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Cheerful studiousness might best capture the atmosphere, students going about their business with a smile. The mix of pupils means teaching is all inclusive but differentiated, depending on stage and ability. A regular programme of school soirées (‘soirees at six’) recitals and concerts means heaps of opportunities to perform for all, including house singing competitions and house concerts. Boys can visit the girls’ common rooms for a short time after prep; one girl called their common room a ‘social hub’...

 

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2015 Good Schools Guide Awards

  • Excellent performance by Boys taking Government & Politics at an English Independent School (GCE AS level)
  • Excellent performance by Girls taking PE / Sports Studies at an English Independent School (GCE AS level)

Sports

Fencing

Shooting

What The Good Schools Guide says

Head

Since September 2016, Tim Firth, BA English Literature, Sheffield University, PGCE Oxford University. Previously deputy head and then acting head at Hurstpierpoint College, West Sussex; came to the school after Wrekin’s unfortunate run of heads (three in quick succession). Nothing Lady Bracknell-ish about losing all these heads, just a quirk of fate. And possibly one that has benefited Wrekin since it resulted in the arrival of Mr Firth, who is, according to parents, a ‘great fit’, a ‘dynamo who is very energising’ and brings ‘solid leadership’. Parents like him; children like him. They say he is approachable and chatty and after the first few weeks of him arriving, ‘everyone relaxed’. Being the warm, funny, open sort of chap that he is, we imagine that he will be very adept at taking people with him on what he plans will be an ‘enlightened evolution’ of the school. We hope everyone’s ready: his development plan, outlining numerous aims including targets for value added to pupil grades and a reformed appraisal system for teaching staff, suggests the evolution will be pacey.

In the past parents may have selected Wrekin for its happy vibe and reputation for pastoral care, rather than its academics. Mr Firth has set about addressing this. A big change has been to introduce Challenge Grade Review cards; parents tell us that they finally know where their child stands academically. Clear targets are given to each pupil based on his or her ability, regarding where pupils could be if they successfully carried out measurable tasks. They are given clearly defined ‘stretch’ work to enable them to meet these challenge grades (head describes the process as a coaching manual) and teachers are able to see which pupils might need a bit of extra support (one on one, for example). Having recruited new heads of lower and middle school to work alongside the tutor system, he says there is now a whole team around each child academically. Greater coordination. Greater tracking. The head says they want to harness the excellent pastoral care that allows frank but supportive conversations about academic achievements

So far so (very) good; the 2017 GCSE results were the best on record. A level results were solid and we predict this uplift will settle into a trend. Number of students has also increased – an extra 50 have been lured in by the Firth factor over the last 12 months.

While raising the school’s academic profile is a clear goal, head is also acutely aware that young people are entering a competitive job market and their employability needs to be equally strong. To that end a new Business School opened in 2016, which focuses not just on CV and interview preparation, but also offers a wide programme of career talks on practical topics like ‘what an office is like’ and industry-focused subjects, such as engineering. Pupils are introduced to apprenticeship schemes and discover what could work best for them as individuals post school. The centre’s curriculum is designed to include pupils of all ages. While Mr Firth has far too much humility (and realism) to claim these aims are unique, the dedicated nature of the centre perhaps is. He describes it as a ‘standalone temple to employability’ - not a phrase you hear very often. It’s certainly shaping up into a significant USP and is especially popular with those parents who are in business and want their children to be better prepared for the world of work.

Mr Firth recognises that the straight A student, who may have been a bit spoon fed along the way, does not always make the most agile, creative, resourceful presence in the workplace. The centre is dedicated to resolving that conundrum. His ambition is for Wrekin students to be more stalagmite, less snowflake. He refers in passing to the high number of golds in the Duke of Edinburgh awards (17 in 2017) clocked up by Wrekin students, testament to their sturdy, resourceful characters.

Above all, Mr Firth is keen for Wrekin to continue to be an inclusive environment, one which reflects a broad spectrum of children. Or as one impressed parent put it, quoting the head’s words in his first communication with them, ‘no one under the radar, no one on the bench’. That phrase went down like manna with parents. He says he relishes the diverse intake because it reflects the real world and this mix ‘breeds thoughtful teachers’.

Mr Firth is a keen sportsman, particularly interested in cricket (he was a cricket blue), loves reading, particularly poetry, and Bob Dylan (he has 60 albums). He and his wife, Jane, have three children: two at university, the third, a daughter, is at Wrekin.

Academic matters

Wrekin offers a broad curriculum to suit its diverse intake, including BTecs and A levels in subjects like accounting and psychology. Languages are fairly healthy: 52 per cent of students take one or more language at GCSE; 12 per cent continue to A level. School is very supportive of apprenticeships and does not automatically assume that university is the right path for everyone. Classes are small: typically no more than 20 for the younger pupils and 8-15 at A Level.

The 2017 GCSE results were Wrekin’s best ever with 44 per cent A*-A/9-7. A level results were steady; 26 per cent A*/A and 48 per cent A*-B. Most of the A* at A level were in maths and further maths with a sprinkling across languages.

Tutoring system means each pupil has personalised academic support. Pupils' academic progress is closely monitored with twice weekly meetings. The mix of pupils means teaching, as Mr Firth explains, is all inclusive but differentiated, depending on stage and ability (this might manifest itself in slightly different homework).

The Franklin Society is in place to challenge the most academically gifted pupils. It is aimed at developing logic, science and the arts (game theory, science projects, study of the classics, architecture). After a rebranding, there are now timetabled weekly lessons. Pupils are chosen from second form upwards based on their performance in non-verbal reasoning and/or exams (pooling all the academic data). About 10 out of 60 students in a year get the nod.

There are also the usual subject-related extension activities, mind-expanding lectures and academic challenges in national and inter-house competitions. Parents say head has added polish to the teaching and upped ambition in pupils. (Although one parent wondered if staff might be a bit stretched, master of a lot of roles.)

Good learning support team for mild to moderate difficulties. A learning profile is drawn up for all pupils, identifying strengths/areas for development, as well as strategies to help teachers. All have agreed termly targets. Progress is measured against these targets and reassessed each term. Support also available on a temporary or permanent basis for pupils experiencing difficulty with a particular area of the curriculum. No extra cost.

Games, options, the arts

House system provides a healthy platform for competitiveness, team playing and support. Parents say it results in every child wanting to participate in a range of activities and have a go; it ‘puts fire in their bellies’, as one parent said.

All the usual sport is on offer (vast grounds, lots of playing fields), netball, rugby, football, rounders, cricket, cross-country, tennis, athletics. Also fives and fencing. Large sports halls, gym and tip top swimming pool. Very good to see the girls have a strong six-a-side football team. Netball teams seem to excel, frequently ending up county champions.

Very vibrant art department with an annual exhibition and trips to back it up, like a recent Photoshop workshop with a local artist. Around 200 pupils have music lessons every week and there is the usual array of orchestras, bands of all types (rock and jazz) and choirs. A regular programme of school soirées (‘soirees at six’) recitals and concerts means heaps of opportunities to perform for all, including house singing competitions and house concerts. Also, Wrekin Musician of the Year competition, concerts off site at eg Shrewsbury Abbey and overseas tours. Recent very ambitious production planning of Carmina Burana involved 200 singers. Music is a clear strength of the school. At least one whole school play per year and lots of house productions, from Macbeth, to Shadowlands. House drama competitions allow senior students to manage younger ones.

Around 130 pupils each year are involved in CCF. Duke of Edinburgh popular – remember that healthy stash of gold awards.

Lots of trips, including annual house camping; cultural visits to Hampton Court, Tate Modern, design and business trip to Jaguar Land Rover.

Boarders

One girls’ boarding house and two boys’. Rooms are fine, not huge – pretty standard boarding fare. Younger years share four or five to a dorm, older students have their own study bedrooms, some with ensuites. Communal facilities are okay, some have had a refurb so are a tad smarter. All houses have common rooms with decent sofas, cushions, relaxed vibe, kitchens (fridge, toaster, microwave) and games rooms (pool tables). Boys can visit the girls’ common rooms for a short time after prep; one girl called their common room a ‘social hub’.

All well supervised, houseparents on hand along with matron and prefects, who have a duty roster. Phones are allowed but wireless turned off at 10.30pm. Day pupils don’t go into the boarding areas but common rooms for day students, within the houses, are open to boarders so there is a fair bit of downtime mingling. On site medical centre staffed throughout the day and a nurse is always on call overnight.

Lots of trips into nearby Shrewsbury, Ironbridge, Chester, Birmingham and London. Also, there are a great many clubs on a Saturday morning from squash to jewellery making, horse riding, archery, rowing, maths.

Background and atmosphere

Founded in 1880 by Sir John Bayley on a large and lush site above Wellington, a market town in Shropshire, Wrekin is a combination of old and new buildings (no eyesores), on a large campus with plenty of green space. It became co-ed in the 70s and in 2006 merged with The Old Hall School, which moved on to the same site.

Cheerful studiousness might best capture the atmosphere, students going about their business with a smile. Classrooms have an old style charm, some with the smell of refurbs, like the chemistry labs. In the corridors displays don’t jump out at you, but it all feels very friendly and ‘community-led’ with all the information and updates pupils need.

Inevitably, lots of hoofing required to cover distance between boarding houses and buildings - our legs could tell we had walked a fair distance by the end of our visit.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

By all accounts, a massive strength of the school. As one parent said, every day their son ‘had gone to school with a smile on his face and come home with a smile on his face’. Others spoke of a happy and secure environment where children are social, look people in the eye and are making the best of who they are.

While every school says there is a caring environment, the students we saw and spoke to – who really did smile and make eye contact without knowing who we were – looked cheery. We also noted the impeccable manners - door opening, standing aside. They didn’t seem formulaic, just natural consideration, true courtesy.

A very inclusive environment; most parents seemed to think the house system was instrumental here – the spectrum of inter-house competitions (a house play, a house singing competition etc) all offering a sense of identity. The children relish being part of a group, not wanting to let the group down. First and second form (years 7-8) are all in Lancaster House, which parents said was an excellent stepping stone and a good way of introducing them to the whole school. From the third year, they join one of three boys’ or two girls’ houses. Parents say pupils all look after each other and being part of the house is viewed as an honour.

Experienced counsellor on site and all the usual assemblies on pastoral matters. Pupils can train as mentors, identified by a distinct badge to encourage others to approach them. Every new pupil is issued with a school handbook and it is genuinely useful, packed full of all the information necessary (mobile phone use, security, map, routines, who does what on the staff).

Wrekin is a Christian foundation and worship - four times per week - is very much part of the makeup. Services are also an opportunity for pupils to perfect their public speaking - prefects often give ‘thought for the day’ talks on topics such as ‘determination to achieve goals’

Our House is a week’s compulsory boarding for sixth formers who have to cook and clean for themselves – good preparation for university

Pupils and parents

Pupils are friendly, social, polite and without a whiff of arrogance or entitlement. As the head says, Wrekin’s broad mix ensures its leavers are rounded and prepared for the world beyond school.

Parent demographic is similarly broad; many have business backgrounds (this is a part of the country where manufacturing still thrives); others are professions or from the farming and county set. Head welcomes parents’ support – and their high expectations. Those we spoke to said home-school communication is good and they appreciate the open door policy. Head has also started discussion forums where parents can contribute ideas and give feedback about the school.

Entrance

Around half come from the on-site prep, Old Hall. Rest from local primaries and preps including Packwood Haugh and Prestfelde. All candidates sit 11+ exam, papers in maths, English and non-verbal reasoning, but bar is not set too high for entry. Entry at 13 + by Wrekin entrance exam.

Exit

Nearly all sixth form leavers head for university and the spread is typically broad for both subjects and locations. Parents praised the UCAS support. Most choose northern, Midlands or Welsh universities: Leicester Bangor, Cardiff, Keele, Leeds, Manchester, Hull, Sheffield, York. Economics, engineering, business management and sports courses (sport science, sport and health education) seem popular. Not many takers for arts degrees, just a few for English lit and languages.

No places in 2017 for Oxbridge or medicine, but two for law. This may change as aspirations are raised under Mr Firth’s leadership. Several of the parents we spoke to had children who were holding offers to universities in the south and the number of Oxbridge candidates has increased significantly. Some pupils move on to apprenticeships which might include sponsorship through university.

Money matters

Boarding and day fees are somewhat lower than similar schools further south. In a nod to today’s economic climate interest free monthly payment plans are offered, as well as a reduction loyalty scheme for those who attend its associated Old Hall prep.

Our view

A wonderfully nurturing and inclusive school which is on the up academically but also offers something rare: the chance for pupils, in this tough old world, to hone their employability factor.

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.

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