The Good Schools Guide Review of Bolton School Boys' Division Junior School, Bolton, BL1 4RD
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Since September 2008, Mr Stephen Whittaker (40s). BEd, specialising in religious education, from Chester College. As a teenager in the ‘80s his own school was closed during the teacher strikes so he helped out at a local primary school – and found his vocation. After teacher training, he taught in various state primaries around Lancashire, gradually working his way up from class teacher to deputy head, to head. This is his first independent school. He has two children – now of secondary school age – but they didn’t come here because they were already settled at a school near the family home when he arrived. Mr Whittaker is warm, approachable and eminently capable. Neither teachers, parents nor boys have a bad word to say about him.
Moving on in April 2015 and will be replaced by Mrs Susan Faulkner, who has been deputy head at the school since 2011. A Durham University graduate, she has also taught at Stonyhurst Junior School and been a deputy head for six years before joining Bolton School.
If your child is already at Bolton Infants’ School (known as Beech House), they’ll automatically be offered a place here (since they’ll have already gone through academic selection). But any child hoping to transfer to the juniors (known as Park Road) from another primary school in year 3 will have to sit the entrance assessment in the January of the year they’d be joining. They’ll be tested in English, maths and verbal reasoning. You can request past papers from the school office.
Pupils also have an interview – ‘more of a chat really’ – with senior teaching staff. The school’s looking for lively, interested children who will thrive both here and in the seniors. Mr Whittaker says that the best time to apply is for entry to year 3, when there are usually 10-15 places up for grabs and a bright child has a very good chance of securing one. Too many parents, though, try to get places for entry to years 5 or 6 – perhaps hoping to improve their child’s chances of getting into the seniors – and this is a recipe for disappointment as often, no matter how bright the child is, there are no spaces at all for entry to these years.
Almost all juniors progress to the senior school. They have to sit the entrance exam but it’s rare for them not to pass. If that did happen it wouldn’t be a shock to the parents; they would have known that the child wasn’t thriving academically in the junior school and would have been in regular communication with staff to discuss the issues.
What this school achieves is glaringly obvious when you talk to the kids. We met some in what felt like a large group (but was in fact no more than eight to 10 boys). Our opener was: ‘Who likes reading?’ We expected a dutiful array of raised hands; what we didn’t expect was a loud burst of book-chatter – involving all the children, not just the older ones. There’s impassioned debate about favourite authors – ranging from David Walliams, Tom Gates and Roald Dahl to Charles Dickens (Bleak House, if you’re wondering – we’re guessing an abridged, illustrated children’s version but we wouldn’t put money on it). One boy confessed – half proud, half guilty – that he just couldn’t put his book down last night and was still reading at 11pm. One lad devours poetry books; another goes for non-fiction; they all love the Horrible Histories. The kids show this kind of zest for everything to do with their learning. One minute they’re enthusing about trips to the school’s own outdoor pursuits centre in the Lake District, Patterdale Hall; the next they’re showing off what they can say in Mandarin. This is the main language studied here, although they also take up French in year 6. It’s taught by two specialist linguist teachers: a native speaker from the Confucius Institute in Manchester and the school’s own languages teacher, who’s learning Mandarin especially.
‘So what does school teach you apart from the subjects you study?’ ‘Be humble’. ‘Try to be kind.’ ‘You must have discipline.’ ‘It’s OK to be different.’ Then suddenly we’re into a discussion about a Remembrance assembly and what they all think about the fact that war is still going on all over the world. These boys are fascinated by everything. And they adore their school. They say it’s ‘quite relaxed here really.’ ‘Yes,’ adds another, ‘If you’ve not handed in your homework they just say, “OK but make sure you do it next time.”’ ‘No!’ interjects a small, firm voice, ‘If you get behind in your work you have to catch up. There’s no doubt about it.’ The boys agree that behaviour isn’t really a problem here: ‘They do sort it out if you’re naughty.’ All say that the teachers would notice if they were upset and that there are adults here they’d confide in. ‘And what would you do if you saw someone who was sad?’ ‘Go over to them and comfort them.’ ‘Yes, but if they’re really sad or they’ve been bullied I’d definitely tell a teacher too.’ A chorus of agreement. So what would they change? Finally silence. One lad says he’d like more freedom but he’s shouted down: ‘I think most of the rules are really sensible.’ ‘And remember that we make a lot of the rules ourselves through the school council.’ The orderly library buzzes in squeaky hubbub. (The one thing these boys still need to learn is not to talk over each other.) A pause. ‘Yeah, I suppose. Yeah, actually there’s nothing I’d change.’
The mums we met couldn’t think of anything either. They appreciate that the school fosters independence in their children right from the start. They feel it’s a really warm and nurturing environment. And they all said their children were thriving here. We were most struck by the heights of achievement reached by the pupils. Mr Whittaker says this is in part achieved by the decision to use specialists to teach many subjects rather than one class teacher delivering the whole curriculum. We were bowled over by the standards of the pupils’ art. This just doesn’t look like primary school work. A wall display from a recent picture book illustration project really could have passed for GCSE work. ‘That,’ says Mr Whittaker, is testament to a ‘really remarkable’ art teacher. Although he assures us that the diminutive artists aren’t completely hand-held – it really is the pupils’ own work; they’re just magnificently taught. None of this would mean much if it weren’t a lovely, friendly community where it’s hard to imagine a child being miserable – but it is.