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Amazingly posh 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.’ Music here reaches all parts and catches up those who never knew they could. Chapel choir is 90 per cent day students who come in every Sunday to sing at mass. What does that tell you? This is not an exam factory because there is no…

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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.
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What the parents say...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head master

Since 2009, Mr James Murphy-O'Connor MA (Oxon) PGCE (40s). Historian. Educated at St Benedict's, Ealing. Degree at Greyfriars Hall, Oxford, PGCE at Peterhouse, Cambridge. Thence to Stamford followed by Sherborne, where he was a housemaster. First headship was the brand new Sherfield. Says ‘Prior Park is in my DNA’ and justly, for his father, Jim, was educated here along with his four brothers. Jim played rugby for Ireland, his younger brother Cardinal Cormac is the retired Archbishop of Westminster and still engages with the religious life of the school. James is married to Ali, four children, all former or current students. Keen on the arts, fan of F Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Hardy, plus Picasso's 1920s art. Passionate Tottenham Hotspur and Ireland rugby fan. Enjoys retreating to family cottage amongst the mountains and wild Atlantic beaches of his beloved Mayo in Ireland where dalmador (dalmatian x labrador) Holly runs free.

By present day standards Mr Murphy-O’Connor’s has already been a longish innings, but he’s not ready to move on yet and talks like a man with an as-yet unfulfilled vision for the school. His focus is the human level, improving the school experience of all students, making sure they are nurtured, safe and throwing themselves into everything on offer. Often to be sighted out and about at the start of the day, ‘chatting and welcoming’, students note admiringly that ‘he knows your name and things about you from day one’. Well-being issues come first in his book - not that the snazzy new sports centre is anything to sneeze at. Scorelines from academic through to sporting have risen measurably on his watch but his legacy will be the emotional health of the school community - which is inaccessible to units of measurement. This isn’t a bandwagon response to recent alarm bells about teenage mental health issues, it’s where his and his school’s heart have always lain. At the time of our visit the big news was a fledgling peer mentoring scheme, a give-something-back enterprise originated by sixth formers intended to enable them to offer discreet advice and emotional support to their younger fellows. Rather than take ownership of the initiative, Mr Murphy-O’Connor was characteristically taking the route of empowerment. This is what his school is all about and all parents we spoke to said it was the pastoral care and evident happiness of the community that got them reaching for their registration form.

In a Catholic school whose roll numbers 65 per cent non-Catholics, Mr Murphy O’Connor unabashedly decrees Catholic values of kindness, service and 'being the person God wants you to be’ - he says ‘every child is precious’. No lip-service here. None of these values is objectionable to parents of a broadly secular disposition, to whom they are also humanist values which they want their child to imbibe. Discussion of topics like abortion and homosexuality hears out and respects all points of view. Non-Catholic students express no uneasiness.

Prior Park delivers, says the head, a rounded education. Lots of heads say this. When they do, cock an eyebrow - we did - for this is an inexact term. It can mean an educational philosophy, it can mean that the students here aren’t terribly good at exams or, when employed by a school that is terribly good at exams, can mean all too little. Which is the case here? The way to find out is to investigate whether, down on the shop floor, teachers and students are walking the talk. What we found by dint of interrogation is that they most emphatically do. Yes, they echo and act out what their head says, and never in a dutiful, parroty way. It is highly unusual to visit a school and hear the words of a head made flesh like this, the more so given the disposition of young persons to subject the exhortations of authority figures to ruthless due diligence. But they like what their head wants, they really do. They want it too. Work matters most, but everything else matters too. One parent told us that your typical Prior Park student is ‘accomplished, compassionate and humble’. No divergence here from Mr Murphy-O’Connor’s primary purpose. Another said, ‘Each student, honestly, matters to him.’ Another: ‘He’s passionate about encouraging pupils to become rounded.’

Academic matters

No point in looking at Dept for Education performance tables for raw data and comparison tables because the school, along with others, is boycotting them. Why? Because in the head’s book there’s more to education than exam results, performance tables take no account of ‘creativity and inspiration’, and the only true measure is how far a school raises its students. So he’d happily sign up for value-added league tables.

Headline figures vary little from year to year. In 2017 at GCSE 56 per cent A*-A/9-7 grades; at A level 38 per cent A*/A, 66 per cent A*-B. So: the school does consistently well by its broad-ish 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 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’. Call this rigour through kindness if you like, there’s a lot of mutual respect going on here. The PHSCE programme is substantial and delivered with purpose.

Prep (homework) is supervised up to sixth form. The relatively long day here (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. Having rejected the International Baccalaureate, they aim now to offer a bespoke version. The outcome the head seeks is ‘an educational framework that enshrines our values.’

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.

Games, options, the arts

Sport, says the head, is ‘one of the things we do’. Puts it in its place nicely, neither bigging it up nor doing it down and underlining his commitment to celebrating achievement in all areas equally, each student according to their lights. 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 2016). 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 good day. 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 gamesy types.

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. A bit boy heavy but efforts being made to bring in the girls.

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’. ‘Blows my mind,’ said another. 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 every Sunday 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 (1993) 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 among. There’s a Saturday (morning) Active programme whose breadth spans street dance and cookery. There’s a CCF - voluntary sign-up from year 8 upwards - and there’s D of E. There’s even an equestrian team.

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.

Boarders

Some 160 students board from age 11, around a third of them girls. Of these, around 50 are weekly and flexi boarders. Roughly 60 full time boarders are international students. Stopover beds for day pupils. We had 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. Mass on Sundays compulsory. To be honest we wondered about the head of boys’ boarding being an ex-Marine - until we met him. Bit of a martinet? No way. He’s a man who understands the vital importance of addressing individuality in all its manifestations.

Background and atmosphere

Run by the Christian Brothers 1830-1981. Palladian mansion built by quarry owner Ralph Allen to advertise the golden glories of Bath stone. This a grade 1 listed building standing two miles from the centre of a UNESCO World Heritage city. Stunning view down from the portico stops all the clocks. Inside, 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. Years 7 and 8 in their own standalone house, Baines, overseen by greatly-liked housemistress and team. Compulsory residential course early in year 7 and team building day for year 8 students underpin community values.

Amazingly posh 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, well-being and discipline

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.’ It’s a palpable culture, one you pick up on as you tour and chat. 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 and it conditions behaviour because it is underpinned by tenacity. Above all, it’s what the students want. So, said one parent, ‘There is no room for anyone to bend the rules. Boundaries are set and are the same for everyone. 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.’ Concern for well-being shirks no issue raised by social media, a major concern; sexting, by way of example, is a regular assembly topic and parents join in the discussion. We asked one parent if social media was a regular discussion topic. ‘No, it’s a constant conversation.’

Pupils and parents

Co-ed since 1982, almost 50:50, boys slightly more numerous. Common rooms are same-sex, lessons and dining mixed. Some 35 per cent of students are Catholic. Year 7 entrants from, equally, local state schools and Paragon Junior. At year 9 a wodge from the prep school in Cricklade plus a smattering from other preps and international schools. 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. This monocultural tendency is mitigated by the school’s international students, never more than 10 per cent of the roll. To cope with demand from overseas the school has just launched Prior Park Gibraltar. 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 PoP (Parents Of Prior), which even has its own private Facebook page. Regular parent forums with the head so he can hear what you think. Weekly newsletter from the head. Listings of parent phone numbers by year group (voluntary) a nice touch. Businesslike, highly functional website. Parents really like the ‘wonderful feeling of community’.

Entrance

Selective. Don’t miss the application deadline - details on the website. Tests for 11+ entrants; CE and scholarship at 13. At any other time, report and interview. 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. Sixth form leavers are Russell groupies, most of them, Exeter, Manchester and Cardiff especially popular. Good and varied balance of arts and sciences. One to Oxbridge in 2017 (usually three or four), plus two medics.

Money matters

Customary range of scholarships up to a value of around 25 per cent, more in deserving cases. Bursaries can be standalone or added to a scholarship. The head says he likes to help where he can, and in another clear-cut case of walking the talk an examination of the accounts reveals that the school awards roughly half as much again in bursaries (as a percentage of income) as other Bath independents. Some carry-over scholarships from prep school. 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. The head says, ‘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.’

Our view

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.

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