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We took to the PE teachers we quizzed and satisfied ourselves that they really do try to find something for everyone and don’t compel non-gamesy types to shiver and endure. A parent said, ‘it's good to see the school focus on providing for those who do not aspire to be in the A team’. If you’re academically robust and emotionally self-reliant this is a school where you can really fly. We attended a maths class. First up, warm-up exercises beginning with times tables at breakneck speed (this Guide got 96 per cent and was inordinately proud of it)...

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What the school says...

Exeter School entrance examinations consist of: 11+: Maths, English & Computer Adaptive Test. 13+: Maths, English, Science & French/German/Spanish. 16+: Sixth formers selected by GCSE results (minimum 3 As and 3 Bs), school reference and interviews. School reference/report considered at all entry ages.

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Boys taking Physics at an English Independent School (GCE AS level)

2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking Spanish at an English Independent School (GCSE Full Course)

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.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2003, Bob Griffin MA. Educated at Wallington High School for Boys, then Oxford - first in modern languages (French and Spanish). Taught at Markham College in Lima before becoming head of modern languages at Haileybury. Came to Exeter from RGS Guildford, where he was second master for five years. Son and daughter both went through the school. Enjoys all things Hispanic, walking on Dartmoor and choral singing. Unique distinction among UK headteachers, he’s a member of the Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen.

Unusually long tenure for this day and age - must be one of the longest serving heads in the country. Gives no impression whatever of age having wearied him. Students, parents and teachers give no impression of having wearied of him, either. Quite the contrary, they all want him to stay for, if possible, ever. Warm, bright, open-minded. All-important good sense of humour. Teaches Spanish. May be said to embody his school, which he has raised to the level of Sunday Times South West Independent Secondary School of the Year 2018. Sees his role as sustainer of standards - ‘high standards, not punishingly high’. He speaks of ‘maintenance rather than revolution’. This is after all an evolved school in no need of a revolution. It continues to evolve, especially the senior management. A parent told us, ‘he is aware of the need to keep moving forward’.

Straightforward, talks plainly (never gruffly). ‘We’re like an old-fashioned grammar school,’ he tells us. He’s proud of the range of extracurricular activity on offer: ‘The school emphasises the whole person.’ Why does the school teach Latin? Because ‘education isn’t all about utility.’ Why do sixth formers wear business suits? ‘Because this is a certain kind of business.’ Does the school put a premium on conformity and obedience in the interest of good exam results? ‘We cherish a little bit of eccentricity in the ranks.’ It wasn’t long before we glimpsed a student wearing the loudest suit you’ve ever seen. Music to our ears, don’t know about yours; the head told us, ‘I don’t believe in marketing for marketing’s sake.’ To be able to return to our car unburdened by one of those eco bags bulging with narcissistic brochures, key rings, fridge magnets etc was a joy. And the school does make a very good fist of its communications: there’s a Twitter feed which ‘develops a sense of community’, as does its Instagram feed and weekly newsletter, which celebrates students’ in-school and out-of-school achievements.

Academic matters

Results terrific - which you may think you’re entitled to expect from such a selective school, but note this: the school’s value added (Progress 8) score is above average, an exceptionally difficult feat to accomplish with conventionally bright boys and girls who have been achieving at a high level relative to their ability all their schooldays. Proper grammar school curriculum. English language and psychology recent additions. Maths and science formidable; humanities impressive, notably history, geography and English; modern languages stunning, boosted by assistants, native speakers, in French and Spanish. Around 85 per cent move up from GCSE to A level, a notably high figure, the more so in a city with a very good tertiary college. Sixth formers start with four subjects and most go down to three at the end of year 12. Max class size 24. Results in 2018: at A level 58 per cent A*/A; at GCSE 75 per cent A*-A/9-7.

If you’re academically robust and emotionally self-reliant this is a school where you can really fly. We attended a maths class. First up, warm-up exercises beginning with times tables at breakneck speed (this Guide got 96 per cent and was inordinately proud of it). Hard on its heels, a spot of code-breaking (Guide: waah!). Brains whirred, hands flew up all round us exultantly - it was high octane stuff, the sort that bright boys and girls thrive on. So, perhaps, not the most comfortable environment for a child given to self-doubt or dreaminess. A parent who reluctantly decided not to send their daughter to the school did so on the grounds that she needed ‘a more nurturing environment’. Not that this is a harsh, Darwinian sort of school by any means, and passing the entry test is your assurance that you’re definitely good enough to be here. But a degree of inner confidence does help you go a long way. A student we spoke to described their school as ’accepting and challenging’. Another said, ‘It encourages pupils to do their very best but always puts pupils’ well-being first’. A parent said, ‘There is plenty of guidance and support, with explanations and helpful staff always willing to listen if there are problems’.

Effective but not trendy use of tech, eg smartphones being used in a biology class to create animations of enzyme activity. No smartboards but they’re leapfrogging them and moving on to tablets instead. Classrooms well-appointed, functional rather than glamorous, entirely fit for purpose, dressed with intelligent displays. Excellent library and a reading programme that encourages students to read six books from a selection in the course of a year. As we toured the school we surveyed well-behaved, lit-up students and purposeful teaching. Teachers run their own teaching and learning committee where they keep up to date and share good practice (ie, stuff that works). Healthy turnover of staff achieves a good balance between continuity and renewal. We got the impression that those who don’t fit move on fast.

Learning support co-ordinator draws up a learning plans for students with special needs, which tend to be on the mild side here. Needs addressed have included dyslexia, a registered blind pupil, hearing impaired, cystic fibrosis and mild autism. Dyscalculia mostly handled within maths department.

A large number of out of school clubs are spun off from academic departments. In addition to subject workshops there’s a Medsoc for aspiring doctors, a film and literary society and three clubs that stage one-off events across the intellectual spectrum.

Games, options, the arts

Historically a sporty school and it still is, all of it done well to judge by results. The trad three seasonal sports for each sex (rugby, not football, for boys, but you can play football in the sixth form). By year 11 you get to choose from 14 sports and for those who can’t get enough there are out of school clubs which raise the total to 25. First-year sixth formers can take a course which yields a recognised sports coaching qualification. We took to the PE teachers we quizzed and satisfied ourselves that they really do try to find something for everyone and don’t compel non-gamesy types to shiver and endure. A parent said, ‘it's good to see the school focus on providing for those who do not aspire to be in the A team’.

Music formidable, choirs, orchestras, ensembles galore. Good concert hall and gigs at other top venues, eg the cathedral. Drama is run by an ex-actor and playwright (makes such a difference). Nice studio theatre and dance studio, big productions in the assembly hall. Ambitious programme: back-to-back Julius Caesar and Henry V, Guys and Dolls recently. Art vibrant. Very good exam results. Work on display all through the school. Competitions, staff art show, annual summer exhibition with catalogue, and a joint show with a local school for young people with disabilities. Annual residential GCSE trip to St Ives.

Wide-ranging programme of after-school clubs, some run by students, ranging from Model United Nations to sewing and science, taking in masterclasses of all kinds. Plenty of outdoor pursuits - DofE, Ten Tors. Popular CCF. And in term time and holidays a multiplicity of field trips, departmental outings, sports tours, expeditions abroad. This is a busy campus right through the weekend, and it’s a tribute to the teachers that they give up so much of their time to make it all happen.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1633 as the Exeter Free Grammar School for ‘tradesmen and the better class of working men’. First intake 25 street boys selected at random to be educated and taught a trade. Allegedly. Moved to its present site in the Heavitree area in 1877 where, though surrounded by houses, it enjoys the luxury of acres of greensward. Post-war the school became direct grant. Independent since 1976. Girls throughout since 1997. Unquestionably handsome thanks to its flagship buildings and chapel, designed by the High Victorian architect William Butterfield in characteristic polychrome style - brick and banded stone, irreverently termed ‘streaky bacon’. Pevsner sniffily censures ‘insensitive C20 additions’ but most people would reckon they blend in rather well. Highlight is the old dining hall - stained glass, sombre portraits - used now as a meeting room. All in all, every facility a school needs and plenty of room for sport together with a new swimming pool (2017). Covers 25 acres in all, and just a mile from the city centre.

Handsome it may be, but not in the least snooty. The ethos is grammar school, the mood music meritocratic and it does its best to make itself available to those who would otherwise be unable to afford an independent education. Manners are pleasing. Students are common sensical, they know what they’re here to do and they get on and do it. Efficient. Level-headed. Together. No drama. We spent some time in the sixth form common room. There was a fair amount of lounging and good-natured banter which, give them a break, is what a common room is for. There was also a fair amount of work being done in the quiet part. Overall impression: a cohesive, purposeful community. A parent said, ‘Academically children do need the right attitude but the school seems to manage to instil this’. Perhaps the social climate is best exemplified in a recent school magazine where, in the farewell-to-staff bit, the lead ‘obit’ is for the retiring groundsman. No ’them’ and ‘us’ here.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Discipline not a big issue given the common sense levels - skiving and larking not cool. Expectations are clear and firmly laid down. Uniform worn properly. At the school gate of a morning the school marshal, aka CCF instructor, with peremptory good humour, alerts students to any inadvertent or poorly concealed sartorial faux pas.

Pastoral system: form tutor and house staff. We were struck by the dedication of those we met and their concern to monitor for any signs of distress or overstretch. A parent told us that the pastoral staff she talks to are ‘always thoughtful, personal and kind’. House system provides an effective support system. Sixty teachers have completed a course of Youth Mental Health First Aid training. A measure of emotional health here is the exam results: students wouldn’t do so well if they weren’t so happy. Parents can contact pastoral staff and teachers direct by email. Inspired choice of chaplain, loved, admired and available to all (faith status irrelevant), the best of good eggs. It’s not just students who beat a path to him; teachers do too.

What do the students particularly like? Responses included ‘the range and quality of facilities’; ‘the range of games’; ‘the range of extracurricular activities’; ‘the way the school keeps us busy’; ‘the fact that we can initiate new clubs and activities’; ‘that we are listened to’; ‘the head meets with every new student’; ‘the head and deputy head of house take good care of us and talk to us individually’; and ‘the way the school sets you up for later life’. Sixth formers spoke approvingly of their life skills course in helping them prepare for life after school.

Pupils and parents

All from within an hour or so of the school. Around 100 per year group. Just over 40 per cent are girls, a stable ratio influenced by the presence of a competitor girls’ school in the town. Year 7 joiners enjoy a weekend of outdoor pursuits bonding at Dartmeet.

Parents a mix of business and professional, some academics, popular with doctors. Parents’ association enjoys social events and fundraising for school facilities and activities. Weekends here have a big family feel.

Entrance

Main entry points at ages 11, 13 and 16, but any time if there’s room. At age 11, papers in Eng, maths plus a tutor-proof computer component which tests non-verbal reasoning, Eng and maths. At age 13, papers in Eng, maths, a modern language and science. Post-GCSE, reference, interviews, appraisal of extracurricular achievements and interests plus three GCSEs at 7-9 and 3 at grade 6 including Eng and maths.

Exit

Nine to Oxbridge in 2018 and 11 medics. Rest to a range of destinations - Durham, Sussex, Glasgow, Bath, Nottingham, Southampton, Edinburgh, Sheffield, UWE and York all popular, with one off to Yale in 2018.

Money matters

The head told us, ‘The governors find every excuse they can not to put the fees up’. Accessibility is all. Notably astute financial management, seriously good value for money, the best exam grades in the area per pound spent (we checked). Eight free places a year for deserving external candidates whose families would otherwise be unable to afford it; in the same spirit, bursaries for those whose child meets the entry criteria and need a financial top-up. Music scholarships up to 10 per cent of fees. Academic scholarships in the form of prizes at speech day.

Our view

Everything you’d expect of a good grammar school, both in the classroom and out. Lets its achievements speak for it. An admirable school. A humane school. A very agreeable school.

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

Exeter school has a fully qualified Learning Support Coordinator who works to assess and to assist those pupils with Special Educational Needs. Pupils are referred to Learning Support for assessment on entry to the school if SEN is already known or by teaching members of staff when difficulties are noted in lessons. The Learning Support Coordinator will then assess the pupil. The resulting support varies according to need but strategies include, circulation to staff of summary details and strategies to help the pupil learn in class, monitoring through Learning Support and the pastoral system and withdrawal from lessons for one-to-one coaching.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia
Dyspraxia
English as an additional language (EAL)
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
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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