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What says..

Yes, of course the girls work hard (and joy of joys, it’s not seen as nerdy to do so here), but Abbey girls take things in their stride and manage to do plenty more besides. Indeed, for a high-achieving girls’ schools, we found a reassuring lack of pressure, although we suspect some legs are paddling furiously below ….

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What the school says...

The Abbey School is a dynamic and vibrant community of more than 1,000 girls aged 3-18.

The Abbey is always in the top division nationally in academic terms. This year's A levels were excellent with 89% at A*/B and at GCSE 84% were A*/A. In 2016 the average IB diploma result was 39, with more than two thirds of the cohort scoring 38 points or higher, at a level equivalent to or exceeding the Oxford and Cambridge conditional offer range. For the fourth time in the school's 8 year IB history one student gained the full 45 points possible. Leavers go on to an impressive list of universities and courses.

The school places great emphasis on providing a breadth of challenges and opportunities for each pupil. Girls are presented with the chance for exploration both within the curriculum and in Music, Drama, Sport, DofE and the wide variety of clubs and trips. The Jane Austen Wing at the Senior School has modern classrooms for Humanities as well as bright Art studios and enhanced ICT facilities. The International Baccalaureate has widened the options for Sixth Formers who can also choose their desired A level combination from 29 subjects.

The Abbey Junior School offers a broad curriculum and the atmosphere is friendly, lively, purposeful and fun.

There is an extensive Abbey School coach network and the school is walking distance from Reading Station. There is a range of scholarships and financial assistance is offered to able girls through means-tested bursaries which may cover up to 100% of fees for exceptional candidates.
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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking Religious Studies at an English Independent School (GCSE)

Curricula

International Baccalaureate: diploma - the diploma is the familiar A-level equivalent.

Other features

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

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

Rowing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since September 2014, Rachel Dent BA QTS (40s), previously deputy head. Grew up in the Midlands and read English at Southampton University, then embarked on a career in journalism in 1992, although she quickly realised it wasn’t for her, quitting her first job at Time Out magazine after just two weeks. Travelled to Egypt to ‘find herself’ and when she realised she needed some money, she ‘blagged her way into teaching English GCSE’ and ‘never looked back’. Did her formal teacher training back in the UK via fast track QTS at Reading University, then worked at Wisbech Grammar and then Cokethorpe School. Joined The Abbey in 2007 as director of sixth form. Her office is plush, swanky and large – think Farrow and Ball grey and white tones, stone fireplace and fresh flowers.

Whilst she’s done odd bits of teaching since becoming head and leads Wednesday assemblies, the general consensus is that she’s more of a CEO-type head than a hands-on teaching type (in fact, she’d recently been on a Henley Business School course with CEOs when we visited). A working mum, she is adamant that overworking isn’t good for anyone and keenly leads by example to both staff and pupils when it comes to achieving work/life balance. ‘There will always be tomorrow’ is her mantra. Described as ‘modern’, ‘dynamic’, ‘energetic’ and ‘visionary’, we found her all these things, as well as warm and relaxed. Particularly keen to make the school’s spaces more user-friendly and fit for modern teaching methods. ‘I want to move away from traditional wooden desks,’ she explains.

Lives locally with her husband and daughter. Regularly spotted walking her two dogs across Berkshire and Oxfordshire in her spare time.

As head of the senior school since 2015, Jan Cresswell – who has a degree in English lit from Durham and has taught English, drama and RE - is second-in-command and most likely ‘go-to’ person for parents and pupils. Previously head of sixth form at Portsmouth High School, she also served on the senior leadership team of a large co-educational HMC school. She is famed around the school for her fondness for literary references and her warm and persuasive leadership style. ‘Rachel’s focus on balance was a great fit with my belief that well-being matters most, so I knew I’d love it here,’ she told us. ‘And the girls are just what you’d hope them to be: energetic, curious and confident – but never pushy.’ Since joining, she has overseen a restructuring of the pastoral support system. ‘I don't suffer from tunnel vision,’ she insists. ‘I want the girls to share that sense that the world is a wonderfully exciting place to be - and that they can make a real difference.’

Academic matters

Impressive results across the board. In 2016, 84 per cent A*/A grades at GCSE. Refreshing to find students encouraged to take average of 10 GCSEs (previously it was 11 or 12), with most popular options being geography, history, food tech, textiles and drama (in that order). Choice of double and triple science. Computer science on the up.

At A level, girls can choose from 24 subjects, with the school priding itself on its ability to support some unusual combinations. In 2016, 60 per cent A* or A grades (89 per cent A*-B). IB results also notable – in 2016 one candidate scored the full 45 points (fourth time in school's seven year IB history) and the average was 39 points, making it one of the top IB schools in the country. In fact, it seems incredible that its introduction to the school in 2009 was seen as a brave and controversial move, with IB now as embedded into sixth form life as A levels. Teachers enthuse about how it has opened up the school’s global community, made the school much more outward looking, as well as being energising for all sixth form teaching staff.

French and Latin from year 7, with the addition of Spanish or German in year 8. Some setting in year 7 in maths and French, but there’s plenty of movement and no more setting until year 9. Sciences split from year 7, making students with strong preferences very happy. No homework for homework’s sake here (back to that work/life balance ethos) and no homework at all during certain weeks, such as Intellectual Curiosity Week, Festival of Performing Arts Week.

Much praise from pupils and parents for teachers, who are described as ‘committed’ and ‘enthusiastic’, with high attendance at the non-compulsory monthly teacher-led learning innovation group meeting, which focuses on sharing good practice. Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s a single style of teaching here, however, with much autonomy given to individual teachers, although it is agreed that all teaching is personalised, with lots of attention given to discovering individual learning styles and adapting teaching to these. Whiteboards, computers etc are all present in lessons, but there’s not an overdependence on them, as at some schools. ‘I always say that if we lost the buildings, we could carry on,’ says the head. Informal teacher-student relationships, backed up with a huge mutual respect that was palpable during our visit. ‘Teachers are never patronising here, even when you’re in year 7,’ girls told us.

Around 30 with mild SEN receive one-to-one sessions either before school or in lunchtime (no lessons to be missed); small number (and often none at all) have EAL support from qualified teacher. ‘SEN here is more a case of students using pink paper in exams than anyone being statemented,’ says head.

Sixth form provides a happy transition between school and university, meaning that girls who would perhaps in the past have left, ready for a change, now stay on because the change is here. Itchy feet cured by no uniform, even less hierarchical teacher/pupil relations, tutorial style lessons where students can bring coffee along, superlative careers support and magic timetabling to enable endless permutations of A level and IB choices. The common room, with its own kitchenette, is fabulous – spacious, yet cosy and highly sociable, with music played during breaktimes and plenty of computers in the corner for those who don’t mind studying with the low-level noise. Surrounding this space are 12 sixth-form teaching classrooms, along with an open study area with communal tables for quieter working. Many pupils told us their classes can have as few as two or three students in.

Outstanding careers advice, but there’s an emphasis on keeping your options open, rather than pigeonholing yourself from too early on. ‘We are constantly encouraged to explore what kind of a person we are – not just what subjects we’re good at,’ explained one girl. Lots of showcasing of work around the school. Tests and quizzes all part of daily life, but ‘they’re surprisingly relaxed,’ say pupils, explaining that teachers use them largely as a way to feedback on areas students may be falling behind in; how revision techniques could be improved, etc.

Games, options, the arts

If you tour the school, don’t make the mistake (many do) of singing the praises of the large, well-kept playing fields that much of the school overlooks – sadly, they belong to the adjacent Reading Boys’. It’s the one thing the pupils and parents we spoke to would change. ‘It would be great to have more outdoor space,’ is a common statement here, although there’s also an acceptance that it’s a town school and most agree sports facilities still have a wow factor, including a large Astroturf sports pitch, excellent indoor swimming pool (early morning swim fit a popular class) and large sports hall. Main sports are hockey, netball, swimming and athletics, with rugby, football, volleyball, cricket, rounders and biathlons also popular. Fitness options range from belly dancing to zoomba. Very much a case of ‘sport for all here,’ with an emphasis on inclusivity over competitiveness, although there are plenty of opportunities for girls who do want to compete, with county and national triumphs for teams and individuals. When we visited, the school had an under-19 England netball player, five under-19 England rowers and several regional winners in netball, swimming and ice hockey. ‘Even if you don’t like sport, they make it fun,’ one girl told us. ‘I should know – I’m not keen. But this morning, for instance, we did long jump and shotput and they helped me with technique in such an engaging way that I actually found I’d quite enjoyed it.’

Over a third of pupils learn a musical instrument at school and girls make a big noise in both grade examinations and numerous bands, choirs, ensembles and orchestras. There is a major musical production every two years and an annual overseas tour. Drama is very popular and girls we spoke to love the fact that the absence of boys (no shipping in for male roles) means that they get a chance to play all the star parts. Art is a dazzling department, with lovely big art studios and plenty of striking examples of everything from textiles to furniture on show throughout the school.

The Abbey Edge is an exhaustive (and quite possibly exhausting) programme of clubs and activities from crossword club to film society. It includes Chinese club, book clubs and news quizzes in the library, drop-in clinics for academic subjects (an excellent alternative to an evening’s bad tempered homework trauma), D of E (this is one of the biggest D of E schools in the south east, for which the school has a gold award from Buckingham Palace), public speaking, gymnastics, drama, choirs, orchestras, ensembles, West Wing Club, altruistic society and golf. And that’s just the start of it. ‘It was the sheer breadth of extracurricular activity that made us choose the school, and the opportunities our girls have had as a result means we’ve never regretted our decision,’ said one parent. Where possible, clubs (many of which are student-led) take place during lunchtime, although some are held before or after school. How on earth girls find time to do all this and get great results is an Abbey mystery, all the more astounding when you take into consideration that many girls are also involved in sports and clubs where they live. ‘I did swimming training for 18 hours a week during my GCSEs and never once did the school suggest I should give it up, because they recognised that swimming is part of what makes me who I am – classic stuff for The Abbey,’ one girl told us. ‘More than that, they supported me to do well in the swimming and get my grades and I did.’

School trips plentiful - about 10 a week across the school, ranging from theatres to museums. Residentials include outdoor pursuits courses (home and abroad), battlefields (history), Iceland, Grand Canyon (both geography), France (water sports), Austria (skiing) and much more besides. Vietnam, Uganda and Equador were also mentioned during our visit. Fundraising and volunteer work is seen as important, with 70 girls involved in the Reading Refugee Programme when we visited. This involves girls helping children with homework on a regular basis. ‘It helps them understand the real world and actively inspire children,’ says the head.

Background and atmosphere

Based in the ‘nice bit’ of Reading, about half a mile from the university and a quarter of a mile from the town centre, the school was founded in 1887 as Reading High School. In 1914, it departed from the Church Schools Company and took its present name. Located in a leafy street with Victorian villas, it feels far, but not too far, from the madding crowd and is practically next door to both of Reading’s massively oversubscribed state anomalies, Kendrick Girls’ and Reading Boys’ grammars. But while there is some cooperation (careers talks, university presentations), neighbourly relations remain at the polite nod rather than ‘come in without knocking’ level.
Old girls apparently horrified when they saw plans to demolish much of the Victorian frontage, but less so when the work was completed. The gothic entrance has been retained and old and new blend together pretty well, although – like many schools that have been added onto over the years – some of the buildings ‘lack flow’ and some areas are less lovely than others. Notable facilities include great science labs (well-equipped but not soulless); large and airy school hall (including balcony) which was all set up for exams when we visited; and library, which - whilst not the most hi-tech or modern - is roomy, well-stocked and welcoming. Lots of break-out areas, many with sofas (‘You never feel you’re bound to your classroom here,’ said one pupil) and a terrific conference room, which is used for girls’ presentations, IB exams and board meetings for the Young Enterprise club, and wouldn’t look out of place in the likes of Silicon Valley.

Atmosphere is active, busy and buzzy – never silent. ‘I don’t like it when the school is too quiet,’ laughs the head. It’s about learning through doing here, she explains, with girls expected to try new things throughout their time here. ‘This is not a school for girls who don’t like trying new activities. It’s fine if you don’t like them, but there is an ethos of having to give things a go,’ one girl told us. ‘If you’re all about head down and being shy and retiring, a grammar is probably better.’ Other girls told us that highly competitive girls might also struggle, such is the atmosphere of collaboration and support.

Food, which all girls eat (no packed lunches here), widely praised.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Form teachers (who really take time to get to know each girl) are at the heart of pastoral care, all of whom are supported by heads of year. These staff members meet every week for a detailed pastoral meeting, so any problems are picked up quickly. ‘The teachers seem to know exactly know when to step in and when not to – the pastoral care is simply amazing,’ said one parent. Disappointing to find no school counsellor, although head assured us there are plenty of links to external provision and girls seem very clued up on where to go for support. Our guides also pointed to sixth form buddies, whom you can email if you’re shy.

All the usual leadership opportunities - form captains, school council reps, house captains etc - and you get the feeling they’re much more than just labels here, with library prefects, for example, running assembles. ‘Our leaders are do-ers and they love it,’ says head, and pupils concur.

Discipline? Not needed, says the head. ‘I can’t remember the last time someone had a detention.’ Rules? Nope, she says, unless you count those relating to respect. Girls told us that rules do exist and year 7 girls told us you get a black mark (you’re not supposed to call it that, but they do) in your planner for crimes against uniform, homework etc. ‘I got one yesterday for forgetting my apron for food tech,’ one told us. But they all agreed the ethos is more about setting the standards in the early years, rather than focusing on punishment. Plenty of recognition and merits, including for those who are quietly good, who are often overlooked by other systems.
Bullying not problematic. When girls fall out (which, of course, they do), there are good strong tactics to sorting it out quickly and not letting it develop. Plus, girls say there’s no stigma to reporting when you’re feeling upset about something. Friendship groups, in the main, very wide-reaching. ‘If we’re trying to organise a night out, we soon find there are 40 people on the list,’ a sixth-former laughed.

Pupils and parents

Hardworking and unsnobby, definitely no princesses here. Many from Reading’s business community (Sage, Microsoft and Pepsi nearby), with many also in public sector, including academia (university and hospital also nearby). Others from Henley, Windsor and Basingstoke. Ethnic mix much as you’d expect in Reading – that is, mainly white British, but plenty more besides, with a plethora of languages spoken by students. Good transport links: school and public bus network and new Reading train station. Christian values prevalent, but religion is by no means in-your-face and all faiths (including non-believers) are welcome. Old girls include Baroness Brigstocke, Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Ganley, artist and social reformer, and a trio of BBC reporters, Miranda Krestovnikoff , Kate Humble and Sally Taylor. Alumni seen as increasingly important, with the school having introduced a ‘school version of LinkedIn,’ as one girl puts it – that is, a social networking tool specifically for Abbey girls, past and present. ‘It can open doors,’ says one.

Entrance

Main entry point is 11, with around half coming from The Abbey Junior School. Others from independents (Highfield, Dolphin, Eton End, St Pirans) and local state primaries; small intake at 13. Girls sit exams in maths, English and reasoning. Interview with member of staff on their taster day and reference from their current school also taken into account. Sixth form candidates come in for a taster day of lessons in the subjects they want to study at IB or A level. They are expected to gain A*-B in these subjects at GCSE. Same grades required of existing pupils.

Exit

Around 20 per cent leave after GCSEs, mostly to attend local grammars and a few to local comps and colleges. ‘Many parents budget for a certain amount of their girls’ education and sixth form is not in the game plan,’ says head. Almost exclusively Russell Group universities, with popular destinations including Birmingham, Exeter, UCL and Bristol. Five to Oxbridge in 2016. Heavy duty science subjects popular (six to study dentistry, medicine, veterinary and biomedical science in 2016), but also psychology, languages and English. ‘Humanities hold their own,’ says head, who adds that combined courses are increasingly popular – no doubt largely thanks to the Abbey ethos of staying open-minded about your future.

Money matters

Fees pretty competitive - they have to be and, unusually, they include exam fees, all text books and lunches. Means-tested bursaries of up to 100 per cent available; academic scholarships (10 per cent) at key entry points. Special awards for music (instrumental tuition paid) and talents in sport, art and drama – all with an accompanying enrichment programme.

Our view

Yes, of course the girls work hard (and joy of joys, it’s not seen as nerdy to do so here), but Abbey girls take things in their stride and manage to do plenty more besides. Indeed, for a high-achieving girls’ schools, we found a reassuring lack of pressure, although we suspect some legs are paddling furiously below the surface. We also found it pleasantly down-to-earth and grounded. For bright girls, this is a fun, supportive and motivating place to be, providing excellent preparation for the modern world.

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Special Education Needs

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
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
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
Epilepsy [archived]
Genetic
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
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
VI - Visual Impairment

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Freezing dormitories and terrible food


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