Muddy Best Schools Guide #20: Sibford School, Banbury
SIBFORD SCHOOL, BANBURY
What? Where? Sibford School is a 3-18 co-ed day and boarding school set in more than 50 acres of grounds near Banbury, North Oxfordshire. Yeah, you read it right, 50 flippin acres! Originally established in 1842 for Quaker families, the school retains its Quaker ethos of seeking ‘that of God in everyone’ (ie finding the good in all children, though good luck with my lot) though you don’t have to be religious to come here. There are just 418 pupils across separate nursery, junior and senior school buildings so what the school misses out in stunning period buildings (think primarily mid century to modern brick) , it makes up for in personal attention – the pastoral care element of Sibford was given ‘Outstanding’ in a ISI report. Also worth mentioning that Sibford is non-selective with up to a third of its pupils having some SEN, the most prevalent being dyslexia, so the SEN department support is rocking it here.
Facilities: All the usuals you’d expect with great use made of the grounds for football, cricket and hockey. There’s a 25 metre indoor swimming pool that the kids use every week, a 5 lab Science department, fully sound-and-light rigged school hall with raked seating, a fully-equipped recording music studio, and a very impressive art department with large separate studios for painting, textiles, ceramics and sculpture plus a separate Sixth Form art studio too. The DT suite is massive too.
What else? Well, outside there’s a large nature reserve, including a pond, place for reflection and an animal shed where they’re currently rearing cows. The kids feed the animals and they end up in the school kitchens, er, ‘helping out’ on the menu. The space is utilised for Forest School, plus there’s a replica Iron Age roundhouse that students made that’s used for outdoor learning. See below, it’s really cool.
Academic results: For a non-selective school with such large numbers of kids with special education needs not to mention the international students who often don’t speak English before they arrive, the school does well with 88% of kids gaining A* – C grades at GCSE and with 48% of kids getting A* – B grades at A level. Since 2010 the A level average A* – B has been 45%. They have a couple of kids every year who apply to Oxbridge so the quality of teaching is good, but it’s definitely not a hothouse at Sibford and they put great store on value-added performance, with kids reaching well above their baseline targets from a wide range of starting positions.
Sport: The pool is a real boon for Sibford – the Year 5/6 boys won Oxfordshire School Games Winners 2016 and the Year 9 girls took a bronze in the Secondary school finals. They hold an annual Rugby Sevens tournament at the school, plus the North Oxfordshire school sport partnership cross country comp – 400 kids panting their way around the lovely grounds – so it’s fair to say they’re into their sport here.
Brand new in Sept 16 and super keen is Toby Spence, the 12th head in Sibford’s 174 year history. He’s young and personable, has plenty of experience teaching both in the UK and abroad (he’s just come back from Kenya where he was head of a British curriculum school). Like all new heads, he seems keen to make his mark. It’s too early to feel his impact as yet, though he told me that raising academic standards is one of his main priorities in 2017-8, and behind his Quaker smile I suspect he has the steel to do it. He’s also big on outdoor learning and is superkeen on sports, having climbed quite a few South American mountains and taken up mountain triathlons (I kid you not) so perhaps that’s an area that will see further development.
Nursery and Junior School: The nursery is sooooo sweet, with a lovely safe outdoor area, fields to look at all around and a modern building, and takes kids from 3 year old up to Reception. The Junior School (5 – 11 years) is strong, and again has lovely outside areas, a huge wooden climbing and play area, plus access to all the senior facilities.
Pupils can board at Sibford School on a full-time, weekly or flexi basis from 11 onwards at one of three boarding houses. Sixth form has a mixed boarding house but fear not Mary Whitehouse, the tip tap of feet across the corridors in the night is impossible as the dorms are separate. Boarding houses and rooms are perfectly fine, nothing flash but perfectly serviceable.
If you’re not familiar with Quakerism, you might be thinking it sounds a bit strange. But the 7 central Quaker beliefs in of respect, integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, truth, and sustainability transfer aren’t really about religion in this environment, more a guiding set of life principles. There are some specific Quaker practises like the morning ‘Collect’ meeting which you may never have come across – it’s the Quaker equivalent of the morning assembly which happens in total silence twice a week. This is also where any child or staff member can have ‘Ministry’, when they’re able to stand up and speak without being interrupted about anything that’s important to them. Who’s to know if the kids just zone out and enjoy their 20 minutes chill-time or whether they think deeply about the world around them? In a way it doesn’t matter – just to have some stillness must be amazing (she says rocking back and forwards in the corner).
Also, though the curriculum is largely traditional, horticulture is a subject that kids can study here which is fab, and is particularly beneficial for kids who prefer practical work.
Wrap-around care: At the Junior School, the teaching day runs from 8.30am – 4.00pm (4.15pm on Fridays), but you can boot your kids in from 8am and pick up after tea at 6pm if your, er, ‘lunch meeting’ is running on. Those timings also stand for the Senior School. Occasional boarding is an option too – just give 24 hours’ notice.
Fees: Junior school £2,896 – £3,504 per term; day pupils £4,559 – £4650; weekly boarders £8249 – 8412 per term; full boarding £8,856 – 9,035 per term. Flexi boarding £58 per night.
Word on the ground: It’s definitely a school that’s highly nurturing. One boy I came across in the Sixth Form art room happily told me, off the cuff, no-one thought he’d get a single GSCE when he came to Sibford as he was so dyslexic, and he was now studying for 3 A levels. That to me was a great endorsement for the best elements of this school. Parents I spoke to love the inclusive, non-judgemental ethos and the mix of students.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Parents looking for a rural, spacious, non-hothousy school with a high level of pastoral care and low numbers. Those who value the diversity of non-selective entry and the inclusion of international students. The smaller cohort means that there’s a greater participation in sport, music and the arts amongst pupils and everyone has a chance to shine. As someone whose children pass through 3 different schools, I love the idea of kids moving seamlessly from nursery to junior to seniors in one place.
Not for: Those who like their private schools to have all the architectural bells and whistles. The grounds are large and lovely but the buildings, particularly in the senior school, are functional rather than flash. The large proportion of SEN students in the classes might not appeal to parents who want their children to be pushed academically. There’s no full orchestra here so if you’re imagining a mini Royal Philharmonic moment, think again, though there are a plenty of ensembles, choirs and bands.
Dare to disagree? There’s an Open Event for the whole school (Junior, Senior and Sixth Form) on Mon 14 Nov from 9.45pm so go along and see if you agree with me.