Reading Blue Coat, Sonning
Here come the girls! Highly regarded Reading Blue Coat is going fully co-ed in 2023. It's a progressive school that's big on kindness, inclusivity, adventure and academic rigour. Impressed.
Reading Blue Coat is a selective day school that has just announced it will be fully co-ed from September 2023 (Sixth Form only right now). Strictly speaking it’s not in Reading, but 10 minutes down the road in the sought-after village of Sonning, where 46 acres stretch down to the River Thames. It’s got a reputation for sport, academic rigour but the new Adventure Education programme is an interesting new addition to the RBC’s offering.
The school was founded in 1646 by Richard Aldworth. His mission was to provide a free education to 20 poor kids. Today, the school has swelled to 820 – 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 fully refurbished science block, 23-classroom block, a new DT and IT space and Sixth Form study pods subtly accommodated in an old outbuilding.
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.
Work has just been completed on a refurbishing the science block. The design and technology building, provides three workshops full of essential kit from traditional tools to cool tech, like 3D printers and laser cutters. Some of the concept furniture I saw was jaw-droppingly good.
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 modern boathouse. If you head down for a nose, 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 the arts? 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. The art studio is huge. They have a new head of art giving students the chance to use multimedia and a working artist also teaches (lucky things). His commissions go all over the world.
Adventure Education is a new initiative introduced by new head Peter Thomas. The idea is to get out of the classroom, learn a new outdoor activity, like sailing, mountain climbing, dragon boating etc. Why? Aside from the wellbeing benefits of outdoors it develops skills that will help our kids beyond school life: problem-solving, teamwork, resilience, leadership, crisis management. Coaching qualifications can be achieved and there’s many trips out. Including a hiking weekend in the Brecon Beacons. Although I suspect socials are the biggest draw.
As you would expect from a selective school, the results are very good. Despite all the Covid disruption the pupils endured, the boys achieved the school’s best ever GCSE results – 85% achieving grades 9-7 (A-A* in old money). This year’s A-level results saw 70% of all grades awarded at A*-A and 89% A*-B. Jeepers! 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 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.
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 is ambitious for the school and approaches his work with humour and compassion. He will drive the move to going fully co-ed in 2023 which will inevitably lead to an increase in pupil numbers. Just like his predecessors he is BIG on service. Giving back to the community so increasing the number of bursaries and scholarships is on the to-do list too.
Adventure Education is his baby. He benefitted hugely from a love of the outdoors and feels Reading Blue Coat pupils will too. Employers are not looking for brainiacs, but young people who can be kind, think on their feet, get involved and work as a team. It’s a jungle out there in the workplace, I know I would want my kids to have the survival skills to cope. I like him a lot. He’s kind, thoughtful and progressive. It’s an exciting new chapter and I get the impression he’s quietly on a mission to make a big impact.
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). The everyday uniform has a modern flexibility, girls can wear trousers and sixth formers can express more individuality as long as it is smart.
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.
Family and Service are key to school 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 meeting.
The community garden – worked on by the children – produces fruit and veg for a local food bank and in the past pupils have visited schools and old people and community groups to help out.. During lockdowns the DT department helped create visors for local hospital staff and there was a laptop amnesty to redistribute old tech to underprivileged children who didn’t have a device to use for home schooling. There’s a lot of talk about giving back, but I feel they walk the walk here.
Fees: An enticing £6,013 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 your finances don’t quite stretch that far but you think it’s perfect for your son or daughter.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The parents are clicking their heels with delight. The GCSE and A-Level results are consistently good and they’re producing confident, well-rounded individuals. The new Adventure Education has gone down well, too – a welcome distraction from all the endless gaming and Snap Chat. Pupils past and present rave about the Combined Cadet Force and sport. In fact, I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t like it – even the ISI inspector was bowled over, frequently describing Reading Blue Coat as excellent, exceptional and outstanding.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: I’m hard pushed to think of a boy or 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. If you’re a stickler for single sex, you might not like the school’s new direction.
Dare to disagree: Contact admission for a private tour. Or register for the next Open Day on 7 May 2022.
Reading Blue Coat, Sonning Lane, Sonning, Reading RG4 6SU.