The Good Schools Guide Review of Leighton Park School, Reading, RG2 7EE
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Since 2013, Mr Nigel Williams. Nigel has worked at the school for 18 years, in a variety of roles, most recently as deputy head. School says he is committed to the Quaker testimonies of peace, integrity, equality and simplicity.
Appointment follows the short-ish tenure of Alex McGrath of whom we said, 'Hasn't had a completely smooth journey: expelled a few miscreants, one expulsion overturned by governors, candidly admits that was a real low point; then staved off a parental mutiny by backing down on proposed changes to the house structure. He lost the battle but won the day and gained parents' respect. He was hit by a tidal wave of passion and feeling and had to yield to that.' Not all his changes are unpopular and, with the passage of time, some parents concede his ideas for restructuring might not be so bad after all. Parents frank about their expectations, 'A new head was our great white hope. Change takes time, Alex has good vision but we need to share in that.' One or two felt he lacked experience but say he is learning fast. Parents of miscreants give the thumbs-up, 'We were impressed with his firm but fair and thoughtful handling of our offspring'. Staff positive, recognising he is about sustainability, standards and attracting the right students.'
Solid, not stunning, results but school takes a broad range, stands by its charges, lets them pursue passions and has been known to make silk purses from the proverbial. In 2014, 56 per cent A*/B (32 per cent A*/A) grades at A level with an average point score of 34 in the increasingly popular International Baccalaureate. At GCSE, 44 per cent A*/A grades. Almost half A level students take maths – a strength of the school – and about a third physics or chemistry. Extensive labs a hive of animated activity when we visited – frequencies and vibrations in physics, reaction times in chemistry, buzzing and busy. Excellent art and design, English lit good. Modern languages flagged by parents as a 'could do better' with few if any boys taking at A level. First name terms (used throughout) can make it hard for staff to establish themselves but most do so with great aplomb. A few staff moved on, some for promotion, some retired, others by mutual agreement; new blood well-received. Smallish classes, good facilities, multi-media languages centre, well-appointed maths building, great workshop space for DT. Religious studies (called 'beliefs and values') includes philosophy of Quakerism. Reading important, jolly library with squishy bean-bags and themed, artful displays prepared by a librarian passionate about inspiring others to read. School regularly hosts visiting authors, and even produces and prints its own books and anthologies.
Intellectual rather than academic in approach: pupils are encouraged to question, think, experiment and to challenge ideas. 'We do more than just learn, we consider implications,' said one girl; another added, 'Leighton Park lets you be an individual, even giving you metaphorical rope to almost hang yourself with, then steps in at the critical moment, if you haven't saved yourself.' In line with the Quaker ethos, head is keen to create a professional learning community and subscribes to the view that 'teachers should be guides on the side not sages on the stage'. Had a major push on improving accountability and upping expectations. Monitoring, recording, reporting and targets emphasised with 'portfolio of progress' to highlight the good and the gaps. No intention of ceding to sausage machine, 'We expect pupils to question and to challenge, but they have to take ever-greater responsibility for their learning too.' Some parents concerned cerebral push might spoil the nature of LP, others guardedly approve, 'If it focuses staff and students without strait-jacketing, allows them to continue to explore their learning and doesn't pressure the way some other local schools do, it will be fine.' Procedural tightening addresses odd moan about communication. 'In some ways the lack of hover encapsulates the beauty of LP but in others it doesn't cut mustard – there have been lots of last minute assessments and squeezing things in, so better planning is welcome'; another added, 'It wasn't helpful to hear your child had gone from A to D at the end of an academic of year'. Precisely.
Approximately 20 per cent have mild to moderate needs (mainly on the dys-strata but ADHD, Aspergers, VI, HI okay). Super Individual Learning Centre (ILC), with its refreshingly generous rooming and good, nurturing team of experienced staff, operates an open door policy, with students dipping in as required. 'Support isn't a life sentence, we don't tattoo it on their forehead,' says learned SENCo. Not the place for complex needs, no classroom support, no TAs and usually max withdrawal of one lesson per week. Pupils expected to work hard to develop skills and coping strategies. Hottest ticket in town is the frequently gate-crashed ILC party. Parents of new pupils report fantastically speedy, school-wide help, understanding and support. 'My child is bright but has organisational and processing problems. Unlike his previous school, they were on to his difficulties immediately, working on strategies, putting systems in place and keeping me informed.'
Games, Options, the Arts
'It's so much fun here' say youngsters; prospectus is crammed with exciting accounts of extra-curricula options – D of E, art club, debating, Amnesty International, textiles, Young Enterprise, house competitions a mere flavour. If what you fancy isn't on offer (how can that be?) then pupils are encouraged to start a club. Odd parental moan that some advertised activities don't always run – some organised by pupils who later bail out, others lack a critical mass to make them happen. Art good and innovative; we loved the statue in the quad, the painstaking work of a GCSE student. Glowing reports of magnificent music and compelling dramatic productions with orchestras, ensembles, choirs and performance opportunities aplenty. Impressive list of county sportsmen, sports and fixtures galore. Floodlit Astroturf and super games pitches but gym aged and sports hall on wish list. Super 25 metre indoor pool. Trips and tours to everywhere for everything – possibly jars with school's Save the Planet group (inspired by 'ecologist in residence')? Sixth Special on Friday afternoons welcomes a range of dynamic speakers and much debate.
Background and Atmosphere
Founded as a public school in 1890 to educate scholars for Oxbridge, nicknamed 'the Quaker Eton' at the time, it still has style but in a modern, forward-thinking kind of way. The 'old school' is a fine Georgian building with a gracious reception area; outside, a small lawn and ha-ha date from its origins. Sixty acres of parkland – a welcome oasis of greenery; calm and (mainly) elegant buildings provide a welcome change from Reading's maze of tarmac, cheek by jowl with the University of Reading, close to M4 corridor and Heathrow. Grounds much used, most recently for an enchanting Gruffalo trail, engineered and designed by LP pupils to enthral children from local primaries. Wonderful calm atmosphere, Quaker ethos permeates pupils' psyche – look for good in others, pupils (and active PTA) raise loads of money for charity, second chances common.
No Saturday lessons – so lots of weekly boarders, (flexi on request) – plenty for weekenders to do. Day pupils often stay for supper and prep. Operates on boarding school lines; fierce house loyalty with sports, music and competitions galore. Generous, well-kept, homely accommodation, one junior house (years 7 and 8), and four co-ed senior houses – all with kitchenettes, games rooms etc. 'There's an ease and maturity of friendship between the sexes which stems from the co-educational houses,' says head. There was certainly a great buzz and friendly, welcoming atmosphere when we visited, day students seamlessly integrating with boarders and much mixing across ages. Sixth form centre – The Caradon Centre – has areas for IT, careers, study and relaxation as well as kitchen and meeting rooms plus own garden. Wonderfully civilised, trendy Oakview dining facility offers great range of tasty, wholesome, healthy meals and treats.
Pastoral Care and Discipline
Universal acclaim for excellent pastoral care, each child assigned a tutor who oversees their well-being and progress. Mutual respect of pupils and staff is palpable but that doesn't mean kids get an easy ride. Tougher stance than many schools on transgressions, drugs, alcohol etc. 'The difference is, those who err are disciplined but once they have served time for the crime, they are allowed to move on'. 'My son had a couple of run-ins but still made it to prefect, I think other schools would have marked his card.' Low incidence of bullying, most disputes self-resolve. 'My daughter has a huge group of friends and great social life, kids care about each other.' Good careers advice; sixth form staff praised, 'They continued to help my son even after he left.' Staff encourage pupils to think about and question their choices, 'Even if you are a dead cert for Oxbridge they won't push you into it, they want what's best for you, not what looks good for school.' Parents say, 'All schools have bumps along the way but staff at LP are always ready to listen, to be open-minded with the interests of the child paramount.' Recently smartened uniform policy a hit with us – navy for younger years, business suits from Y9 up.
Pupils and Parents
Smart, friendly and quickly at ease in our company, pupils were happy to share their views on the school, warts and all. 'More history, chocolate and sports,' were frequent requests from forthright, younger boys; 'less sport,' said a lone female voice, happy to go against the grain. Older girls, setting up a lunchtime food stall, fund-raising for good causes, gave an eloquent account of their work and aims. Lots of schools talk about individuals but there's no stamp or typical LP child – lots of quirky kids, plenty of off-piste discussion but no truck with showy, ostentatious behaviour. Element of compromise means those who need continual, clear boundaries would struggle. 'Expect periodic engagement in brutally frank discussions; some youngsters can be outspoken, challenging ideas and conventional thinking', say parents. Won't always pick the best pupils to do something – give chances. All major faiths represented, five per cent Quaker. Large number of feeder preps and primaries mainly from Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Bucks. Twenty per cent overseas from 24 countries, including USA, China, Australia, Europe. Parents from a range of professions, lawyers, business, IT and university professionals plus media types. Old Leightonians: Sir David Lean, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Jim Broadbent, Laura Marling, Eliza Bennett, Michael Foot, Lord Caradon, Lord Frederick Seebohm and a fair clutch of MPs plus Rowntrees, Cadburys, Clarks, Reckitts, Morlands and Frys.
January entrance tests for years 7-10 (alternative dates if needed) in maths, English, non-verbal reasoning. Pupils chosen on previous report, interview and reference from current head. At sixth form about 35 enter from outside with at least six A*-Cs and A*-B grades in chosen subjects (A/A* for maths).
A few leave at 16 to sixth form college or return to study in their home country. Majority of students go on to university - Durham, Exeter, Warwick, Birmingham and Sheffield currently popular. Some also to RADA, Guildhall etc.
Several major and minor awards for art, music, drama and sport. Means-tested bursaries. Friends' schools' bursaries available to those with Quaker parents. David Lean Foundation awards one annual scholarship for 100 per cent of day fees, for academic excellence.
Stuck unapologetically to revered, old-fashioned values of encouraging independence of thought, creative thinking, collective spirit, spine and responsibility. 'Their voices are heard, they learn to cope with life but in a comfortable environment where they can make mistakes. It's this distinctive preparation for real life that makes LP different.' Parents talk of the leap of faith: 'It doesn't suit everyone; it bucks the pressure-cooker trend, evident in so many schools in this area, yet they still get the result'. 'My son wasn't a conventional learner and struggled at GCSE yet staff were patient and in the end he soared, achieving top grades. I am not sure he would have done so elsewhere'. Ideal for the confident, considered, articulate intellectual with a mature outlook, but equally those who've had a knock, find their feet and are encouraged to fly.