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‘They are really nice kids, very decent, grounded and generous-spirited,’ says the head. ‘I say to them: “You are going into a tough world but if you work hard and dig in and use one hand on the ladder to help other people up you will be fine.” They give me hope for the future. They are very well-mannered and polite but there’s a steeliness too. When there’s a job to be done, whether it’s thrashing across Dartmoor in the driving rain or swimming in a gala, they can do both...’

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What the school says...

Mount Kelly, set on the edge of Dartmoor National Park between Exeter and Plymouth, combines academic excellence with an outstanding range of learning opportunities outside the classroom and exceptional pastoral care. The School, for girls and boys aged between 4 and 18, offers both day and a full range of boarding provision and currently has 575 pupils.
Children at Mount Kelly are nurtured, guided and inspired to develop their own skills and interests. Each pupil joins one of the Schools Houses, serving as a boarders home from home and a day pupils working base. Boarders comprise approximately 50% of the Colleges pupils and are fully integrated with the day pupil body. Pupils enjoy small class sizes offering exceptional levels of individual focus. Each pupil is cared for by a Housemaster or Housemistress and assigned a dedicated tutor who oversees their academic, pastoral and co-curricular progress. This comprehensive tutoring system produces happy pupils who are confident, well-rounded and ambitious.
Mount Kelly offers a high standard of academic schooling including a proven track record of 100% A-level pass rates, 70% awarded at A* B and 85% gaining places at their top choices of universities. Mount Kelly also has an excellent reputation for 100% Common Entrance success and top Scholarships to a range of leading national schools.
The School is well known for its strong commitment to co-curricular activities and the majority of pupils are involved with at least one of the following: the Combined Cadet Force, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Marathon or the Ten Tors Challenge. The Saturday School Programme, optional for all day pupils, gives the children the opportunity to explore a wide range of interests with activities from kayaking to cookery. In addition the academic staff, in collaboration with well-resourced on-site Adventure Centre, runs the innovative Learning Outside the Classroom Programme utilising activities from coasteering to creative writing on location. Mount Kelly is well known for its world class coaching facility for swimming and an elite training programme which is fully integrated within the School. Mount Kelly has produced competitors at the last five Olympic and Paralympic games.
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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster and Principal of Mount Kelly Foundation

Since 2019, Guy Ayling, previously head of Llandovery College in Carmarthenshire. Before that he spent 15 years at Sedbergh in Cumbria (becoming a housemaster and senior master). ‘I move between National Parks,’ he jokes.

Educated at Bilton Grange and Rugby, he read medieval history at St Andrews, captained the first XV and played for Scottish Universities. Both his parents were teachers and he was keen to follow suit. ‘I remember at prep school I saw my Latin teacher’s mark book beautifully laid out and I wanted to do that too,’ he says. ‘I was really inspired by my teachers at Rugby and I was keen to have the same kind of impact on pupils, to teach history and run around in shorts in the afternoon coaching rugby.’ At Mount Kelly he teaches general studies and coaches fives, so he’s clearly in his element.

He began his career in the town of Oe, 30 miles up a remote valley in northern Japan, where he worked for three years as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme and mastered the local Japanese dialect along the way.

He’s worked hard to integrate the prep and the college into ‘one coherent journey’ and these days 95 per cent of prep pupils move up to the college. A familiar presence throughout the school, he gets to as many matches, concerts and plays as he possibly can. ‘I think it matters,’ he says. ‘Visibility is an aspect of leadership but I want to be visible for the right reasons. I’m not walking round telling people off. I am there to support pupils and staff.’ He has breakfast with pupils in each house once a term and is often to be spotted pedalling round the campus on his electric bike. Pupils love the fact that he makes time to turn up at so many random events.

Parents have huge respect for him. ‘There’s a real family feel to the school and that’s a credit to the head,’ said one. ‘He’s one of the strongest heads we’ve met – someone who strikes the right balance between having a personality and leading the school. You sometimes get a cookie cutter approach to being the head of an independent school but we joke that they broke the mould with him in a very positive way.’ Another told us, ‘He’s a tremendously strong leader with very fair principles and a bucketload of integrity.’ ‘He has a big presence around the school,’ said a third. ‘He’s very approachable and always has a cheery hello for everyone. He’s a trusted and safe pair of hands.’

Upbeat, good humoured and emotionally intelligent, he’s excellent company and pupils regard him highly. He lives in a house on site with his American wife Heather, who’s in charge of development and alumni relations, and their three sons (two at Mount Kelly and one at university). They are all ‘very sporty’ and he watches them play as much as he can. Until recently, his late black labrador, Elvis, was a big part of home and school life. ‘When I was a housemaster some parents arrived at the boarding house, handed me a puppy and told me, “We think you’re missing something in the house”. I went into the dining room and said, “This young chap has arrived for a taster and if he likes it he’s going to stay.”’

When we visited he was reading The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which he found so fascinating that he bought copies for the senior leadership and prefect teams. ‘We are all in tribes,’ he says. ‘Layers of belonging and loyalty develop and are what holds us together here at Mount Kelly.’


Most prep pupils move up to the college at 13+. The rest arrive from all over – some are very local but swimmers come from across the UK, plus international boarders. The school looks for pupils with a have-a-go approach, teens who are keen ‘to get stuck in’. In the sixth form, up to 40 new pupils arrive – five grade 5s or above at GCSE required (6s or above in subjects to be studied at A level and at least a 7 for maths and the sciences). Report from current school required for all applications.


Around 70 per cent progress to the sixth form. The rest mostly head off to local colleges (Exeter College and Callywith College in Bodmin), either because they want a change or are keen to do different subjects. Most sixth form leavers opt for university, around a third to the Russell Group. Cardiff, Exeter, Manchester, Nottingham, Loughborough and Stirling currently popular. One to Oxbridge in 2023 and two medics, a dentist and a vet. Growing numbers to overseas universities, often with sports scholarships, including Life University in Georgia, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Northern Michigan in 2023. One apprenticeship at KPMG in 2023.

Latest results

In 2023, 36 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 20 per cent A*/A at A level (46 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 41 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 31 per cent A*/A at A level (54 per cent A*-B).

Teaching and learning

Twenty subjects on offer at A level, plus BTECs in applied science, performing arts practice and sports coaching. Given that the school isn’t academically selective, overall results are respectable rather than stellar, although there’s a very strong upper end who progress to top universities. Most popular A level subjects are maths, biology and psychology, then physics and chemistry. Around a quarter of sixth formers do an EPQ each year – recent subjects include ‘Is there an antibiotic crisis?’ and ‘How has the historiography of Nazism changed?’

Most take nine GCSEs – all do English lang, English lit, maths and either dual or triple science and usually at least one language (French or Spanish). Aside from the usual, other subjects on offer include business studies, computing and PE. We saw a year 10 GCSE drama class studying Blood Brothers, enthusiastically discussing its social and cultural context ahead of performing it themselves, and a year 9 biology set in safety goggles working out the effects of antiseptics on bacterial growth – quiet but absorbed. A level English students studying The Murder of Roger Ackroyd were particularly enthusiastic about their recent trip to the Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay.

Maximum class size up to GCSE is 20 and everyone has their own iPad or laptop (no mobile phones allowed during school hours). Setting in maths, English and science. All year 9s do critical thinking; the school is a member of the Cognitive Science Network, a programme that helps school leaders to use cognitive science research to improve teaching and learning. Science is gaining momentum, especially with the launch of a new biomedical society, which encourages students to explore outside the syllabus.

Learning support and SEN

Learning support is known as personalised learning and the school caters well for mild to moderate needs. The majority of those accessing support are dyslexic or have slow processing speeds but a number are on the autistic spectrum and following the pandemic some need support for social and emotional needs, including social anxiety. The team works closely with the EAL department.

The highly thought-of assistant head (personalised learning) leads a team of five and says they ‘get to know the pupils really well and know the children who need the most support’. Known as learning coaches, two of the team work one-to-one with pupils who have an EHCP (six across the college and prep) and three are subject specialists in maths, science and humanities who support pupils in small groups. Ten pupils have one-to-one sessions, 25 have small group support and others are supported by Quality First Teaching and personalised learning profiles.

The arts and extracurricular

Around 200 music lessons every week (some pupils learn more than one instrument) and there are myriad ensembles to join – orchestra, string ensemble, soul band and rock bands. The school has a fine tradition of choral singing – the 22-strong college chamber choir mainly sing a capella and won the Barnardo’s School Choir of the Year competition in 2020. Other opportunities to sing and play at chapels and assemblies, informal year 9 to 11 concerts in the library and a regular music scholars’ concert.

Two school drama productions a year – usually a foot-tapping musical and a more highbrow studio production. Imaginative choices include Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and Blue Stockings, a play about young women at Girton College campaigning for the right to graduate. Dynamic drama teacher organises lots of trips to local theatres and studios. One boy told us his trip to a recording studio the day before had been ‘the best day of his life’.

Art is genuinely exciting, with an inspiring head of art who likes to push pupils out of their comfort zone. ‘It’s all about developing their confidence,’ she says. Year 10s pick the name of a member of staff out of a hat and an art style out of another – and then create a portrait inspired by both. Hence a biology teacher was painted in the style of Lucian Freud while a portrait of the head was inspired by Salvador Dali. Around 22 take GCSE art each year, eight do A level art and four do A level photography. Two art studios, an art loft for year 13 and a gallery space for visiting artists. DT and product design attract good numbers – when we visited eco-conscious year 12s were repurposing old chairs from the dining room into different objects.

The school operates as a boarding school and day pupils arrive at 8.15am and leave at 6pm so everyone does activities and clubs between 4.30pm and 5.45pm. Large numbers take part in the gruelling Ten Tors challenge every year and many do DofE (95 per cent of year 9s achieve at least a bronze and 30 recently scooped their gold awards). ‘They start and we expect them to finish,’ says the director of outdoor education. The heartiest of all do the Super Seven, completing all three levels of the Ten Tors, bronze, silver and gold DofE and the Devizes to Westminster canoe race. There’s also CCF and Model United Nations. Regular outside speakers – most recent was Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.


Not surprisingly, given its location, vast site and outdoor facilities, Mount Kelly is a very sporty school. Swimming is its pièce de résistance and many pupils swim at both national and international level (the school has produced more than 100 international swimmers over the last 45 years). Along with Millfield, Mount Kelly is the leading swimming school in the country and its elite swim squad of around 170 swimmers trains in the 50-metre Olympic-standard pool. The school scooped 17 gold medals, 20 silver and nine bronze at the British Summer Championships 2023.

Mount Kelly bills itself as a school that does swimming rather than a swimming school with lessons added on. Even though elite swimmers are in the pool by 6am, followed by breakfast, lessons and often more swimming after school (they swim for 20 hours a week), parents say teachers work hard to help them manage their time and expectations. Coaches are supportive (each swimmer has their own coach) and it’s less stressful for parents than ferrying children to a club at the crack of dawn, on to school and back to training at night. ‘There’s no travel time and it has streamlined my daughter’s day brilliantly,’ said one. ‘It’s a long day but I only let her do it because she loves swimming.’

There’s plenty of sport for non-swimmers too. Facilities are first class – a full-size all-weather pitch and two smaller ones, three pools, eight grass pitches, netball courts, tennis courts, indoor sports hall, indoor and outdoor cricket nets and a strength and conditioning gym. Traditional sports are rugby, hockey, netball and cricket and girls’ football is a huge draw these days. The school runs a girls’ performance football programme for 16 to 18-year-olds with the Chelsea Football Club Foundation, enabling youngsters who want to pursue their school ambitions while following their soccer dreams to train for 16 hours a week. Six to seven places available every year – some come up through the ranks while others join from outside at 16 (a number of scholarships and means-tested bursaries are available). Rugby is led by a coach whose brother played for the All Blacks – ‘The boys think the world of him,’ we were told. The school is undoubtedly outdoorsy and even the least sporty must do something active, from cross-country to squash and badminton.


More than half of pupils board (nearly 200 at the time of our visit) and most are full boarders, although they can go home at the weekends if they choose. Two boarding houses for boys and two for girls, plus a boys’ day house and a girls’ day house, all within five minutes of the main school buildings. The houses are midway through a renovation programme but the three we visited were wholesome and well equipped. Dorms look lived-in but are tidy and organised. ‘We want them to have a bit of character but not be too messy,’ say staff.

Each house is led by a live-in housemaster or housemistress, plus a team of tutors drawn from the academic staff. We visited Marwood, home to 53 girl boarders, and found preparations for their Halloween party in full swing. Younger ones are in rooms of four to six while sixth form boarders tend to be in twos. ‘I would rather be in a room of two,’ a sixth form boy boarder told us. ‘You live and work with your mates. What’s not to like?’

Plenty to do at weekends – sport on Saturdays (no lessons) and activities like surfing on the north Devon coast and cinema trips on Sundays. Year 12 and 13 pupils are allowed into Tavistock to meet friends or go out to dinner. The local Co-op is so popular that it’s extended its opening hours till 9pm to accommodate them. The head often talks to boarders about the qualities needed to be a successful boarder at the school and he reckons they include ‘open-mindedness, tolerance and generosity of spirit’. Parents say houseparents are very proactive, regularly sending emails to keep them up to date on how pupils are getting on. The father of a sixth former who’d been at the school for half a term said his daughter had firmly instructed him to tell us: ‘I’m really loving it.’

Ethos and heritage

Mount Kelly’s location is second to none, set in 160 acres on the northern edge of Dartmoor and just half a mile from the pretty town of Tavistock. The school dates back to the 1860s, and a bequest from Admiral Benedictus Marwood Kelly to found a school for ‘the sons of naval officers and other gentlemen’. In recognition of his generosity, the Duke of Bedford gave land for the school, which opened with 12 boys on its roll in 1877. In 2014 Kelly College joined forces with Mount House (now home to Mount Kelly Prep) to become the Mount Kelly Foundation.

Very much a West Country school, it’s been co-ed since the 1970s and now has equal numbers of girls and boys. We wondered about the girls’ ankle-length red tartan skirts (sixth formers get a choice of two different tartans), but they love them. ‘They are really warm and comfortable and some of us wear leggings or PJs under them in winter,’ one confided. The school keeps them under review though and there’s an option to wear the same uniform as the boys if they choose (hardly any do). Plans are afoot to allow girls to wear tartan trousers. Girls’ and boys’ navy blazers are works of art, festooned with ribbons and badges for sporting prowess, music, art, drama and/or for being a prefect (the colours system has recently been broadened to include all activities across the school). Pupils who progress right the way through the prep and senior school are known as ‘veterans’ and get a special badge to celebrate.

Surrounded by sweeping green lawns and lush games pitches, the main school building (Grade II listed) is imposing, with Gothic arches, dark wood and long stone corridors (all designed by Charles Hansom, the architect who designed Clifton College in Bristol too). Interiors are brought up to date with lively photographs of recent triumphs hanging alongside pictures from the school’s sporting past. Stunning library and hallowed chapel, where a pupil was practising Memory, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s haunting song from Cats, ready for a remembrance concert at nearby St Eustachius Church in Tavistock.

The school engenders huge loyalty – one of the painters has been there for 44 years and a porter has worked there for 34 years. ‘I love it,’ he told us. ‘Why would I work anywhere else?’ Service and community are important, with Wednesday afternoons given over to DofE and volunteering – from litter-picking in Tavistock to working in the school’s market garden (produce is donated to the local food bank). Musicians perform at local care homes and primary school children and locals can use the pool. ‘We are so much part of the town,’ say staff. ‘We’re one of the largest employers in the area.’

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

Mount Kelly’s values of compassion, courage, humility, respect, commitment and integrity are displayed prominently everywhere you turn. Each pupil has a tutor to offer academic and pastoral support and they are the first port of call when issues crop up. ‘My tutor is lovely,’ said one girl. ‘She made me a cake last week and it wasn’t even my birthday.’ Pupils can also go to their housemaster/housemistress, school nurse, matrons (who are part of the wellbeing team), head of PSHE and senior deputy head. External counsellor (an ex-police officer) visits regularly and there’s a quiet room if youngsters need time out during the school day.

Clear policies on alcohol, smoking and drugs. Like most schools, it would be foolish to think that bullying doesn’t crop up occasionally but the school says it’s rare and quickly nipped in the bud. Staff admit that teens ‘occasionally gets things wrong – we’d be naive to think otherwise’ – but behaviour is generally good. Most parents we spoke to were happy with the way the school deals with issues. One waxed lyrical about the levels of pastoral care. ‘Our son is absolutely blessed with his houseparents,’ she said. ‘They are literally like his second parents. They are an absolute joy and we trust them implicitly. They are nurturing but at the same time they create the environment for children to become independent. For us it’s the golden nugget of the school.’ Virtually all mentioned the school’s strong sense of community and inclusivity. ‘We were really surprised by how welcoming everyone was and how quickly he integrated,’ said a parent whose child joined in year 10.

Pupils and parents

‘They are really nice kids, very decent, grounded and generous-spirited,’ says the head. ‘I say to them: “You are going into a tough world but if you work hard and dig in and use one hand on the ladder to help other people up you will be fine.” They give me hope for the future. They are very well-mannered and polite but there’s a steeliness too. When there’s a job to be done, whether it’s thrashing across Dartmoor in the driving rain or swimming in a gala, they can do both.’

Sixteen per cent of pupils from overseas (often attracted by the school’s sporting programme) – 26 nationalities, including pupils from mainland China, Hong Kong, France, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, Malta and Georgia. Day pupils come from all directions – Ashburton, Launceston, Okehampton, Plymouth and Polzeath – many travelling on the school’s network of minibuses.

We heard a couple of grumbles about communication – one parent said notifications to day pupils can be a bit last-minute – but others insisted that teachers are very responsive and quick to answer queries. Former pupils include Getty Images CEO Dawn Airey, former foreign secretary David Owen, novelist Gerald Seymour, journalists Peter Hitchens and his late brother Christopher, actor Adrian Lukis, former England rugby captain Philip de Glanville, rugby player Adedayo Adebayo, former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies and endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh.

Money matters

Scholarships of up to 10 per cent – academic, sport, music, art, DT and choral in year 9 and academic, sport and girls’ football in year 12. Swimming scholarships are available from year 7. Means-tested bursaries are available (around 10 per cent of pupils receive these), including awards for elite swimmers.

The last word

Teens who love the outdoors will be in their element in this stunning location on the edge of Dartmoor. Talented swimmers and sports enthusiasts undoubtedly get top-notch coaching but Mount Kelly is a school where all can thrive if they’re happy to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

Please note: Independent schools frequently offer IGCSEs or other qualifications alongside or as an alternative to GCSE. The DfE does not record performance data for these exams so independent school GCSE data is frequently misleading; parents should check the results with the schools.

Who came from where

Who goes where

Special Education Needs

Please enter a general description of your SEN provision here here

Condition Provision for in school
ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder Y
Aspergers Y
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders Y
CReSTeD registered for Dyslexia
Dyscalculia Y
Dysgraphia Y
Dyslexia Y
Dyspraxia Y
English as an additional language (EAL) Y
Has an entry in the Autism Services Directory
Has SEN unit or class
HI - Hearing Impairment Y
Hospital School
Mental health Y
MLD - Moderate Learning Difficulty
MSI - Multi-Sensory Impairment
Natspec Specialist Colleges
OTH - Other Difficulty/Disability
Other SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
PD - Physical Disability Y
PMLD - Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty
SEMH - Social, Emotional and Mental Health Y
SLCN - Speech, Language and Communication Y
SLD - Severe Learning Difficulty
Special facilities for Visually Impaired
SpLD - Specific Learning Difficulty Y
VI - Visual Impairment

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