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All sixth formers must do 20 hours of 'compulsory volunteering'. (Yes, really. Look no further if you’re an English student searching for an example of an oxymoron.) We’d describe the atmosphere as cheerfully disciplined rather than strict. Exclusions are rare but they do happen. As you’d expect, the range of sporting, creative, cultural and academic extracurricular activities is superb. Go-karting club had bought three beaten up chassis for the boys to customise...

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What the school says...

Bolton School Boys' Division is a single-sex school but with opportunities for joint activities with the adjacent Bolton School Girls' Division. We offer academic excellence at one of the North's pre-eminent schools, outstanding facilities and resources set in 32 acres of grounds, strong extra-curricular and pastoral programmes, an emphasis on developing the whole person and an inclusive, caring and friendly environment.

Full fee bursaries from age 11+ and our coach service covering 22 routes, ensures pupils are drawn from a wide geographical area.
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What the parents say...

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Other features

All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2008, Philip Britton, MBE MA MEd FInstP (40s). Was state-educated in the north east then read physics at Oxford, followed by a PGCE from Cambridge and a masters from Leeds. His academic pedigree really is first class: firsts, distinctions, top of the year awards – he’s got them all. Head of physics at The Grammar School in Leeds at 23 and latterly deputy head there. His MBE is for services to physics and he has worked with the Institute of Physics to improve the curriculum.

Staff say he’s the cleverest head they’ve ever had and that he’s ‘highly supportive’ when they’re trying to get anything new off the ground. Boys say he’s ‘kind’, but this is a big school and Mr Britton makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t have a huge amount to do with most pupils individually. If there’s a problem he encourages parents and boys to approach form tutors, year heads or subject teachers first rather than going straight to the top. He says, ‘although I could probably pick that boy out of a school photo, the chances are I’ll know nothing about the specific issue’. He clearly listens to the community – commissioning regular parents’ questionnaires etc – but he comes across as a confident leader rather than a people pleaser. His decision not to see every parent at the drop of a hat ‘took a while to bed in’ and, he says, ‘maybe some parents do find that frustrating, but I’m OK with that because I think I’m right’. We didn’t meet any dissent from the parents we met, who described him as ‘approachable’ and ‘proactive’.

He gets a parent’s eye view of the school because both his own sons attend: ‘If my boys come home excited and positive day after day,’ he says, ‘then I imagine that’s hopefully going on at a lot of other kitchen tables too.’

Academic matters

It’s a selective school and most boys are in the top 25 per cent in terms of ability. In 2018 at A level 52 per cent of entries were A*/A, 79 per cent A*-B. At GCSE 54 per cent of entries A*-A/9-7. Ongoing monitoring compares the boys not to each other but to their own potential – so a boy near the bottom of his class might still be praised for making great leaps forwards and a boy right at the top of the class can’t necessarily relax. ‘Maybe Joe or Fred did get 90 per cent in a test,’ says Mr Britton, ‘but we’ll know if actually he should be getting 95 per cent.’

The learning support department arranges one-to-one ‘bespoke interventions’ - usually before school or during breaks - for boys who are struggling or who have SEN. Support for children with EHC plans or who don’t speak English at home incurs no extra cost. There are also ‘drop in’ clinics for anyone who needs extra help with a subject or has been absent. Meanwhile high flyers are stretched with AQA Bacc extended projects, Olympiads and other competitions, and the headmaster runs an invitation-only academic club, the Ainsworth Society, which meets once a term to discuss books and ideas.

More than half take maths A level (compared to about 10 per cent taking English). Other popular subjects at A level include economics, geography and all three sciences. But there’s excellence across the board – particularly in languages. Latin, ancient Greek and Russian are all offered to A level. The award-winning Russian department runs a biennial trip to Russia and takes sixth formers on a week-long residential language course at the University of East Anglia. Average class size is 17 but they’re smaller in the sixth form. The curriculum makes room for plenty of physical activity and all boys do some of their learning every year on residential trips to Patterdale Hall, the school’s own outdoor pursuits centre in the Lake District. Every pupil has an iPad (at no extra cost, so there’s no divide between the haves and the have-nots). They can email homework direct to their teachers as they do it and get comments back the same night.

Boys told us that they felt lucky to have such expert teachers and that they appreciated being stretched. None of the boys we spoke to had experienced peer pressure not to be seen as a swot. One told us: ‘I love knowing the answer – lessons are my chance to put my hand up and show off.’ Some complained that there was too much homework but parents seemed to think the amount was just right. The boys we met had an impressively mature attitude to learning – taking it on the chin if they thought a comment in a report was unfair: ‘I got a two for effort and I thought I deserved a one but it just inspires me to try harder’. All pupils we met felt that they’d know where to go if they needed extra help academically and they’d be well-supported. Most agreed that they were gradually given more and more chances to learn independently as they moved up the school, although one sixth former wondered if he’d been rather spoon-fed.

Games, options, the arts

Mr Britton is big on everyone getting involved in extracurricular activities – so much so that boys must do three lunchtime activities a week during their first few years in the seniors. This mildly authoritarian approach to joining in is also reflected in the fact that the outdoor pursuits trip to Patterdale Hall is obligatory and that all sixth formers must do 20 hours of 'compulsory volunteering'. (Yes, really. Look no further if you’re an English student searching for an example of an oxymoron.) One sixth form dissenter was scathing: ‘Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous: some kids don’t want to do all those clubs or to go to Patterdale and it’s completely wasted on them.’ But that’s very much a minority view. Most parents and pupils see this set-up as a positive reflection of the character of the school. One mum told us that her son recently announced to to her on the way home: ‘Do you know what’s brilliant? Being busy.’

The pupils start some of the clubs themselves - if you don’t fancy what’s on offer you’re encouraged to come up with an idea you do like. As you’d expect, the range of sporting, creative, cultural and academic extracurricular activities is superb. You can even buy Bolton School honey produced by the beekeeping club. Pretty much every subject area has a society in which students from different years work together on projects that are often impressively advanced. Whether they’re planting electrodes in a cockroach’s brain to control its movement remotely; sending a high altitude balloon into space to take photos of the earth from the stratosphere; or working with the school’s writer in residence to produce board games, monologues and ‘flash fiction’ – the boys can access the latest resources with support from experts who know how to use them. Go-karting club had bought three beaten up chassis for the boys to customise and cannibalise during lunchtimes to make their own mean machine. We walked in on a buzzing history society University Challenge style quiz – with a team of four teachers competing against four pupils. The young quiz master was clearly relishing his moment of power; the questions were brain-fuddlingly obscure and the raucous crowd rejoiced to see the teachers struggling.

It’s a sporty school, with plenty of timetabled physical activity and great facilities including a 25m indoor swimming pool, a climbing wall and a multigym. Football, hockey, rugby, cricket and water polo are all played competitively with great success. The school is also very strong at drama (star old boy Sir Ian McKellen is a regular visitor) and at music – with half the boys learning an instrument. Pupils we spoke to didn’t feel there was any pressure to go with the crowd. One boy said: ‘I like dancing. And I like football. No one minds what I choose to do – why would they?’

Parents loved the range of activities and said they were ‘awestruck’ by how many hours the teachers put in to school life beyond the curriculum. Many were drawn to the school as much by its ethos and community as by its academic reputation. One mum told us the boys here are ‘confident, not cocky. And they’ll grow up to be fine young men.’

Background and atmosphere

The campus is spacious and magnificent. It’s like an Oxbridge college – a big one - set amidst 32 acres of playing fields. Two grand, mirror image, stone quads house the girls’ and boys’ divisions. They meet in the middle with a third central quad at the bottom of which is a modern sixth form centre. Here, although boys and girls are still taught separately, some spaces are shared and they can interact freely. The two divisions share many sports facilities and join for various extracurricular activities – most notably drama productions – so parents say they get the best of both worlds: ‘no girls to put them off their work but you don’t have a problem of a lad going to university who doesn’t know how to talk to any girl except his sister.’ There’s rather less integration with the two single-sex junior schools on site and with the mixed-sex infant school and nursery. You get the sense that there’s a broad sense of community between all the separate sections but that each has a distinct identity and plenty of autonomy.

It’s like an old-fashioned grammar school – if a rather grand and smart one. Tradition and family ties are valued here; one pupil explained that he’d been assigned to a particular house because his grandfather had been in it. On the spectrum between conservative and radical, it seems to us that the leadership doesn’t force change on the pupils or teachers for the sake of it.

The school also feels genuinely Boltonian. Only a few miles north of Manchester, the town has a distinctive accent and a proud industrial history. A number of the teachers are local and so are most of the adored support staff, some of whose families have long links with the school. It sees itself as an important institution for the town. It offers its expertise, facilities and the volunteering energies of its pupils to help local state schools and other community groups and this perhaps keeps the school grounded. Its atmosphere is unpretentious, positive and industrious – at times the boys can be both robust and competitive but we felt that this was tempered by kindness and a real respect for difference.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

We’d describe the atmosphere as cheerfully disciplined rather than strict. Exclusions are rare but they do happen. Incidents involving knives or drug-dealing would be non-negotiable out-on-your-ear offences. Mr Britton says he’s more concerned about the safety of the silent majority of pupils who behave than he is to show unending compassion to the (hypothetical) boy who endangers others. But the school tries to reform those found guilty of lesser offences. Most pupils are oblivious to this side of school life but the handful who misbehave can expect to face after-school or Saturday morning detentions or even suspension. ‘If you’ve been suspended twice and we still believe in you,’ says Mr Britton, ‘you’ll end up on headmaster’s report. At that point we’ll tell the boy and his parents that he’s the only person who can decide what happens: if he fouls up again, he’s out.’ Apparently at this point most boys decide they’d rather stay in.

The school is proud of its pastoral system. Form tutors see their group of 22-25 boys twice a day. Mr Britton is confident that pupils can and do feel confident to talk to their form tutors and that they have other people to reach out to if they want – such as year heads or a school nurse. He says they do uncover instances of bullying and deal with them ‘swiftly and sensibly’. He’s at pains to point out that bullies as well as victims are offered support. Boys told us they feel safe at school and everyone we spoke to agreed that they’d stand up for a victim of bullying and tell a teacher. It’s not always gentle here, though; ‘They don’t bitch, but they do banter,’ said one mum. Another told us that there was a point when she’d worried about how cruel the boys can be to one another and had even looked around at alternative schools for one son – but her search just showed her ‘how good it is here’. Some boys – particularly in the sixth form – feel confident to come out as gay. ‘Almost every term we have a “coming out moment",' says Mr Britton, ‘and it’s no great big drama.’ ‘The boys are amazing,’ said one mum; ‘they don’t bat an eyelid if someone’s gay.’

Pupils and parents

The community of old boys is important to the school and evidently many alumni feel strong emotional ties to the place. On the day of our visit the head was getting ready to travel to an old boys’ dinner in Oxford. There’s an impressive array of high achieving alumni, providing the school with expertise and inspiration as well as extra cash. As well as Gandalf, notable old boys include actor Ralf Little (from The Royle Family), radio presenter Mark Radcliffe, grand chess master Nigel Short, Nobel prize-winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto and a long list of notables from the worlds of business, sport, politics, academia and the media.

Half the current intake is from Bolton itself. The school also operates 20 coaches bringing boys in from Preston, Wigan, Warrington, Blackburn and Manchester. There’s a real mix of ethnic and religious - if not social - backgrounds here, and adjectives such as bright, courteous, down-to-earth and hard-working spring to mind before words like rich or privileged.

One parent we spoke to had felt driven to consider an independent school because of the dearth of good local state schools. Another mum had been a pupil at the girls’ division here herself; another had had a tough time at a state school and wanted something different for her sons. We met parents with a range of accents, backgrounds and approaches.

Entrance

Year 7 entry via creative writing essay plus tests in verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning and maths. Everyone is interviewed. If your son’s primary school expects him to achieve level 5 in his key stage 2 Sats he’ll be in with a good chance. Roughly two applicants per full fee place, three or four for each means-tested bursary, awarded to highest scorers.

Exit

Around a quarter leave after GCSEs. Spread of universities solid rather than dazzling. Five to Oxbridge in 2018; Liverpool much the most popular destination, others to a wide spread including Birmingham, Nottingham, Newcastle and Manchester. The school does particularly well with applications to study medicine and dentistry. Pupils told us that they received ‘fantastic’ support with their university applications.

Money matters

One in five pupils receives a means-tested bursary and half of those have their full fees paid. The school – including the bursary fund – is in robust financial health. Its profit-making arm, Bolton School Services Ltd, generates revenue from venue hire, catering, its coach company and the pre-school nursery.

Our view

A no-nonsense, busy school where bright boys pick up a great work ethic and a strong community spirit. Excellent teaching, pastoral care and enrichment opportunities and a terrific environment. Difference is celebrated here so there’s no typical pupil. It is a big school so a very quiet lad might worry that he’d feel overwhelmed but the school is confident that it has created structures ‘to make the big feel small’. We’ll give the last words to the mum who told us: ‘When we looked round the school Mr Britton said to us: “you’ll drop off a young lad at our door and a well-rounded young man will leave.” And boy, he did!’

Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Bolton School tries to cater for the needs of all pupils who have mild special needs, although we are not SEN registered and do not cater for those who would be statemented for moderate or severe special needs in state schools. There is no formal withdrawal from lessons: all pupils follow the appropriate timetable for their age group. However, additional learning support is available at lunchtimes, with one-to-one tuition and/or counselling with the school's Learning Support Officer.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
PD - Physical Disability
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty
VI - Visual Impairment

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