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‘Still marked as being a school where they do a fabulous job with learning support but they’re brilliant with everybody else as well,’ said parent. Not everyone will get A*s and As but ‘what you will see is people who nobody ever expected it doing well.’ Strong sense of community. Boarders and day pupils ‘all mix and match,’ said a parent. ‘School is really lovely if you want to have a boarder for the weekend.’ Pain of staying in eased by dogs (owned by staff in three out of five boarding houses), hot chocolate and plenty of talking therapy...

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What the school says...

Clayesmore is a thriving, forward-looking boarding and day school where both prep and senior pupils share the same idyllic setting. Clayesmore's all through provision means that pupils can make a worry free step up to senior school accompanied by a sense of familiarity, but with a change in staff, timetable and buildings that marks a new stage in their education. It also means siblings can go to school together; an added advantage much appreciated by busy parents.

Clayesmore Senior School has been deemed excellent across the board following a recent Independent Schools Inspectorate inspection. A wide range of activity, both in and out of the classroom, gives the school a real buzz and provides a wealth of opportunity. Academic results for a mixed ability school are impressive at all levels and the highly regarded learning support department offers individual attention, exam strategies and effective study skills.

When you add to the mix some welcoming boarding accommodation, nurturing pastoral care and boundless opportunities to shine, its clear that Clayesmore offers a winning combination. Clayesmore's range of A-level subjects is also expanding and it now offers Psychology and Photography as well as new BTECs in Hospitality, Sport and ICT. Along with these impressive improvements, the majority of students also get into the university of their choice.

Providing a seamless education from 3-18 years, Clayesmore is a flourishing school offering excitement, opportunity and a confidence boosting family atmosphere.
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What the parents say...

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Other features

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

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2016, Joanne Thomson BA MBA 940s). First headship. Previously joint deputy head for eight years at Christ’s Hospital School, preceded by 13 years at Aiglon College. First post after finishing degree was at Repton Prep as English teacher, assistant houseparent and sports coach.

Model of modern marriage offers cheering example of give and take. Husband Frank, also a senior teacher, is head of PSHE here, has worked at most of same schools and is happy to let Mrs T take the lead. ‘There’s never a power struggle,’ she stresses. Two children, both at young adult stage (younger attending sixth form here).

Parents at Christ’s praised her ‘industriousness and conviviality’. What comes across above all is calm, understated kindness (the only head this reviewer has ever met who physically booked a cab back to the station – though could be a subtle way of ensuring we actually left the premises…).

Never envisaged being a head and ‘it’s not about the power but making a difference.’ She’s succeeding, says a parent, by effective delegation. ‘Doesn’t have a finger in every pie but lets the school get on with it which is better for the staff.’ Senior pupil praised her ‘interaction’ with pupils. ‘Clear to see philosophy,’ said year 10 guide. Particular strength is thought for the day speeches. ‘I was like “How is she able to be so relatable?”’ How, indeed?

Spent first year tied to desk, working on systems and structures that were creaking under the pressure of increased pupil numbers. ‘Time-consuming but necessary and meant that some parents felt they didn’t see quite enough of her. That’s now being rectified. Also – somehow – managed to complete an MBA over the school holidays. Sent out questionnaire and is implementing suggestions – including extending autumn half term to two weeks (from 2018).

Like other schools she’s worked at, this one is notable for exceptional pastoral care – she wouldn’t join a school without it. Isn’t planning drastic change but sensible rethinking designed to ensure that school does its best by all pupils throughout the ability spectrum. Inclusiveness is in but will be helped along with greater focus on tailored learning and monitoring, supported by extensive, joined up digital technology. Small but beautifully designed booklet serves up changes with strong dose of reassurance.

Her younger (state educated) self wouldn’t be happy with independent school career and informs her desire to share resources as widely as possible. Community-related activity is important – pupils work at local special school, local elderly are regularly invited in for events and pipe band – goes with school’s name, rather than location - ‘is out and about’ (not as threatening as it sounds).

Best part of the job? No surprises that it’s the pupils. ‘They keep you grounded, especially ours, they’re very open and tell it like it is, they’re great.’

Academic matters

Everyone – not just teachers and pupils but their parents and our taxi driver (a past parent, whose daughter is now well on the way to being something massive in the City) stress that families don’t need to divide and rule, sending most academically able child elsewhere – school will do wonders with them all. In 2017, 37 per cent A*/A at A level; nearly 28 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE.

Particular strength is whole-school commitment to SEN. Around 130 pupils have needs such as SpLD, mild ASD and ADHD/ADD and school ensures that training and regular insets extend to all staff, including rugby coaches. Differentiation is ‘staggering,’ says head. ‘I’ve never been in a place where teacher are so united and committed to the cause.’

All pupils have CAT test in year 9 designed as ‘stress free screening’ to establish ‘range of possibilities.’ Those needing extra support can attend informal drop in maths sessions or may swap languages for extra classes in teaching and learning centre – (TLC, geddit?) which is located slap bang in middle of school - ‘no wooden hut in the grounds,’ says head - and universally rated as phenomenal. Separate classrooms for those needing EAL support.

Specialist staff, some full, some part time, many with teaching responsibilities, all with post-grad qualifications, are also regularly consulted by other teachers wanting to know eg how to support the very able. Accreditation from NACE (gifted children) and CReSTeD (specific learning difficulties) reflects school’s strengths in both areas.

‘Still marked as being a school where they do a fabulous job with learning support but they’re brilliant with everybody else as well,’ said parent. Not everyone will get A*s and As but ‘what you will see is people who nobody ever expected it doing well.’ Even inspectors (so relaxed they’ve not been back for over five years) could only pick on the consistency of marking as in need of improvement.

Teachers hold frequent meetings about pupils. ‘Try get beyond the label,’ agrees deputy head – and are equally good at winkling out hidden staff talent. One member of support staff, outed as successful published novelist, now runs creative writing workshops.

Class sizes drop steadily down the years, average 16 in year 9 (maximum 17), 11 in years 10 and 11 (max 19) and just eight in sixth form (13) with a pupil/teacher ratio of eight to one. Teachers ‘young and dynamic,’ says school – average age is 41, so perhaps more young-ish, but definitely committed (16 at the school for more than a decade).

Do the range, from facilitating A levels plus others – economics to psychology, photography to textiles as well as (very unusually) six BTecs (IT – most popular - plus sport, music technology, hospitality, travel and tourism and performing and production arts). Were sniffed at by Russell Group unis but things are changing, says school – though pupils are encouraged to mix with A levels.

Mega A level subjects are business (most popular) followed by geography, maths and photography – an eclectic mix that says a lot about the diverse interests and enthusiasms of pupils.

Fair few D and E grades in tough subjects at GCSE and A level– eg nearly a third of history GCSE entries and three of the six chemistry A level entries in 2017.

Not much that’s outré – though unusually offers both computer science and ICT as an IGCSE. Over 50 – half the year group - currently taking DT, no surprise given rave reviews from teacher and range of goodies produced – papaya chess board a highlight mentioned by parents; though (perhaps surprisingly) very few for drama – single figures, just ahead of Latin.

Teaching is fun and animated. We watched maths lesson with year 10 teams working on probability problems, chains of different coloured arrows climbing up the whiteboards. Maths teacher is ‘best I’ve ever had,’ testified pupil. ‘Understands how to have the class gripped as well as learning.’

Sensible use of technology, so joined up it must have created a virtuous circle, is now a feature of all subjects. Former head of drama, heavy Twitter user who’s ‘really into pedagogy,’ says head, is clearly loving new role as digital learning supremo – now runs regular insets on the wonders of podcasting (many staff do their own), one of many options that come with Google Classroom (fabulous and free to schools – what’s not to like?).

Other fresh ideas include the new Clayesmore Courses, for example, covering areas like history of art. No assessment pressure. Instead, ‘we’re starting to show kids that school can be quite fun.’

For those in need of reassurance, you’ll hear (lots) about school’s most successful pupil (astrophysics at Cambridge – ideally need a couple more to ring the changes). The bottom line is that this is learning without tears - an exceptionally happy and successful school that does well by all its pupils.

Games, options, the arts

‘Don’t have to be good at activities to have fun,’ said pupil. ‘I’m not specially good - I just like to get involved.’

If the grounds and activities weren’t enticement enough (D of E, CCF so popular that one year 11 pupil spent major chunk of summer holidays with them), school also invites pupils to complete 100 activities in 10 categories including sport and arts – as well as academics. Need to show leadership and participation and (our favourite) passive involvement (watching stuff). One year 13 pupil won (external) debating competition and watched inauguration of President Trump. Completion had been recognised with chunky cash prize and membership of Clayesmore Centenary Club, handed over on prize day though currently being rethought. ‘I want pupils to participate for intrinsic reasons rather than monetary reward,’ says head.

Of the major sports (played three times a week with option to add individual favourites from year 10 - featured successes include, eg, Jemima and Buttons doing fantastically well in dressage championship) - strongest are tennis, athletics and, especially, cricket, where school makes Wisden’s top 100. Behind the scenes, the head, sporty herself, is keen to ensure more excitement for girls in particular who have own rugby and football teams. Cricket may also be on the agenda (if worthy opponents can be found) and staffing levels are being bumped up – girls’ PE teacher recently appointed..

Parents positive but realistic. ‘We go to win but it’s a numbers game. It’s a very different culture.’ Consolation provided by exceptional match teas, renowned in the area – scones, cheese straws, sandwiches and ‘massive cakes,’ said pupil.

Small size means that sports results can vary, sometimes dramatically, between cohorts (not necessarily ideal for families fixated on winning at all cost) but has its benefits, too, not just in sports but elsewhere, with different year groups often working in same space (art and drama), for example. ‘Gives them positive role models,’ says art teacher.

Bar school-wide desire for bigger and better performance space (delightful but bijou chapel with electric – though not, sadly, solar-powered - organ is currently a major venue for whole school), music and drama both highly praised and on everyone’s radar, including parents whose children aren’t performers. Dedicated head of music felt to be upping standards across the board – particularly for choral music, though range of opportunities for instrumentalists (to grade 8, a few at diploma level) - concert band, jazz and brass ensembles, for example - also highly rated.

‘Might not have the sportiest or the most academic reputation but it does all of them to a very good level and includes everyone in that,’ said parent.

Boarders

Five boarding houses – three for boys, two for girls, each housing up to 50 pupils and strictly segregated (sight of boy boarder briefly wandering, shirtless, down corridor, reduces female tour guide to helpless giggles). Bar occasional stray corner it’s all basically fine, especially now Devine (in the village, short walk from school) has been revamped and pupils given day room at school, though downside can be lack of space for day pupils.

Appearance ranges from the grand (Wolverton – girls – approached up impressive staircase in the main house) to the homely (Gate – boys - prettily set around former stable yard. Varying dorm sizes, some sleeping of six or more in junior years, though a couple of spares kept unoccupied for emergencies. Otherwise boarding full with waiting lists in most year groups. Nicest (girls’ rooms) are elevated with wardrobes at the end. ‘We lean up on the wardrobes and chat,’ said girl. Single rooms for some lower and all upper sixth, who also get more advanced cooking privileges and own meeting areas.

No official weekly boarding but locals are allowed to go home after Saturday school. Some overseas Brits – FO, MoD, expats – though fewer than you might think (currently less than 20) given substantial presence of army bases in the area. Others from all over including Germany, China and Russia, with a few others from USA, Italy, Japan and Sweden.

Strong sense of community. Boarders and day pupils ‘all mix and match,’ said a parent. ‘School is really lovely if you want to have a boarder for the weekend.’ Pain of staying in eased by dogs (owned by staff in three out of five boarding houses), hot chocolate and plenty of talking therapy for homesickness, plus luxurious lie in to 10.45am on Sunday morning with potato cubes (chip off-shoots) and bacon and egg sandwiches the star attractions on the brunch menu.

‘Suits people who like to be busy,’ said pupil. ‘You’ll be joining in without realising it.’ What with regular off site outings – shopping bus, cinema, spectacular coastline – and onside delights of, among others, squash, archery and kayaking, pupils reckon 'there’s just not enough time to fit everything in’ (no doubt the reason for copy of The Times, lying, untouched, in boarding house reception).

Background and atmosphere

School was founded in 1896 in Enfield, leading somewhat peripatetic existence, settling first in Pangbourne, then Winchester before final landing here in 1933. House, Iwerne Manor, was rebuilt in peak Victorian perpendicular gothic style by local squires (whose goodness to villagers extended to equipping each house with red blinds).

Main house floats like an island in a sea of grass, in the centre of 62 acres, commanding splendid views - crescents, one blue, one green, which feature on girls’ blazer crests represent meeting of land and sky. (Traditionalists may prefer double headed dragon – still sported by boys - over corporate minimalism.)

Many attractive original buildings survive, though with substantial additions and rebuilds. Change has accelerated recently, with add-ons ranging from striking new DT extension to three separate blocks of classrooms. Ample space ensures that large sports hall, swimming pool, multi-surface pitch don’t detract from lake, fountain and scenery. With exception of grimly functional 70s prep block, new builds generally fit into place rather than attempting to dominate it, a tribute to good architect ego management.

Doing bit for the environment, too, with biomass boiler installed 2016 plus big solar panels on three of the roofs (now produce almost 10 per cent of energy – as well as pepping up temperature and pressure to delightful levels in boarding house showers).

Pupils - some here with considerable sacrifice from parents – do count their blessings. ‘Everyone feels very lucky to be here – it says something that you realise it now,’ said thoughtful guide.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Fabulous and A-Z. Starting point is (relatively) small size of school – ‘can spot quickly if things aren’t quite right and get in early,’ says head.

Strong tutor system, supplemented with pupil mentoring and low levels of cynicism - house loyalty, we were told, stays at fever pitch levels even at the top of the school. Lots of house competitions – organised by upper sixth who ‘choreograph dances, pick song, arrange music, lower key if pitch too high.’

Fully aware of how issues (such as eating disorders) can escalate and potentially shattering consequences if not spotted in time. ‘So far, no transgender pupils but would go all out to make sure needs met,’ says school. Approach geared to individual needs – haven created for one pupil, for example, who found classroom environment overwhelming and went on to achieve top exam grades.

Currently developing digital journal where pupils record, in images or writing, their emotional journey through school. ‘Will help them think about times in their lives where they’ve made real leaps forward or had setbacks….could be so powerful when they look back,’ says Mrs Thomson. Aim is to help them get out of groove of seeing social media as more than just mass transmission of selfies but tool for future reflection.

Pupils and parents

When it comes to socialising, spirit is willing but, with both parents working in many families, flesh and timetables are weak and coffee morning slots often elusive. When they do meet up, mood is correspondingly jolly. ‘Gifted chaps' and ‘all-round splendid fellows’ pop up at intervals in annals of Clayesmore Society (open to all), and retiring nurse is a ‘vision in waterproofs and wellies.’ Translates into mixed bag of alumni from artist Edward Ardizzone to Beatles manager Brian Epstein and top surgeon Sir Rodney Sweetnam.

Locals and neighbouring counties (Dorset, Hants and Wiltshire) dominate – inevitable army contingent - though London is also on its patch (have had some families fleeing terrorism as well as its hothouse atmosphere). Low sterling value has upped interest from overseas, though long term Brexit impact yet to be seen.

Though a fair few parents arrive from state sector, there’s plenty of dosh about, with school events ranging from clay shoot (a tenner a head) to a reunion with lavish canapés and fizz (free, but you have to get yourself to Guernsey).

Entrance

The normal battle over semantics. School says ‘non-selective’ when what it means is ‘as non-selective as you can be,’ says head. Bottom line is that all prospective pupils must be able to access the curriculum and be capable of achieving ‘some’ GCSEs (numbers will vary fairly widely but will include core subjects).

Around half of senior entry comes from junior school plus local preps (Forres Sandle Manor, Castle Court, Dumpton, Walhampton, Durlston Court, Salisbury Cathedral. Increasingly fed by families from London and the south east. Boy heavy – 100 or so more than girls. Evenly split day and boarding

Take around 90 in year 9; handful in year 10 and around 20 into the sixth form (with at least five A*-C/9-4 passes at GCSE).

Exit

Occasional departure for drugs but more humane than most: instant expulsion for dealing and hard drugs, potential for discussion at least for cannabis, though ‘only if it’s a first offence and then followed up with regular testing to ensure no repeat,’ says school. Around five pupils leave after GCSEs, usually to state schools or because of relocation, others where demands of curriculum would simply be too much – preceded by plenty of discussion. Most to uni or apprenticeships – vast range of courses and destinations: arts and acting foundation to business studies and engineering everywhere from Loughborough to Southampton. A few on gap years. No Oxbridge in 2017.

Money matters

Generous sibling discounts – ask as not easily discoverable on website. About a quarter of senior school pupils receive means-tested bursaries (some substantial) and though generous, head would like to extend ‘for talented but needy.’

Scholarships, in contrast, are available (10 per cent off fees) but head isn’t a big fan, feeling that labelling the talented can impose unnecessary pressure at an early age and ignore talented late developers, who very often go on to scoop the glittering prizes. Children ‘should just be enjoying time at school for the right reasons.’

Our view

Lovely location; warm, inclusive ethos. Ignore dinner party chit chat about SEN focus and do all your children a favour by seeing it for yourself.

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Special Education Needs

The Learning Support Centre is an integral part of the school's academic provision. We work sensitively to develop academic abilities, enabling pupils to grow in self-esteem and achieve optimum results in exams. All pupils who receive learning support follow a mainstream academic programme, taking both GCSE and A level examinations in due course. Therefore, individual learning plans are tailored to developed the unique gifts of every girl and boy, enabling them to be proud of their talents and achievements. We are a CReSTeD school, category DU, that is we have a dyslexia unit that provides specialist tuition on a small group or individual basis, according to need. Nov 09.

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