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Outdoor learning is the jewel in the school’s crown. Many youngsters do D of E (bronze, silver and gold) while CCF is compulsory for year 9 pupils (optional after that). New head of outdoor learning encourages pupils to challenge themselves. ‘We’ve got enough tents to put 100 people under canvas,’ he told us with a note of pride in his voice. 

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What the school says...

West Buckland School is a co-educational day and boarding school for 3-18 year olds. It was founded in 1858, nine miles from the town of Barnstaple and stands in nearly 100 acres of grounds in beautiful North Devon countryside near the western edge of Exmoor and just ten miles from the coast.

The school currently has over 600 boys and girls aged 3 to 18. Academic standards at the school are high, and for many years West Buckland has been one of the consistently high performing schools in the South West of England at GCSE and A-level. In 2017, 70% of A-levels were passed at A* to B grades whilst at GCSE, 88.1% of English and maths exams were passed at 9 to 5 grades, with 95.2% of the other GCSE subjects passed at A* to C.

The vast majority of sixth formers progress to university and a consistent 50% plus of students take up places at universities in the Russell Group, regarded as some of the best and most highly sought after universities in the UK and indeed the world.

There is considerable emphasis on extracurricular activities at the school with a proud record in boys and girls games, drama, music, the Combined Cadet Force, outdoor education and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

The schools buildings and facilities have developed steadily throughout its history. There is an outstanding sports complex centred around the Jonathan Edwards Sports Centre which opened in 2008. The award-winning 150 Building, a major 5m development which includes the Art and Design Technology Departments and a Theatre, opened in 2010. Autumn 2015 saw the opening of an excellent Sixth Form Boarding house, with 70 en-suite bedrooms and social and work areas, together with the new Michael Morpurgo library and study centre.

Further information about the school may be found on our website.
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Headmaster

Since 2016, Mr Phillip Stapleton BSc MA Ed MBA (40s). Educated at Bishop Stopford School in Kettering, followed by Durham University, where he read biochemistry and immersed himself in music, drama and sport. Several university friends became actors (including Alex Macqueen of Peep Show and The Inbetweeners fame), but he modestly says: ‘I wasn’t good enough’. Initially set on a career in molecular genetics, he stayed on at Durham to take part in a show, embarked on a PGCE and discovered he loved teaching. ‘It brought everything together – working with inquisitive minds, a passion for my subject and the chance to perform,’ he says. First teaching post was at Stonyhurst, followed by Charterhouse, where he taught chemistry and became a housemaster. Then moved to Ardingly, where he was deputy head for five years. He is also an ISI inspector.

Head was struck by West Buckland’s friendly atmosphere and beautiful location the instant he arrived for his interview. ‘The sun was shining and a group of students were setting off for a run,’ he says. ‘It was a breath of fresh air to see their sense of enjoyment. There was a real buzz of opportunity and potential.’ The school is selective but he’s determined that the school should cater for children from all backgrounds. He’s very proud of West Buckland’s decision to offer 100 per cent bursaries to local youngsters whose families don’t have the financial means to send them to the school (there are currently 17 children benefiting from this programme). During his first year at the school he focused on teaching and learning, observing every teacher in the classroom and broadening the extracurricular opportunities on offer. He’s determined to raise the school’s profile, citing its academic results, musical prowess and emphasis on character development.

Energetic and approachable, he still teaches (many heads don’t). This year he’s got a year 12 A level chemistry set. Married to Jules, who teaches maths at West Buckland. They live in a house on-site and have three children, all pupils at the prep. Keen on sport (he once ran four ultra-marathons in a year – respect) and has recently taken up the double bass.

Prep school head since April 2018 is Nick Robinson MSc PGCE, previously deputy head of Dunhurst, Bedales’s prep school. PGCE at the University of Portsmouth in 2002 and a masters in leadership and management in 2013. Before this, he pursued his passion in swimming as a high performance coach and was head coach for the 1996 Zimbabwe Olympic team and placed three swimmers on the 2000 Great Britain Olympic team. Has also been assistant head at Castle Court. The younger two of his four children will join the senior school.

Academic matters

Results are good. In 2018, 53 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE and 48 per cent A*/A at A level. Most pupils take 10 subjects at GCSE, including at least one language (French or Spanish) and two or three sciences (the majority take three). School is the highest performing sixth form in north Devon, with around 20 subjects on offer at A level. Chemistry, maths and biology are the most popular A level choices, followed by geography and economics. A small number took the EPQ in the past but now AS exams have been ditched all pupils will do it. Other options available to sixth formers include a BTec in applied science and core maths (a new level 3 qualification). No Saturday school.

Unusually, the school doesn’t charge extra for learning support (now called personalised learning and development). Around 100 children have help in some shape or form and the dynamic new head of department has brought in a wealth of ideas and strategies, including coloured reading rulers to reduce visual stress, pencil grips, spell checkers, prep diaries and a quiet room for children who might be having a difficult day and want a bit of peace and quiet. Reading for pleasure is encouraged throughout the school. Imposing new library has 14,000 resources and pupils can use it whenever they like, whether they’re studying or curled up with a good book. Favourite authors at the time of our visit included Sarah Crossan and Kim Slater for younger pupils, Emma Cline, Deborah Levy and Ta-Nehisi Coates for sixth formers.

Prep school is housed in a separate building. The head boy, one of our tour guides, reminisced nostalgically about his days at the prep and said he’d be very sad to leave the school. Prep teachers work closely with the senior school – children learn French from nursery and get the chance to use the senior school’s art department and science labs (the prep has its own lab too). Ninety-five per cent of prep school pupils progress to the senior school. Pre-prep has its own building, with views across fields full of grazing sheep – no wonder parents race to get their children’s names down. It’s not all splashing paint and building sandcastles though. When we visited, a group of year 2 children had just learned the meaning of ‘onomatopoeia’ and were excitedly coming up with their own examples.

Games, options, the arts

West Buckland is a sporty, outdoorsy place, with acres of playing fields and excellent facilities. The sports centre (named after distinguished old boy and Olympic triple jumper Jonathan Edwards) boasts a vast sports hall, fitness suite and 25m indoor pool. Boys’ main sports are rugby, hockey and cricket and girls’ main sports are hockey, netball and tennis. Lots of pupils play for local and county teams. The school also offers specialist performance and development programmes in tennis and dance. Sport is compulsory till year 11 and optional after that ¬ but around 98 per cent continue with it, whether it’s mainstream sports or activities like squash, swimming or dance.

Pupils are encouraged to get out into the fresh air as much as possible. The school has its own forest school, where pre-prep pupils – under strict supervision – play in the woods, build bivouacs, make fires and learn to tie knots. The older ones take on challenges like the gruelling Ten Tors hike across Dartmoor and the school’s annual Exmoor run, once described by school archivist Berwick Coates as ‘the oldest, longest, roughest, toughest, regular scheduled, compulsory school cross-country run in the length and breadth of England’. Around two-thirds of pupils do the run each year (the length of the run varies according to age), while others mark the course, administer the race and cheer their pals as they run across Exmoor’s hilly terrain, through muddy streams and over rugged moorland. Staff, parents and old boys and girls take part too and as one of our young tour guides told us: ‘The Exmoor run defines the school.’

Music is an integral part of the school, led by dynamic director of music Emma Kent, who’s also musical director of the award-winning North Devon Sinfonia. Pupils and staff queue along the corridor to join her lunchtime choir rehearsals – we watched the junior girls’ choir singing their hearts out before heading off to afternoon lessons. Music department comprises a recital room, teaching room, computer suite, recording studio and eight practice rooms. Everyone does music till year 9. Up to 25 pupils take the subject at GCSE and around six a year do A level music. Musicians get plenty of opportunities to perform in public – everything from Verdi’s Requiem at Exeter Cathedral to Guys and Dolls in the Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple.

School is rightfully proud of its stunning timber-clad 150 Building, built in collaboration with former West Buckland parent Damien Hirst and opened in 2010. As well as the school theatre it houses the art and DT departments. Sixth formers have their own art studio – and their own individual space within it. ‘If you treat someone as an artist, they’ll work as an artist,’ says the head of art. The standard of artwork is inspiring – we were particularly taken with a vast painting of the Exmoor run being painted by a sixth form art scholar as a gift to the school.

Lots of extracurricular options, everything from astronomy to jazz. Enterprising head of sixth form is keen to develop ‘academic enrichment’ and youngsters are encouraged to take part in the STEM Club, Phoenix Society (debating) and Aldiss Society (guest lectures). Outdoor learning is the jewel in the school’s crown. Many youngsters do D of E (bronze, silver and gold) while CCF is compulsory for year 9 pupils (optional after that). New head of outdoor learning encourages pupils to challenge themselves. ‘We’ve got enough tents to put 100 people under canvas,’ he told us with a note of pride in his voice. Outdoor activities are voluntary but most take part, whether they surf after school or try their hands at coasteering. There’s also the aptly named Adventure Society, which gives pupils the chance to experience new outdoor pursuits. Pupils excel at climbing, with two brothers gaining places in the GB bouldering team in recent years.

Boarders

Pupils can board from year 7, and occasionally younger (‘we are always open to discussion,’ a member of staff told us). Three boarding houses – one for year 7 to 11 girls, one for year 7 to 11 boys and a brand new sixth form boarding house, with separate wings for girls and boys. Sixth form house (Parker’s) is very civilised. All sixth form boarders have their own en-suite rooms – far more salubrious than many university rooms we’ve seen. They’re encouraged to do their own laundry and learn to cook. Stylish common room on ground floor is open to all sixth formers. Lots of activities for boarders at weekends, including cultural visits, shopping in Bath and Bristol, cinema trips, surfing, running, kayaking and paintballing.

Background and atmosphere

The school is set in 100 acres of idyllic countryside on the edge of Exmoor, 220 metres above sea level and eight miles from Barnstaple. Initially known as the Devon County School, it was founded as a boys’ boarding school in 1858. The school’s enterprising founder, the Rev JL Brereton, thought that the boys could do lessons in the schoolhouse in the morning and work on the school farm in the afternoon. They would then sell the produce and the income would pay for the school’s upkeep. The school was renamed West Buckland School in 1912.

Imposing main building dates back to the 19th century but in recent years there have been many new additions, including the Michael Morpurgo Library (the celebrated War Horse author has a farm 20 miles away), the 150 Building and the sixth form boarding house.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Universal praise for the school’s friendly and welcoming ambience, with just the ‘right balance of formality and friendliness’. One parent describes it as ‘a hidden gem’ while others say it produces ‘grounded, socially aware and respectful individuals with a positive self-assurance’. Pupils particularly like the house system (everyone belongs to one of four houses and there are lots of inter-house competitions).

Plenty of people to talk to if problems arise, including personal tutors, housemasters and housemistresses, the school nurse and a school counsellor who comes in twice a week. School has its own chaplaincy team – a school assembly with a spiritual dimension takes place once a week and the carol service at South Molton Church, six miles away, is a highlight of the autumn term. Christian values are part of school life but students of all faiths or none are welcomed and encouraged.

Most day pupils travel to school by bus so they are allowed to bring phones to school but must put them away during lesson time, unless asked otherwise. Pupils’ behaviour is excellent – murmurings about the occasional minor misdemeanour but that’s all.

Pupils and parents

Day pupils come from within an hour’s drive away, mostly from Barnstaple and North Devon villages. Some choose weekly or flexi boarding (parents can book online up to 24 hours in advance). A fleet of school buses ferry pupils (and sometimes staff) in from areas as far afield as Chawleigh, Tiverton and Winkleigh. Buses start as early as 7.30am to allow for the winding country lanes. Senior school day fees include travel costs but prep school fees don’t. Around 20 per cent of pupils are boarders – a third of the boarders are from the Far East, a third from Europe and a third from the UK, mostly the south west.

The pupils we met were enthusiastic, unpretentious and refreshingly down-to-earth. No quibbles about the smart navy school uniform (sixth formers wear business suits) or the food, served in the newly refurbished dining hall. Parents range from families who’ve lived in the area for generations to those who’ve moved out of London in search of a better work-life balance – plus the chance to surf at nearby Putsborough Sands after work. Notable alumni include novelist RF Delderfield of To Serve Them All My Days fame, former Whitbread boss Alan Parker, science fiction author Brian Aldiss, triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, former England rugby players Steve Ojomoh and Victor Ubogu, and Somerset and England cricketers Craig and Jamie Overton.

Entrance

Entry into reception isn’t selective. After that, those joining the prep higher up spend a taster day at the school and meet the prep school head. Entry into the senior school is selective, but not dauntingly so. Pupils joining year 7 from other schools take English, maths and verbal reasoning tests in the preceding January (but pupils in the prep don't need to take entrance tests for the senior school). Children can start at multiple points so it’s always worth talking to the school.

Some new pupils join in the sixth form (27 in 2017), many from local secondary schools finishing at 16. A minimum of five grade Cs/5s required by all, although it’s not set in stone. Those aiming to do maths A level need at least a grade 7 in maths and a minimum grade B/6 is required for A level biology, chemistry, physics and modern languages.

Exit

Up to a quarter of pupils leave at 16, for a change of scene, to take the IB (not offered by West Buckland) or to do vocational subjects. At 18, around 90 per cent head to university, including one or two to Oxbridge most years. One to do medicine in 2018. Most popular universities are Bristol, Cardiff, Bath and Southampton, with subjects like engineering, geography, business, English and biology leading the pack. A few opt for apprenticeships and the world of work. Pupils get plenty of guidance about university and careers. Youngsters are encouraged to get some work experience from year 10 onwards – everything from working at local law, marketing and architecture firms to volunteering at a children's hospice in Barnstaple.

Money matters

Mindful of the tough economic climate, the school has kept its fees as low as possible, with learning support, travel, exams and books all included in the senior school fee. Academic scholarships available to year 7, 9 and 12 pupils, plus music, art and sport.

Our view

A gem of a school in an exceptional location. West Buckland is an impressive all-rounder school with excellent facilities, great teaching and a real sense of community. Children work hard, get lots of fresh air and don’t grow up too fast. Best of all, they seem to have a whale of a time while they’re at it.

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

West Buckland is an inclusive school where we are willing to consider any student whom we believe we can help. Every year group has a number of pupils who have moderate learning difficulties such as Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Specific Learning Difficulties. Our Learning Support Team (one Teacher and two Classroom Assistants) have Special Needs qualifications and have these support arrangements for work in the Support Base and alongside subject specialists: Age 3-18: Meetings with staff and parents, observations across the curriculum, standardised assessments and involvement with appropriate specialists (such as Educational Psychologists). Years 3-7: In class support plus short periods of basic skills/Study Skills work in response to individual needs. Year 8 and 9: Also have timetabled Learning Support in groups of up to eight instead of doing a second Modern Foreign Language. Year 10 and 11: Up to eight students per year may opt for Learning Support lessons in place of a GCSE subject. Those with the most severe needs may have the option not to take a modern language. In class support where most needed. Year 12 and 13: Appointments, as necessary. All pupils benefit from the use of IT - and many use their own laptops in class and to complete Prep. The Support Base is usually open from 8.30 am to the end of the school day at 5.00 pm. Any student may seek help outside lesson times. There is also support available for Boarders Prep four evenings a week. We pride ourselves on having good communication with parents so we can work together to help our youngsters at school and at home. Progress is regularly reviewed and on the basis of specialist advice we seek exam dispensations (such as extra time, supervised rest breaks, use of IT) for students doing formal exams (11+, SATS, 13+, GCSE, AS and A2).

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