Muddy Best Schools Guide #1: Sidcot School, Winscombe
Here it is! The first of the Muddy Somerset Best Schools Guide reviews. As per the Muddy mantra, these reviews are not fluff pieces with highlights taken from the school prospectus. When a school goes under the Muddy microscope I spend a day there nosing around, meeting staff, chatting to the kids and generally doing a bit of Muddy journo ‘digging’. So class, listen up, and no talking at the back please! First off the blocks is Sidcot School.
SIDCOT SCHOOL, WINSCOMBE
Sidcot School is a non-selective, independent co-ed day and boarding school for pupils aged 3-18. It’s set in 150 (no, that’s not a typo) acres of beautiful North Somerset countryside on the edge of the Mendips, close to the village of Winscombe, south of Bristol.
There are around 600 pupils (296 girls and 313 boys), with 149 in the Nursery and Junior school and 460 in the Senior School. The school celebrates international diversity, with nearly a quarter of students coming from overseas – some 30 different nationalities at the last count. Oh, and it’s one of just seven Quaker schools in England. But don’t stop reading, you don’t have to be a Quaker – or even religious – to come here.
The first thing I noticed was that there aren’t any big gates or high walls around the school and its cluster of old and new buildings makes it feels a more like a village than a school campus. That’s not to say there’s no security or safeguarding, it just isn’t heavy handed. It was Children in Need day when I visited the school and almost everyone was in their PJs (and a number of grown men were wearing furry onesies) – and the atmosphere at the school, between student and student, and between teaching staff and students, was incredibly relaxed and friendly. The sense of community is really strong here. I spoke to a some pupils around the school and they were self-assured and chatty – comfortable in their own skin and their school I’d say.
The school’s art centre is a stand out. It looks like the sort of cool art gallery you might find in a town or city and in fact, it is open to the public for certain exhibitions. As well as the impressive exhibition space, the centre’s got light-filled art and design studios, a digital media suite, a drama studio, a performance hall and a fully equipped recording studio. Drama is big here: the school puts on one major production a year (this year it was Chicago) and the Hurly Burly Production Company works with professional companies like the Tobacco Factory and performs up at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The school’s renowned for its excellent Equestrian Centre (you can bring your own horse or borrow a ride from nearby Urchinwood Manor). If you do BYO, there’s stabling for up to 24 horses, a 30-40m floodlit arena, show jumps and off-road.
Sports facilities looked impressive, with 20 acres of playing fields, a brand new million pound all-weather pitch for hockey, football and rugby, tennis courts, a huge sports hall, dance studios, a gym and a 25-metre swimming pool.
Science is one of the school’s strengths with traditional looking labs and classrooms.
There’s a huge light and airy refectory with a sort of large chill out space next door. With its little bistro tables and chairs, table football and a little cafeteria – you could almost forget you were in a school. What else
The school was founded by Quakers in 1699 and the school’s ethos is still based on the Quaker principle of finding the ‘god’ or the ‘good’ in everyone. The seven central Quaker beliefs of respect, integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, truth, and sustainability aren’t really about religion in this environment, more a guiding set of life principles – and it’s these principles which guide each aspect of school life. The school motto is Live Adventurously; students are encouraged to be outward looking, to see life as an adventure and to welcome challenges, to voice their own opinions and values whilst listening to those of others and to be part of a community where everyone is equally valued.
There are some specific Quaker practices though, like the weekly Meeting for Worship in the Meeting House. This is not a school assembly or a religious ‘service’ but a space for quiet thought or mindfulness. Everyone sits in silence for 20 minutes and any child or staff member can stand up and speak, without being interrupted, about anything that’s important to them.
The school isn’t an exam factory. Pupils are encouraged in a love of learning rather than competitiveness and to take their time in discovering what direction they want to go in without pressure – but academic results are very good. In 2016, GSCEs: 93.3% 5 A* to C, with over a third achieving A*/A. A levels: A*/A: 34% ; A* to B: 58.1% and A* to C: 80.9% – all above the national average. Impressively, the school has a 100% pass rate for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (it’s 79% worldwide). They put a lot of store by value-added performance, with kids reaching well above their baseline targets from a wide range of starting positions. Almost everyone (95%) goes onto university, over half to Russell Group universities. The school does particularly well in mathematics, the sciences and the arts and, unusually, boys do as well as girls academically.
The emphasis here is on sport as pleasure, encouraging everyone to enjoy the benefits of physical activity and experience the buzz of being part of a team – not just those that excel, although those pupils who do are nurtured. Pupils compete regularly at district and county levels, and in some disciplines at national levels – there’s a Year 11 girl currently training with the GB triathlon team and some of the school’s equestrians compete in national competitions.
The school’s got its own yurt village! During the summer months, the Peace Field is home to a number of yurts so that pupils can learn in an environment outside of the interactive whiteboards and other technology in the rest of the school. Quakers believe in working towards a better world without the use of violence, so there’s also a Centre for Peace and Global Studies which organises talks and events around conflict resolution and the Sidcot Festival of Peace. There’s an emphasis on skills for life, with initiatives like PASS, a programme of activities focused around integrity, stewardship, self-reflection, adventure and community and SPICE, a leadership course for Sixth Formers. They don’t have prefects but appoint ‘office holders’ for specific jobs. Some Sixth Form students act as Quaker Elders, leading the weekly Meeting for Worship and organising activities in the school.
I was surprised to discover that Iain Kilpatrick started out as a banker before studying for an English degree and re-training as a teacher. He’s been headmaster of Sidcot since 2012, after seven years as headmaster at Beaconhurst in Stirling. A native Scot and a natty dresser, he’s not a Quaker himself but seems passionate about the Quaker ethos, especially the importance of developing a strong sense of self (without being arrogant), being able to question and not take no for an answer and how individuals really can make a difference (the school’s part of the Ashoka Changemaker programme). He knows each pupil and their families and has open door sessions. He was one of the driving forces behind the yurt village.
Nursery and Junior School
Nursery and Junior kids are housed together in an attractive modern building with bright jolly classrooms opening out to the spacious outdoor space with play areas, activities – including a very muddy mud kitchen. From Reception onwards, pupils have weekly specialist music and French lessons and use the main school’s refectory, swimming pool, arts centre, library and drama studio. A natural amphitheatre creates a Forest school to learn about the outdoors.
Under the guidance of Junior School headmistress Claire Lilley, children can build on their own interests and develop language and independent learning skills, build self-esteem and respect for one another in a calm atmosphere. I popped my head into some classrooms and there was an overall atmosphere of engaged and happy children at ease with their teachers.
About half the Senior School students are boarders. Boarding starts from Year 7, full-time, weekly or sometimes on a flexi-basis, in one of five same-sex boarding houses. I had a look around Newcombe, the term-time home to 28 of the younger girls. I’m not kidding you, with the wood-panelled walls and open fire, terrace with bbq overlooking the countryside – I almost booked myself in for a weekend break. There’s a boarding house cat and a dog to take for walks, too. The house parent’s room was really cosy and where girls like to hang out when they first get in from lessons. Bedrooms are homely and shared with others until the Upper Sixth when many students have their own rooms.
There’s a breakfast club for Nursery and Junior School kids from 7.45 am until registration and After School Care from 4.30pm until 6pm which includes supper in the Refectory at 5.30pm. Holiday clubs (open to all) take care of 3-12 year olds. You don’t even have to drive the little darlins’ in: there’s a network of mini-buses covering North Somerset and parts of Bristol.
Nursery fees are £20.70 morning/afternoon sessions. Annual fees for the Junior School range from £7,410 in Reception to £11,040 in Year 6. Annual fees for the Senior School: day pupils £15,090 (Years 7-9) and £15,600 (Years 10 & 11); boarders £24,900 (Years 7-9) and £26,280 (Years 10 & 11). Sixth Form annual fees are £16,590 for day pupils and £29,280 for boarders, both of which are discounted if pupils have taken the 2-year GSCE course. Academic and talent scholarships and means-tested burseries are available.
Word on the ground
What comes over loud and clear is that children are really, really happy at the school. One parent with three kids in three different years (clocking up an amazing 30 years in all) told me that they’ve only had five days off sick in the whole time they’ve been at Sidcot; they just don’t like missing school. Other comments include the school ‘feels different’ and is ‘more relaxed’ than other independent schools. Pastoral care is ‘excellent’. A new Director of Sports has given school sports a boost. Kids leave the school self-confident and well-rounded.THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who want a school with a nurturing, outward-looking environment where independent thinkers are encouraged. Children of all abilities. Those who value the diversity of non-selective entry and the inclusion of international students. Performance and the creative arts facilities are outstanding. As a parent of kids who’ve gone to three schools, I love the continuity of moving seamlessly from nursery to sixth form.
Not for: Tiger parents looking for a hothouse education or those wanting a more regimented atmosphere should look elsewhere.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it! There’s an Open Day on Fri 27 January 2017, so go along and see if you agree with me.
Sidcot School, Oakridge Lane, Winscombe, North Somerset, BS25 1PD Tel 01934 843102. sidcot.org.uk