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Open the magnificent door to this charming primary school in the university area of Reading and the tone is immediately set by the welcoming, down-to-earth staff and the seemingly endless displays of photographs, artwork, booklets, written work and more that decorates every single room and corridor. ‘That’s my work!’ come the squeals of delight from the girls. One downstairs classroom we visited had a straw-based area that looked so much like a mini-farm that we half expected a live animal to appear. We saw spirited girls having a whale of a time with…

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What the school says...

The Abbey Junior School offers a broad curriculum enriched by many workshops and trips (residential from Year 3). The atmosphere is friendly, lively, purposeful and fun.
Girls aged 3-5 join the Early Years Centre which was classed as Outstanding in every category by Ofsted who praised the stimulating, inspiring and fascinating environment.' Junior School girls have specialist teaching in Science, Music, Sport, ICT and Languages and take part in many clubs.There is before and after school care and a holiday club.

Most girls continue to The Abbey Senior School which is consistently a top academic performer at GCSE, A level and IB as well as offering many extra-curricular opportunities to pupils.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since February 2015, Mrs Nicola Dick-Cleland MA Oxon QTS (50s), previously deputy and then acting head. She joined the school in 2011 and was rapidly promoted to deputy. Has a degree in experimental psychology from Oxford and a teaching qualification from Reading. Was a senior manager at BT (the second most senior woman in BT at the time) before turning to a career in psychotherapy and, later, taking on a role as music teacher at the Dolphin School in Hurst, where her son was at school and where she loved it so much that she embarked on formal teacher training. ‘For me, being a head brings together everything I know – leadership, psychology and education - perfect,’ she says.

Refreshing to hear her talk enthusiastically about working with adults (many primary heads complain that they miss working with children), she nevertheless has a wonderful rapport with the kids here, whose faces light up when she bounces informally into classrooms. The tone of her communication with the children seems to us just right – warm and cuddly, but with an underlying authority. Parents like her and children tell us she’s ‘lovely’ and ‘kind’. Bizarre, then, that our pupil guides had absolutely no clue at all where her office was, although to be fair, she went onto explain to us that she purposefully keeps her office a largely child-free zone. ‘I go out to them – an office isn’t really an environment for children,’ she believes.

Lives locally with her husband, with whom she has two grown-up children. Her daughter was a pupil at The Abbey. An outdoorsy type, much of her spare time is spent walking in the countryside.

Entrance

Nursery, reception and year 3 are the main points of entry. Spaces do appear in other year groups, although there are waiting lists for some. A short morning of informal play and assessment for youngest; tests plus interview for older girls. ‘We’re not looking for rocket scientists, but a good average, although when it comes to 3 and 4-year-olds, it’s obviously an inexact science,’ says the head, who adds that conversations with prospective parents are taken into consideration. ‘In the end, it’s all about whether the family has a fit with a school that has quite an academic pace and depth.’ Whilst some parents make enquiries the moment their child is born, others call up mid-academic year, saying their husband or wife just has been relocated to Reading and they need a place at short notice. Increasingly, girls are moving across from state primaries. Class sizes generally 22 maximum, with many much smaller.

Exit

Around two-thirds move up to the senior school, with others going to nearby grammars (eg Kendrick, Sir William Borlase) or one of the good local comprehensives (eg Maiden Erlegh). A handful choose another independent day school, if the senior school doesn’t feel quite right for them. Those who leave before the end of year 6 generally do so for relocation reasons. ‘I like the turnover we have here,’ says the head. ‘We have a solid core, which keeps it from feeling like an international school, but newbies never find themselves joining cliques of girls and the mums that go with that. It’s a comfortable school to join.’ Pupils and parents agree. While the school is, inevitably, a feeder for nearby Kendrick Grammar, girls who gain places at both often choose to stay on.

Our view

Open the magnificent door to this charming primary school in the university area of Reading and the tone is immediately set by the welcoming, down-to-earth staff and the seemingly endless displays of photographs, artwork, booklets, written work and more that decorates every single room and corridor. ‘That’s my work!’ come the squeals of delight from the girls, making it immediately obvious how much pride they take in their work, and the boards are colourful, bold and tasteful too – a joy to see.

Nursery is based in Knell House, a converted Alfred Waterhouse villa, which boasts decent-sized learning rooms for these 20 children that are light, airy and welcoming (those displays again). One downstairs classroom we visited had a straw-based area that looked so much like a mini-farm that we half expected a live animal to appear. In fact, teachers had set it up to prepare the children for a school trip to a local farm. There’s a good outdoor space, complete with Astroturf play area and adventure climbing equipment, overlooked by the church (which the school is closely linked with, including school carol concerts at Christmas). Facilities include a library/quiet room and singing and drama room. Emphasis at this stage is on learning through play – no writing until reception.

Things get slightly confusing when it comes to reception and year 1 as these classes have been relocated just down the road to Abbey Gardens, which was opened in 2014. Originally a judge’s lodgings, the school really bought it for its large garden, which has been converted into an impressive all-weather sports pitch surrounded by a ‘Willow walkway,’ utilised by the whole junior school. But the house itself, built in the late 1800s, also makes for a delightful learning space. A tasteful, purpose-built ground-floor extension has made way for a gym, in full use with playmats when we visited, whilst the rest of the classrooms are based in the converted, but roomy bedrooms, all of which are well-ordered and well-equipped, but also colourful and homely. Even at this age, girls are taught by specialist teachers for PE, music, drama and languages (then sciences and computing from year 3), whilst the remaining subjects are taught by form teachers. We saw spirited girls having a whale of a time with paper, glue and plenty of glitter, as well as engaging in some more advanced activities.

Back in the main junior school, a mix of Victorian and later additions are home to years 2 to 6. Impressive facilities include a great science lab, where year 6 were busy purifying salt, a large dedicated dining room (no packed lunches here and nobody minds) and a computer suite with touch screen computers.
For drama (which is timetabled across many of the year groups) and dance (which is taught as part of the PE curriculum and via clubs), there’s a dedicated studio with mirrored walls and deep carpet, along with a larger wooden-floored one and the main school hall. Both the latter double up as performance space – indeed, every year group does some kind of annual production, giving all children a chance to shine and less of a crush for the audience, and girls enthuse about how they get involved in everything from choreography to set design. ‘By year 5, we are allowed a microphone,’ one girl told us, practically jumping up and down with excitement, adding that they were waiting ‘with bated breath to find out the results of our recent auditions.’ ‘The school plays are the best thing about the school,’ more than one girl told us, although for others it was a toss-up between that and the swimming galas.

Music is outstanding here and very much part of the lifeblood of the school. We met the head of music when we visited – a delightful woman who provides two music classes per week from reception upwards, plus a weekly singing lesson - as well as overseeing the 15 peripatetic teachers that teach a total of 210 lessons a week. She also heads up the four school choirs and orchestra and gets the girls publically performing wherever possible, for which they regularly win awards (finalists in Barnardo’s Choir of the Year was the most recent when we visited). Plenty of visiting workshops from the likes of composers specialising in children’s songs to those teaching world music.

Art, which is mainly done in classrooms, is also notable. In fact, at the risk of harping on about those displays again, a series of charcoal drawings from year 6s showed such talent that they blew us away.

Girls do sport most days. ‘We want it to become part of who they are,’ says the head, and although it’s more about inclusivity than competition, there are fixtures for those who want them. Netball, hockey, athletics, biathlon, swimming (at the senior school), football, Frisbee, gym and dance are just some of the options on offer. ‘My daughter’s not naturally sporty, but they get her having a go and she enjoys that,’ one parent told us.

Languages are strong. Conversational French in reception and year 1; conversational Spanish in year 2; conversational German in year 3; then back to French, which is taught more formally, in years 4, 5 and 6. No setting – ‘We don’t need to as all the girls are relatively able and whilst they might need help in fractions one week, they might be a whizzy-whiz at 2D shapes the next week,’ explains the head, who points to the research that shows that younger children in particular tend to define themselves by what set they’re in, ‘which can be counterproductive to learning.’ Homework only set if it’s seen to be genuinely aiding learning, so whilst there are weekly maximums amounts for each year, the girls don’t always get it.

Teaching is lively and engaging, which was palpable in every classroom we visited. Head puts it down to well-paid and well-trained teachers (who all but two are female), who are given lots of autonomy in the classroom. This teaching is complemented by lots of visiting workshops – Roman workshops; maths puzzle; zoo lab are a few such examples – and a lively house science quiz was in full swing in the main hall when we visited, with girls all buzzing about it afterwards.

Specialist small group and individual support for mild SEN available, although most extra help is in the classroom, where there is no shortage of teaching assistants, many highly qualified. ‘We don’t want children to become dependent or resentful of having set extra help every week. We want a learning support model that anyone can use anytime – for instance if they’re struggling with a particular maths concept,’ says the head.

We found the girls capable and keen to learn – and it is this engagement that eliminates the need for sanctions, according to the head. No school rules here - only values and a class contract, written by the girls and teacher at the beginning of each academic year. ‘Listen to others,’ ‘Respect each other’s property,’ ‘Work hard’ etc. Lots of praise for good behaviour, with special merits given in assembly by the head, particularly for effort (more likely for ‘Jemima really persisted in her fractions’ than ‘Jemima got an excellent maths score’).

When we asked the girls about bullying, we got a blank look. ‘We know what it is,’ one eventually said, ‘but we haven’t come across it.’ Head believes this is down to keeping conversations alive about what bullying is and how you are just as culpable if you stand by and watch it – and this, together with an excellent form-tutor led pastoral system, seems to keep them on the straight and narrow. ‘I’m not suggesting the girls are paragons of virtue, but there is a sense of community and decency,’ says the head. One also gets the impression that the head’s psychotherapy background comes in very useful pastorally. ‘Children don’t come to school to behave badly – and if they do, you need to look at the root of the issue,’ she says, as if reading our minds.

Happy relationships also aided by the classes being muddled every two years or more to promote group bonding. Meanwhile, year 5 girls are trained to be ‘playground buddies’ and set up games, manage play equipment and mediate in squabbles. There’s an active school council too.

Residential trips are a big thing here – building up from one night away in year 3 up to 6 nights in year 5 (then back down to 5 in year 6). ‘The social and emotional benefits far outweigh anything else,’ say the head. Meanwhile, day trips start from nursery (remember that farm) to the likes of Windsor Castle, Legoland etc.

The school day runs from 8.30am to 3.45pm, with an optional (and separately run) breakfast club running from 7.30am and after-school care until 6pm (these cost extra). Full club programme, mainly at lunchtimes, include everything from Lego club to nature detectives and from archaeology club to chess and judo.

Parents range from the very wealthy to the struggling-but-determined to afford the fees and everything in between. Lots of dual income families. You do get the ‘My daughter must be top in everything’ ones, but head manages it all well and does encourage parental involvement. In fact, one parent told us that this isn’t a school to consider unless you’re prepared to get involved. ‘If you’re the kind of parent that wants to hand over your child to the private school system and let them get on with it, this isn’t the place for you, which can be tricky if you work full time – but it’s a good ethos,’ said one. Catchment area quite wide, generally within a 15-mile radius. School bus and kiss-and-drop service seen as godsend by parents. Healthy ethnic mix, with around half traditional white British and the rest as mixed as you can imagine - so for every yummy family from Henley, there’s a Russian, Indian, Chinese etc family. Active PA and lots of socialising among parents (‘Parents get on really well here – I’ve made good friends and not necessarily mums of friends of my child,’ one mother told us).

The girls we saw were cheery, jovial and excitable, although parents assured us there’s room for quiet ones too. The main characteristic you seem to need is being average or above in intelligence, with every parent we spoke to saying that the academically challenged might struggle.

A confident and well-run school that knows exactly where it’s going, with happy girls who are stretched and challenged but not pressurised. Whilst many girls will attend The Abbey from 3 to 18, the junior school provides opportunities to help the girls reinvent themselves at different stages along the way. In fact, a word you’ll hear a lot here is ‘refresh,’ which neatly sums up the school’s attitude to constantly keeping things fresh and ahead of the game.

Special Education Needs

See senior school questionnaire. 10-09

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Aspergers
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
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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