The Abbey School, Reading
One of the UK's best girls’ day schools, The Abbey is producing globally-minded young women with a 'can-do-anything' attitude who consistently achieve top marks on results day.
The Abbey School is an all-through girls’ day school in central Reading, taking kids aged 3-18. Spread over several sites, the Nursery School at Knell House, Junior School and Senior School, can be found in a collection of impressive Victorian villas within walking distance of each other. Space is always of a premium in town centre schools, but they have eked out every inch to create new buildings and enough outdoor space for the 1,000 girls.
The Abbey School dates back to 1887, check out the museum for a Hogwarts-style experience of capes, and has had just seven heads in that time. From September 2020, two new heads took up posts – Executive Head William Le Fleming and Nisha Kaura as Head of the Junior School, both trailblazers, marking the start of an exciting new period at The Abbey School.
The Junior School recently had an almighty facelift and is looking super-smart. We loved the spinky-spanky new Fab Lab (a flexible learning space with a bit of STEAM slant, named by the pupils). Don’t expect playing fields as far as the eye can see. Outside space is pretty good for its urban location; The Junior school provision is particularly impressive with astroturf and play equipment. The Senior’s flood-lit sports fields are across the road from the main building, so you would be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t have any. It does and it’s of Olympic proportions!
Headline facilities at the Senior School? Eight modern classrooms in the new-ish Jane Austen Wing, three art studios, two professional drama studios, kiln room, graphic design ICT suite, and a swish uni-style Conference Room for when the Sixth Form wants to take a vote on whether to bunk off for the day (JOKE!), will do nicely. They’re keen on science here (12 labs in the process of being refurbished) with biology using cutting edge 3D teaching.
Breaking news! There are exciting plans for a new Sixth Form space, dining hall and roof garden – which will be built off site and craned into position in the near future.
Don’t worry, the littlies haven’t been forgotten. In Knell House, Nursery girls enjoy oodles of space to play and discover together. Over in Abbey Gardens, home to Reception and Year 1, they have an astroturf area, large drama studio that converts into dining facilities and an indoor play area. In Somerleaze, a large drama studio with ballet barre connects to the music room next door, and in Kensington, this is complemented by a Science lab, Fab Lab, The Space, gym hall, upmarket classrooms and two dining rooms.
There’s a 25m swimming pool with a 3m diving board and springboard right in the middle of the school (you walk past it down a main corridor – pretty cool). I don’t often come across diving boards in schools but they do it here and apparently they girls are pretty formidable in competition. Outside you’ll find a full-size floodlit astro for hockey and athletics, gym, netball and tennis courts and a dance studio. Sport is strong here – the usuals of hockey, netball and athletics rub alongside cricket, swimming, football, gymnastics and badminton.
For thespy girls, there are two drama studios and there’s an enormous main school hall with lighting rigs etc where full-scale productions are put on. Fortunately, Covid didn’t cancel the girls’ big show last year, with the school putting on Sister Act just before Christmas.
If you’re musical, there’s the usual array of peripatetic teachers with promises to find any musical tutor to weird instrumental choices, but it seems that music is taken seriously, particularly classical – at Senior School the Orchestra, Choir and Concert band take it in turns to do a summer European tour and there’s a major musical production every two years. At the Junior School there’s a chamber choir, orchestra and instrumental groups.
Consistently excellent. It goes without saying that 2020 was a curveball. But the results are in and despite algorithm hell and pivoting to centrally assessed grades, The Abbey struck gold. Many of the girls take the IB and for good reason. The Abbey has one of the best results in the world, scoring an average 40 points (the world average is 29) – one girl hit the jackpot earning the full 45pts.
That said, it was another excellent year for A-Levels and GCSEs, with 94% of Abbey achieving A*-B grades at A-Level. For GCSE, 99.6% got grades 9-6 which is A*-B in old money. Bonkersly good.
Executive Head, William Le Fleming
Brace yourself! For the first time in The Abbey’s history, a male head has taken the reins. William le Fleming is only the 8th head in the school’s 133-year history, and he has pretty big shoes to fill. That said, he’s used to being around strong women – albeit the ghosts of royal courts. In a previous life, Will worked for the Historic Royal Palaces in the education department (snag those VIP passes, kids). He takes over as overall head of The Abbey School. It’s not his first rodeo at a girls’ school, he was previously at St Paul’s Girls in London, so he knows only too well that mansplaining anything to a room full of young women is an absolute no-no. Instead, he plans to listen and learn from the whole school community as he develops the future strategy. Probably wise. He’s big on universal equality and believes in celebrating not segregating gender. The lines blur even more when you throw gender neutrality and trans gender groups into the mix. It’s all on the table to be discussed. I liked the fact that Will doesn’t shy away from tricky topics. He’s a modern man in a girls’ world. We need more Wills around our daughters, not only to smash that illusive glass ceiling, but to ensure it doesn’t exist in the first place.
Head Of Junior School – Nisha Kaura
Nisha is a familiar face at The Abbey School: her daughters are former pupils and she was Deputy Head. She has a grounded approach to education (having experienced the world of work outside of education) but is a trailblazing, forward-thinker. The girls are encouraged to own their learning experiences, so they’re more invested in the outcomes – Voice, Choice and Ownership are the buzzwords round these parts. Start them looking beyond the Berkshire bubble from a young age, and they’ll learn to see the part they can play in the world as global citizens. What’s not to love about that? Even I want to join a class. Nisha’s a strong role model, passionate that education is seen as a right and not a privilege with each child knowing that they author their own identity. That sense of curiosity, confidence and creativity is bubbling from the bottom to the top and vice versa. I also liked her emphasis on letting the children stay young as long as possible and not putting too much academic pressure on them. Wellness continues to be a hot topic and is fundamental to the girls’ education here – wellbeing lessons and yoga form part of the curriculum and mindful colouring and chill club are all up for grabs.
The girls are encouraged to have a voice and use it. The Abbey School takes its job of producing fearless females very seriously. The aim is to break the mould and give them the confidence to question everything. Curiosity, enthusiasm and boldness are in The Abbey DNA. If you’ve moved from London for space and fresh air, a town centre school may not be your first thought. But the can-do-anything attitude and results that permeate from top to bottom, are certainly attention-grabbing. If you can’t offer grand vistas and roaming, you have to work doubly hard to offer the other stuff. And the other stuff is important.
Finally, The Abbey is the only independent girls’ school in central Reading – not so much a quirk as a fact! So no boys twanging bra straps, and a whole lot of smart ambitious girls. Anyone who wants to be head girl, prefect, even the person who shows around prospective parents has to apply and be interviewed for the ‘job’. That by nature makes The Abbey exciting and aspirational. Your judgement call will be whether that suits your daughter’s personality and what you want for her.
WRAP AROUND CARE
No stressful school runs in Reading traffic jams, there’s a network of buses bringing pupils in from Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire. Many Seniors come on the train to Reading station – walkable to the school. The days are relatively short – it’s home-time by 3.30pm (Reception to Y2) or 3.45pm (Y3 onwards) unless you’re staying for after school clubs. There’s actually an ethos to this, which is that The Abbey encourages a life outside of the school gate. So where some private schools will keep kids until 6pm and do everything within the grounds, The Abbey sees a benefit in experiences away from school.
However, if you’re a working parent there’s a school supervised homework club (no charge) for Senior girls that want to stay until 5.45pm, along with various after school music, drama and sport activities. Sixth Formers can stay in Sixth Form Centre or Library for independent study as and when they like. In the Junior School, you can pay extra for a morning session (7.30am to 8.30am) with breakfast. There’s also an after-school session from 3.30pm to 6pm for £9 which includes a snack and supervised homework. In addition, all students have access to a wide range of extracurricular clubs offering sport, music, drama and dance.
Average and on an increasing scale as you go up the school. Junior School prices are from £4,380 (Y1), £4,480 (Y2), £5,020 (Y3-4), £5,070 (Y5-6) per term. Senior School prices for all years are £5,880 per term. If you’re interested in the Nursery, a full day is £3,560 going up to £4,170 for a 4+ child in Reception.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Lots of positive whisperings from parents: The Abbey excels academically and pastorally. They were particularly impressed with the seamless transition to home learning during lockdown, offering a mix of online and offline lessons for all ages. Lots of the old criticism levelled at The Abbey for being pushy and hot-housey seems to have dissipated. Also, the mums I spoke to didn’t care about the lack of space, which kind of surprised me, but I guess they see the benefits elsewhere.
GOOD FOR: Freethinkers. The Abbey puts a massive emphasis on getting girls ready for the world, creating independent, well-rounded, fearless young women. Those who like progress and question the status quo will love it.
NOT FOR: The Abbey is oversubscribed and so has the ability to take in academically curious, adventurous and globally-minded girls. You’d want to make sure that your daughter was up to this highly ambitious personal challenge.
DARE TO DISAGREE: Be my guest. Take a Virtual Tour and get a feel for the place, before the next IRL Open Events: Senior School on 23 Sep, 5.30pm-8.30pm; Sixth Form on 30 Sep, 5.30pm-8.30pm; Junior School on 1 Oct, 9am-12pm.
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