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What says..

No entry would be complete without the celebrated lines of Sir Henry Newbolt: ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight, Ten to win and the match to make’, and the later exhortation to ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’ Cricket in summer and rugby in winter are played out on this hallowed turf, overlooked by the school’s fine Victorian buildings. Pupils hearteningly down to earth and aware of how very fortunate they are – and not, we hope, just because they are instructed to ‘check their privilege’ in PHSE lessons. They appreciate the importance the school places on the whole person...

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What the parents say...

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Curricula

Cambridge Pre-U - an alternative to A levels, with all exams at the end of the two-year course.

Other features

Music and dance scheme - government funding and grants available to help with fees at selected independent music and dance schools.

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.

Sports

Unusual sports

Rowing

Fencing

Shooting

Sailing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head of College

Since 2016, Dr Tim Greene MA DPhil (early 50s), an inorganic chemist by academic discipline and indeed by occupation in his earlier life, as a senior research fellow at Oxford (his alma mater), before moving on to Exeter. During his time there he involved himself in outreach to schools, widening access to higher education in particular, and grabbed an opportunity to fill in for a member of Queen’s Taunton’s chemistry department on a year’s sabbatical – ‘and that was that’, as he put it. In contrast to the disheartening closure of several eminent universities’ chemistry departments in 2005/6, teaching seemed upbeat and positive, and Dr Greene still loves to do it, putting A level chemists through their paces and wanting to extend his reach to lower years, time permitting. ‘It’s a huge mistake for heads not to teach,’ he avers. He also does duties in boarding houses, as it connects him to students, and ‘gives them a hotline to the top,' he added with a wink. Judging by the jolly but purposeful meeting with the senior prefects (‘praeps’ in the school’s vernacular) we sat in on, he enjoys excellent relations with the students, boundaries into excessive familiarity never seemingly crossed either way.

Dr Greene was raised and educated in Northern Ireland – still discernible if you listen carefully. He came to Clifton in 2006, rising to the post of deputy head before being appointed to head it in 2016, after a difficult chapter in the school’s history. In his view, an internal appointment (after due process, he was at pains to point out) was a very good thing in the circumstances, bringing stability and thorough knowledge of past events to the transition to a new and much more rigorous era. We are told that a three minute standing ovation greeted news of his appointment when it was announced in the school’s (magnificent) chapel. ‘Friendly, welcoming, approachable and very visible: he makes an effort to come and watch things, and he knows people’s names,’ students said of him, approvingly. Parents we spoke to are also fans: ‘He knows who I am, and I know I could knock on his door,’ said one mother, while another liked the fact that he ‘doesn’t waste time with fancy sales speeches’. ‘A very good thing’ and ‘doing a good job’ we also heard.

Dr Greene is married to Lydia, whom he met at Oxford; they have three sons, the youngest of whom is still at the college. Holidays are likely to be spent walking with the family, but term time has become too busy for him to pursue any singing: ‘I miss it,’ he said regretfully. ‘It would be good really to exercise the diaphragm occasionally’.

Academic matters

Right up there with the other Bristol independents (but not top) in terms of results in 2017, with 68 per cent A*-A/9-7s at GCSE and 76 per cent A*/B, 48 per cent A*/A at A level. Ancient and modern languages results at GCSE and A level particularly impressive, probably attributable to the emphasis placed on the study of languages from the off (two is normal, one for weaker linguists or non-native speakers); Latin and/or Greek are available for linguists wanting to pursue a third language. Welcome flexibility on the number of GCSEs students are expected to swot for: generally 10.5, but for the less academic, 7.5 is also accepted. The half is a short course of religious studies. Top sets and strugglers take maths and English language IGCSE early, the latter frequently doing foundation tier; Eng lit not compulsory. How heartening to see the qualification carefully tailored to the individual, and not the depressing spectacle of IGCSE for all, to satisfy schools’ academic snobbery.

In the sixth form, 34 subjects, including history of art, and some BTec options are on offer; no IB though. Despite the abandoning of AS levels, sixth formers are expected to embark on four subjects, dropping one usually half way through lower sixth. They are also encouraged to lift their eyes from the purely academic and allow them to fall on the interesting possibilities in soi-disant Sector E: BTecs in IT and teamwork and personal development, a performance certificate from LAMDA and a non-examined photography course, inter alia. Favourite subjects? ‘Maths, biology – in fact science in general and humanities,’ replied our delightful lunching companions when asked.

Parents note the calibre and collective intellect of the teaching staff, one describing the academic offering as ‘fantastic’ and expressing her appreciation that her son got to try out ‘a load of different stuff’ intellectually, even though for him, the point of going to school is to play with a ball. Plenty of opportunity for that too. Teaching spaces, light and functional rather than fancy for the most part, eclipsed by two of the most sumptuous school libraries we have ever seen: the Percival, with a splendidly ornate wooden ceiling, and the Stone, a dedicated science library boasting some 5,000 volumes, including a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Book learning is brought to life by a range of trips of which classics, most recently to Crete, garners particular praise. Clifton has produced a good crop of academic heavyweights, such as Sir Henry Newbolt, pioneering computer designer John Pinkerton, LP Hartley, three scientific Nobel prize winners, mathematicians, philosophers and engineers, of whom WO Bentley is the most eminent.

Learning support is housed in a small building down a side street, but the geographical sidelining does not extend to the importance the school places on it. The department and in-house educational psychologist look at issues lying behind barriers to learning, such as ADHD or high levels of anxiety. ‘You can lay on all the reading programmes you like, but if that child is unhappy, they probably won’t be very effective,’ staff told us. A holistic approach is taken to all learning support taking in pastoral staff as well as academic, including the management of poor behaviour – ‘It’s less punitive,' the ed psych (on maternity leave at the time of writing but who phoned in to speak to us) affirmed. Students with more complex needs get longer term interventions and the department works closely with parents also. We did not pick up any sense of stigma or discrimination towards those who get extra help. EAL shares the building: it’s a busy place as 38 per cent of Clifton students use a language other than English at home.

Games, options, the arts

No entry would be complete without the celebrated lines of Sir Henry Newbolt: ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight, Ten to win and the match to make’, and the later exhortation to ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’ Cricket in summer and rugby in winter are played out on this hallowed turf, overlooked by the school’s fine Victorian buildings - the girls rightly do not miss out on this opportunity with the introduction of rugby and cricket for them - but most ball sport takes places on the expanse of pitches at Beggar’s Bush, a short minibus ride away across Brunel’s iconic suspension bridge. Here, 90 acres encompass several all-weather and grass pitches, indoor tennis courts housed in a bubble, plus facilities to welcome visiting teams and host other events. A swimming pool and indoor sports complex, including courts for the rarefied games of rackets, fives and real tennis, are within the school site; refurbishing these are on the head’s list of priorities in his tenure. All these impressive facilities are available for club membership and hire when the school is not using them.

Sport is massive at Clifton, but we did not detect a jock culture – thankfully. Rugby has long been a success story, but recently girls’ hockey has burst through the tape, producing several international players in the last 10 years and the super-talented Lily Owsley, who captained the England team while still at the school and nabbed an Olympic gold at Rio in 2016. The head told us he is keen that the school should ‘take the top sports people through, as we do the top academics’, but that he believes sport is for all and that everyone will find something which will suit them, as well as being given the chance to play for the school. There is certainly plenty on offer for those not mad about ball games, some provided onsite (eg aerobics, fencing), others in the surprisingly dramatic environs of Bristol, such as climbing in nearby gorges – Avon or Cheddar - and water sports eg water polo, sailing and kayaking. The trackless expanses of Wales and surprisingly wild Mendip and Quantock hills provide an easily accessible setting for D of E practice, CCF and an eight week survival course, where participants learn to make string and rope from animal sinew, amongst other life-skills. Post-Brexit, this could be handy. Clifton in the Community caters for those of more pacifist ideals, who do good altruistic stuff locally.

Terrific music, too. At the top end, the school produces a commendable crop of Oxbridge choral, instrumental and organ scholars (six in the last eight years) and at least one recent musician of the calibre to play with the Royal Philharmonic while still at school, Julia Hwang, who attributed part of her success to the fact that the school tweaked her timetable to accommodate all that practice. Joseph Cooper, an Old Cliftonian, gave his name to the music school which boasts a gorgeous recital hall and high tech recording and mixing facilities alongside normal practice rooms. Truly some sort of music for everyone (orchestra and chamber groups to blues and swing), and it was touching to hear the enthusiasm, nay love, expressed by our guides for congers, the compulsory hymn practice in chapel each Saturday morning for Sunday services, to which day students are encouraged to go about twice a term. Sir David Willcocks, another notable OC, would be proud.

Clifton was one of the first schools to have a theatre, named for Sir Michael Redgrave (yet another OC) which opens to the public, both audience and players, and hosting 40 productions a year; recent shows include School of Rock, the technical challenges of The Railway Children and Miss Saigon and plenty of Shakespeare. A junior play and hotly contested house drama also: last year’s winner staged a play called Posh, where characterisation ranged from ‘arrogance to unease’ – qualities we absolutely did not find in any of the students we met. Dance also strong, and enjoying a revamped studio.

Art, strangely, gets less exposure in the school’s glossy literature, but the provision is wide: we like the fact that the compulsory course in the first year moves away from Europe to study Islamic, Asian and Aboriginal art, inter alia. A sculpture specialist and ceramicist on site. At A level, students choose either drawing/painting or sculpture/ceramics. Plenty of other artistic pursuits available as activities. Museum and gallery trips for all. Bloomsbury art critic and artist Roger Fry, Peter Lanyon of the St Ives school and impossibly romantic painter Robbie Duff-Scott are distinguished OCs.

Boarders

School runs on a boarding model, but manages the integration of and equality of the experience for day students better than many. Boarders are allocated to one of seven single sex houses scattered about the gracious roads surrounding the main school. Staffing is generous and ensures plenty of support with matters academic and pastoral, including a cuddle with the resident dog or cat, where necessary. We found the girls’ houses notably cheerier than the boys’, some of whose bathrooms could definitely do with a facelift. Communal space divided by age: some of the spaces for younger boys struck us as subterranean and drear. Leather sofas, a huge TV and a dartboard surrounded by holes in the wall from near misses seem to be the only décor deemed necessary for the boys; the girls tend towards cosier sofas, colourful rugs and bean bags. Younger ones housed in small dorms, some with study facilities, integrating a bed and desk. Modern purpose-built furniture in pale wood makes the best of available space. Some houses could use an upgrade, in the view of students. Parents we spoke to had varying views. ‘My daughter’s housemistress really listens to the kids and gives them mummy-love. She is easy to contact and quick to respond,’ one parent told us. Another, though, expressed his son’s view that the boarding experience is not so good for a full British boarder whose parents live abroad and who therefore doesn't go home at weekends. The majority do after Saturday commitments; overseas students tend to stick together and relax into their native tongues after a week of speaking English, and apparently there isn’t always enough to do at weekends eg when matches are cancelled.

Background and atmosphere

Founded by local businessman Sir John Percival in the 1860s and, at his insistence, placing an equal emphasis on science and humanities. This progressive thinking extended to racial and religious tolerance, influenced by having a close friend who happened to be a practising Jew, and a belief in the education of women, though it took well over a hundred years for the school to admit girls, who did not arrive until 1987. There is no longer a Jewish boarding house, but the synagogue is still there and still used: one parent told us that the reason his father had chosen the school for him was so that he could maintain his Jewish heritage; this holds true today.

The impression given by outstanding high Victorian gothic buildings, built of warm red stone and surrounding the manicured green velvet of the close, is of a very traditional public school, but we were amused to find out that the head was put straight by a young hopeful at interview, who informed him that the school was not covered by the original Public Schools Act. Whatever - one would be hard put to spot the difference: glossary, different ties for everything etc. Eleven day and boarding houses are dotted about the surrounding roads – all quiet and residential – and all within earshot, if not sight, of Bristol Zoo in the smartest part of the city next to the glorious expanse of the downs. Students seem genuinely appreciative of their privileged setting, and abide by the rule of silence when walking through the memorial arch, where the names of the school’s war dead are inscribed.

House identity and friendly rivalry flourish: masses of ways in which to compete such as house matches and music, and to bond over trips, dinners and so on, but this does not descend into tribalism, perhaps helped by the fact that most meals are taken in the fabulous lofty two storey dining hall (Big School), adroitly serving the entire school, upper and lower. Extra rations can be bought from Grubber (tuck shop) and each house has a kitchen for each age group for the preparation of that vital school fuel: toast.

Despite the highly traditional setting and undoubted Anglican principles preached every day in chapel, an atmosphere of acceptance prevails towards kids of different faiths, races and sexuality: it seems a safe place to be different. ‘Pupils are permitted to wear the uniform which best corresponds to their gender identity, with permission from the headmaster’ according to the policy, but it is only recently that girls have been allowed to wear trousers in school routinely. The LGBTQ+ group meets on a Tuesday like any other club.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Pastoral care appears to be wraparound. First point of contact for any concerns or questions is the housemaster/mistress (HoMs) both for students and parents, but all teachers are members of the pastoral team in individual houses, and all do duties there. The well-staffed medical department keeps its eyes and ears out for problems which extend beyond the physical. Mental health is prominent on the school’s agenda: the chaplain is an accredited mental health first aid trainer, each house has its own mental health first aider and some sixth formers act as voluntary mental health peer mentors. Students told us there was no taboo surrounding it, and that they could ‘tell my houseparent anything. There are loads of people to go to when things go wrong and someone would notice, anyway’. The emphasis the school places on the growing problem of our youngsters’ mental health may or may not be one response to the horrific discovery in 2014 of a housemaster spying on and videoing students without their knowledge, which knocked the school community sideways and shattered confidence in it in some quarters. Since then, the school has tightened up its practices and a climate of unobtrusive vigilance prevails. It is the only school where this editor was asked to read and sign a leaflet outlining the school’s safeguarding guide before proceeding beyond reception.

Rewards for all kinds of endeavour and contributions to the school community are abundant, and the climate is undoubtedly one of positive reinforcement. A ‘good egg’ prize is awarded in each house for – well, being a good egg. Punishments on a sliding scale of severity are meted out for all the misdemeanours one might expect. Poor work might attract detention to improve or finish it, frequent poor behaviour or the breaking of rules ‘gating’ – ie being confined to the house or school grounds. Suspension is reserved for the most serious (such as drugs) or persistent breaches of school rules; the purpose is to give the student a chance for ‘reflection and [doubtless full and frank] discussions with parents and guardians’. We were most disappointed not to meet the Marshal, the distributor of lighter sanctions and upholder and recorder of weightier ones; students try not to catch his beady eye as he looks for uniform infringements. On balance, the students we spoke to reckoned punishments were fair, though one described some as petty.

Pupils and parents

Hearteningly down to earth and aware of how very fortunate they are – and not, we hope, just because they are instructed to ‘check their privilege’ in PHSE lessons. They appreciate the importance the school places on the whole person, the care they receive in all aspects of their school lives, and the fact that they can get everything done at school. This is certainly Bristol’s smartest school, but those we met did not behave like that. Students arriving from state schools speak well of welcome and integration.

Parents seem extremely happy with the school, and enjoy an active social scene on the touchline or at house events. ‘The least judgmental set of parents I have ever met’ in the opinion of one mother. Like all but a tiny minority of boarding schools, Clifton families tend not to live more than an hour or so away, apart from the 25 per cent overseas students, most of whom come either from Russia or China, including Hong Kong.

Entrance

Not before 13+ (ie into year 9) when 130 new students arrive, not only from Clifton’s own prep school, but several others. The process starts early, with visiting suggested at least three years before (regular open days) and a pre-assessment in year 7 by means of interviews and references. Academic testing – either common entrance, scholarships or the school’s own tests in English, maths and science – does not take place until year 8. Application dates vary: beware. At sixth form, three GCSEs at grade 7 or above and three at grade 6 are expected, as well as tests and interviews in two subjects to be taken at A level for the 45 or so external candidates who come.

Exit

Very few after GCSEs. The vast majority of sixth form leavers go on to university – about 85 per cent to their first choice; fewer than a fifth of them take a gap year. A good handful to Oxbridge most years (four in 2017); other popular choices include Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter and the London universities. A sprinkling of art foundation and overseas universities. The sixth formers we encountered were full of praise for the help and guidance received, from the careers fair and the weekly bulletin to the outside speakers and the nitty gritty of the personal statement. And it doesn’t stop there: ‘Clifton’s not just for when you’re there,’ the head told us. ‘There’s support at university and the whole of the OC network’. Judging by the list of reunions both around the country and across the Atlantic, it’s thriving and has some pretty distinguished members such as Simon Russell-Beale and John Cleese.

Money matters

Fees much in line with comparable schools both for boarding and day students; it’s the most expensive day provision in Bristol, however. ‘I want to ensure we offer more bangs for the parental buck’ the head told us in justification. Scholarships offered for art, music, sport and drama as well as academics at 13+, to a maximum of 25 per cent of fees. Sixth form scholarships available as above, but include an organ scholarship – good fodder for collegiate universities. Bursary provision offered for those who need it, subject to normal means testing, including one worth 20 per cent for offspring of serving members of the armed forces and some for Jewish applicants who ‘demonstrate an interest in Judaism and take part in Jewish activities in the school’.

Our view

Clifton, with its fancy buildings, gorgeous situation, sparkling alumni and own vernacular, is arguably the city’s poshest school and the subject of dinner party gossip; the one the Daily Mail might most like to take a pop at. But that would be to ignore or skate over its other, less visible achievements. These include some significant advances in and resources directed towards child protection, mental health and ironing out the differences between the haves and the have-nots, albeit in a privileged environment. ‘We’ve made considerable sacrifices to send our daughter here,’ one mother told us, ‘but it’s worth every working moment and every night of worry’.

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Special Education Needs

Clifton College is able to make learning support provision for pupils who have a range of specific difficulties including Aspergers, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia. The learning support department offers timetabled group lessons and chargeable individual lessons based on the specific needs of each pupil.

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

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