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You can’t fail to be enchanted by the ancient abbey nestling in a wooded Dorset valley, one of the finest Capability Brown landscapes in the country, 15 minutes’ drive from Blandford. There’s no mobile phone signal on much of the site so phones are less of a problem here than at other schools. Most use the old-fashioned landlines in the boarding houses to phone home. Everyone does games on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays but the sportiest do far more. Wednesdays are given over to CCF or community service (including visiting the elderly, taking dogs for walks and…

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What the school says...

Milton Abbey is a traditional yet modern, forward looking boarding school that celebrates excellence, hard work, industry and endeavour. Our environment is inclusive, caring and ambitious for every pupil. Our small size allows for a level of care that is unsurpassed in bigger schools. We want pupils to have big achievements, big ambitions and big hearts. ...Read more

What the parents say...

3 expulsions this term - 2 for bullying, 1 for booze (repeat offender)

Commented on 13th Dec 2011

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School associations

Round Square - a network of 40 schools worldwide that share ideals such as internationalism, adventure and service.

Sports

Polo

Equestrian centre or equestrian team - school has own equestrian centre or an equestrian team.

Shooting

Sailing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since January 2014, Magnus Bashaarat MA PGCE (40s), previously deputy head of Stowe. Educated at The King’s School, Canterbury (he and Stowe head Anthony Wallersteiner were contemporaries there), followed by University of Edinburgh, where he read English. After work experience at the York Evening Press he decided to become a journalist and worked for the Observer and Evening Standard for a while. He changed direction after taking a course in teaching English as a foreign language - found he loved ‘standing up in front of a class and helping people to learn.’ PGCE at King’s College London, followed by two years at Sherborne and a 15-year stint at Eton, where he taught English and drama and was a housemaster for seven years. He also did a year at Sydney Grammar as part of a teaching exchange with Eton. Moved to Stowe in 2009 and spent five years as deputy head. He says Milton Abbey is similar to Stowe – ‘just on a different scale’ – and that its size means ‘everyone is seen as an individual, everyone is valued and pupils have a very good relationship with staff.’

Mr Bashaarat is dynamic, forward-thinking and hit the ground running when he arrived. He didn’t teach during his first year at Milton Abbey but now teaches an English GCSE retake set. ‘It’s lovely to have contact time again,’ he told us. He’s adamant that a head shouldn’t be a remote figure and makes a point of seeing the pupils as much as possible, chatting at lunch, running a school cycling group and popping into the boarding houses in the evenings. ‘This place has a very honest, nurturing ethos and pupils are very well looked after,’ he says.

His wife Camilla used to work in communications for the NHS and now runs Milton Abbey’s parents’ association, or MASPA as it’s known (everything from a yoga retreat in Norfolk to a trip to Champagne in France). They have three children – sons at Stowe and Eton and a daughter at Sherborne Girls. In his spare time, he cycles (his road bike is propped against the wall of his study), rows at nearby Canford and goes to the theatre as much as he can. He likes ‘serious drama’ and if he can’t get to London drives to Poole, Salisbury and, a new find, The Tobacco Factory in Bristol.

Moving on in July 2018 to head Bedales.

Academic matters

Milton Abbey’s strengths lie in its value-added. School doesn’t publish its GCSE and A level results (though 10 per cent A*/A at GCSE in 2016), taking the view that students have such a broad range of ability that their achievements wouldn’t be accurately represented by what the head calls the ‘crude mechanism’ of league tables. ‘The value added we get for our pupils wouldn’t be represented by the league tables,’ he says. Students range from a boy who got three A*s at A level in 2015 and headed to Oxford to read archaeology and anthropology to those who find formal academic learning ‘really difficult’ and opt for a more vocational route. The school talks a lot about ‘parallel learning pathways’ and prides itself on tailoring an academic programme to suit individual students. At sixth form, a third of pupils take A levels, a third take a combination of A levels and BTecs and a third take BTecs. In year 11 youngsters attend an options evening, when they discuss individual sixth form choices with tutors and heads of department. Pupils’ GCSE profiles are taken into account and subject combinations are based on advice from tutors and teachers (no chance of doing physics A level and a BTec in hospitality). Pupils are encouraged to pursue their passions and interests and all the usual A levels are on offer, plus economics, politics, history of art and music technology.

The school is ahead of the curve when it comes to vocational learning. Milton Abbey says it offers the broadest range of BTecs in the independent sector and is one of the few schools to offer BTecs at extended diploma level – equivalent to three A levels. BTecs (available in countryside management, performing arts, enterprise and entrepreneurship, equine management, hospitality, creative media production and sport) aren’t an easy option though. They are made up of continued assessment, with a small percentage of the course assessed by exam at the end of two years. The school’s 2015 ISI report commended its approach, saying that ‘pupils, who come with widely different educational backgrounds and needs, often suffering a negative experience of education elsewhere, are enabled to rebuild the foundation of their knowledge and skills, as well as the self-confidence needed to progress.’ The assistant head (academic) concurs with this. ‘We’re all about getting the best out of our pupils,’ she says.

Pupils take between seven and nine GCSEs, with everyone doing English, maths and a science. Class sizes are small – average of 12 up to GCSE and six at A level. ‘The small class sizes mean that we have much better outcomes for learners,’ says the head. Pupils are streamed by ability for the core subjects. Lessons are now one hour long – school says this helps pupils to concentrate better.

Milton Abbey is resolutely mainstream but learning support, with four teachers and six teaching assistants, is the biggest department. Some pupils are screened before they start and around two-thirds access learning support in some way – for a wide range of difficulties, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, mild Asperger’s). Learning support assistants provide additional help in lessons and there’s one-to-one or group support outside lessons too (charged on top of the fees). EAL support and study skills support on offer. Some pupils have learning support lessons instead of doing French or Spanish. The department is very welcoming, with its door permanently open to help anyone who wants to drop in for revision tips, essay planning and time management. ‘Quite often their self-esteem and confidence is low and it’s our job to raise that,’ says the head of learning support.

School library has 9,000 resources and pupils are encouraged to read books for pleasure as well as for study. Robert Muchamore and Meg Rosoff are two current favourites – ‘we like to get the pupils in the habit of reading,’ the school librarian told us.

Games, options, the arts

Sport is taken seriously here but the emphasis is on enjoyment and there’s loads on offer. Rugby, hockey, cricket and football predominate but golf (there’s a course in the grounds), sailing and polo have a strong take-up too. The fixtures list and results show the school punches above its weight on the sports field. Relatively small number of girls means everyone gets the chance to represent the school at hockey, netball and lacrosse during the winter and tennis and rounders during the winter. Facilities include a 25-metre swimming pool, two gyms, squash court, all-weather pitch, sports hall and outdoor pitches galore. Everyone does games on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays but the sportiest do far more. Wednesdays are given over to CCF or community service (including visiting the elderly, taking dogs for walks and cleaning the local church). There’s all manner of country pursuits, like fishing, ferreting (you can bring your own ferret, although none were in residence when we visited), clay pigeon shooting, beagling and mountain biking.

It’s possible to combine a burgeoning equestrian career with school life. Pupils can bring their own steeds – many of the keenest riders take a BTEC in equine management and keep their horses at the school stables (each individual stable is labelled with the inhabitant’s name – Sparky, Dolly and the like). They manage the day-to-day care of their horses and can choose to ride instead of playing other sports.

Art is a popular subject and we saw artwork that was easily on a par with larger schools. A year 12 boy showed us an astonishing oil painting inspired by renaissance art that he’d worked on over the summer. School puts on a big drama production in its theatre every year and there’s a vast array of music. Hymn practice is held in the Abbey every Friday, when the whole school gathers to sing at the tops of their voices. ‘The volume creeps up bit by bit and it sounds wonderful,’ a sixth form boy told us.

Milton Abbey runs the innovative Entrepreneurship in Residence competition, aiming to inspire pupils with ambitions to launch their own business. Top-notch designers like Anya Hindmarch, Johnnie Boden and Cath Kidston have fronted the scheme in the past and now David Ross is leading the next generation of young entrepreneurs. Unlike some boarding schools, students do work experience – usually with school alumni (an Inner Temple barrister and a Coutts banker were among those who volunteered this year). Other activities include D of E, farm club and the Ten Tors expedition across Dartmoor. School is a member of Round Square, a worldwide organisation that encourages young people to broaden their horizons and gain greater understanding of the wider world through exchange trips, community work and themed activities within school.

Boarders

Milton Abbey offers full boarding or day places – ‘we don’t have anything in between,’ says the head. Two three-day exeats a term to allow for longer journeys home. Five boarding houses – four for boys and one for girls. We visited the two newest houses, both wholesome and welcoming, with disabled access and underfloor heating. Each has a housemaster or housemistress, resident tutors and two matrons, who take charge of laundry and cleaning, offer support to pupils and help them to prepare for life beyond school. One matron told us she’d just taught a boy how to iron his shirt – ‘it was important he learned how to do it himself.’

Common rooms in the boarding houses are equipped with TVs but these aren’t allowed on during the day. There’s no mobile phone signal on much of the site so phones are less of a problem here than at other schools. Most use the old-fashioned landlines in the boarding houses to phone home.

Background and atmosphere

Milton Abbey, with 76 acres of rolling countryside, is one of the prettiest schools in the country. You can’t fail to be enchanted by the ancient abbey nestling in a wooded Dorset valley, one of the finest Capability Brown landscapes in the country, 15 minutes’ drive from Blandford. ‘It’s deeply rural, but not remote,’ is the head’s description. We visited on a sunny day but were assured that it looks lovely in the rain and mist too. The school was founded in 1954 and occupies the converted monastery buildings. The vast abbey belongs to the Diocese of Salisbury but the school has full use of it, with services four times a week. Milton Abbey also has its own farm (complete with pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys and chickens), makes its own honey and grows flowers, fruit and vegetables.

Pupils eat all their meals in the Abbot’s Hall, a grand dining room complete with stags’ heads and a huge mural of the school painted by a parent to commemorate the school’s 50th anniversary in 2004. Pasta, salads, wraps and paninis on offer at lunch-time, as well as hot meals, plus snacks at break, fresh fruit and cake in the afternoons. ‘No one goes hungry,’ grinned one boy. Uniform is smart. Younger girls wear tartan skirts and blazers while sixth form girls are clad in grey skirts and tweed jackets of their choice. Boys wear tweed jackets, grey trousers and ties.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Pupils keep the same tutor from year 9 to year 11, and see them two or three times a week. In the sixth form students get a say in their choice of tutor – often someone who teaches them or whom they have a good relationship with. School operates a system of rewards and sanctions when it comes to behaviour – awards given for good work, sporting achievements and acts of kindness.

Good communication with parents – school has introduced a new parent portal where parents have access to weekly notes on everything from a missed prep to an academic triumph. Pupils told us that ‘there aren’t hundreds of rules. They give you a degree of trust.’ Student voice is considered important. Head boy and head girl (who meet the headmaster every morning), heads of houses and a raft of prefects – called ‘pilots’ here.

Pupils and parents

Pupils come from 120 or so prep schools and from all over the country – quite a few from London and from as far afield as Northumberland. International students from France, Italy, Germany, Italy, Kenya and the US. Day pupils (‘our day fees are really competitive,’ says the head) tend to live within a 30-minute drive. School minibus service covers Blandford, Wimborne, Poole, Dorchester, Shaftesbury and Salisbury. Day pupils leave at 6pm but there’s the option to stay on for activities and prep if they wish.

Despite such privileged surroundings, the pupils we met were outgoing, enthusiastic and delightfully unsnobby. Sixth formers summed the school’s appeal up in a nutshell. ‘For the people it’s right for, this is the best school in the country,’ one boy declared. ‘I love it. My sister’s at Millfield and her year group is as big as this whole school. Here, everybody knows everybody and the support you get is second to none.’ A girl said she liked being ‘a big fish in a small pond’ while parents told us they love the family atmosphere, plus the fact that their children get loads of country air and aren’t glued to their phones, tablets and laptops.

Former pupils include Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, the principal of the Royal Academy of Music, photographer, screenwriter and TV director Harry Hook, restaurateur Oliver Gladwin, sculptor Robert Rattray, documentary maker Anthony Geffen and Professor Alastair Bruce, royal, religious and constitutional affairs commentator for Sky News.

Entrance

School is ‘inclusive and non-selective.’ Around 70 per cent of pupils do CE – pass mark is around 50 per cent but school is flexible on this and says ‘there’s no hard and fast rule.’

Applicants attend a taster day to see if the school suits them. Usual entry points are 13 and 16 but a handful of pupils start in year 10, often because they didn’t settle at their original choice of school. Milton Abbey doesn’t chuck pupils out if they don’t make their GCSE grades either. Head believes that when a school accepts a youngster at 13 it should stick with them for the duration.

Exit

School loses around 10 per cent of pupils after GCSEs – largely due to relocation or for financial reasons – but larger numbers choose to join from other schools with 35 new lower sixth pupils in 2016. At 18 or 19 pupils choose a plethora of routes. In 2016, destinations included universities of Sussex and East Anglia plus the Royal Agricultural College. School has strong links with international catering colleges, such as Glion and Les Roches in Switzerland, and several pupils have headed to these in the past.

Head points out that ‘a degree isn’t a guarantee of a job’ these days and is keen on courses that ‘will facilitate future employment.’ He admits that if he was choosing a degree now he would probably go for vocational journalism and media rather than English. School has forged a close relationship with The Arts University Bournemouth, which specialises in art, design, media and performance across the creative industries.

Money matters

A range of scholarships at 13+ and 16+ – academic, all-rounder, art, DT, drama, music and sport. All worth 10 per cent of the fees, although these may be increased ‘where financial need is demonstrated.’ School also offers means-tested bursaries, plus scholarships for day pupils living in Dorset.

Our view

Milton Abbey’s setting, countryside expertise and innovative mix of qualifications give pupils, some of whom may not have thrived elsewhere, a host of opportunities to shine – both inside and outside the classroom.

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Special Education Needs

Milton Abbey has a well-resourced Learning Support Department staffed by fully-qualified teachers. Learning Support Assistants support some mainstream lessons. Pupils come at mutually agreed times. The majority of support is for pupils with dyslexia, but a range of other conditions can be supported.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Aspergers Syndrome [archived]
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders [archived]
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Delicate Medical Problems [archived]
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Epilepsy [archived]
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class Y
HI - Hearing Impairment
Hospital School
Mental health
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
Not Applicable
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 Y
VI - Visual Impairment

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