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  • Christ College, Brecon
    Brecon
    Powys
    LD3 8AF
  • Head: Gareth Pearson
  • T 01874 615440
  • F 01874 615475
  • E [email protected]
  • W www.christcollegebrecon.com
  • An independent school for boys and girls aged from 7 to 18.
  • Boarding: Yes
  • Local authority: Powys
  • Pupils: 370; sixth formers: 114
  • Religion: Church of Wales
  • Fees: Day £9,486 - £19,197; Boarding £18,159 - £30,060 pa
  • Open days: 30th March 2019, 21st September 2019
  • Review: View The Good Schools Guide Review

What says..

The school’s origins live on in some of its ancient buildings constructed from the region’s pinky-hued slate and its jaunty emblem of a crowned H, reproduced in the overwhelmingly green uniform and in topiary in the grounds. The students we met were charming, aware of their good fortune and obediently wearing school uniform right through sixth form. This is not the place for the...

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What the school says...

Christ College is one of the oldest and most successful schools in the UK. Founded in 1541 by Henry VIII it occupies an enviable site on the outskirts of Brecon, a safe, small market town in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Parents and guardians value the unique care and concern pupils receive at the school individual mentoring and support from highly qualified and experienced staff which extends beyond the classroom to every aspect of daily life and leads to a high level of achievement in both academic and non-academic areas.

We know that academic results open doors, so we are committed to helping every individual maximise their achievement in this area. However, we teach well beyond and around the narrow requirements of examinations, and believe that education takes place everywhere a pupil goes and not just in the classroom. These academic achievements should be seen against a background of Christ College pupils full engagement to an excellent standard in sport, with over 30 pupils representing their country over the last 3 years, as well as music, drama, art and other pastoral contributions to the life of the school community. There is a full programme of extra-curricular activities with participation in the voluntary, but highly popular, Combined Cadet Force, and the Duke of Edinburghs Award Scheme.

The Christ College Foundation, which has The Prince of Wales as its patron, has made significant progress as it strives to offer more scholarships and bursaries and better academic, cultural, sporting and social facilities to as many young people as possible regardless of their financial circumstances.
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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

Fencing

Shooting

What The Good Schools Guide says

The head

Since 2017, Gareth Pearson, BEng (40s). Brought up in Dorset, he read mechanical engineering at Loughborough before joining the Royal Marines for eight years. A stint at Millfield saw him through the graduate teaching programme as a maths teacher; a move to Wellington then expanded his career in house-mastering, clearly invaluable experience for headship, which he describes as ‘like being a housemaster on steroids – every pupil will expect to have a relationship with you’. His most recent post was senior deputy at Lord Wandsworth College and he let slip that his friends tease him that the reason he got this job was because of his good Welsh name: ‘but my wife is Welsh, plus I’m a rugby coach and referee,’ he counters. Whatever the process, Mr Pearson seems to be an exceedingly good fit. Parents swoon: ‘We absolutely adore the guy!’ said one; ‘The kind of person you’d like to have round to supper,’ added another. Yet more commend his dedication, his visibility, the fact that he knows all the students and latterly, the school’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, which broke shortly after our visit. We reckon the ability to strategise instilled in the military and to react coolly in a crisis has come in pretty handy; other hallmarks from those days are an immaculate appearance (shoes polished to a mirror glaze), firm handshake and uncompromisingly direct gaze. We wouldn’t mess with him and suspect the students wouldn’t either. Their take on him was less starry-eyed than their parents’, praising his approachability and encouragement of feedback, and that he has managed to realign some college traditions without doing away with them.

Mr Pearson describes himself as a busy dad to two teenagers, both in the school. They are, by their own admission, a ‘very outdoorsy family’ whose perfect day would comprise walking, cycling and canoeing in the sensational landscapes surrounding Brecon.

The junior school, St Nicholas House or St Nick’s inevitably, set up only in 2014, has from the start been headed by Julie Lewis, previously deputy head in a local state school. ‘Not many people get the opportunity to open a school from scratch’ she told us, ‘and we had to integrate sympathetically with a community which had been here for hundreds of years.’ We were struck by her warmth, such that lots of tinies rushed up to her to show off their reading books as we passed by. She has two children who went through the senior school, one of whom is training to be a teacher herself.

Academic matters

Not the whole story here: ‘Academics aren’t everything,’ as the head states, so recent results are all the more creditable at 69 per cent A*/A/B (39 per cent A*/A) at A level and 41 per cent of GCSEs graded 9-7 in 2019. Subjects are organised into seven faculties, and every student is assigned a tutor who oversees all aspects of their life at CCB. Not the widest choice of A levels but ‘not much call for Russian or Italian here’, as one mother put it.

The introduction of three BTecs (sport, ICT and drama) has, however, been welcomed. Students reckon there are no weak subject areas, but history, geography and maths came in for particular praise, as did the science facilities and advice from teachers. Absolutely sensational library with upper floor a dedicated archive and quiet study space. In the junior school, we loved the guided reading we saw, where the more hesitant read to Tegan the golden Labrador. Right answers are rewarded by a coloured button in a pot that each child has. Audrey the python lives in her vivarium in one classroom…

SEN - known as additional learning needs here - has had its own dedicated department since 1995, which is now headed by a SpLD specialist. Referrals to it can be made by parents, teachers and students themselves. The website states unequivocally that ‘all pupils, including those with identified special educational needs, are expected to cope with a full curriculum at a relatively independent level’ and therefore that some students may ‘require a level of support that Christ College does not currently offer’. That said, parents we spoke to were unanimous in their praise, not only for diagnosed learning difficulties such as dyslexia and ADHD, but also for supporting students with other serious health problems. We were impressed by what we were told about the school’s flexibility in, for example, dropping superfluous GCSE subjects and resitting entrance exams and its ‘kind, supportive and thoughtful attitude’.

Provision of remote learning during the Covid-19 crisis was praised.

Games, options, the arts

We cannot better the words of one mother: ‘Being in Wales, the school lives and breathes rugby but hockey is a real strength’. Main competitors are Llandovery College and the Monmouth schools. Cricket has a perhaps surprisingly high profile for girls as well as boys, with coaching throughout the winter. Forty acres of grounds provide enough space for an Astro (due an upgrade shortly), hard tennis courts, an indoor sports hall (incidentally the only place on site where the whole school and parents can fit) and covered 25m swimming pool. Plenty on offer for those not so keen on team games (a compulsory carousel to the end of year 10, however) and full advantage is taken of the school’s stunning surroundings with climbing, mountain biking and kayaking laid on in the Brecon Beacons by the school’s qualified instructors. Ambitious recent tours for top players - hockey to South Africa and rugby to Japan.

Outdoor pursuits in the form of DofE and CCF are predictably huge here - the latter compulsory in years 9 and 10. Brecon is, conveniently, the centre of the army in Wales. The head is commanding officer but delegates day to day routines. From September 2020, lucky youngsters can sign up for the Beacons Challenge Programme, designed to ‘encourage our pupils’ physical, spiritual, social and moral development’, through three multi-activity days of mountain derring-do each year.

Music is strong, as befits a school sited in the land of song. Auditioned and unauditioned choirs mean anyone who wants to sing can, and the house music competitions, one for singing and one for instrumental players and ensembles, are hotly contested. About forty per cent of students learn an instrument and there are ensembles for all standards and most genres. Regular open mic sessions provide an informal setting for musicians to polish their skills before concerts or exams. Close collaboration with the drama department results in some spectacular musicals such as Scrooge and Phantom of the Opera in recent years.

Plays and other performances take place in the Neuadd Memorial Hall, a strikingly modern addition to the traditional school buildings, complete with gallery and social space. Every aspect of theatre is possible here, from the usual set design and lighting to the less usual make-up and prosthetics, and most major productions run for four nights with split casts, so more budding thespians can tread the boards. Younger students don’t miss out either: their shows are staged there – the latest being Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin is for now metaphorically on ice.

Art has a delightful listed building overlooking the river Usk, where sixth formers have their own dedicated space. Photography is a real strength here with facilities to match, including a dark room – ‘It’s not all about the digital’ as the maestro told us. Sculpture, textiles and ceramics also on offer.

Boarders

Just over half of students board in some way. Boarding is possible in the junior school, where it is accommodated in the one house which is also home to year 7 and 8 day students. Two senior boys’ and girls’ houses complete the set-up. We liked the warm and welcoming feel of the girls’ house we saw, with its young house-parents, bright cheery common space and insistence on phone-free Friday; phones are taken in each every evening for everyone below sixth form. Dorms clean and tidy, with singles for sixth formers and double-sized ones for prefects. House loyalty is intense but not tribal, and those who board seem to love it. Parents also broadly supportive (especially of the house staff) but some feel accommodation could do with freshening up, and one overseas parent thought much more could be done to share school life, such as live streaming of major school events and more digital wizardry for parents’ evenings. Maybe Covid-19 and its necessary technical innovations will see to that. Everyone eats in the stunning dining hall; we picked up the odd gripe about the food, but the smell and golden crackling of the roast pork proved irresistible over the salad bar the day we visited and it did not disappoint.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1541 by Henry VIII on the site of a Dominican priory dating from the thirteenth century, Christ College became a proper ‘public school’ in the Act of 1855. Immensely proud of its heritage but not weighed down by it, the school’s origins live on in some of its ancient buildings constructed from the region’s pinky-hued slate and its jaunty emblem of a crowned H, reproduced in the overwhelmingly green uniform and in topiary in the grounds. Very much an institution in this small but significant market town in mid Wales, the school is proud of its contribution to the local economy as an employer and provider of facilities - it has a mutually dependent relationship with the town and wide swathes of the surrounding area, and refreshingly little town v gown animosity, if any. Its position just across the river means a five minute walk into town, allowed for senior school students; boarding parents like that small taste of freedom for their offspring. The serenely beautiful chapel sits at the actual and spiritual centre of the school and the prevailing ethos is Christian, but inclusive - ‘The chaplain makes the Christian faith relevant to modern life, even for non-believers,’ we were told. All are required to attend chapel, however, although the content is sometimes secular. Those values spill over into making a very friendly school, where relationships between students and staff are strong. Again and again we heard words like ‘family’ and ‘community’ – this is a small school which caters for everyone. It is not, we were told, ‘snooty, elitist, nor ridiculously academic’, rather a place where everyone gets a turn. The mid Wales bubble that the school arguably inhabits is popped intermittently by the stream of outside speakers such as ‘mountaineers, military people, academics, business people and politicians,’ as one mother spelt out. Yet its Welshness is celebrated by means of an eisteddfod for younger students and an option to study Welsh in years 7 and 8. Even the head has had Welsh lessons.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Highly, highly rated by all. There are ‘layers of people to talk to when things go wrong’, according to one mother. ‘Mental health support in houses especially good’ students added. Good deeds are acknowledged by gold notes, bad ones by blue. Although some students remarked that they were awarded inconsistently at times, they like the fact that all achievement is recognised, and colours awarded for all manner of success, not merely sporting. But don’t think that the school fights shy of serious matters like drugs: offenders can expect the heave-ho.

Pupils and parents

Crisply summarised by one father as rural families from miles around (a few dynasties), city kids from Cardiff and overseas families from SE Asia, Nigeria, Nepal, (Ghurkha HQ is in Brecon), Germany and Spain mostly, all of which makes for a surprisingly wide mix for such a rural school, appreciated by parents. The students we met were charming, aware of their good fortune and obediently wearing school uniform right through sixth form. This is not the place for the rebel, show-off or non-conformist, we feel.

Entrance

Main entry points are year 3 for the junior school (where hopefuls will spend a day or so with a class undergoing informal assessments), year 7 and to a much lesser extent year 9 to the senior school (where matters become more formal and the school’s own entrance tests in English, maths and non-verbal reasoning are taken). At sixth form, where a good clutch join from local state schools, the requirement is at least six GCSE’s at a grade 5, but 6’s in any subject to be taken to A level. International students sit the school’s own papers online in English as an additional language and maths, plus Skype interview with the head. Transfer from St Nick’s to the senior school is largely seamless.

Exit

Some after GCSE in search of greater options and freedoms at sixth form, possibly financial reasons also. Main destinations seem to be newish Merthyr College and the longer established and fabulous Hereford Sixth Form (GSG). Vast majority (over 95 per cent) to uni and half of those to Russell Group, the most popular city being Bristol. None to Oxbridge in 2019 (though our guide had just been offered a place to read modern languages at Oxford for 2020) but a huge range of courses (including one vet) and universities up and down the land, plus one to the US. The most famous former pupils are the cool hip young stars of BBC Garden Rescue Harry and David Rich.

Money matters

Noted by us in the past as one of the best value schools in the UK, where the fees comprise almost everything and extras are limited.

Usual range of scholarships and bursaries, the latter likely to be sought as the fall-out from Covid-19 develops. Generous provision for Old Breconian parents and forces families in receipt of Continuing Education Allowance. Local businesses sponsor events at school, a great innovation.

Our view

Think of the place as a magnet: it draws in those needing or wanting boarding or simply added extras from a vast tract of country where independent schools are a rarity for economic or ideological reasons. What’s more, it succeeds in providing pretty well everything for pretty much everyone who can stretch to the fees.

Special Education Needs

We have a highly qualified/experienced SENCO/specialist teacher. Timetabled sessions for learning support are offered on a one-to-one or group basis and emphasis is placed on teaching pupils strategies for managing in the classroom. Support is offered for all pupils including those in the sixth form as well as younger pupils. The support focuses on time management and organisation of self and work. 09-09

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