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  • Milton Abbey School
    Milton Abbas
    Blandford Forum
    Dorset
    DT11 0BZ
  • Head: James Watson
  • T 01258 880484
  • F 01258 881194
  • E [email protected]
  • W www.miltonabbey.co.uk/
  • An independent school for boys and girls aged from 13 to 18.
  • Read about the best schools in Dorset
  • Boarding: Yes
  • Local authority: Dorset
  • Pupils: 220 (147 boys; 73 girls); sixth formers: 116
  • Religion: Church of England
  • Fees: Day: £26,070; Boarding: £49,635 pa
  • Open days: October and March; monthly programme of admissions visits and subject-based experience days.
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • Ofsted report: View the Ofsted report
  • ISI report: View the ISI report

What says..

Fifteen minutes’ drive from Blandford, the school sits in its own valley, if not its own bubble. The woods surrounding the school lend a sense of calm, while offering up a playground for assorted outdoor activities. School claims it has the ‘widest range of vocational subjects in the independent sector,’ and this is where it stands out from the crowd. The mix of...

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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

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School associations

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

Sports

Unusual sports

Polo

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

Shooting

Sailing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2023, James Watson, previously senior deputy head and before that head of learning development. Holds a master’s in ancient history and classical archaeology from Edinburgh and a PGCE from Buckingham. Moved into education after a 13-year career in accountancy, stockbroking and finance, mainly working in Asia and the Middle East. Previous roles include second master at Bruern Abbey. He has started numerous clubs at the school including history society, commerce society and the piscatorial society (fishing!), as well as coaching rugby, hockey and cricket. Lives with his wife, Posy, their three young children and assorted dogs and ponies.

Entrance

No entrance exams, minimum grade requirements or ‘focus on current attainment’, but school will only take pupils who show commitment to learning and have the potential to benefit from school life and to contribute to it. Prospective students undergo interview(s) to see if the fit will be right, and references taken from current school. Where necessary, field visits to schools for further assessment. School also meets parents ‘to ensure a good match of values between home and school’. Roughly a third of applicants are turned down. Main entry points are years 9 and 12 (about 20 join for sixth form) but pupils can and do join throughout the year. Typically more boys than girls in the lower years due to earlier identification of learning differences for boys, but more girls than boys join at sixth form.

Exit

Around 10 leave after GCSEs and BTEC level 2 exams, almost exclusively due to changing family or personal circumstances. Diverse destinations for sixth form leavers in 2023, from Russell Group universities such as Warwick, Exeter and York, to agricultural courses at Royal Agricultural University, film production at Winchester, sustainable design at Falmouth and fashion at Conde Nast. A sprinkling of international destinations – recently to study games design at Howest in Belgium, business at the University of Michigan and hotel management at Les Roches, Switzerland.

Latest results

School does not publish detailed results, claiming that having small numbers for each subject risks identifying individual results. All they will tell us is 100 per cent of its university applicants secured a place at a chosen university.

Teaching and learning

School claims it has the ‘widest range of vocational subjects in the independent sector’, and this is where it stands out from the crowd. The mix of GCSEs, BTECs (level 2 for lower school, level 3 for sixth form) and A levels means that there is an impressive range of subjects on offer – currently 15 A levels and 12 BTECs, including equine and countryside management courses. In sixth form, take-up is around one third pure BTEC, one third BTEC and A level, and one third A Level (EPQ also on offer). Pupils mix seamlessly between the two, with little regard given to the tag that prefaces the course name. One parent even seemed unsure as to whether their child was studying A level or BTEC.

Attempts are made to accommodate all wishes: fashion design, now an established course, started at the request of pupils. School says it will run a course with as few as two people if the expertise is already on site. French and Spanish available at GCSE and A level.

BTEC film and TV production is popular. In a recent project, pupils collaborated with Michael House, a charity supporting the homeless, creating fundraising videos that were used on the charity’s website. Another project involved a local sustainable farm shop. The students work both independently and with each other, acting as a film company together.

The catering unit is also a hive of activity. BTEC hospitality students preparing Thai salad and green chicken curry at the start of our tour were replaced by a mixed-age group making Cornish pasties and drinking tea as part of the Round Square programme at the end. The chat over the tea is as important as the culinary fare, offering an opportunity for staff to monitor wellbeing.

Year 9 take a number of core subjects including science, humanities, ethics and cultural studies, alongside six elective subjects studied for a term each. This gives them exposure to differing areas – land-based studies, creative media, drama and hospitality for example – prior to making BTEC or GCSE choices. In years 10 and 11, pupils generally sit between seven and nine qualifications.

Class sizes are small. The four we saw in a lower sixth geography lesson is not unusual, and school says maximum size is around 12-16 in lower school and 10-14 in sixth form. Parents aware that school has a reputation for learning support, but stress that the academic support stretches pupils of all abilities.

Learning support and SEN

Learning support is at the heart of this school, both figuratively, and soon literally, with plans afoot to move the department to a central location on site. Over half the school’s intake has a registered learning disorder, with the school able to support dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADHD, sensory and auditory processing disorder. Of those registered, only around half will have bespoke learning sessions in the centre, and even fewer would talk about it as something out of the ordinary. The acronym SEN is never used. The emphasis instead is on learning ‘development’ for all – for every child in every lesson with every teacher. Development is coordinated by the learning development team, but the responsibility lies with each teacher, which is immediately evident when talking to staff. Pupils better suited to audio learning wear headphones, while others read from laptops – we saw both. Six EHCPs when we visited.

The LD department operates an open-door policy, where any student can drop in for tips on how to focus, or other areas they may have identified as having room for improvement. Every pupil has a personal learning plan (or ‘independent education plan’ for those with registered needs), in which goals are set for learning and wellbeing. One of the school’s key tenets is that every child learns differently, and it’s evident that the luxury of a school this size is that the needs of every child are known and can be catered for – from support on exam technique to interventions for ADHD, dyslexia, or sensory processing disorder.

Around 15 per cent have EAL support – mainly one-to-one for an hour a week (two hours for sixth formers).

The arts and extracurricular

Plenty of impressive artwork on display in the art studio, and a group of A level students were waiting for the arrival of a model for a life drawing session. An active department, there are timetabled trips to Messum’s gallery, Tate Modern, the Photographers’ Gallery and to Berlin.

Wednesday afternoons dedicated to Round Square activities, originally intended to be focused around principles such as service, adventure and the environment, but seemingly supporting a wider brief now. We saw CCF, compulsory for new starters who may then choose to continue, a dog-walking group, swimmers training for a charity 24-hour triathlon, and a drama club in the theatre. DofE also available, as is the Ten Tors expedition across Dartmoor.

Music led by the BBC Symphony orchestra’s former lead clarinetist. Opportunities made available for students to play publicly, whether in the Abbey, at the governors’ dinner, or as part of the recital programme. Two music tech students who were national finalists in a recent competition were playing in assembly on our visit. A few singing clubs and choirs, although the most popular singing event appears to be the Congo, held every Friday morning in the Abbey, in which the houses try to outdo each other in their renditions of the hymns that will be sung at the Sunday service. Best house can be rewarded with delivery pizza so the stakes are high. Other performances include an annual school musical and play.

A good range of evening clubs and activities held nightly, including drama, cookery courses, photography and the farm club.

Sport

No compulsory sports. It is left to pupils to choose their activities from a list ranging from the traditional rugby, football, hockey, lacrosse and cricket, to offerings that play to its rural location, such as mountain biking, shooting, cross-country and golf (the latter on a course designed by the late silky-toned Peter Alliss). Budding equestrians may stable their horses and use sports slots to go riding. Given the variety of sports and size of school, raising a team can be a challenge, as one pupil mentioned, and year groups will play together. However, opposition schools are chosen carefully and fixtures – held at least once a week – remain competitive. It also means that all can have a go, a fact that pupils and parents rate highly. One parent commented that she was thrilled her non-sporty son was now playing rugby and mountain biking: ‘He’s taking risks we would never have expected him to take.’ Another that her daughter had grown in confidence through playing team sports for the first time. More accomplished athletes also catered for, with access to local clubs such as Dorchester rugby or the football programme, run in conjunction with Champion Sports Group. With close proximity to Weymouth, sailing is popular. Sport timetabled three times a week.

Boarders

Full boarding (no weekly) taken up by 90 per cent of pupils. Each house staffed by housemaster, assistant housemaster, tutor and matron. No chance of complaints about boredom, with full weekend programmes (and exeat programmes for international students unable to return home). Lessons, prep and then sport on Saturdays, with evening activities such as go-karting, house meals in local restaurants and movie nights. A lie-in on Sunday, followed by chapel at 10am, brunch and then trips out – from the thrill-seeking rides of Thorpe Park to a less adrenaline-fuelled shopping mooch around Bournemouth.

Five houses, three in the main building and two in new purpose-built blocks, all modern, warm and welcoming. Houses are single sex (three boys’, two girls’), but plenty of opportunities to mix during eg the sixth form silent disco and various black tie events. There is a close-knit community, pupils tell us; plenty of mentions of a ‘family feel’. House loyalty is enshrined through wearing of house ties and various interhouse sport and music competitions. Day pupils are assigned houses and have their own rooms, with an option to stay over.

Ethos and heritage

An 18th century Gothic mansion nestled into a Dorset valley with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown (not to mention a vast abbey), the setting is stunning, and surely one of the most beautiful in the country. Although the school was only founded in 1954, it’s impossible not to feel enveloped in history. As our sixth form guides told us, the abbey was once owned by a lawyer who helped Henry VIII with his divorce, knowledge they said that has helped bring history lessons to life (we were also impressed by their respectful removal of flat cap before entering the Abbey).

Fifteen minutes’ drive from Blandford, the school sits in its own valley, if not its own bubble. The woods surrounding the school lend a sense of calm, while offering up a playground for assorted outdoor activities. Alongside the usual mix of swimming pool, grass and Astro sports pitches, theatre, workshops (some more tired than others), the school also has its own farm and stables with pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys and chickens residing alongside horses that pupils are welcome to bring, on an assisted or full livery basis. It makes its own honey and grows flowers, fruit and vegetables.

Students eat meals in the Abbot’s Hall, a grand dining room complete with roaring fire and a huge mural of the school painted by a parent. Hearty meals (a turkey roast on our visit) or lighter salad options available.

Younger girls wear tartan skirts or trousers and blazers, boys tweed jackets, grey trousers and ties. Sixth formers wear tweed jackets, plus grey trousers or skirts; smart dark suits for formal occasions.

School makes a virtue of its small size, which, it says, allows focus on each child and an environment in which pupils grow in confidence. ‘She’s now doing speeches in the abbey on Sunday and school tours, she would never have done that before,’ said a parent. ‘They don’t feel intimidated by different age groups. It’s like having big brothers and little sisters,’ commented another. Other parents feel there could be a few more students. Well suited to do-ers, says head – as in, everyone must have a go.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Parents say they trust everyone here. Weekly one-to-one tutoring for all. Teachers also spend time each night in houses, seeing pupils in a more informal environment and noting any differing behaviour. Flagging meetings are held each week, and concerns can be reported online, but the fluidity between house and school means that issues should be picked up early.

The health centre is open 24/7, with GP visits twice a week and 10 beds available. Physio can be offered on site. The centre is also an extension of the school’s pastoral care, and has a free counselling service. The head of the centre is addressed by students by first name to increase the homely, safe haven feel.

During the first term, a Capability (note the play on the school’s illustrious past) Service is held, at which new joiners, who have proved that they have the capability to be a thriving member of the school community, are celebrated. One or two fail to meet the benchmark each year and are asked to leave. Being the right fit for the school is paramount, and there is zero tolerance on bullying. Drugs, smoking, and alcohol are not a major issue. Disciplinary sanctions focus on conversations with senior deputy head exploring the reasons behind the behavioural issue.

Pupils and parents

Given its niche offering, school attracts boarders from across the UK, from Northumberland to Devon. Around a quarter from overseas, anywhere from Dubai to China to Spain. Attempts made not to overload with any one nationality, in order to avoid cliques forming, and at present there are pupils from more than 20 different countries. Day pupils from as far out as Poole or Wiltshire, with a minibus service from Bournemouth and Poole.

School says that despite external perceptions of a farming community, there are a lot of students from urban backgrounds. We did, however, see more than a smattering of countryside clobber and pupils agree tweed is more de rigeur than designer gear. Parents report that one of the attractions of the school is its diversity, with pupils from different backgrounds, nationalities, and levels of affluence. A feeling of having stumbled on something that suits their child. ‘I can confidently say it is the perfect school in the world for him,’ said one mother of a foreign student.

Despite such privileged surroundings, the students we met were delightfully unsnobby and profoundly thankful to be where they were. 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 – plus ‘you don’t have to have the latest trainers – just a Barbour and wellies!’ one London mum told us with a sigh of relief. In fact, parental feedback has been nothing short of gushing – despite our efforts to tease it out, not one had anything critical to say of the school.

Money matters

Around 40 per cent of pupils receive some form of remission, split equally between scholarships and means-tested bursaries. Scholarships attract 10 per cent fee remission, topped up on a means-tested basis to a maximum of 95 per cent. Generous bursaries support Forces families and parents working in the NHS.

The last word

There is much to praise here, and not just the beautiful setting. Its small size, approach to learning, full-boarding set-up and extensive mix of vocational and academic subjects make Milton Abbey a unique offering. Fully capable of supporting a range of abilities, it would particularly suit those who might have struggled to shine elsewhere.

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

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
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
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 Y
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 Y
VI - Visual Impairment

Who came from where


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