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  • Prior Park College
    Ralph Allen Drive
    Bath
    Somerset
    BA2 5AH
  • Head: Ben Horan
  • T 01225 831000
  • E [email protected]
  • W www.priorparkcollege.com/
  • An independent school for boys and girls aged from 11 to 18.
  • Boarding: Yes
  • Local authority: Bath and North East Somerset
  • Pupils: 585; sixth formers: 184
  • Religion: Roman Catholic
  • Fees: Day £15,255 - £17,250; Boarding £21,960 - £33,495 pa
  • Open days: Open Door Mornings scheduled for: Friday 5 March 2021 Friday 7 May 2021
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • ISI report: View the ISI report
  • Linked schools: The Paragon School

What says..

One of the lessons we learn from sport, they say, is humility. That’s so Prior Park. No, it’s emphatically not a philosophy of loser takes all - they love to win. Sizeable contingent of parents are dahn-from-Londoners, who have colonised Bath in recent years - yes, even raggle-taggle Walcot Street has capitulated to the hipsters. Monocultural tendency is mitigated by ... 

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What the school says...

Prior Park College is a friendly, purposeful Christian community; Catholic in tradition and ecumenical in spirit. Praise and positive teaching encourage academic confidence and success.

Our ethos is to care for our students so they feel empowered to develop as fully as possible their academic and other talents, to ensure an education of the whole person.

An excellent enrichment programme includes music, dance, art, drama, sport, the Combined Cadet Force, our own community service programme and the Duke of Edinburgh's Award programme.

Our aim is to enable Leavers to be confident, capable compassionate and independent-minded.
...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head master

Since 2019, Ben Horan (late 30s). Brought up on a council estate in south east London and encouraged to apply to Oxford to read history by an inspirational teacher, he went straight into teaching, taking in some prestigious schools: St Benedict's in Ealing, Eton and finally senior deputy head academic at Merchant Taylors'. He has done the lot: head of department, pastoral tutor, cricket and rugby coach; all excellent preparation for his first headship. Of Prior Park he says, ‘I was swayed by the sixth form guides – I felt the community was so full of love’. It is heart-warming to hear this big burly ‘cricket-crazy’ historian talk so disarmingly of love: ‘It’s a verb, not a noun and it’s central to all we do here’ he told us, adding that he never saw himself as a ‘systems and structures guy’, so has overhauled the SLT better to deliver what students need and deserve. Getting the school through the Covid crisis (‘exhausting, gruelling but definitely worth [the effort] for the students’) just six months into his headship meant Mr Horan has not met as many parents as he would have liked to; one parent described him as personable and relatable, another felt that he could cut down on the verbiage in his emails on occasion ‘and in assembly!’ said one young lady with feeling. We would disagree, finding him thoughtful and candid, particularly on the knotty question of keeping Prior true to its Catholic foundations when 70 per cent of its students are not Catholic: ‘Too much focus on hierarchy and dogma does not have traction for parents’ he reflected, ‘but the true values of Catholicism and the gospel do’.

He is proud of his blended family of four sons, three of whom are at Prior; his partner Jane teaches at Eton. Any spare time will find him watching or listening to sport (this is a 5am Test Match Special man), cooking, walking Chlöe the dog or compiling/solving themed cryptic crosswords.

Entrance

Selective. Don’t miss the application deadline - details on the website. School’s own tests for 11+ entrants; CE and scholarship at 13. At any other time, report, interview and assessments. Year 7 entrants from, equally, local state schools and Paragon Junior. At year 9 a wodge from other preps and international schools. Around 20 join post-GCSE from other schools, telling you something about the strength of the sixth form, whose entrants need a minimum six GCSEs with As in A level subjects preferred.

Exit

Small exodus post-GCSE, most to vocational courses. Many sixth form leavers are Russell groupies; Exeter is top of the pops but Bath, St Andrew’s, Cardiff Met, Oxford Brooks also popular destinations. Good and varied balance of arts and sciences. In 2020, one to Oxbridge, one medic and two to university overseas (Arizona State University to study business and Georgetown University, Washington DC to study economics).

Latest results

In 2020, 56 per cent 9/7 at GCSE; 44 per cent A*/A at A level (73 per cent A*/B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 44 per cent 9/7; 33 per cent A*/A at A level (64 per cent A*/B).

Teaching and learning

No point in looking at government performance tables for raw data and comparison because this school, along with others, doesn’t enter them. Why? Because school feels there’s more to education than exam results and performance tables take no account of ‘creativity and inspiration’, the only true measure is how far a school raises its students.

Headline figures vary little from year to year and school does consistently well by its fairly broad intake. This is not an exam factory because there is no relenting in the commitment to all-round personal development. Neither is roundedness achieved at the expense of best-possible exam results - a neat trick which the school pulls off adroitly. There’s pressure all right, but it’s judiciously applied and it works because - this is the culture of the place - teachers know their students very well as people, they pick up on stress, lethargy and waywardness just like that and make time to give support. One student said, ‘They always help when you’re finding it difficult and get you back for a bit of tuition to help you through.’ Another said, ‘No teacher here would ever turn down a request for help’. The PHSCE programme is substantial and delivered with purpose. All students are now equipped with a personal learning device (a laptop by any other name) as part of the school’s digital strategy. Online teaching provision has mostly been live and generally ok: ‘Some teachers are not cut out to be movie stars,’ as one mother observed wryly, but their kindness and commitment is in no doubt. A little more clarity and rigour around the use of cameras in lessons would be helpful.
Prep (homework) is supervised up to sixth form and the relatively long day (no Saturday school) means that you can break the back of it before you get home. Parents like this: ‘There’s usually not all that much to do at home so we can relax together as a family’. As you age it increasingly spills over, of course. There’s currently a curriculum review in progress which aims to fine tune already estimable value-added scores. The outcome the school seeks is ‘an educational framework that enshrines our values.’

Mandarin A level on offer from 2021.

Learning support and SEN

No statemented students accepted, but SEND provision supports milder SENs and intervenes when disparity emerges between a student’s potential and ongoing achievement, or a student needs, say, organisational strategies or exam-stress support. Extends to students who develop mental health issues. Parents speak well of the expert sensitivity of the support given to their children. Mobility impaired students accepted where possible, but the school’s architecture is a constraint.

The arts and extracurricular

Art and design happen in and around a refurbed dorm. Fine art good, photography especially strong just now as is textiles. Healthy numbers, decent results. Design technology in a good place, partnerships with local industries, lots of energy input from staff. Sixth form has its own DT workshop, equipped to industry standards.

Music universally praised. Inspirational head of music also performs with singing group Opus Anglicanum. No elitism here when it comes to genre: anything goes from Gabrieli to grime. In cases of indie genres his smart ploy is to offer ‘hands-off facilitation’ thus enabling students to retain ownership of their sounds. High-end choral tradition longstanding and outstanding, biennial opera, multiplicity of ensembles, concerts formal and informal, for they love to go live and give others ‘an experience of the sublime’. Two, yes two, musicals every year, all singing, all dancing - one parent said, ‘Never a duty date, I simply can’t believe the standard they reach’. Music here reaches all parts and catches up those who never knew they could. There’s an inter-house music competition including student-rehearsed house song in which everyone sings and thereafter dwells on, marvelling fondly, for the rest of the year. A level numbers small, but of these a good number go on to top music colleges. Chapel choir is 90 per cent day students who come in at weekends to sing at mass. What does that tell you?
Drama’s right up there with music (let’s call it a dead heat). Up to 14 productions of all sorts a year, much of it high-end stuff. Staff (superb) all come from professional theatre, that’s what makes the difference. Fabulous Julian Slade theatre largely funded by Cameron Mackintosh’s Foundation - he’s a former student - palpably redolent of the magic created in it down the years by dint of passion, sweat, discipline, creativity and self-discovery. It’s the real thing all right. Mackintosh also funded the excellent dance studio.

You get to do your after-school activities in school here. Recreational options, both lunchtime and after lessons, are multifarious and eclectic, embracing a diversity of endeavours from tricky physics to knit-and-natter - more than 60 to choose from. Saturday (morning) Active programme spans street dance and cookery. There’s a CCF - voluntary sign-up from year 8 upwards - and DofE. ‘It is fun’ one student told us wistfully during lockdown, ‘especially the innings [house evenings] and outings’.

Sixth formers have their own after-school (ad)ventures. They concoct a social programme - film nights, music nights, BBQs etc. The charities committee coordinates competitive fundraising for good causes and the best house wins a cup. Then there’s Prior Concern, which sends forth students to do their bit for the homeless, nursery-age children and the elderly. Catholic values in action.

Sport

Parents like the way the school ‘encourages everyone to give it all a go regardless of ability.’ Hockey’s what they do best in shop-window terms (national champions recently). Netball is strong, rugby has an ex-England international coach, the rest competitively respectable given the size of each year’s intake. Spacious playing fields, plentiful Astroturf. Sport for all, they say, greatest involvement by the greatest number, borne out by number of teams per sport sent forth to battle for their school every Saturday - around 10 on a good day but, according to one parent, girls’ sport does not get the recognition that the boys’ does. Maybe, but girls’ tennis was ranked second in the country in 2020. Individuals regularly play at regional and international level. One of the lessons we learn from sport, they say, is humility. That’s so Prior Park. No, it’s emphatically not a philosophy of loser takes all - they love to win. Sports centre, source of great pride, includes multi-sport gym, fitness suite, you name it. It’s been a boon for the less sporty types.

Boarders

Some 140 students board from age 11, around a third of them girls. Of these, around 50 are weekly and flexi boarders. Compulsory residential course early in year 7 and team building day for year 8 students underpin community values. Roughly 90 full time boarders are international students. Stopover beds for day pupils. We had initial reservations about the boys’ accommodation in St Paul's - gorgeous as the building may be on the outside, its bigness seemed inimical to snugness on the inside. This is an adult perception; the students reckon it does very nicely. Boys live alongside residential staff and their families. Girls occupy the unarguably cosier Priory nearby. Prep is supervised by a teacher. Weekend activities, the bugbear of any boarding regime, continually addressed. Weekend mass (Saturday evening or Sunday morning) is compulsory.

Ethos and heritage

The stunning grade 1 listed Palladian mansion, set on a hill overlooking Bath, was built by quarry owner Ralph Allen to advertise the golden glories of Bath stone. The estate was purchased by Bishop Baines in 1829 and first opened as a school in 1830. Run by the Christian Brothers until the 1980s, it's now under lay management. Inside, 17th century architectural grandeur doesn’t always adapt readily to the needs of a 21st century school and can play the part of an awkward host. ‘Don’t agree,’ say the students as you fight for breath up an endless spiral staircase; ‘it’s quirky, it’s part of the charm’. A parent concurred: ‘Yes, all right, it’s a bit shabby in places but in the nicest way - a bit basic but kids love it.’ Lovely chapel, lovely name, Our Lady of the Snows, used also for weekly assemblies - all get in, just. Science block purpose built.

Refined architecture notwithstanding, the social climate here isn’t the least snooty; this is a down to earth place where ordinary people go to school, a place whose unpretentious personality answers the values of the sort of parent who celebrates ‘a school that doesn’t set itself apart from the city but participates in local events’.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

In a Catholic school with over 70 per cent non-Catholics, staff unabashedly decree Catholic values of kindness, service and 'being the person God wants you to be’. None of these values is objectionable to parents of a broadly secular disposition, and no subject is off-limits, including the exploration and expression of gender. A letter from former students in 2020 asking the school to decolonise the curriculum was met with what one parent considered ‘a fair response’. There’s a culture here of looking out for each other, teachers for students, older students for younger ones - one parent said, ‘they got to know my daughter very quickly and genuinely appreciated her as a person’. Intervention is prompt. One parent said, ‘It is a fantastic strength of the school that they are so diligent with the students’ well-being. This doesn’t all come about by wishing it so or generating policy docs, it derives from expectations, watchfulness, example-setting and buy-in. It works because it’s hard work.’ That excellent provision has continued through lockdown, with daily get-togethers with tutors, online sessions, well-being surveys and a listening service laid on.
Boundaries are set and are the same for everyone, ‘There is no room for anyone to bend the rules,' said one parent. This has created a school of pupils who take pride in how they are being perceived by everyone.’ Another said: 'We are constantly amazed by the school’s ability to encourage and maintain an exquisite level of behaviour and compliance without the need to instil enormous amounts of discipline.’ Major concern over any issues raised by social media; sexting, by way of example, is a regular assembly topic and parents join in the discussion. One parent commented ‘… it’s a constant conversation.’ Bullying is dealt with robustly and the school does not shrink from expulsion in extreme cases.

Pupils and parents

Co-ed since 1982, almost 50:50, boys slightly more numerous. Common rooms are same-sex; lessons and dining mixed. Sizeable contingent of parents are dahn-from-Londoners, who have colonised Bath in recent years - yes, even raggle-taggle Walcot Street has capitulated to the hipsters. Monocultural tendency is mitigated by international students, never more than 10 per cent of the roll. With two outstanding (Ofsted) state schools and four rival independents in Bath alone, the education market locally is working well, with competitive pressures driving up standards and heightening distinctiveness.
For day students, buses from all corners up to 30 miles away. Parental involvement welcomed: twice-monthly coffee mornings hosted by Parents Of Prior, which even has its own private Facebook page. Weekly newsletter. Listings of parent phone numbers by year group (voluntary) a nice touch. Business-like, highly functional website. Parents really like the ‘wonderful feeling of community’.

Money matters

Customary range of scholarships up to a value of around 10 per cent. Bursaries can be standalone or added to a scholarship. School likes to help where it can and, in another clear-cut case of walking the talk, an examination of the accounts reveals that it awards roughly half as much again in bursaries (as a percentage of income) as other Bath independents. Discounts for siblings. Lunch bundled with fees but not transport. Taking account of the long school day and the 4-6pm activities programme, good value for money. ‘We recognise that we have a lot of working parents who stretch themselves to afford the fees. We don’t want to let them down.’

The last word

Confident in its Catholic values, happy in its own skin and distinctive in its commitment to a genuinely all-round education, this is a school which inspires esteem and affection in equal measure.

Please note: 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

Prior Park College provides very limited support for up to 4 children (for entry into Year 7 and a further 4 in Year 9) with very mild dyslexia. We accept up to 10 registrations for pupils who are seeking a place on our Learning Development Programme. Currently we are unable to accept any further registrations until 2011. 09-09


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