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The pace is sprightly but, parents reassure us, never excruciating. A parent said, ‘No, honestly, the children really don’t seem to find it pressured’. Ambition is unquestionably a good thing, but when you hear that a recent drama production was Hamlet you wonder if we aren’t getting just a little ahead of ourselves here… until you meet the drama teacher, a former West End actor and dancer...

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What the school says...

Entrance assessments: during an informal process pupils will be given an opportunity to demonstrate literacy and numeracy skills as appropriate for their age. A school report is also considered for all entry ages.

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmistress

Since 2015, Sue Marks. Educated at Palmers, Essex, when it was a girls’ grammar school. A degree in biochemistry set her up for an early career as a clinical biochemist. Saw the light and retrained as a teacher in the mid-1990s. Taught in a series of state schools until appointed head of the junior school at St Joseph’s, Launceston.

She brings to her job an array of attributes which, taken together, make her an impressively capable administrator. She’s a jolly good teacher, too - in 2012 she won the Astra Zeneca Primary Science Teacher Award. One parent said, ‘She’s serious, driven to get it right for every child in the school’. She’s also an advocate of female empowerment. At the time of our visit, girl power was trending big time. The school she leads is in an especially good place just now, something that particularly struck us as we had first visited almost exactly a year before - when, be it noted, we very much liked what we saw. In the interim, things had only got better.

Ms Marks has a hinterland and it’s mostly about physical exertion on a mission-impossible scale. When we met first she was in the throes of training for the Brighton marathon. More recently, together with other staff at the school, she had successfully completed a charity bike ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End. So, to her soft skills, add grit and stamina, qualities no head should be without.

Relocating in July 2019. Her successor will be Saskia van Schalkwyk BA (Roehampton), currently deputy head of The Granville School in Sevenoaks, where she is also head of maths and of PSCHE. Has teaching experience in both state and independent co-ed schools. A trained ISI inspector, her interests include umpiring netball, running and cycling. She is married to a teacher and has two children.

Entrance

Boys and girls come from a wide range of feeders, both local primaries and also The New School, an independent pre-prep in Exminster. There’s a small contingent of relocators - from London, mostly - who are pleased to discover that their child can start any time so long as there’s room. The school is exceedingly popular with medics and you see why when you gaze over to the south east side of the campus and there, in all its vastness, perfectly positioned for picking up and dropping off, looms the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Fees are pegged at a level that makes them as affordable as possible and among the most competitive in the country.

There’s an entrance test in literacy and numeracy to assess potential and determine whether your child will thrive not just here and now, but also later, in the senior school. Anything to be said for staving off disappointment by calling in the tutors beforehand? Some parents do. But the selection process is canny and thorough, and who would want to squeeze their child in at the bottom? Don’t. There’s no set number of children admitted every year so there’s no cold cut-off and no calculating the success rate. The school declares its ability range to be ‘national average and above’. Typical of the thoughtful care that percolates all areas of the school, if your child doesn’t reach the pass mark you’ll get formative feedback on all papers. They’ll point out areas for improvement and offer another go the following year.

The school takes great care to familiarise newbie pupils with their new environment - their parents, too. Every new pupil gets a buddy. In addition to an induction designed to give children a feel for who’s who and what’s where, there’s a tea party a few days before the start of term where parents, also, can get to know each other and, if the spirit takes them, keep in constant touch thereafter (as some do) by forming their own WhatsApp group.

Exit

Pretty much everyone moves on aged 11 to the senior school. A smattering – some 5-10 per cent - leave for the free grammars, Torquay and Colyton, fewer than the number who had initially set out with that intention. Why’s that? The combined income of some of the parents we spoke to made moving on to a free grammar a very sensible choice and yet, they told us, their children were so happy at Exeter Junior, and doing so well, they’d decided to go without holidays for the foreseeable future and counted it a sacrifice worth every penny. Parents express a lot of love for this school: it’s that kind of place.

No entrance exam to the senior school for junior school pupils; screening for entry to the junior school is so effective that it is rare for anyone not to move up. If there’s a chance a child will bump along the bottom of the senior school (it hardly ever happens), parents are made aware and other options explored in good time. Because juniors have already been to classes in the senior school and done sport, science and music there, the school’s claim that ‘the transition is near-seamless’ stands up: ‘They already feel they’re members of both’. Parents agree. Not having to break your stride and start over is not without its obvious attractions.

Our view

Occupies a much-altered Georgian villa on the edge of the main campus, separate but not severed, very much its own place and right in the centre of Exeter but with lots of grass and romping room. Some recent redesign and refurbishment, all of it well done, has brightened it and brought it up to date. Parents with an eye to value for money will note with shrewd approval that the quality of the fabric and furnishings may best be described as ‘good ordinary’, not bells and whistles. The focus here always is on optimising the pupil experience, never fluttering eyelashes at the plutocracy.

Junior and senior school are closely aligned in all things - they call it their ‘whole school ethos’. The head and her deputy are members of the joint schools’ senior management team and both schools share the same governors. Juniors have access to the facilities of the whole site - dining hall, pool, labs, sports pitches, chapel, etc. Speech day is a joint event. There is some crossover of teachers. The effect is that a pupil at the junior school feels like a mainstream member of the whole institution. It’s not hard to see what an advantage this offers over a standalone junior school.

The curriculum is what you’d expect of a school almost all of whose pupils, aged 18, go on to top universities. Academic. The pace is sprightly but, parents reassure us, never excruciating. A parent said, ‘No, honestly, the children really don’t seem to find it pressured’. It’s easy enough to see how it’s done: the school employs seriously outstanding, some of them amazingly outstanding teachers, all of them life’s enthusiasts, the sort who fire the imagination, set high expectations and make it masses of fun, too. There’s Latin on offer. And of course there’s the currently voguish emphasis on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) only here they call it STEAM (A is for art). Think Leonardo da Vinci and it immediately makes sense. There’s learning support for those who need it. Everyone is screened for dyslexia on entry. There are personalised learning strategies for those with special needs, shared with their teachers. There are clubs open to all which support maths, literacy and handwriting. The head of learning support goes on working with her pupils for the first two years of the senior school, providing valuable continuity. Nice touch: as a parent you get a leaflet every term setting out exactly what your child will be studying in class.

Ambition is unquestionably a good thing, but when you hear that a recent drama production was Hamlet you wonder if we aren’t getting just a little ahead of ourselves here… until you meet the drama teacher, a former West End actor and dancer. Yep, she knows exactly what she’s doing. Shakespeare plays are cut to 30 mins and the pupils prepare by improvising analagous scenarios, a process devised by the Shakespeare Schools Foundation. Weenier ones do age-appropriate stuff like The Gruffalo. There are several productions a year and a thriving lunchtime club. The purpose is very much to instil confidence and teamworking, not breed Oscar winners. This is a school with its feet on the ground.

Music is another great strength, very much the beneficiary of shared resources with the senior school. Most children learn an instrument and in addition to opportunities to play in an ensemble and an orchestra there are two, yes two, choirs.

Sport is big. It is also inclusive, which means you don’t have to be brilliant to play for your school – it’s not all about just the A team, there are teams for all levels. Fact is, PE teachers everywhere are so much more humane than PE teachers used to be and those at Exeter are some of the kindest. They don’t just pay lip service to the ‘sport for all mantra’, they really mean it; they really want everyone to find what they like doing and not mind in the least being only half decent at it. The parent of a dreamy girl who had never shown the remotest interest in sport told us how her daughter now loves her hockey and is proud as punch to be in a team. They haven’t gone soft, mind. At the top level sport is expertly coached and red in tooth and claw.

The extracurricular offering - clubs and activities - is perhaps best summed up by the parent who said to us, ‘Have you ever heard of a school that does so much?’ And with lunch time opportunities ranging from climbing to Lego robotics to African drumming, we can see what she means.

The feature of the school that elicits the most clamorous unanimity is the way it looks after the children. The head told us that the overriding value here is kindness - ‘everyone matters’. Aspiration or reality? Unquestionably reality because, we find, this is a place where all sorts really do mix and make friends. A parent told us ‘they are incredibly accepting of difference’, and went on to relate how her child, after distressing experiences in several schools, now at last feels ‘safe and happy’. Other parents related comparable experiences. There is amazement at rapid responses to emails and no inhibitions about flagging up problems - ‘Feedback is second to none’. Children are ‘respected, and if they need to speak out they are given the confidence to do so’. We very much like the way that pupils in the senior school, in testament to their affection for the place, come back under supervision and help out with reading, science, orchestra, games and in the playground. Teaching assistants and gap year students also play a strong pastoral role. In short, this is a school which excites both admiration and strong affection. One mum told us that in the distant future when her daughter has finally sat her A levels she’s going to start her again in year 3 and send her through all over again.

Exeter Junior is not a school with a highly distinctive identity. It doesn’t go out of its way to catch the eye by doing things differently or pelting you with thrilling marketing messages. It’s not a branch of the luxury goods market. As one mum expressed it: ‘There are no independent school airs and graces, it’s a very grounded place’, and went on to compare it with John Lewis: an excellent product and ‘a real partnership between children, teachers and parents’. What’s more, she might have added: never knowingly undersold.

Exeter Junior does what it says on its tin. It’s a school. It endeavours, in the words of the head, ‘to enable all the children to find their thing and be the best person they can be’. It keeps things simple and does them superbly well, with high professionalism: it is very well led and staffed by some blisteringly good teachers. Which doesn’t make it a ‘good ordinary’ school, it makes it a darn fine one.

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