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‘We have supportive teachers,’ said our guides. ‘I can’t fault the school academically,’ said every parent we spoke to. We get the impression from parents that the school's purpose and intent has intensified, taking all with it. They have stiff competition from local grammars so have had to up their game, offering a well-rounded education, and parents appreciate this. ‘Confident children are what they produce, happy to stand up and speak in front of people...'

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What the school says...

Entrance examinations consist of: 11+ - Maths, English & VR. 16 - Minimum of 5 A-Bs including an interview for external candidates.

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All-through school (for example 3-18 years). - An all-through school covers junior and senior education. It may start at 3 or 4, or later, and continue through to 16 or 18. Some all-through schools set exams at 11 or 13 that pupils must pass to move on.

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since 2014, Chris Staley (40s). Studied geography at Portsmouth, MBA from London. No plans to teach, intended to join the army. Got a place at Sandhurst but cracked a cheekbone whilst playing rugby so had to delay entry. Decided to do PGCE whilst waiting and within two weeks was hooked. No regrets about abandoning army career, ‘every day is different.’ Started in the state sector ‘as I wanted to experience it, having been privately educated,’ quickly became disillusioned and turned to private sector. Wisbech is his first headship, arriving via Cranleigh and deputy headship at Milton Abbey.

Keen sportsman spending many years as a rugby coach alongside teaching geography. Wisbech a bit of a change, ‘it’s not in a rich part of the country and numbers were dropping.’ He’s certainly ruffled a few feathers and given the school a good shake. Lots of changes made. ‘Eyebrows were raised at times.’ Junior and senior school timetables now aligned, making for a more coherent community; school day also extended with late pick up and early drop offs now offered. Teaching improved and academic standards rising. Building work completed in the new refectory, dance studio opened, reception area moved, newly refurbished kindergarten and reception, new netball courts and, most importantly of all (for parents), a new car park that they can access. ‘We wanted to make parents more welcome, and moving the staff car park to allow parents ease of access for pick ups and drop offs was a good way to start.’

Parents like him, some more than others. ‘I’m a Staley fan,’ said by many. Others took a while to warm to him. ‘I wasn’t sure at first as he seemed quite distant, not being a teaching head. But he is inspirational and I’m delighted my child is at the school.’ Parents appreciate what he is doing at the school, ‘he was an exceptional choice.’ A small number see him more as a manager than an educator but they are very much in the minority. ‘Some parents can’t see the bigger picture,’ said by one wise mother. ‘He’s driven and motivated and knows where he wants to take the school.’ Lots of new appointments since his arrival; all of the senior team are his choice.

Three children in the senior school, which parents like. Initially lived in head’s house provided by the school but sold that to raise funds. Happy to buck the trend to get what he wants. A welcoming, forthright character. Friendly and approachable, but we imagine he doesn’t stand any nonsense, from staff, parents or pupils; and nor should he.

Prep head since 2015, Keryn Neaves. A New Zealander who is a keen rugby fan too, so lots of fun in the staff room, we imagine. Liked by parents: ‘she’s grown into the role,’ ‘strong but fair and very approachable.’ Has a child in the prep school. ‘I like that, she is one of us as well as being head.’ Parents respect, and like, both heads.

Academic matters

In 2018, 27 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE. At A level, 31 per cent A*-A, 57 per cent A*-B. Solid results that are steadily improving. Science taught singly with many pupils taking all three at GCSE, clever appointments with all three heads of department now having PhDs; ‘they are so enthusiastic,’ said one parent. Maths and English standards improved. RS now taught to A level. French, German and Spanish on offer; every child has to take at least one language at GCSE. Pupils set in English, maths and languages, from year 4 in prep and year 7 in the senior. Pupils happy and focused, chatty to visitors and proud to show off work.

Homework every night from year 3, ‘but not on Wednesdays as we have matches then,’ said our charming guides. Nice to see old fashioned lift top desks in some prep classrooms; ‘some of our teachers don’t like them as they are noisy.’ Older children taught in the science block by senior teachers. Some facilities shared with senior school: library, assembly hall and refectory.

Junior and senior parents happy with academic progress and small class sizes, reasons why they chose the school. ‘There’s lots of parents’ evenings, it’s easy to see teachers, who care.’ ‘The children are pushed and compete with each other, in the nicest way.’ Parents talked of teachers going ‘above and beyond.’ We visited a science hospital where a teacher is present throughout the lesson and any senior school pupil can pop in for advice and help. Good up to date labs; ‘the chemistry lab is the hottest room in the school,’ said our guides ruefully, and we can vouch for that. A separate electronics room. Very impressive art studio: do admire the giraffe sculpture, as well as a man on a chair and a gorilla. Very impressive art on display throughout the school. Lots of IT suites including a language lab. DT workshop well used, radio blaring; note the buggy and electric car, both driven by pupils.

Separate sixth form centre offering a kitchen, garden, lots of computers and a common room. Plenty of UCAS support and interview practice. ‘We have supportive teachers,’ said our guides. ‘I can’t fault the school academically,’ said every parent we spoke to. Some mentioned personality clashes with the odd teacher; school tries its best to counteract this by making sure child not taught by them again. ‘Teachers are honest and offer extra support where it’s needed.’ ‘Good hiring choices have been made by the head.’ A couple of parents mentioned that communication could be improved but realise that ‘paper free is the way to go, so we must read emails.’ Bright and gifted invited to join Poyser Group in sixth form, made up of pupils who are scholars and exhibitioners, with extra lectures.

SEN support in both schools help 66 in total but only two currently with EHC plans. Help within the classroom from learning support assistants or one-to-one SEN qualified teacher. Some four children need EAL support.

Games, options, the arts

Sport has dramatically improved since the arrival of the current head, with the appointment of new staff and coaches. Sport for all, right the way through the school, including compulsory for sixth form - good. Rugby and rugby 7s for boys'; ‘we want it for the girls too,’ said one of our prep guides. Cricket and hockey, for boys and girls, no football for either. Plenty of teams for all. Fitness suite well used with conditioning coach improving the fitness of team members. Parents keen supporters of matches, home and away. One parent would like better communication from the PE staff, ‘I’d like to know fixtures and kit requirement sooner.’ A happy father remarked, ‘coaching has improved dramatically recently, as have the teams' and parents’ match teas.’

School cleverly has a period 5 every day, straight after lunch, which is effectively a free period when children can indulge in sports and clubs, extra help sessions, music and band practice, and the occasional homework session. ‘They make sure we aren’t doing homework every day in period 5.’ This allows every child, however far they live from the school, to join in practices and clubs. Plenty of after-school sports clubs as well. We enjoyed watching a dance session in the new studio.

Lots of drama productions, whole school and year groups as well as successful shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and at the local theatre. Plenty of music clubs on offer; ‘What I would like is a club for complete beginners, there’s plenty on offer for the knowledgeable but nothing for those of us who can’t even read music,’ said one pupil.

Plenty of school trips including an icebreaker on the Norfolk coast for year 7 and more exotic further afield ones for older pupils including to the Himalayas and Costa Rica. Lots of sports tours. DofE up to gold.

Boarders

Opening an international boarding house in September 2019 with capacity for 10-12 students, Several Chinese students have signed up.

Background and atmosphere

Located in the Cambridgeshire Fen town of Wisbech and founded in 1379, it is one of the oldest schools in the country. Originally two separate schools, for girls and boys, they amalgamated in 1970 with the boys moving across the river to the girls’ school on the current site. In 1983 the school became fully independent and increased in size.

Arriving at the school is slightly underwhelming as the new car park, although very convenient, is all that you initially see, along with the school sign. Walk through to the school and you are surprised by so much space - 34 acres in total - with lots of newish buildings and plenty of pitches. Mention must go to the very pretty gardens, all immaculately kept, including the head’s garden which the pupils aren’t allowed to use. There’s plenty of seating elsewhere for everyone.

Prep school brightly decorated with plenty of outside space and the added bonus of being able to say hello to a couple of horses in the next door field. The best behaved table in year 4 gets a cup at the end of the day, so behaviour exemplary.

Parents talk about the ‘welcoming feel,’ when they first visited and ‘the happy children we met,’ wanting that for their own offspring. Our impression too. Surprisingly the school does not seem very well known locally. ‘I didn’t know the prep existed,’ said one parent, but the head is working to make it much more visible with an open door policy. School does not have strong competition from other privates (there aren’t any close by) but the Lincolnshire grammars are on the doorstep, so head aware school needs to ‘up its game with what we offer for a broader education.’

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

All parents spoke highly of pastoral care and how problems were handled. Head does not deny bullying exists, but it is dealt with swiftly, effectively and robustly, backed up by parents whose children have experienced it. One parent said that the arrival of the current prep head had improved discipline standards dramatically. All parents said teachers knew their children very well. Lots of help during transition from one school to another. ‘It’s a happy school where teachers are really helpful, and care.’ ‘They know the social issues that children are up against, understand the children and use their strengths to help them cope.’ Strong mentoring system in place between sixth form prefects and year 7 classes. Tutors have 10 children each so do know them well, and spend a lot of time with them, daily. Forms mixed every year, up to year 11, so friendship groups do not become static and everyone knows each other. Sixth form in the same tutor group for two years, vertically across two years, so lots of support for lower sixth from upper and vice versa. Counsellor and nurse available with mental health nurse due to be appointed shortly.

Pupils and parents

Pupils come from far and wide across the county, and from Lincolnshire and Norfolk as well. Parents happy to travel to access school, up to an hour each way in some cases. Traditionally a school for the children of farmers, there are still many today, joined by Forces families and professionals, many self-starters running their own businesses. Parents working hard, both of them, to pay fees. Many children are second or third generation to come here, at least. Head has extended the school day to include a 7.45am drop off and 6pm pick up, at no extra cost, which parents greatly appreciate. Pupils a friendly bunch, down to earth and unpretentious. Fourteen prefects wear distinctive striped blazers which make them stand out and easily identifiable. Other pupils more conservatively dressed in smart navy blazers. Sixth formers wear ‘business wear.’

Entrance

The school is selective, but not excessively so. Heads meet every child before a place is offered after they have taken an entrance assessment. School happy to say no to pupils. Entry to senior school for prep pupils not guaranteed and they also have to sit entrance assessment and be interviewed by head. A few each year don’t make the grade, but usually headed off at the pass in year 5 and guided elsewhere. Numbers low in reception, increasing steadily each year with a large influx in year 5, which is full. Numbers almost double in year 7 when a large number come from local state primaries. A few more join in year 9. Head cleverly not hugely increasing numbers, although there is demand, instead he is raising entry standards; parents take note. Entry to sixth form requires all GCSEs at 4+ with chosen A levels needing a minimum of a 6. Five or six join externally a year, usually from grammars in Lincolnshire.

Exit

Virtually all pupils go from prep to senior, the odd one to grammars across the county line. About 10 a year leave after year 11, mainly to impressive state sixth forms in Cambridge (there is a good train link) or other privates in Cambridge. Some, from the farming contingent in particular, to board at big hitters such as Oundle and Uppingham. Head very proud that high numbers achieve first choice universities. One vet off to Cambridge in 2018, four to medical school, others to study eg history of art at Leeds, earth science at St Andrews and business management at Birmingham. Apprenticeships actively embraced, by parents and pupils, many of whom return to family businesses. The odd gap year, but not many.

Money matters

Academic, sports and music scholarships available of up to £1,000, rising to £1,500 in the sixth form. Means-tested bursaries up to 100 per cent in exceptional circumstances.

Our view

The head ruffling a few feathers since his arrival has been for the better; the school had rather sat on its laurels in previous years and dwindling numbers reflected this. We get the impression from parents that the school's purpose and intent has intensified, taking all with it. They have stiff competition from local grammars so have had to up their game, offering a well-rounded education, and parents appreciate this. ‘Confident children are what they produce, happy to stand up and speak in front of people; how I wish I had been given that chance when I was at school.’

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

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Special Education Needs

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