoy until 6pm including alternatives like Duke of Edinburgh, Young Enterprise, public speaking, Lego robotics, film club and producing for the Aldworthian magazine. They can also grab breakfast in The Dining Room from 7.30am, if you’re dashing for a train or early Zoom call.
Fees: An impressive £5,838 per term across all year groups. It’s definitely on the lower end of the day school scale, making it an affordable option for working families (exams, lunches, trips and music lessons are all extra). There’s also an impressive array of bursaries and scholarships, so worth considering if that is a route you’d like to pursue.
Word on the ground: The parents are clicking their heels with delight – the GCSE and A-Level results are consistently outstanding and they’re producing confident, well-rounded individuals. Pupils past and present give it the double thumbs up too, with the Combined Cadet Force and sport getting glowing reviews. In fact, I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t like it – event the ISI inspector was bowled over.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: I’m hard pushed to think of a boy or sixth form girl who wouldn’t love it here. It’s friendly, inclusive, has amazing facilities and pristine playing fields. It’s academic but the style of teaching and huge amount of sport and extra-curricular activities mean the kids have a ball too.
Not for: Those who buckle in a healthily competitive environment. By which I mean the children need to want to progress – bright students are welcome, disinterested slackers need not apply. Boys who prefer a fully co-ed experience and the lack of boarding may not suit everyone.
Reading Blue Coat, Sonning Lane, Sonning, Reading RG4 6SU.