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Plenty of sport, in keeping with school’s distinguished past record, and they had already notched up several rugby wins in September when we visited. Enthusiastic girls were practising hockey and clearly delighted with Mrs Frett’s knowledgeable support. Separate boys' and girls dorms' but everyone mixes in together, and like everywhere at St John’s a family feel is the key. Regular influxes of groups from China and Spain each year bring an international flavour...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2016, Ruth Frett, previously housemistress at Cranleigh School. After reading English at St Andrews, she studied music at Trinity College then performed all over Europe as a professional singer. Enjoying giving school masterclasses led her into teaching in London primary schools after having four children, eventually becoming head of RS and middle school and chaplain at Cranleigh Prep. Married to American Dan, who is curate in the local parish church as well as working for a software company. Her four children are now past school age but her fifth, a foster child, is at St John’s.

Dean Close, the owners of St John’s, are wisely leaving her a free hand to put St John's back on the map. Filled with enthusiasm and energy, she has transformed the look of the school with new paint and much-needed refurbishment of boarding and other areas - new art, DT and geography block. The curriculum now includes reading time as well as a renewed emphasis on IT, with keyboard skills for everyone. Though staff turnover has not been huge, Mrs Frett appointed has a new director of studies - 'impressive,' say parents - who is overhauling curriculum content and delivery, plus new heads of music and boarding. She has also taken on a fully qualified nurse, who not only looks after boarders’ health and everyone’s minor accidents and ailments but also coordinates monitoring of day pupils.

Endlessly enthusiastic, Mrs Frett clearly loves her school and her pupils visibly blossom in response. She evidently relishes the challenges of St John’s, and numbers, which had dipped, have started to rise.

Entrance

Entry is by gentle taster day assessment. Children come from Newport, the Wye Valley, Cardiff, Monmouth and Forest of Dean, both sides of the border. Lots of minibuses make this work. St John’s runs two nurseries off-site in Newport and Chepstow as well as the on-site Hedgehogs, which provide about half the reception intake.

Exit

St John’s has maintained its long-established reputation for scholarships and common entrance to secondary schools. Clifton College, Dean Close, Monmouth School, Monmouth Girls and King’s Gloucester are popular, with a dribble to a huge range of others including Wycliffe College, Talbot Heath in Bournemouth and Millfield.

Mrs Frett says that she does not believe in cramming for secondary school entrance because the senior schools know and value the results of a St John’s education. A few leave at 11 but Mrs Frett, who is exceptionally good at maintaining links with senior schools, says that most schools value the extra confidence the last two years at St John’s give their 13+ intake.

Our view

Perched on an idyllic site above the River Wye, St John’s is jumbled into a pretty little Georgian manor with a scatter of other houses and purpose built school facilities. The overall impression fluctuates from the gracious Embassy Room and black and white flagged passage through a few darkish corners brightened with child-created murals to some really up to date buildings like the pre-prep. School has been in situ since 1923, under a number of guises, and as a co-ed educational trust since the 60s. The Dean Close Foundation took over when the school got into financial difficulties in 2015. Under Mrs Frett, it is recovering from a stormy interlude of acute money shortages and anxious parents, leaving a few year groups with uneven numbers of boys and girls. Bustling and friendly with confident children, there’s masses going on. A full court hearing with real judge and magistrate advising the pupil barristers and officials was in progress on the day of our visit.

Lovely pre-prep department with private gardens for each class, delightfully muddy and enjoyable forest school and exceptionally attractive and well-planned modern buildings. Classes were quietly enjoying reading time in our visit but there was evidence of academic progress all around, with joined up writing from the very beginning. Oodles of work on display and really up-to-date IT.

Prep years are in less luxurious but cheerful classrooms with small classes (16 maximum) with good science areas and recently updated IT. One parent said staff had been a little slow to ‘get behind’ a reluctant learner but everything is now tightening up. The curriculum, currently offering French, Spanish and Latin, is being overhauled for ‘modern needs’ which may include another language in future replacing Latin. After pre-prep there is a gradual transition to specialist teaching in all subjects and gifted children get the chance, for instance, to tackle GCSE maths. Learning support is for high flyers as well as strugglers. The non-selective intake means some need quite a lot of help, mainly in class but occasionally one-to-one. All pupils are tested with a battery of CATs etc. Regular reports are now electronic. Plenty of inspiring trips and in-school one-offs to enhance learning like the visit to St Fagan’s iron age farm, or entering the competitive maths challenge, with some pretty impressive results. A particularly enjoyable English department inspired bout of typoglycemia (being able to read a word with the letters wrongly ordered) spawned some cunningly misspelt notices around school - which believe it or not is a great way to reinforce spelling and reading because pupils have to think.

Plenty of sport, in keeping with school’s distinguished past record, and they had already notched up several rugby wins in September when we visited. Enthusiastic girls were practising hockey and clearly delighted with Mrs Frett’s knowledgeable support. One mother was thrilled that children were getting extra coaching and games skills from Dean Close specialists. Good sports hall and lovely covered pool with doors opening in summer to outside viewing areas which also give a view of Astroturf. Acres of grassy grounds with a lovely treehouse project under way for year 8s to learn practical skills on. The music department has some ambitious musical projects: audition processes and organisation being licked into shape by head of music. All children are encouraged to take up instruments (at the time of our visit, 97 pupils were learning an instrument). Encouraged by Mrs Frett, choirs are beginning to take off. Year 7s have and love a three week trip to South Africa including time on safari and a day in a township school, and there is an annual sports trip. Those we spoke to really appreciated the opportunities they get here and the kindness of the staff.

Boarding accommodation, in a rambling town house on site, has been freshened up and is spruce and welcoming. Currently it is very flexi, though some children with distant, military or expat parents stay for weekends with matron or go to guardians. Separate boys' and girls' dorms but everyone mixes in together, and like everywhere at St John’s a family feel is the key. Regular influxes of groups from China and Spain each year bring an international flavour as well as taking up current spare places, though boarding has already expanded a little. Wraparound care possible for day pupils with supervised after-school homework and masses of activities and sport, sustained by biscuits and fruit. No charge for any activity run by the school though some - such as dance - requiring outside tuition have to cover their costs. Parents can drop off children early for breakfast though few do. Mrs Frett says her staff are exceptionally dedicated and all take on after-school or weekend duties and activities.

Parents say that the smallness of the school means that it has a truly family atmosphere and that staff know children exceptionally well, though the downside of this is that one or two year groups are have very small groups of either boys or girls. Friendliness and a happy atmosphere seem to extend to all parents and visitors as well. Poor behaviour is sensibly dealt with and bullying picked up quickly and effectively, though it seems to be rare. Food is pretty good and children like it. The house system is largely social, since the main pastoral care for all pupils is via the form. Lots of responsibility for year 8 pupils with head boy and girl as well as house and sports captains, who speak confidently of their duties and ambitions.

Supportive parents’ association provides activities like fireworks parties for school and raises funds. Parents from all backgrounds, mostly within the large catchment both sides of the border, and they hope for more from Bristol now the toll on the Severn Bridge has been removed. A few military families. Past pupils include Richard Mead, Olympic show jumper, and Welsh rugby player Marc Batten.

Much loved by parents, pupils and staff for its exceptionally friendly and supportive atmosphere, and for the sporting and academic traditions it strives to maintain. The school is part of the Dean Close Foundation and plans to increase numbers to about 250, which should mean it is financially viable in the future. Certainly a school well into recovery and worth watching for the future.

Special Education Needs

The SEN department is staffed by two full-time specialist teachers who offer one-to-one lessons and a small group sessions to children with dyslexia. A number of key workers and classroom assistants give support to children needing help in mainstream classes.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
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 Y
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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