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What says..

‘It is a bit like Downton Abbey’, one girl confided, and nor would we have been surprised to see Hugh Bonneville and his arthritic labrador taking a constitutional in the Italianate garden. Not really the place for ‘tricky’ personalities observed one mother. We agree, Westonbirt girls are more likely to ride the horses than frighten them.

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What the school says...

Westonbirt School encourages every girl to achieve her full potential, instilling confidence without arrogance in a safe, secure yet stimulating environment. We achieve this through our boarding ethos, which is shared by day pupils, and delivered through an education which combines tradition with modernity. We aim to balance the academic, cultural and recreational within a strong spiritual framework in an inspiring rural setting in the heart of the Cotswolds.

We are pleased to announce the opening of a new Business School at Westonbirt in September 2013. This will include an up-to-date careers centre and support the launch of our Media Studies A Level. It will also incorporate an office space where our Young Enterprise girls can host business breakfasts and develop their entrepreneurial skills. This resource will be used for a variety of activities to inspire business moguls of the future!

Our Skills for Life programme is to undergo a transformation to meet the challenges of young people in a global society. With national and international trips that expand horizons, speakers and lecturers that explore the diversity of the workplace and promote a passion for their vocation, a mentor programme that invites hands on and internship experience, we are maximising our network to ensure that we do more than deliver career and further education advice.

We are also getting better connected! In classrooms and boarding houses we are introducing bring your own technology to improve communication and give greater accessibility to learning online. This will be rolled out further to support and enhance all areas of teaching in the school.

We have extensive playing fields and wonderful facilities for sport, including lacrosse, netball, tennis, rounders, golf or polo. The 3m Sports Centre has an impressive 25m indoor swimming pool, sports hall, aerobics room and fitness suite. Many girls also participate in our popular tennis programme and enjoy playing golf on our superb nine-hole golf course. Our sports teachers and coaches are experts in their fields and many of the girls go on to play at county level and beyond.

The girls are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities which are not only enjoyable but which also enable them to become well-rounded and confident individuals. We have a broad range of clubs and activities in addition to sport, music and drama. There are also socials, debates and dances with boys schools. The girls may choose to improve their culinary skills in the Sixth Form with Leiths Certificate in Food and Wine. Many girls also participate successfully in Young Enterprise, World Challenge and the Duke of Edinburghs Award Scheme.

Outdoor pursuits range from surfing and mountain biking to trapeze jumping, as well as overseas trips to countries including France, Italy, Spain the USA and Peru. Community and fundraising projects are strongly supported at the school and the girls often initiate projects themselves for causes which are close to them.

Our Learning Support department offers specialist teaching and guidance to girls with dyslexia, dyspraxia and other special needs. We assess each girl before entry to the school to ensure we can fully support her at Westonbirt.
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2016 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Best performance by Girls taking Speech & Drama at an English Independent School (Grade 7 Drama Music Lit Speech)

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

Polo

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

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2013, Mrs Natasha Dangerfield BA (40s), previously deputy head and head of boarding at Harrogate Ladies’ College. Also taught at North Foreland Lodge and Downe House and was director of pastoral care at Gordonstoun School. Mrs Dangerfield studied physical education and English at the University of Brighton and thought she wanted to be a physiotherapist, but while working in sports camps she met teachers who inspired her to change direction. Parents describe her as ‘dynamic’, and ‘approachable’ and a great role model for the girls, ‘she speaks their language.’

Westonbirt inspires fierce loyalty and we got the impression that any head who messed with the school’s fundamental character would do so at their peril. Most agree that her changes so far have been the right ones – modernisation of some material aspects, gentle ‘re-booting’ in other areas. The fact that she is a parent herself (she has three young children, two boys and a girl, who attend the prep) must be a good ice-breaker. Her husband works in the fire service.

The combination of over 200 lively girls and a grade 1 listed building must be a little worrying, we suggested to Mrs Dangerfield. ‘This house is built so well that everything is in pretty good order,’ she told us. Fortunately, the Westonbirt Trust takes care of historic preservation; ‘To put Venetian silk back on the walls is not our responsibility.’

Lacrosse is Mrs Dangerfield’s sport (back in the day she played for England) and she continues to coach – even taking pre-season training for her school team. ‘I’m not very good at standing on the sidelines,’ she confessed.

Academic matters

In 2016, a upswing to 27 per cent A*/A (50 per cent A*-B) at A level. At GCSE, 44 per cent A*/A grades. Highs and lows in all subjects reflect the relatively non-selective intake. While there has certainly been a tightening up of standards and a review of the subjects on offer, head has no plans to change entrance requirements. Focus here is on helping girls reach their potential, whether that’s 10 A*s at GCSE, or three ‘good’ A levels.

Parents have told us how well their daughters are doing and the University of Durham has put a number on it: Westonbirt is in the top five per cent of schools in the UK for value added. This objectively assessed measure calculates pupils’ academic improvement between the ages of 11 and 16. Analysis by the University of Durham shows that girls here achieve almost a grade higher in each subject at GCSE than expected.

All learn French in year 7, Spanish, Mandarin and Latin ‘tasters’ in year 8 and all learn touch typing. In addition to academic subjects, girls in all years follow a ‘skills for life’ programme that focuses on practical (communication and study skills) as well as personal and social development. With an average class size of 10 (maximum 15), girls here receive what is practically customised teaching; the parents of several girls who had joined from large preps were astonished at their daughters’ progress. ‘She thought she was bad at maths and science but now she’s so confident and doing really well.’ Subject teachers set targets and academic progress is closely monitored by tutors. In a year 7 maths class the atmosphere was collaborative rather than competitive, girls attempting questions confidently, undaunted if they were wrong. Even we wouldn’t have been scared to hazard an answer.

Choice of 25 A level subjects – all the usuals plus history of art, classical civilisation and business studies. School says that it is able to accommodate most combinations. Enrichment for sixth formers includes a lecture programme and weekly personal finance lessons.

Technology was somewhat prehistoric but is now much improved and used in lessons ‘appropriately and with relevance,’ although Mrs Dangerfield’s announcement of the ‘death of the handout’ might be a bit previous. iPads now on kit list although school will lend if necessary. Great boon for dyslexic girls who can use the speech facility for essays. Apps etc stored in the ‘Westonbirt cloud’ and controlled by school. As we were visiting the science, art, design and technology block, we spied a classroom of very overgrown schoolgirls and boys, concentrating hard. ‘Oh, that’s the teachers,’ our guide said. ‘They’re having an IT lesson.

‘Outstanding’ learning support department caters for wide range of SpLDs including dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and mild speech and language impairments. Gifted and talented programme also in place.

Games, options, the arts

‘There’s so much drama at Westonbirt!’ we heard. Ditto singing, dancing and playing of instruments. Emphasis is on enabling everyone to perform, whether it’s in the intimate setting of the Camellia House – a charming venue, used for recitals, ‘little plays’ and socials – or in the 450 seat Orangery Theatre. Fresh air fiends can also tread the grass of the amphitheatre in the grounds. Music practice block suffers somewhat by comparison with the smart Marriott Centre, home to brand new recording and music tech kit. Three choirs and weekly whole school hymn practice keep everyone in good voice. Huge art studios looking out onto peaceful pastures, DT workshops with laser cutters and CAD equipment.

Mrs Dangerfield is applying her expertise to sport. Local opposition is formidable, and while no one expects Westonbirt to carry home the silverware at every match, there was room for improvement. Sensible trend in this and other girls’ schools is a shift from privileging team sports to an equal emphasis on health and fitness – that way you can keep everyone doing something.

No shortage of running around space here and opportunities to play for the school abound, whether it’s lacrosse, netball, tennis, golf (there’s a nine hole course), riding or polo. In the £3m sports centre, opened by near neighbours the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, there’s dance studio and fitness suite. Very popular is the new all weather wicket; ‘now we can invite other schools to play at home.’ All weather facilities for other sports still on school's, and parents’ wish lists. Parents tell us that there are plenty of fixtures and the school is more than able to take on and win against other, often larger, opponents. Or you could just take a book and find a secluded spot in the gardens.

As befits the alma mater of Baden Powell’s daughter, the school has a girl guide troop – 1st Westonbirt Guides, although members tend to be from local villages rather than the school itself. D of E to gold level offered plus clubs and activities from app design, through gardening and poultry, to zumba.

Sixth formers have the opportunity to enrol on the very popular Leith's certificate in food and wine. Westonbirt was one of the first two schools to run this course, and to have Leith's on your CV is great for holiday and gap year jobs such as a spot of chalet girling. For those whose ambitions go beyond holiday jobs, there’s the Young Enterprise scheme and a separate business school with office space and classrooms - A level business studies is taught here.

Boarders

Years 5-8, day girls and boarders, live together in Beaufort House. This junior house is a stepping stone between prep and senior school. There are three senior houses for years 9, 10 and 11 – Badminton, Dorchester and Holford – plus the sixth form. Girls in Holford sleep in what were the family state rooms on the first floor, little beds dwarfed by grand proportions (grade 1 listing is not at home to subdivision). Priceless silk wallpaper, preserved under Perspex, rubbing shoulders with One Direction posters. Beautiful painted panels on the wardrobes and tall wooden shutters instead of curtains. All day girls get one free night of boarding per term and sleepovers are very popular. Wonderful views over the park from common room ‘perfect for moon watching’. We asked girls what they thought of the food and the general consensus was breakfast fab, lunch pretty good (we can vouch for that) but catering seemed to run out of steam by supper time. We hope this is on Mrs Dangerfield’s to do list.

In the sixth form house every girl has her own study bedroom so day girls can decide at the last minute to stay overnight. There’s a dining room, kitchen, laundry facilities, yoga room and bar/café. Not surprisingly, over three-quarters of sixth formers board. Many like to remain in school over the weekend, because it ‘helps them stay focused on their studies’. An international student (around 20+ girls are from abroad) told us how much she appreciated learning in such ‘serene and calm surroundings.’ We loved the spacious common room, newly decorated in a modish putty colour (‘seagull’), a simple vase of marguerites on the coffee table.

Background and atmosphere

Westonbirt is one of the ‘Allied Schools’, an umbrella body for eight Martyrs’ Memorial Trust schools including Canford, Stowe and Harrogate Ladies’ College. It was founded in 1927, acquiring Westonbirt House and 210 acres of park and garden from the Holford family who had lived on the estate since the 17th century. The house itself, built in Jacobethan style (later than, though not dissimilar to, Highclere Castle), was completed in 1871 and used by Lord Holford as a country retreat (his main residence was Dorchester House, Park Lane, now site of The Dorchester Hotel). Just over the road is the world famous Westonbirt Arboretum, another of Lord Holford’s enduring projects. When the head told us the house was ‘well built’ she meant it – constructed around a steel frame, it had all the mod cons of its day (gas lighting, central heating), not to mention fire-proof cavities between each wall and floor. Interior décor was in the distinctly un-modern classical style, with splendid marble halls and corridors on the ground floor, richly gilded wood and plasterwork and intriguing architectural details wherever you look. Friday notices and vespers are held in the galleried great hall, and year 11s dine under a ceiling festooned with plasterwork goat skulls.

As we sighed over the refurbished Gentleman’s Library, enjoying the irony, we wondered what the girls thought about studying in such sumptuous surroundings. ‘It is a bit like Downton Abbey’, one confided, and we would not have been surprised to see Hugh Bonneville and his arthritic labrador taking a constitutional in the Italianate garden. What a place.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Pastoral care has always been one of Westonbirt’s strengths. In a small community with a high staff to student ratio, problems become visible sooner. Parents say that friendship troubles and the like are dealt with fairly and swiftly. ‘Everybody has to get along,’ we were told, and ‘the older girls look out for you.’ Not really the place for ‘tricky’ personalities, observed one mother. We agree; Westonbirt girls are more likely to ride the horses than frighten them.

Girls are encouraged to take responsibilities such as organising social events – planning for a charity ball was under way when we visited. There’s a ‘much improved’ programme of socials with boys from Abingdon, Radley and even co-ed Cheltenham College. A less welcome visitor is the school’s lone peacock, Westy, who frequently has to be escorted off the premises. We hear that the class of 2014 bought him a friend, christened (you guessed it) Birty.

Pupils and parents

From all over the UK, although majority of families live relatively locally. Easy to reach from Bristol and Bath and handy for M4, Heathrow and London. Parents tell us it’s ‘not posh.’ Hmmm. It is, but in a quiet way. Nearest places to spend pocket money are Cheltenham and Bath, although you could do some damage in Tetbury. Smallish cohort (some 25 per cent) of international students from all corners of the globe – as elsewhere, more attention being paid to the mix.

Former pupils include the Hon Mrs Betty Clay (Lord Baden-Powell’s youngest daughter), Mercia MacDermott (historian); Anna Hornby (painter); Salma Sobhan (academic and human rights activist); Patsy Toh (pianist); Georgia Byng (author of the Molly Moon series of children’s books); Lady Natasha Rufus-Isaacs (designer, founder of Beulah London); TV presenter Ruth Watson; TV producer Patricia Llewellyn; Lady Jenny Bland; Jenefer Greenwood, OBE.

Entrance

Entry includes many from the prep, rest from wide range of preps and local primaries. Non-CE candidates sit school’s own entrance exams in maths and English plus an online adaptive test. Head likes to interview everyone in person (or via Skype). For entry to the sixth form girls need at least five A*-C grades at GCSE (including maths and English), with A or B in subjects to be taken at A level.

Exit

A few girls leave for pastures new after GCSEs but are replaced by others from elsewhere doing the same thing. After A levels more than half depart for Russell Group universities to study everything from aeronautics to zoology. Business and management popular choices. Occasional one or two to medical school (one in 2016), likewise Oxbridge; one to the Royal Agricultural University and one to Toronto in 2016.

Money matters

Fees restructured from 2017, with flat rate boarding fees and day fees reduced by some 25 per cent. Academic, art, drama, music, sport, performing arts, organ and choral scholarships up to a maximum of 50 per cent of day fees. Means-tested bursaries may be available – applications considered on an individual basis. Fee reductions for siblings, Forces and clergy families. Girls transferring from prep also get a five per cent discount throughout their senior career. Sixth form bursaries offered to girls from local state schools.

Our view

Westonbirt has always been highly regarded for inclusivity and exemplary pastoral care, but perhaps its other strengths have been overlooked. Until now. Parents told us that ‘there’s a new energy, a real buzz’ about the place; one described it as ‘added sparkle’, and they’re right. Inside this solid Victorian stately home we found a vibrant and forward thinking community of young women, hugely appreciative of their beautiful surroundings but very well prepared to take on the world beyond Gloucestershire.

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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 Y
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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