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Teachers here are upbeat and inspirational, classes feel relaxed and inclusive – neither pin-drop silence nor raucous rebellion, just a healthy sense of engagement. Make no mistake about it, this is an extremely outdoorsy school. Extracurricular activities are taken seriously and viewed as being ‘a character education that is every bit as important as the academic one’. The Exmoor Run is a school bonding event like no other, the fiery passion and giggling hilarity in the stories recounted to us were almost enough to convince us that…

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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 UNESCO Biosphere twixt Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks and just ten miles from the surfing beaches of Saunton Sands or the rugged Valley of the Rocks.

The school currently has over 650 boys and girls aged 3 to 18. Academic standards at the school are high, with West Buckland consistently one of the highest performing schools in the South West of England at GCSE and A-level. From 2023 they will be offering the IBCP alongside A-levels.

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.

The school prizes the development of the whole person so there is considerable emphasis on nurturing character values especially through extracurricular activities. The school has a proud record in boys and girls games, drama, music, dance, the Combined Cadet Force, outdoor education and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

Reflecting the education it offers, 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. Since then the school has grown its learning support, or personalised learning department, and all pupils from Year 5 upwards have a Microsoft Surface learning device.

Further information about the school may be found on our website.
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Music and dance scheme - government funding and grants available to help with fees at selected independent music and dance schools.

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.



What The Good Schools Guide says


Since 2016, Mr Phillip Stapleton BSc MA Ed MBA. A sparkly-eyed, enthusiastic and energetic head whom parents praise unreservedly for his ‘incredible ability to really know every pupil at the school’. His professed desire to enable ‘every child to create their own future’ through the opportunities on offer is supported by parental plaudits for his ‘genuine ability to create a very personalised school experience for each and every pupil’.

Previously at Ardingly College in West Sussex, where he spent five years as deputy head. Educated at Bishop Stopford School in Kettering then Durham University, where he gained a degree in molecular biology and biochemistry before obtaining a PGCE and embarking on a teaching career – firstly at Stonyhurst, then Charterhouse, where he was a chemistry teacher and housemaster. Master’s degrees in educational leadership and an MBA followed, along with sports coaching and an impressive checklist of endurance running accomplishments, including the terrifyingly tough North Pole Marathon. He is definitely an impressive role model for his doting pupils: ‘It’s great to have a head that has achieved so much personally as well as professionally, we really value his take on things.’

Parents acclaimed his ‘absolute transparency in parent and pupil relationships’. His own three children are at the school and he is very much seen as ‘one of us’ by the parental cohort, bolstered by his commitment to regular meetings with the parent reps and pupil councils, where he consistently asks for comprehensive feedback. He insists on issues of every size being brought directly to him, his responses applauded as being ‘always clear, clever and immediate’.

Since April 2023, head of prep is Sarah Atkinson. London born and educated, she studied for a BEd with geography at Cambridge before embarking on her teaching career, firstly in London then her ‘spiritual home’ of south Devon, where she spent 12 years at Trinity School in Teignmouth. Nine years followed as head of pre-prep at RGS the Grange then four years as head of RGS Dodderhill in Worcestershire. Was attracted to the prep school because of the way it ‘embraces childhood and outdoor education’. Her first impression of West Buckland: ‘children charging about with shirts untucked, muddy knees, messy hair and glowing faces with a fantastic education thrown in for good measure – my kind of school!’


No formal entrance assessment for the prep. From year 3 onwards, an informal review of reading, writing and maths whilst the children are on a taster day, and copies of previous school reports. Prep pupils move on to the senior school without assessment so, predictably, there is a waiting list for year 6 places.

For new joiners at year 7, there is an assessment day - standardised CAT4 tests in maths, English and verbal reasoning then games, debates and some creative writing. School prides itself on never giving a rejection and proclaims that the assessment day is used ‘purely for streaming’.

Solid numbers join the sixth form every year from surrounding state secondaries. They need at least five GCSE passes at grade 5 or above, including maths and English. Where students don't meet this, a programme to suit the individual is followed. For international students without GCSEs separate assessments take place depending on the subjects chosen. For the IB career related programme, at least grade 4 in both English language and maths GCSEs required, in addition to other GCSEs or other qualifications.


All of the prep pupils move up to the senior school, unless there has been a specific and ‘extremely rare’ conversation about suitability that will have happened long before the end of year 6. A ‘churn’ of 20 to 30 per cent after GCSEs: some leave for the highly rated Exeter College, looking for a bigger pond with greater freedoms, while others head to study vocational courses in subjects such as land management, nursing or midwifery.

Post A levels, 80 to 90 per cent head to university, 60 per cent Russell Group. A few to US universities on sports scholarships. Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Bath, Loughborough and Reading current favourites. Degree apprenticeships on the rise. Seven medics in 2022 and one Oxbridge place.

Latest results

In 2023, 50 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 50 per cent A*/A at A level (74 per cent A*-B). In 2019 (the last pre-pandemic results), 48 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 74 per cent A*-B at A level.

Teaching and learning

Teachers here are upbeat and inspirational, classes feel relaxed and inclusive, with children working in animated concentration, neither pin-drop silence nor raucous rebellion, just a healthy sense of engagement from the prep up to sixth form. Classes we dropped in on were hugely interactive and fun. Year 1 pupils were excitedly making marmalade sandwiches to accompany their reading of Paddington and year 4 showed us the impressive Saxon and Norman shields that they had built, ready for a full-scale re-enactment of the Norman invasion battle. A year 10 chemistry class followed a guided experiment to showcase neutralising acids. The teacher scrawled equations in chalk over the black-topped desks, encouraged compound recall by asking pupils the punchlines to his (cue eye-rolling) catchy chemist jokes and held the class glued to the practical experiment. Sciences are particularly favoured, all study three separate sciences until year 10 and the majority take at least two at GCSE.

The school is justifiably proud of its tech roll-out: all pupils from year 5 to 13 are issued with their own Microsoft Surface and pupils are mostly free to choose whether they respond to lesson tasks on their device (using either the stylus or keyboard provided) or in their books.

Personal feedback from teachers was highly praised by parents: ‘This school is the absolute opposite of cut-and-paste reporting.’ Class sizes are small enough to be personal but large enough to have a positive atmosphere. Pupils were eloquent in their appreciation of the approach: ‘We have enthusiastic teachers here who really inspire us in their subjects.’

Everyone studies two languages for as long as possible. French is offered from reception to year 13 and Spanish is added from year 3, both taught predominantly by native speakers. Students are encouraged to take at least one MFL GCSE. Most students take nine GCSEs, adding four choices to the five compulsory subjects within English, maths and the sciences.

The sixth form is popular and accounts for a third of the school’s numbers. The school also offers the IB Career-related Programme, an alternative to the more linear A level path, including courses such as personal and professional skills and language development as well as vocational courses tailored to pupils' individual interests and career aspirations. All A level students take the EPQ and international students have access to the EAL course and IELTS qualification.

Learning support and SEN

Learning support has its own department and is handled ‘sensitively, quietly but brilliantly’ here, according to parents. Prep school has its own SENDCo. There are specialised spaces for additional group learning, and pupils can opt to drop a language at GCSE and exchange the lesson time for extra help in English or maths.

Support for pupils with learning difficulties given either via small groups or one to one, both in and out of the main classroom setting. Pupils with varying needs including dyslexia, dyscalculia and ASD made to feel welcome and included; school ‘experienced in handling mild to moderate physical or educational needs’. Two external counsellors visit the school weekly and pupils have drop-in access.

The arts and extracurricular

Damien Hirst sent his children to this school and, as a parting gift, he designed a new art centre. It is an incredible space - all wood and glass with light flooding in from every angle. Students praised the ‘artist in residence’ concept that ensures that the school has one prominent artist a year take up residency in the bespoke studio, from where they share their artistic approach with every year group and host talks and exhibitions. ‘You cannot fail to be inspired,’ enthused one pupil.

Music is the heart and soul of this school. We visited on a day when the school was reeling from the impact of former student Emma Rawicz, who had returned to play an evening of modern jazz. Not a single pupil failed to mention how incredible a show it had been and how she credited the school for introducing her to instruments at such a young age. We watched the reception class tentatively learn how to beat out a rhythm and were shown the colourful brass instruments that have been handed out to every year 4. A year 9 pupil glowed as she explained that ‘singing in the choir has been the most incredible, enriching thing that I have done here’ and pupils of every age extolled the numerous choirs, ensembles, bands, orchestras and performance opportunities available. Every imaginable instrument is offered via peripatetic teachers and over 50 per cent of students take advantage of the lessons.

The 150 Theatre ensures that drama has an enviable showcase space. There are endless productions and the sense of fun, take-up and engagement is captivating. Musical theatre club is the latest addition to the busy schedule, the brainchild of a handful of sixth form students who were saddened by the lack of musical theatre during the year between the biennial large productions at the school. If the number queuing up to take part in the lunchtime club is anything to go by, this could well prove the most popular club yet. All pupils learn drama up to the end of year 9 and get the opportunity to be involved either on the stage or behind the scenes in the numerous productions. LAMDA exams a popular route for many.

Prep pupils put on a production every year and auditions for the latest – a year 5/6 musical Macbeth – were being heatedly discussed over lunch, with cast announcements soon to follow. ‘Our productions are always a really good standard,’ explained one year 6 pupil. ‘The auditions aren’t too scary we all get a part and you can say before whether you want to go for a big role or not.’

This is an extremely outdoorsy school. Not only does it sit within its own 100 acres of rolling green space but it is also right on the edge of Exmoor, within 20 miles of the notorious surfing spots of north Devon and only an hour’s drive from the wilds of Dartmoor. Not surprising then that it has a huge commitment to forest school in the prep, extremely popular surf club, tough competitive teams for the Dartmoor Ten Tors, a thriving CCF and acclaimed DofE excellence. However, it is the Exmoor Run that stands out, allegedly the longest and toughest cross-country school run in the UK. Every pupil from year 8 up runs the gruelling trail through rivers and along moorland paths, six miles for the juniors and ten miles for the seniors, emblazoned with house colour warpaint and cheered on by fellow pupils. This is a school bonding event like no other – the fiery passion and giggling hilarity in the stories recounted to us were almost enough to convince us that it is as brilliant as it is tough.

Extracurricular activities are taken extremely seriously here, viewed as being ‘a character education that is every bit as important as the academic one’; they are tracked and graded in a clear pathway to gain an end-of-year diploma that recognises their commitment to exploring the opportunities on offer. Every child can delve into the vast programme and parents appreciate the culture: ‘It’s cool to try everything and be good at something different to your friends.’ This felt very true, with noticeable levels of mutual respect and admiration among pupils with vastly different interests and hobbies.


Sport is top notch. Acres of playing fields, all-weather pitches, courts galore and an onsite pool all matched with some seriously competitive coaching. Refreshingly, despite the clear elitism of facilities, everyone gets the chance to play for the school; ‘If you’re keen you can play,’ declare teachers, and pupils agree. There are multiple teams for every sport and pupils were keen to point out, ‘We all get the great coaching, the fun bus trip, the match teas, it’s not simply the A-team that gets the focus.’ Parents added to this, ‘It’s all about fostering sportsmanship regardless of what level you play at and the captaincy is often awarded to best attitude over best ability, totally how it should be.’

The approach works. During 2022-23, 15 rugby teams with over 206 boys represented the school: U13s were unbeaten, U14s and U15s both North Devon Cup winners. Multiple pupils on the England, Devon or Exeter Chiefs squads and pathways. Girls’ hockey improving and performing well at county tournaments. Netball through to county finals in several age groups. Basketball hugely popular with the first team beating every regional school to come second to Millfield in the SWWL.


Boarding numbers increase as you go up the school, highest numbers in sixth form. Years 7-11 are housed in dedicated boys’ and girls’ houses: post-war blocks in the centre of the school campus; clean, with a homely feel to the communal areas. Boarders share rooms that vary from doubles to quads; not much to write home about but functional and comfortable, with shared bathrooms ‘next on our list of things that need smartening up,’ laughed the head of boarding. There was a slight feel of things needing a lick of paint but the positive feedback of the boarding experience from the pupils and the warmth of the boarding staff that we met more than compensated for any shabbiness in appearance.

By contrast, the sixth form boarding house is a phenomenal modern, light-filled wooden building; 69 single ensuite rooms with new furniture that would put most university halls of residence to shame. Vast communal area and fully equipped kitchen plus plentiful study spaces. Boarding is so popular in the sixth form that they have had to overspill into the junior boarding houses on a term-by-term basis for year 12 pupils. ‘It’s not ideal but those who are in the junior houses are taking on responsibilities for weekend entertainment of the younger pupils and learning huge life skills of management, organisation and time planning along the way.’

Plenty of activities, trips and the full raft of school facilities on offer, leaving little time to miss home. Boarders were full of reasons why ‘boarding is brilliant’; from Thai boxing to outdoor learning, pizza nights to park runs, there really is a huge amount of choice laid on and the atmosphere appeared happy and family-minded.

Ethos and heritage

Established in 1858 as a boys’ boarding school, designed to attract the sons of ordinary people and give them a modern education with a broad Christian morality, it was renamed West Buckland School in 1912 and became coeducational in late 1970s – now pretty much equal across the sexes.

The main building dates back to the 19th century and gives the school an impressive frontage; some not so easy-on-the-eye post-war buildings but more recent impressive additions include the Michael Morpurgo library, the 150 Building (housing art, DT, drama and a professional 100-seat theatre) and Parker’s sixth form centre.

Nursery and pre-prep have their own building, opening out onto an all-weather play area and green space including their own forest school, fire pit, breaktime football pitch and a vast adventure playground. All pupils from prep and senior school eat in the recently updated dining hall and the food choices were widely praised.

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline

According to parents, this is a school that handles discipline exceedingly well. ‘There is an “up you get, we’re going for a walk” approach to any classroom boisterousness at prep age. They understand that sometimes children need to just let off steam.’ In the senior school, expectations of behaviour are high and for the most part met with easy compliance. Pupils explained that rules were ‘fair and sensible’, adding, ‘Honestly, we all love being a part of this community so there isn’t really any great need to rebel. We are all here to get the most out of what’s on offer and we understand that the rules are in place to help us do that.’ Impressive stuff.

Pastorally, the pupils are ‘extremely well looked after and very happy,’ according to parents. Teachers go ‘way beyond the call of duty’ to answer any concerns and the focus is on nurturing every pupil to get the best out of them. There is a good system in place for the reporting of any untoward or concerning behaviour, either in person or anonymously. Misdemeanours are usually minor – this is a happy and safe school where respect for each other is highly valued.

For a remote, rural corner of Devon, there is a good level of diversity at the school and a wonderfully easy inclusivity among both pupils and staff, with a concerted push to ‘expand the awareness and acceptance of difference in our corner of the country’. This move is boosted by an impressive rota of external speakers for their PSHE programme and specific ‘diversity days’. One parent applauded the incredible support from staff and pupils that her son had received after choosing to come out while in the sixth form. ‘It was an absolutely extraordinary show of love, support and encouragement that made a pivotal moment in his life incredibly special.’

Pupils and parents

Pupils are wonderfully positive about the school, down-to-earth, enthusiastic and inspirational. The biggest impression was of the huge friendship and high esteem they all hold for each other. The catchment of the school is large with pupils mostly bussed in from up to an hour on all sides of the school. That being said, parents praised the ‘strong local network of friends that last way beyond the end of their time here’. Fifteen per cent of senior school are international students – from Fiji to France, China to Ghana, all bringing a richness culturally and warmly welcomed by local students.

The parent community is strong and supportive, matches viewed as ‘great parent socials’ and relationships nurtured through enthusiastic attendance of theatrical and musical events and an active WhatsApp group. This is not an elitist bubble. Parents praised the community of ‘really nice, normal people, a true cross-section of society from farmers to those who work in London all week – it is very much a grounded school.’

Notable alumni include science fiction writer Brian Aldiss; world record holding, triple jump Olympic medallist Jonathan Edwards; England cricketers Jamie and Craig Overton; England rugby players Steve Ojomoh and Victor Ubogu; and TV presenter Tim Wonnacott.

Money matters

An impressive determination to support local families without the financial ability to afford places at the school has led to 37 per cent of students receiving means-tested bursaries, including 15 students on fully funded places. Scholarships available for internal applicants at year 7 and year 12 or for external applicants at point of entry between year 7 and year 10 or at sixth form. Awards offered in academic, drama, music and sport, with art an additional offer at sixth form. Military families (which account for two per cent of the school) receive a ten per cent discount on fees.

The last word

An outdoorsy, inclusive and happy school that provides a genuinely holistic education in a wonderful setting where pupils make lifelong friends.

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

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).

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

Who came from where

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