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There’s no uniform or dress code, and the teachers are just as likely as pupils to be wearing a hoody. Everyone goes by their first name. So far so hippy – until you walk around the building during lessons. Hush has descended, and opening a classroom door reveals silent pupils, and desks in rows. There’s a rich cultural programme – a drama theatre hosts visiting theatre companies and art shows, and the school’s on-site cinema regularly hosts the National Schools’ Film week. An igloo-like structure in the garden is used as…

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What the school says...

The College offers a fresh alternative to traditional independent education, accepting day students from the age of 11 and boarding students from 15. All have the opportunity to thrive in a happily distinctive atmosphere. Our only entrance qualification is an honest determination to work hard. Our students enjoy being here and are treated as young adults. We have high expectations and are small enough to get to know everyone well. There is no uniform and students and staff are on first name terms. ...Read more

What the parents say...

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Boys taking Film Studies at an English Independent School (GCE A level)

2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

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

What The Good Schools Guide says

Principal

Alistair Brownlow MA (St Andrews) MPhil (Glasgow) in English, joined as a new graduate in 1997. He's a great communicator, bouncing with enthusiasm like Tigger, and expressing the school’s beliefs and methods with an articulacy which backs up his reputation as an ace English teacher.

Academic matters

There’s no uniform or dress code, and the teachers are just as likely as pupils to be wearing a hoody. Everyone goes by their first name. So far so hippy – until you walk around the building during lessons. Hush has descended, and opening a classroom door reveals silent pupils, and desks in rows. Alistair says: ‘People try to place us in the progressive/alternative mould, but we’re not. It’s common sense; small classes, good teaching, and an informal but ordered and respectful atmosphere.’

The next surprise comes in the teaching methods. ‘We teach-test-teach-test,’ says Alistair. The idea that testing thwarts children gets short shrift here. ‘A lot of schools don’t do enough regular testing. At A level we do a test every week in each subject. If we’re going to put something right we need a rigorous diagnosis of what is wrong,’ Alistair says. There’s no objection to this degree of testing from pupils – in fact the students seem to welcome it. ‘Testing means you can’t get delusions, you really know where you are at any point,’ said one. Another, who was told by her grammar school that she needed to ‘lower her sights’, said: ‘The teaching style is completely different, we are tested all the time and my grades have gone up consistently.’

There is a firm concentration on exam technique, but still the school isn’t seen as an exam factory. One sixth form pupil said: ‘The focus is on exams, but it is still enriching. We get a two hour lesson for everything which means the teachers can drift off topic which helps a lot with general knowledge and essay subjects.’

Teachers are ‘very passionate about their subjects,’ say parents, and another pupil, comparing the teaching to that at his former grammar school, said: ‘The teaching is of a better quality and the teachers know their subject to a greater depth.’ And a pupil at the lower end of the school said: ‘You don’t get to the end of one lesson without doing something fun.’

Many students transfer here after poor progress at AS or A level and the effect can be dramatic. One pupil told us he was predicted to get Ds and Es at AS; he moved from his grammar to the college in February, and in July he achieved three As at AS and an A at A level. Another student moved after getting a U at AS, and she said, ‘In my first two weeks here I learned more than I had in the whole previous year.’

There are three pathways through the sixth form, mainly set in different teaching groups. There are those doing a two year A level course through the school; students who have transferred here for year 13 after a disappointing year 12; and those who have done two years elsewhere and are doing retakes. The A level programme is flexible with no option blocks, and students can do speed courses in a new subject to complement retakes. Results for 2017 A levels show 32 per cent of entries achieving A*/A and 60 per cent A*-B. Maths is the biggest A level subject. English literature and film studies are also strong departments, both having received Good Schools Guide awards in recent years.

At GCSE, biology, chemistry and physics are taught at IGCSE level for those aiming to study sciences at A level, and students also take the IGCSE in English and English literature. Languages on offer include German, French and Spanish, but it is not compulsory to take a language. Pupils can also take subjects such as astronomy, film studies and photography at GCSE. In 2017, 20 per cent of GCSEs were A*-A/9-7 and 53 per cent were A*-B/9-6.

Parents especially appreciate the efforts made to ensure each pupil gains the best possible grade. One said: ‘There are a lot of extra lessons before exams, in the holidays and so on. They will do as much as they can if they think you can improve your grade.’

Another praised the fact that they don’t charge for extra tuition in the evenings and holidays, adding: ‘I was concerned about my son’s maths and suggested getting him some tuition. They said it was their responsibility, and I should not be looking for tutors. They did some extra work with him and he got an A, so I was ecstatic.’

Now offers an apprenticeship course in boatbuilding, enabling students to gain City and Guilds qualifications up to NVQ level 3.

Games, options, the arts

Sport is growing, but the school doesn’t have the infrastructure to provide serious provision. There’s a newly created rugby team for year 11 to 13s, which uses the facilities of a local rugby club and is coached by a player from England’s women’s team. It also supports those playing at higher levels – one sixth former is training with a London football club, and the school enables him to fit lessons around his sporting commitments. Another sixth former is hoping to compete as a sprinter in the next Paralympics. But as one student points out, it is not the type of school which tends to attract the sporty, and so PE provision tends to be more activity based, like ice skating, sailing, self-defence and climbing.

Lower down the school the students play in mixed teams, so boys say games have to be less rough.

It would be hard to find better provision for an artist. GCSEs are offered in six disciplines – fine art, graphics, photography, textiles, ceramics and 3D. Some students take three of these to A level, which enables them to bypass a foundation year. There is terrific work on display. Two students have won places on the prestigious fine art degree course at UCL’s The Slade School. Dominik Klimowski, former BBC online picture editor, teaches photography, and local artist Billy Childish is a visiting lecturer.

There’s a rich cultural programme – a drama theatre hosts visiting theatre companies and art shows, and the school’s on-site cinema regularly hosts the National Schools’ Film week.

Boarders

Boarding is only available to students of 16+. Virtually all students have single rooms. Some have a very small ‘pod’ ensuite, otherwise it’s shared bathrooms. Furnishings are basic but the Georgian high ceilings and big windows add light and space, and all rooms have a phone and internet point. There’s a big common room with a pool table and comfy chairs, and a study for quiet work.

Currently 60 out of 280 students are boarders – 40 per cent of these are from the UK, 11 per cent from Europe, and the remainder from countries including Canada, USA, Thailand, China, Russia, Nigeria and South Africa.

Background and atmosphere

It started as an A level college in 1984, and extended to take pupils from year 7 in 2007. Bought by Dukes Education in 2016.

The campus is as unique as the school. It started as one terraced house, but as the school expanded, it gradually bought up 13 properties in adjoining roads, including a Georgian terrace which houses the boarding accommodation. What would once have been the back gardens to these houses now form the grounds with ancient apple trees and wild garden areas, paths to secret nooks and crannies, a viewing platform to climb - and an oversized garden shed where founder Brian (Pain) likes to hold his maths classes. Students work on garden projects such as the allotment as part of their D of E award, and the gardens have won a Kent Wildlife Trust Gold Award.

Mid-career, Brian took time out of teaching to become an architect, and the campus reflects this interest. The theatre in the grounds is known as the Womble building – the theatre space is underground, whilst over the top there’s an outdoor seating area which can be used as an open-air auditorium.

An igloo-like structure in the garden is used as an outdoor classroom, shelter, and quiet space. Intended to inspire and motivate, it has a central roof opening for cloud watching.

When we visited the school was awaiting delivery of some steel sculptural musical gates – an art installation created by Henry Dagg, who plays with Icelandic pop star Bjork, and has transformed his garden fence into a glockenspiel. You will be able to play three octaves on these gates, sufficient to pass your music A level, according to Brian. Reflecting on the £100,000 price tag of these gates, Brian says, ‘I’m committed to culture’.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

A level students have one-to-one meetings with a personal tutor every couple of weeks, more frequently if they wish, and pupils lower down the school have individual meetings every half term.

Parents receive formal reports once a month, which are ‘meaningful, not full of euphemisms, and not from a software package’. Younger pupils have a parents' evening, but in the sixth form tutors deal directly with the students as young adults, and reports only go home which they have seen first. ‘We promise there will be no surprises through that feedback,’ says Alistair.

A number of the pupils have been labelled as bad apples or having limited prospects in previous settings, but have quickly turned things around at the college, where they are free from discipline based on minutiae. One such pupil, previously at a girls’ independent, said: ‘I was constantly getting picked on by teachers and getting detentions for stupid things, like going to the toilet’.

They are strict about homework and behaviour, but removing petty rules means the rapport between pupils and teachers is much better. Or, as one pupil put it, ‘The only thing to rebel against here is education itself’.

Other pupils have come from grammars where they felt under too much pressure, or from large schools where they felt overwhelmed, and all say they are learning better and enjoying school more here. ‘I worried a lot at my old school, here it’s a better environment,’ said one. ‘At my old school if you improved, they didn’t notice,’ said another.

Parents all speak highly of the pastoral care, and the growth in confidence they have witnessed in their children. One has three children at the school and she said: ‘They are all very different but they are spot on about all of their weaknesses and strengths.’

Pupils and parents

Local pupils form 70 per cent of the cohort and come from a wide catchment – there are minibuses from towns including Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Ashford and Sevenoaks, and the train station opposite brings pupils from Bromley and London. A further 15 per cent come from elsewhere in the UK, and 15 per cent from overseas, including Thai government scholars (who tend to be very high performers, often ending up at Oxbridge).

Numbers lower down the school are small. It starts with around 10 pupils in year 7, who have deliberately opted for a small and different type of school. These are added to over the years, generally by pupils who have been disaffected or haven’t thrived in other schools, to numbers in the mid-20s for GCSE years. By sixth form it grows to 50 in year 12, and 130 in Year 13/14. This is something to consider in the younger year groups, especially as currently two girls are each the only girl in their years. The flipside is it makes for more natural relationships between the boys and girls and less of the gender division that you see in big schools – they are clearly relaxed in each other’s company. None of the pupils or parents we spoke to saw the small year groups as a problem – there’s much more mixing between years, and pupils keep up with other friends in their neighbourhood – and many see this as a plus.

The students are a strikingly nice bunch. It’s a place for individuals, and there’s a lovely air of tolerance and warmth between the pupils – many of whom seem relieved to have found a home among other square pegs. ‘They look after each other, and if someone does well they are pleased about this,’ said a parent. Those whose strengths lie outside the traditionally alpha areas of academic or sporting have their own kudos. ‘There is a lot more respect for art and creativity,’ said one pupil.

Students say it is not competitive, and that there’s a huge range in academic ability and ambition. ‘If you work your hardest and get an E that’s fine,’ said one. ‘Stronger people help the weaker people; no-one’s struggling because everyone helps each other,’ said another.

Parents love the lack of school gate competitiveness: ‘That playground talk, everyone wanting their child to be in the top set, you don’t have that here,’ said one relieved mother.

About 50 per cent of pupils have been previously in the independent sector, but a lot of pupils come from families with no tradition of private education.

Entrance

It’s non-selective in that there’s no entrance exam for children joining at 11 or 13, and there’s no minimum GCSE grade requirements for sixth form entry. But every prospective student is interviewed, and the principals say they do turn some away.

Direct entry into any year group at any point in the academic year is possible, and places can be secured in the short gap between exam results and the start of a new term. Around 60 students join each year, either to retake their A levels having completed two years of A levels elsewhere, or directly into year 13 after disappointing results in year 12 elsewhere.

Exit

The courses students go on to reflect the broad range of abilities and interests catered for: some go on to read law, maths, medicine or classics; others have taken up courses in animal behaviour, film studies, marketing, photography or midwifery. Four to Oxbridge in 2017 (three of them Thai government scholars); two medics and a dentist; other destinations range from Anglia Ruskin (popular music) to Exeter (law) to Lund, Sweden (physics).

Money matters

Around £100,000 per year goes into means-tested bursaries, which are awarded not on academic ability, but ‘if we think they’ll make a good contribution’. Scholarships include the Ralph Steadman Art Scholarship, which offers a two year full scholarship for A levels.

The school has a policy to keep extras to the minimum - music lessons, buses and exam fees are extra, but extracurricular trips are kept deliberately modest. ‘We don’t take for granted that parents have bottomless pits of money,’ says Alistair.

Our view

This won’t be one that sits on your shortlist and you can’t make up your mind about. You’ll either love or hate this place. Your money won’t buy the trappings of a public school – no mahogany-rich headmaster’s study, certainly no suave head in a handmade suit. No pupils with collars and lips firmly buttoned. No PTA committees or fundraising balls. For some that will be a blessed relief.

You’ll get that warm buzz in your heart when you recognise your kid in the personalities here – or not. That might be one of several types we saw – the quirky one, condemned to be picked on in an average school; the fiercely intelligent, who has rubbed teachers up the wrong way by being too smart for his own good in other settings; the kid whose education got derailed by too much focus on petty rules and discipline.

It won’t suit sporting jocks – facilities are meagre, and there are rarely enough pupils of the right age and inclination to make a team.

But it’s a great option for the cash-strapped; many parents with only enough gold in the pot to fund a couple of years in the independent sector buy in for the last year of GCSEs, for the A level course, or for retakes. And it’s a sound investment – most improve considerably on expectations at their previous school.

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