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  • Reading Blue Coat School
    Holme Park
    Sonning Lane
    Sonning on Thames
    Reading
    Berkshire
    RG4 6SU
  • Head: Mr Jesse Elzinga
  • 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: 761; sixth formers: 253 (88 girls)
  • Religion: Church of England
  • Fees: £16,695 pa
  • Open days: General: October and April; Sixth Form: October
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review
  • ISI report: View the ISI report

What says..

We were delighted to open a door off the library and find a several boys relaxed on beanbags reading. 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. Given its Thames-side location and fine boathouse, the school’s rowing glory will come as no surprise, with the head reeling off details of every recent local, regional and national win...

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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 2016, Jesse Elzinga, previously director of studies at Harrow. BA in comparative religion from Harvard and MSt (as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar) from Oxford. The only student ever to go from his Detroit state school to Harvard, he captained varsity lightweight rowing there, twice winning the national championship in the eight. His first job was teaching theology and philosophy at Whitgift, later becoming assistant head of sixth form, before moving to St Edward's Oxford as head of RS, later becoming director of studies.

Suave, erudite and philanthropic (see Money matters); staff say he is also consultative and efficient. ‘Listening is imperative, but I don’t like to waste time so once I’ve got the picture, I say, “Ok, I understand, let’s do this",’ he told us. Parents like his ‘inclusive approach’ and ‘focus on marginal gains.’ Students like his sportiness (‘It means he gets really involved in our sports,’ said one) and say he ‘often pops into lessons.’ But although he told us the door to his vast study is always open, students told us they wouldn’t dream of going in. Teaches when he can (A level politics).

Lives on site in the headmaster’s house with his wife Elaina and their two young daughters. ‘I’m so lucky – I have a key to the gate to the tow path, which makes for wonderful walks, and occasionally I can pop back and give my daughters a kiss and pop them down for their nap at lunchtimes.’

Academic matters

Academic, for sure, but not overly pressurised. ‘The school takes education to a whole new level in terms of engaging the children in learning,’ said one parent. ‘You get a lot of PowerPoint presentations and very well-designed projects,’ agree students, who also approve of the boy-friendly 35-minute lessons. In 2018, 69 per cent A*-A/9-7 grades at I/GCSE (currently IGCSEs in maths, English, geography, science, history, modern languages and ICT) and 75 per cent A*/B and 44 per cent A*/A grades at A level. Maths, English and sciences do particularly well at GCSE, with no real areas of weakness, while for A level (of which 23 are on offer), sciences, maths and economics are the shining stars, with takers of English, art and languages also successful, though fewer in number. Less usual A level choices include classical civilisation, DT, government and politics, drama and theatre, physical education and psychology.

Setting in maths and languages from year 7 (‘but only part-way through the year as we do our own testing rather than going on previous attainment levels,’ says school) and in sciences for the GCSE years. For languages, boys choose two from Spanish, French and German in year 7 – and Latin is optional from the start of year 8. All take RS GCSE in year 10. Enrichment opportunities in the sixth form include visiting speakers and the school’s own PLUS course, which covers giving a presentation, writing an extended essay and effective note-taking as well as careers, personal statements, finance etc. Half of year 12s do an EPQ – high by national standards.

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). Boys take a taster course in year 9 and many go on to study geology (via a Welsh exam board) for GCSE and beyond.

Support is very much tailored towards the individual here, say parents. ‘I have three boys of completely different abilities and each of them have had the support they’ve needed to reach their full potential.’ School rebuffs target setting. ‘You can get complacent if you’re already an A student and you’re given a target grade of A; and it can cut aspirations to tell a student their target grade is B just because they usually get C. We aim to get everyone up to A and A*s – it’s just a case of finding the best way to suit that child.’

Teachers mainly friendly and unpretentious. ‘They really get to know us,’ report students, although some said they’d like to see greater consistency. ‘Some are quite old-fashioned and have very different standards than others.’

All are screened at 11 and 16 and the learning support department (a team of three based in the converted stables) provides assistance for those with mild SEN (dyslexia mainly) and students who require it are given extra time in the entrance exam. ‘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.

Games, options, the arts

Given its Thames-side location and fine boathouse, the school’s rowing glory will come as no surprise, with the head reeling off details of every recent local, regional and national win. One boy represented Great Britain in rowing the summer we visited. They’re no Abingdon and Eton, mind. But, as head points out, ‘That’s an unfair comparison – Eton has an Olympic rowing lake on the school site!’ Main three sports are rugby, football and cricket, all of which have a number of boys playing at county and national level – and the school does well in fixtures, holding its own against some of the big schools, with crowds of parents (and often the head) attending matches. Head says his proudest sporting moment was delivering 33 match reports in football in one week in a Monday assembly. ‘Thirty-three!’ he repeats, incredulous. Sixth-form girls happy with the sports on offer to them, notably hockey and netball. Some stand-out elites, including one boy who plays badminton for England and a girl who does figure skating at national level – school willing to be flexible with timetable. But the less sporty aren’t ostracised - ‘My son will never be a natural athlete, but he’s always been encouraged to stay involved.’ That said, some parents say it’s a shame the department ‘has its clear favourites and makes that very obvious.’

Shooting, bushcraft, archery, politics, Young Enterprise, DofE, scuba diving, creative writing, journalism and technology are on offer alongside drama productions and sports activities. Sixth formers help in local primary schools and with sports coaching as part of the Sports Leadership Award. CCF is very strong and popular with both boys and girls and cadets have 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. ‘I like our students to do more meaningful things in the community – working in a Sue Ryder home, for example, not just bake sales,’ says head. Residential trips galore – recent examples include Ghana, Uzbekistan, Pompeii, Milan, Barcelona, Pembrokeshire. ‘You go away at least once a year with the school,’ one student told us.

Music is at the heart of the school - all boys are auditioned for the choir and learn a musical instrument for the first two years, and there’s a strong orchestra and all the usual ensembles. But it’s jazz and contemporary music that really shine, with band practice for the popular Swing into Summertime – in which parents picnic on the lawns and listen to the latest talent – going on when we visited. ‘I’ve never come across a school where music is so cool,’ says the head. ‘When I hear bands blasting out music at 5pm on Fridays, I refuse to kick them out because they’re having so much fun.’

Drama also strong, with separate performances from lower, middle and upper school – including a much talked about recent performance of Grease - and a well-liked head of department.

Art (also popular) is, says head, ‘the one area I wouldn’t touch when I came to the school.’ 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.

Background and atmosphere

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. ‘It’s one of the best things the school ever did,’ says head. Indeed, 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. ‘We’re also next to Reading rugby and hockey clubs, so we get to use all their top-notch facilities as spill-over and Astroturf pitches,’ adds head.

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 at all sinister on a bright summer’s day, 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 (historically not enticing ‘due to demands for silence,’ say boys, but open door policy and new young librarian means that’s set to change). We were delighted to open a door off the library and find a several boys relaxed on beanbags reading. Once a week for the first two years all boys read books of their choice in these peaceful surroundings.

The rest of the site is a mix of newer buildings and facilities including sixth form centre, science centre, sports hall/gym (which hosts two assemblies a week), Richard Aldworth Building (main teaching block with middle school common room), 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. ‘My first son started here in 2003 and the school site is literally unrecognisable from when he started,’ one parent told us. Everything is extremely clearly signed (‘We have a joke that if you stand still long enough, the bursar will put a blue sign on you’) 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 planning permission is in place for a new performing arts centre.

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. Some parents are irritated by growing number of days being shaved off the summer term.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

The school has active and well thought through policies to foster vertical as well as horizontal bonding. Students see their tutors twice a day and if there’s a problem that needs input, it goes to head of year or even head of section, all of whom are trained in child protection. ‘So it rarely gets to the deputy head, let alone me,’ says head. Two chaplains and a part-time counsellor also available. ‘It’s a big school, but it’s caring,’ more than one parent told us. ‘We chose the school because we’d heard the boys are happy and that has held true for ours,’ said another. Parents describe the school as ‘strict’ – ‘sometimes I’ve questioned whether it’s overly so,’ one told us, but most happy with the regimented approach that ‘keeps otherwise easily distracted boys in tow.’ ‘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.’ Detentions rare; a handful of temporary exclusions most years; no permanent exclusions in the last three years. Bullying rare. ‘If they get a sniff of it, they’re in there like a shot,’ one parent said. Four houses, named after the school’s founders and benefactors, are the focus for competitive sport, music - house singing - and charity fundraising. Girls coming into the sixth form have at least three taster days and get to meet their subject teachers and fellow pupils.

Pupils and parents

‘In a civilised area like this, we are very lucky with the nice middle-class families whose children are polite and very well-behaved,’ reports head. From roughly a 25 mile radius, taking in Reading, Maidenhead, Wokingham, Camberley, Wallingford, Fleet, Twyford and villages between. Around half come from state primaries; the rest from local preps including their main feeders of Crosfields and St Piran’s, along with St Edwards, Holme Grange and Lambrook among others. Girls come from schools with no sixth form such as Cranford or for a change from single sex education, a number from The Abbey and Queen Anne’s. Fees roughly a couple of thousand per annum lower than local competition, but this is regarded as a nice bonus rather than a deciding factor for most parents.

School buses available from Reading, Wokingham, Henley, Maidenhead, Marlow and Windsor. Former pupils (Old Blues) include television presenters Jeremy Kyle (‘not an alumnus we are particularly proud of,’ admits school) and Matt Allwright (Rogue Traders), Reading West MP Alok Sharma, round-the-world yachtsman Mike Golding OBE and the actress Natalie Dormer (Casanova, The Tudors).

Entrance

Just under three applicants for every place at 11 and just over three at 16. Interview (for both students and parents) with headmaster or senior colleague, entrance examination in January comprising English, maths and verbal reasoning plus reference from current school. A further competitive intake at 16+: around 40 girls and 10 boys enter the lower sixth each year. Entry at this age requires verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests plus a minimum of seven GCSEs grade C and above, with at least As (or numerical equivalents) in most subjects to be studied at A level. From 2018, students will take online assessments and written English tests.

Exit

About 85 per cent go through to sixth form. Nearly all to first choice university – Exeter, Leeds, Cardiff, Birmingham, Southampton and UWE currently popular. Most, but not all, to study heavy duty subjects such as aeronautical engineering, dentistry, maths, modern langs and physics. Sports science and, not surprisingly, geology also popular. In 2018, one to Cambridge and three medics.

Money matters

Cheap-ish, as Basil Fawlty would say – fees lower than at a few prep schools in the area and head keen to keep it that way. ‘The value for money is notable,’ one parent told us. Scholarships for art, music, academics and sport - up to five per cent of fees (used to be 25 per cent ‘but it struck me as wrong to give discount to millionaire families, rather than those who couldn’t otherwise afford to come here,’ says head). Two foundation scholarships awarded annually on merit and means-tested (100 per cent of fees). In addition the school awards roughly half a dozen bursaries per year group ranging from 25 per cent to 100 per cent. Watch this space for more bursaries becoming available in the next few years – it’s one of the head’s main focuses, which he spoke passionately about at length to us.

Our view

No shortage of other good day schools to choose from in this area, state and independent, but academically this hovers at the top and it also stands out for the vibrant, friendly, family-oriented feel and extracurricular offering. ‘It’s not just a school, but a way of life for the young people. It’s a whole community,’ summed up one parent. A school that remains true to its founding principles, continuing to put all its efforts into providing a first class all-round education for the boys and girls fortunate enough to go there – and one which is increasingly keen to be financially accessible.

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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