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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...

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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

Head

Since September 2018, Judith Fremont-Barnes, previously head of Duke of Kent School in Surrey. English degree from Oxford; first teaching post at JAGS, then spent five years in Japan where she lectured at Kobe Kaisei College for Women and Kobe University, as well as bringing up a family. On her return to the UK, joined King Edward VI School and then Radley College, where she became head of English, was involved in boarding and a member of the school’s academic planning group. Next post was deputy head at More House School in Surrey; she moved to Duke of Kent in 2011. Leisure interests include long walks with her border terrier and time spent with her family: her husband Gregory, a military historian, and their two grown up sons.

Academic matters

Milton Abbey’s strengths lie in its value-added. School doesn’t publish its exam results (though 69 per cent A*-C at A level or BTec equivalent in 2018), taking the view that students have such a broad range of ability that their achievements wouldn’t be accurately represented by what the school calls the ‘crude mechanism’ of league tables. Students range from a boy who got three A*s at A level 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. 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, saying 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.' 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 too (charged on top of the fees), sometimes instead of languages. EAL and study skills help on offer. 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 taken seriously 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 they all get the chance to represent the school at hockey, netball, lacrosse, tennis and rounders. 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. 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 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.

Entrepreneurship in Residence competition aims to inspire pupils with ambitions to launch their own business. Top-notch designers like Anya Hindmarch, Johnnie Boden and Cath Kidston and Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross have all fronted the scheme. 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 recently). Other activities include DofE, 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

Offers full boarding or day places – ‘we don’t have anything in between'. 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, out of bounds 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

With 76 acres of rolling countryside, it 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, 15 minutes’ drive from Blandford. ‘It’s deeply rural, but not remote.' We visited on a sunny day but were assured that it looks lovely in the rain and mist too. Founded in 1954, it 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. It also has its own farm (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. Pasta, salads, wraps and paninis on offer at lunchtime, as well as hot meals, plus snacks at break, fresh fruit and cake in the afternoons. ‘No one goes hungry,’ grinned one boy. 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 years 9 to 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 – there's a 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 head every morning), heads of houses and a raft of prefects – called ‘pilots’ here.

Pupils and parents

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') 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.

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. It 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. At 18 or 19 pupils choose a plethora of routes, ranging from agriculture to film and creative media courses. Has forged a close relationship with The Arts University Bournemouth, which specialises in art, design, media and performance across the creative industries. School also 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.

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.

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

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