The Good Schools Guide Review of The Blue Coat School, Birmingham, B17 0HR
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Since 1998, Mr Alan Browning MA Cantab PGCE (50s). Married to Helen, who is very involved in school life; three sons, one a management consultant after Cambridge, the other two at Durham.
Educated Clifton, Trinity College Cambridge and Oxford. A musician, started career as a lecturer at Leicester University, then to Blue Coat as director of music in 1982, then deputy head and director of studies in 1993. ‘He has lived and breathed the school for most of his professional career,' remarks a parent, and parents love the stability that has given. Intellectual, sharp, with a bone dry, ever present, sense of humour, he’s the living example of how a school can be driven forward with vision and energy when you know it inside out.
Usually at 2 into pre-prep or 7 into prep when number of forms expands. Waiting list for the new-build nursery. Most children signed up at or near birth. Most move up through the school. Some places (dependent on natural wastage) at all levels especially at 7. Vast majority come from Edgbaston and Harborne but many from the greater Birmingham suburbs.
Very successful in delivering what parents want – entry to the highly selective King Edward Foundation schools where the majority go. Others to Solihull, Edgbaston High, Bromsgrove, St Georges. Some scholarships, academic and musical, every year to the flagship independent schools, King Edwards’ and King Edward VI High School for Girls.
The school was founded in 1722 by the Reverend William Higgs as a co-educational charity school (making it one of the earliest co-ed schools in the country). It moved to its present site in 1930, and it is hard not to fall in love with the buildings and grounds. The façade has an elegant simplicity, with surrounding lawns and playing fields that are the envy of many city senior schools, and allow for the keenly anticipated annual family outdoor events such as bonfire night and the fête. The school has continued to invest in buildings and the latest additions are a state-of-the-art nursery and a new classroom block with a library to die for. Sports facilities are excellent and parents can take out membership of the sports centre which includes use of the swimming pool. The glorious college-style chapel is one of the many encouragements for the wonderful music.
The school has its eyes firmly fixed on providing inspirational teaching and learning. Since it closed its boarding houses, there has been a determination to maximise the excitement of the learning experience within the time the children are in the school. Well known for its innovative approach to modern languages, it has currently has settled on a programme of teaching French and Spanish from year 2 onwards. Parents complain that the enthusiastic teaching sparks endless nagging from their children to take them on foreign visits. Science is taught in a proper laboratory and is excellent preparation for secondary school with lots of practical work.
Friday afternoons offer a brilliant enrichment over and above the mainstream curriculum for the juniors with cross-curricular options such as philosophy. ‘It is about breaking down the boundaries,’ says the headmaster. The children love it. ‘I don’t want the weekend to come,’ says one 10 year old aspiring philosopher. Creativity is a feature. Art includes an ongoing outdoor sculpture project that is added to each year. As well as high quality traditional music making, there is music technology at an advanced level and African drumming. IT facilities are impressive with new suites of computers. ‘Only problem is that the children’s use of IPads at school puts us under pressure to buy one at home,' complains one parent. In year 3 the children move to a separate house, which offers a wonderful, homely environment as they move from pre-prep into prep, and they now have a brand new year 3 library. In years 5 and 6 there is serious attention given to preparation for secondary school. There are specialist subject teachers and the children start moving from classroom to classroom to get ready for the hurly burly of senior school life.
‘Without a great deal of fuss being made of it, almost everyone gets extra lessons at some stage in their school life here,' says one parent. ‘None of the children make anything of it – certainly no stigma attached.' Much of this is within the normal fees. As the children get older, key subjects are streamed and extra groups created as necessary. ‘We meet the children at their point of need and move them on,’ says the headmaster, and the individual approach comes through strongly. ‘We don’t say every child excels here. How can you say that in a school with a wide ability mix? But what we do say, and deliver on, is that every child flourishes with us’. The approach to the ubiquitous ‘gifted and talented’ is refreshing. It is not ‘Are you gifted and talented?’ – but ‘How are you gifted and talented?’ says the headmaster.
Pastoral work is at the core. The house system operates not just for competitions but to give opportunities for older children to look after younger ones, and the houses are single sex so at the end of lessons when most children go to their houses, boys can be boys and girls can be girls. It does mean an extra pair of shoes though – slippers for the house.
The range of activities is very impressive. The school says it aims to offer high quality options for every type of child, and all the children we spoke to were keenly involved in more than one. There are the usual major sports (the school regularly puts out A, B and C teams) and a number of minor ones – judo, for example. One parent said, ‘The heart of the school is music, which is not surprising given the headmaster’s interest, but there is a real drive to develop sport too.’ The school has links with Aston Villa and local clubs and is forging new ones with Moseley Rugby Club and the University of Birmingham. There are more coaching sessions and specialist coaches now and the new deputy head is a former head of sport – so other schools they meet for fixtures had better look out! The music is brilliant. Most of the children sing in a choir. This, the whole chapel experience and the polished school productions get the children used to presenting to audiences, and they did strike us as unusually confident, in an open, friendly way.
The school welcomes a great many visiting speakers, who often run workshops in areas as diverse as Shakespeare and the Aztecs. There are lots of theatre and concerts visits.
The school is highly conscious of its charitable mission. There are scholarships and means tested bursaries from 7. In addition, the headmaster works hard at partnerships both in the state and independent sector. He has strong links with the schools that the children go on to and this, combined with the undoubted in-depth knowledge teachers and the head has of each child, means that you ignore the school’s advice on the best secondary for your child at your peril. There are meaningful partnerships, too, with local junior state school – teachers observing each other’s lessons – and Blue Coat is part of the King Edward VI High School for Girls Teaching School Alliance, giving endless professional development opportunities for staff.
Chapel is central to the life of the school. ‘Its messages permeate everything we do,’ says the headmaster. Parents can come along, and lots of children get their first experience of performance – singing, playing, public speaking – in the chapel environment, opportunities parents really value. The school reflects Birmingham’s multi-cultural population and, while maintaining its Christian identity, focuses on the shared values between all the faith groups that are represented. And it works. ‘The children simply don’t see the faith and racial divisions’, says one parent. ‘The school fosters harmony’. You really feel here is a school that is building bridges in what is quite a segregated city.
The Edgbaston establishment is pretty well represented in the parent body – lots of medics (the huge Queen Elizabeth Hospital is just round the corner), lawyers, accountants with a smattering of very successful business people, but it is widened by those with means-tested bursaries. They are an ambitious lot, but come to understand that the school is not just about getting into the King Edward’s schools. The quality of the music goes a long way to convincing them.