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Maths lessons are enlivened with kinaesthetic learning; a crime scene enactment had the children measuring perimeters with crime scene tape, collecting fingerprints for graphs of incriminating data, as well as dousing a teacher with gore. One mum commented, ‘His dyslexia hasn’t been cured, his handwriting is still pretty awful…

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What the school says...

Bruern's raison d'etre is to prepare boys with identified specific learning difficulties for Common Entrance at 13+ to a range of reputable public schools in England and Scotland. Whilst the curriculum may be delivered in different ways and the use of a laptop is mandatory, Bruern has all the attributes and characteristics of a traditional, preparatory boarding school. ...Read more

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2011, Mr John Floyd MA PGCE (late 30s). Born in London, grew up in the Ivory Coast, Holland and New York. Educated at Cothill House and Radley College, before reading geography at Edinburgh. Graduated from the Teach First programme and spent three years at a London comp, Crown Woods, before joining Westminster Choir School as deputy head.

Settling back in a button-back leather chair, antlers on the office walls, dog bowls and remote control cars in the hearth, he refers to the school as ‘mildly eccentric’. His witty conversation ranges over technical aspects of learning, ‘I describe it as a working memory and processing speed school’ to an exuberant delight in the menu: ‘Look! there go the oysters!’ Dyslexic himself, he comes across as sympathetic and knowledgeable about the boys’ needs. ‘There are a lot of conceptually very bright kids here, we are effectively filling in the gaps, plugging the holes, in what they should know and do, according to IQ’.

Married to Henrietta, who is ‘fantastic at homemaking and charity fund raising’ according to parents, with four young boys. John is on first name terms with parents, who described him as ‘charming, brutally honest, delightful’ and ‘really user friendly’. On our rounds, he shared a joke with the chef, enquired after a teacher’s dog and tousled boys’ hair as he passed. But beneath the affable Mr Chips act, there lurks a sharp efficiency: he has doubled the school’s size, built a new wing of dormitories, and the biggest surprise of all, there are plans in the wind to open a sister school.

Entrance

More than 100 feeder schools. The head reads EP reports, before inviting parents to visit. Suitable children are invited to an assessment in maths and English and an invitation to a sleepover.

Exit

After Common Entrance, to a variety of independent schools including: St Paul’s School, Marlborough College, Rugby, Stowe, St Edward’s, Gordonstoun; a handful win scholarships. One mother confided, ‘Senior schools are working out you need some people who can think in different ways.'

Our view

A country prep school, with flexi-boarding, for boys with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia, who proceed to Common Entrance. The head claims the school aims to ‘sort out literacy and numeracy issues’ by providing intense English (up to three times a day) and maths tuition, alongside a full range of academic subjects and therapeutic support. Year sizes increase as they rise, due to the gradual identification of dyslexia in mainstream schools.

Classes are arranged more or less by year group and named after birds, with a maximum of 11 children in lower years, with two teachers in their English and maths classes (one teacher for other subjects), and 12 children in the upper years, with one class teacher. Some children have repeated a school year, so slot in to a lower group, others repeat a year at Bruern.

All children are placed in smaller sets for literacy, which involves two dyslexia trained staff. Students write with laptops and learn touch-typing from the outset, with dyslexia software. We visited a modern languages lesson, where boys were quietly working towards their French and German orals, a task that usually fazes language-challenged children. ‘It’s more about building the boys’ confidence’, said the teacher. It helps that the school owns a chateau in the Loire (affectionately known as Bruern South), which hosts trips each year. Maths lessons are enlivened with kinaesthetic learning; a crime scene enactment had the children measuring perimeters with crime scene tape, collecting fingerprints for graphs of incriminating data, as well as dousing a teacher with gore. One mum commented, ‘His dyslexia hasn’t been cured, his handwriting is still pretty awful…but on the whole he’s much more motivated and he’s learned to learn again’.

Perhaps we visited on a busy day, but the school was a hive of extra-curricular activity: a visiting author was talking in the billiard room; stage hands were erecting scenery in the chapel for The Wind in the Willows and a group of young foodies, aka The Oyster Club, were sampling a four course meal in the panelled dining room. We found the paint-spattered art teacher organising a display of Roman goblets, fired in the school kiln. Musicians pursue a range of instrument lessons, and there’s choral evensong once a week accompanied by an organist. A picturesque shepherd’s hut in the grounds acts as a bandwagon, and keeps heavy drummers at a discreet distance.

We counted four football pitches and some cricket nets on the front lawn, and more in the rear grounds, as well as a small indoor swimming pool. Alongside the usual sports (rugby, cricket, basketball, cross country) are some unusual ones: clay pigeon shooting, boxing, archery, or a chukka of polo. As the head said, in casual understatement, ‘we try to do everything a prep school does’.

School trips include a biennial visit to Washington, including a tour of the White House, cricket tour to India, ski trips, and an annual visit to Bruern South in France.

Seventy per cent of boys flexi-board, one to four nights a week, many arriving on Monday on one of the coaches from London SW1 and returning on Friday afternoon. ‘You send them up on the bus on Monday and then you can work like fury for a week, and your child appears on the bus at 6pm Friday’, said the head; parents called it, ‘a godsend’. Upstairs, in the high-ceilinged old bedrooms, the boys sleep five to twelve to a dorm with their own quilts, and posters to personalise the rooms. Photos in the corridors show jolly parties of children in pyjamas. ‘We have tea and toast parties’ smiles the head. The bathroom has a row of modern showers where a roll-top bath used to be.

Leaving behind the noise of the M40 to Bicester, passing farmland and paddocks of horses, you chance upon the Cotswold hamlet of Chesterton and the lawn-fronted Italianate villa that is the school’s home. Despite the grandeur, the school’s foundation is newish, having relocated in 1999 from its original site at the Cistercian monastery near Burford, where it was founded in 1989. The proprietor keeps a room on the ground floor, like an old retainer, while children make themselves comfortable on Turkish carpets round the log fire of the large entrance hall. No high-security entrance and receptionist’s office, instead the boys wander confidently through the house and scamper up the wide oak staircase as if at home. As the head says, ‘it’s relatively non-institutional’. A parent’s verdict, ‘It’s seventh heaven.’

The ground floor hallway leads to a billiard room, large enough for a school assembly. Two dining rooms, one with a Tudor style ceiling and moose head, are set with refectory tables, beyond is a library with bean bags and button-backed chairs, as well as kitchens and laundry. Two upper floors provide boarding accommodation. Fireplaces (five open fires are lit on a cold day) and peeling paint along corridors add to its shabby chic, and here and there are original architraves or sets of servants' bells. Moving outside, the classrooms are hidden about the grounds in a variety of outbuildings: single-storey modern constructs, where children work in pairs at tables. The maths room proudly displays Big Ben on the walls, for learning the time. A new science lab occupies a converted dairy, complete with central lab bench, telescope and skeleton. Art takes place in the Hobbit hole, a low ceilinged cottage, and the DT shed holds an arsenal of lathes and 3D cutters.

Outside the rolling landscape extends to 23 acres of lawns and woodland, bounded by a brook. The boys are seen, ‘climbing trees, making tree houses, making dens’ said one mum, ‘there’s no Snapchat or texting, there’s so much else to do’.

Food at Bruern is an education. From the Friday lunch menu we saw boys enjoying salmon steaks with asparagus, mackerel and cheese toasties and smoked trout, with chips and a salad bar. Staff and children eat together. The select Oyster Club hosted by the school’s proprietor introduces twelve boys to a world of manners and conversation, as well as a menu of Maldon Rock Oysters and English bouillabaisse, ‘The boys understand he is the leader of a different area of learning’, explained one mum. Twice a week the school sits down to formal, candlelit dinners, which a handful of parents attend. ‘They are a wonderful tool’ a parent explained, ‘teaching the boys to sit still and make conversation with other parents. It’s a very positive thing, not a decadent thing.’

We take pastoral care very seriously’ confides the head, ‘the sort of children who come here, wouldn’t have gone to a boarding school if it weren’t for dyslexia. They’re not the most alpha male bunch‘. A mum concurred, ‘It’s not a rugger boy world. It’s quite refined and caring’. Many children arrive with poor experience of school; one parent commented, ‘he was beginning to become more and more aware of how different he was’. We heard how family relationships had improved with the burden of extra support borne at Bruern rather than by tired parents: ‘his confidence, resilience and happiness have all improved’. Home sickness got a refreshingly pragmatic response from the head - ‘we’ll try anything to cheer them up, I made two boys toast last night at 9pm, or dog-walking: we have seven dogs in school’. One mum admitted, ‘My boy was so busy having fun, he didn’t notice he wasn’t at home’. There’s a written code of conduct, PREP (punctuality, respect, enthusiasm and preparation), and a points system for rewards and transgressions. Parents denied there was bullying, ‘It’s not bullying; it’s silliness...they test the boundaries, as most boys will’ and described a series of sanctions, ‘If the boys don’t behave, they take on a patient and measured series of steps’, culminating in headmaster’s detention, ‘when John gets to glare at you.’ No mobiles, but a few school ‘bricks’ available for boys to call mum, if needed. Parents were satisfied with contact from the school, usually by 'phone or email, ‘You get a call straight away’. Although one mum ventured, ‘I wouldn’t mind a bit more feedback throughout the term….it’s no news is good news’.

Most of the teachers are dyslexia trained, while maths teachers have expertise in dyscalculia. In addition, the staff skill up other schools in specific learning difficulties. The head refers to his teachers' approach to learning difficulties as ‘vocational’. There were minor grumbles about parents’ evenings, ‘My only one suggestion’, said a mum, ‘would be to structure the feedback so it’s less rushed’. Another reported, ‘The school has seen big growth and the senior leadership team is more thinly spread than they used to be’.

Therapy staff include visiting clinicians, an OT (matron is also a qualified OT) and a speech and language therapist who works individually or as part of the class, ‘Less than 10 per cent have speech and language needs’, says Floyd, ‘everything we do is inherently dyslexia friendly’.

Usually the boys are to be seen in a uniform of corduroys and tweed jackets, with sunshine yellow jumpers and polos, to show off the mud streaks, but on the day we visited several lads sported striped, Where’s Wally?’ shirts with owlish glasses, there was a coven of Harry Potters, a Tintin and a Scooby Doo (it was World Book Day). The children were lively, polite and unselfconsciously engaged in their activities. The head described the demographic range: ‘There may be families who have mortgaged their house to come here, others may accidentally pay the school fees twice and not notice.’ No international students, and no boarding at weekends. Children hale from the home counties (Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Hampshire) and from as far away as The Isle of Man. Parents can join the Amici Bruern, which organises friendly socials, including black tie dinners and auctions, ‘it’s a two fold event’ one mum told us, ‘raising money for charity and meeting lots of parents at a party’. Sports day, we heard, is less about athletics, more of a picnic, with a chance to show off your vintage motor. Privately funded; it’s not for the feint of wallet. Parents have set up a hardship fund, for unexpected needs.

Bruern Abbey is an earthly paradise, and there‘s a lot of earthy activities involved, for boys who struggle with specific learning difficulties. The targeted maths and English tuition hit the spot, building self-belief and winning places at top independent schools. Lots of fresh air and trees leave the boys to enjoy being boys, ‘it’s such an outward bound boyish experience’, said one mum. What sort of men they become, having dined on oysters at school, only time will tell. As one mum put it, ‘There are many roads that lead to Rome and I’ve found a very happy one’.

Special Education Needs

Bruern Abbey is in so many ways a traditional preparatory school, with its raison d'etre being to prepare boys for Common Entrance to reputable Public Schools. Yet all the boys at Bruern experience some kind of specific learning difficulty, or range of difficulties, to a degree that for confidence to be restored and for academic potential to be fulfilled, they would benefit from small classes, an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy and a genuinely multi-sensory approach to delivering the curriculum, including the use of a personal laptop. Children are taught by trained and experienced 'specialists' in special needs education and by subject teachers who have an on-going, in-service training programme, monitored by the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre, that helps them understand the difficulties encountered by the dyslexic or dyspraxic child. Nov 09.

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia Y
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
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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