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  • Reading Blue Coat School
    Holme Park
    Sonning Lane
    Sonning on Thames
    Reading
    Berkshire
    RG4 6SU
  • Head: Peter Thomas
  • T 01189 441005
  • F 01189 442690
  • E [email protected]
  • W www.rbcs.org.uk/
  • An independent school for boys aged from 11 to 18.
  • Boarding: No
  • Local authority: Wokingham
  • Pupils: 820; sixth formers: 301 (101 girls, 200 boys)
  • Religion: Church of England
  • Fees: £18,039 pa
  • Open days: See website for virtual events
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • ISI report: View the ISI report

What says..

Lower school curriculum currently being overhauled ‘so it suits both boys and girls.’ Finer details still being ironed out but expect slightly longer lessons and greater presence of female role models appearing in lesson content. Academic but not overly pressurised, say parents. ‘The school takes education to a whole new level in terms of engaging the children in learning,’ said one. Involvement in music is compulsory – all students are auditioned for the choir and learn a musical instrument for the first two years. Seems to pay off, with plenty continuing and good take up for the orchestra and all the usual ensembles. Not too highbrow, with…

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What the school says...

At Blue Coat we pride ourself on being a welcoming and friendly community where every pupil can find their niche. School life is based on trust, courtesy and good will and we pride ourselves on the individual attention that we give all our pupils. We look back on over 350 years of education but believe we are a forward-thinking school, open to fresh ideas, recognising the value of structure and discipline in young people's lives.

Everything that we do is founded on a strong commitment to pastoral care. We hope to nourish a love of learning and a genuine excitement about the possibilities of academic life, while also preparing our students effectively for the challenge of public examinations. There is a rich and varied programme of co-curricular activities which allows for every taste and temperament, Involvement in these activities builds confidence and gives an invaluable sense of perspective.

Visiting Blue Coat is the best possible way to experience how the school works and you will always be assured of a warm welcome. There are regular Open Days or Open Afternoons, weekly small-group visits and individual appointments. Every student will be given a tour of the school by a Sixth Form pupil, following their interview with me or one of my senior colleagues.
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Sports

Rowing

What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since September 2020, Peter Thomas, previously second master. Born and raised in Horsham, West Sussex; studied geology at Durham. An ex-copper, he worked for five years as a response officer for Sussex Police - and if you’re worried that means he’s a law, order and punishment fanatic, you should meet his brother who is an ex-prison-governor-turned-head. Seriously, though, they both left their previous lives for a reason – in our protagonist’s case, ‘to have a more positive impact,’ which fits with his sunny demeanour. And perhaps the writing was on the wall all along, given that their mum was a primary school teacher. He has only worked at two other schools - The Judd School in Tonbridge, where he taught for two years before joining Dauntsey’s School geography department. Was housemaster of both day and boarding houses and he also coached football and rugby and ran the Christian Union.

One of a bunch of (to our mind) medal-deserving heads that took the helm in the annus horribilis of Covid, though he’s modest about it – ‘It wasn’t as hard for me, having been on the senior leadership team anyway,’ he shrugs. Humility in no short supply then. School’s IT reckoned to have jumped forward a decade over a single weekend, with all staff ready at their webcams the Monday after the lockdown announcement and a major transformation in use of devices ever since: ‘Every pupil now has a device, all work is set online and parents use an online portal so they can keep tabs too.’

Married to Emily, a language teacher at Wellington, with whom he has four sons (oldest here, second oldest at Wellington and younger two at a local prep) and an obedient lab, Arthur. Downtime means time as a family, he says, ‘perhaps enjoying some camping, being involved with a church and enjoying the delights of the Blue Coat area’. That is, when he’s not on the touchline which can include four locations in one day - a couple for the school’s matches, a couple for his sons. For further flung escapes, preferences include Pembrokeshire and north Norfolk.

Entrance

The big news is that the school is going co-ed. Having taken girls into sixth form for nearly 40 years, they are now being invited to join the fold in year 7 from 2023 with the eventual aim of a 50:50 gender split, ideally by September 2027, the first year there will be girls in every year group. Year groups will grow in size from 100 to 125 at 11+ but drop from 10-15 available places to just a handful at 13+.

Currently just under three applicants for every year 7 place. Applicants are invited to the school in groups during the autumn term of year 6 preceding entry to do an interview, tour and assessments comprising English, maths and verbal reasoning. Reference from current school also required. Similar entrance criteria for 13+ entry. A further competitive intake at 16, with just over three applicants for every place (60 in total, vast majority female). Entry at this age requires verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests plus a minimum of six 6s at GCSE and at least a 7 in the subjects to be studied at A level.

Around half of year 7s come from state primaries; the rest from local preps including their main feeder of St Piran’s, then Crosfields and others from eg Holme Grange and Lambrook.

Exit

Over 80 per cent go through to sixth form. Nearly all to first choice university, with 70 per cent to Russell Group. Exeter, Nottingham, Loughborough, Durham and Cardiff all popular. Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton and UWE also feature. Most, but not all, to study heavy duty subjects such as aeronautical engineering, dentistry, maths, modern languages, physics, geography and history. Sports science and, not surprisingly, geology also popular. One to Oxbridge in 2021, plus one medic. Fear not if your child doesn’t reach such dizzying heights – the school is committed to a growing focus on ‘the right course and place,’ with two boys having recently left to study theatre tech at a theatre school in London, and degree apprenticeships are increasingly promoted too.

Latest results

In 2021, 84 per cent 9-7 at I/GCSE; 70 per cent A*/A (89 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 67 per cent 9-7 at I/GCSE; 42 per cent A*/A at A level (71 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

Lower school curriculum currently being overhauled ‘so it suits both boys and girls.’ Finer details still being ironed out but expect slightly longer lessons and greater presence of female role models appearing in lesson content. Academic but not overly pressurised, say parents. ‘The school takes education to a whole new level in terms of engaging the children in learning,’ said one.

Setting in maths from year 7 and in sciences for the GCSE years. Carousel of Spanish, French, German and Latin from year 7, from which students pick two from year 8. All take RS GCSE in year 10, then (usually) a further nine GCSEs in year 11. A language is compulsory and majority takes triple science. Currently IGCSEs in maths, English, geography, science, history, modern languages and ICT. Maths, English, sciences, geography, history and German do particularly well, while for A level (of which 25 are on offer), biology, maths and geography are the shining stars, with classics and Latin doing increasingly well albeit taken by fewer students (school will run subjects for as few as one person though prefers more ‘for collaboration purposes’). Less usual A level choices include classical civilisation, DT, politics, drama and theatre, physical education and psychology. Sixth form enrichment includes visiting speakers and about half do an EPQ – recent examples include one on back and head injuries caused by contact sports and another on AI.

The world of geology has much to thank Reading Blue Coat for - the serendipitous result of a former teacher’s passion for rocks is a dedicated lab full of fascinating specimens in the geology and psychology centre (a sympathetic but modern refurb of a 18th century building). Geology is now on curriculum from year 7 and many go on to study geology (via a Welsh exam board) for GCSE and beyond.

Parents praise teachers for taking the time to understand individual learning styles, avoiding coasting and sparking interests. ‘I have three boys of completely different abilities and each of them have had the support they’ve needed to reach their full potential,’ said one. ‘They really get to know us,’ agreed a student, although another grumbled that ‘some are quite old-fashioned and have very different standards than others.’

Learning support and SEN

All students screened at 11 and 16 and offered blocks of one-to-ones if needed – mainly for mild dyslexia and ADHD. ‘Organisational issues are a key focus,’ says head. Learning support department, based in converted stables, staffed by three who also work closely with teachers for a joined-up approach. ‘I have three sons, two of whom have SEN, and every single member of staff has been informed about their specific needs and they’ve had all the support they’ve needed and more,’ said one parent.

The arts and extracurricular

Involvement in music is compulsory – all students are auditioned for the choir and learn a musical instrument for the first two years. Seems to pay off, with plenty continuing and good take up for the orchestra and all the usual ensembles. Not too highbrow, with strong jazz groups and a rich tradition of rock and pop concerts too; a good school to join if you fancy yourself in a band. Swing into Summertime is a calendar highlight - parents picnic on the lawns and listen to the latest talent – going on when we visited.

Drama stronger than it was – now on curriculum up to year 9, and available as a GCSE. ‘Can be massively helpful with confidence and presentation skills,’ says head. Separate annual plays from lower and middle schools, plus a whole school musical – Billy Elliot up next. Performance and technical aspects both draw interest, with healthy take up at GCSE and A level. A new technical theatre club is proving popular. Well-liked head of department, which always helps.

What the art department lacks in facilities, it gains in vibrancy – head says he’s on the case with the former, not just in terms of rethinking the space, but adding more eg textiles and ceramics for a wider curriculum. GCSE and A level exhibitions on when we visited, revealing some talented work, especially on canvases, with a long-standing art teacher himself a working artist who was commissioned to present Theresa May with a painting for her 60th birthday.

Shooting, bushcraft, archery, politics, Young Enterprise, DofE, creative writing, journalism and technology all on offer. CCF has a good following, with cadets having represented the whole movement at national remembrance events. Impressive public speaking record - junior and senior teams have orated their way to become local, national and world champions in recent years. Charitable works encouraged. New adventure programme includes sailing, mountaineering and paddle sports – students can work towards qualifications, then train up the younger ones, a nice virtuous circle.

Sport

School’s rowing glory should come as no surprise, given the Thames-side location and fine boathouse. Should you ask, as we did, for a list of latest successes, allow a good few minutes for the answer – includes local, national and regional wins on an impressive scale. They’re no Abingdon and or Eton but as one student pointed out, ‘That’s an unfair comparison – Eton has an Olympic rowing lake on the school site!’ Main three sports for boys are rugby, football and cricket, with school holding its own against some of the big hitting local schools at fixtures, no doubt spurred on by the very large crowds of parents (and often the head) attending matches. Watch this space for girls’ main sporting options in lower and middle school; for sixth form girls, it’s mainly hockey and netball. Elite players will feel at home here – there are a number of boys playing rugby, football and cricket at county and national level, plus (when we visited) a badminton player for England, a boy who is currently sixth in Great Britain for go-carting and a tennis player who competes internationally. Rubbish at sport? ‘You’re bound to find something you like here’, reckon students, while a parent told us, ‘My son will never be a natural athlete, but he’s always been encouraged to stay involved.’ That A few niggles around the department having ‘clear favourites’, though. Sixth formers help in local primary schools and with sports coaching as part of the Sports Leadership Award.

Ethos and heritage

Located in the chocolate box village of Sonning-on-Thames, home to Theresa May and George Clooney and full of ancient bridges, half-timbered and thatched houses, tea shops and, at certain times of the day, gridlock in its narrow roads. Founded in 1646 by local merchant Richard Aldworth to offer education for the poor children of Reading, the school moved to its current site 300 years later. Unlike many of Reading’s best schools stuck on small town-centre sites, this one boasts 50 acres of playing fields (on which nine football matches can be played at once) and wooded grounds which roll down to the Thames and boathouse. Reading rugby and hockey clubs also used when required.

The classical proportions of the Regency mansion that once stood here fell victim to a serious case of Victorian mock gothicism and sprouted towers and mullions. Not remotely sinister on the bright summer’s day we visited but could be rather a brooding presence on a winter’s afternoon. Nevertheless a striking building with brick and flint exterior, which is now home to head’s office, some teaching areas, IT suite and library (next in line for a revamp and expansion) where found several boys relaxed on beanbags reading.


The rest of the site is a mix of newer buildings and facilities including sixth form centre (now with new dining facility and three classrooms where you can write on the walls then rub it all out), science centre, sports hall/gym (which hosts two assemblies a week), Richard Aldworth Building (main teaching block with middle school common room) and canteen (‘where the food could be better,’ more than one student told us) and, most recently, the new DT block and a multi-use games area. Everything is clearly signposted and the interiors of blue carpets, coupled with light oak and glass, gives a fresh, modern feel, although we would like to have seen more examples of students’ work through the corridors. The only remaining eyesore is the drama centre (‘It’s a real shame my boys haven’t had access to a proper theatre,’ one parent said), but it’s on the head’s wish list along with the art facilities.

The traditional uniform of long blue coat (hence the school’s name), breeches, yellow stockings and buckled shoes is now only worn on high days by prefects – girls and boys. The rest of the time, it’s a more typical grey/navy combo and for sixth formers, smart business wear.


Former pupils (Old Blues) include television presenters TV presenter Jeremy Kyle, Matt Allwright (Rogue Traders), Reading West MP Alok Sharma, round-the-world yachtsman Mike Golding OBE and the actress Natalie Dormer (Casanova, The Tudors).

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Interaction between different year groups encouraged by vertical house system – now with six houses instead of four. Form tutors see their students twice daily, while heads of year and heads of sections are all trained in child protection. Two part-time counsellors well used and there’s a chaplain covering all faiths who is on hand for students, staff and even parents. ‘It’s a big school, but it’s caring,’ reckoned a parent. ‘We chose the school because we’d heard the boys are happy and that has held true for ours,’ voiced another. As with so many schools, there are more red flags for mental health than pre-Covid – school says this is where ‘the tutor/parent relationship comes to the fore.’

Big on discipline – ‘sometimes I’ve questioned whether it’s overly so,’ said one parent, but most are happy with the ‘regimented’ approach that keeps those who might be ‘otherwise easily distracted’ on point. ‘Probably not the best school for a child who likes freedom to do their own thing, but for those who thrive on clear structures and guidance, coupled with a culture that allows for creativity, it’s wonderful,’ summed up one. Manners matter, as does uniform – ‘Morning, John, do your top button up please,’ is a common greeting from the head. An annual bullying survey helps locate any pockets of nastiness – parents agree school pounces quickly where needed. Handful of temporary exclusions every year, though very few exclusions – one reasonably recently for drugs. Impressively, we thought, school is transparent about such issues and talks about being ‘well aware of the affluence and availability in the area, so drugs education is very much part of our PHSE programme.’ Sniffer dog brought in from time to time, always unannounced, to keep students on their toes.

School gets a mention on the Everyone’s Invited website – again school is not defensive, nor tries to brush it under the carpet (as we’ve seen elsewhere), instead having responded immediately with a safeguarding audit which it believes ‘has shaped us up to be in good health.’ Year 12s started a Safe Society to explore equality issues on the back of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard – boys and girls attend. There’s also a Newton Society (LGBTQ+) and a Mandela Society (racial equality), both student led and supervised by staff.

Pupils and parents

Students are confident and eloquent. Parents are mainly middle class, generally dual income – legal, financial, medical and IT professions dominate. From roughly a 25 mile radius, taking in Reading, Maidenhead, Wokingham, Camberley, Wallingford, Fleet, Twyford and villages between. School buses available from Reading, Wokingham, Henley, Maidenhead, Marlow, Beaconsfield and Windsor.

Money matters

Cheap-ish, as Basil Fawlty would say – fees lower than at a few prep schools in the area. ‘The value for money is notable,’ said a parent. Scholarships for music and academics (and art from 16+) - up to five per cent of fees. Two foundation scholarships awarded annually on merit and means-tested (100 per cent of fees). No sports scholarship, but there is an athletes’ development programme awarded for aptitude and ability – offers bells and whistles in terms of sporting opportunities but no fee reduction. Around 10 (and growing) bursaries awarded per year group ranging from 25 per cent to 100 per cent.

The last word

Parents after a good day school are spoilt for choice around here, both in the state and independent sector. This one stands out for hovering at the top academically, as well as having a friendly, family-oriented feel and outstanding extracurricular offering. ‘It’s not just a school, but a way of life for the young people. It’s a whole community,’ said a parent.

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.

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