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Bruern Abbey School, Bicester

The UK's only independent school expressly tailored to helping boys with learning difficulties (like dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia) pass Common Entrance exams, GCSEs, and more. It works!

WHAT? WHERE?

Bruern Abbey School has quite the claim to fame – the UK’s only Independent school with the main goal of helping boys 8-16 years old with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia to pass Common Entrance exams, GCSEs and gain other nationally recognised qualifications.

The prep school is set in 20 acres of Oxfordshire countryside (a mere 10 minutes’ drive from Bicester Village – just saying), and sits in shabby-chic glory in a late nineteenth century manor house that houses the boarders, dining rooms, the headmaster’s dogs, staff and feels like home to the 159 boys, two thirds of whom board weekly. Teaching is largely done away from the main mansion in a variety of boxy outbuildings, converted stables, garages and even an orangerie, giving the school a kind of eccentric charm.

Bruern Abbey Senior School is located in the rolling hills of Chilton, Buckinghamshire and offers notable differences from traditional senior schooling. These include small classes (for a bigger focus on literacy and numeracy); a bespoke timetable (heavy on IT use); and an avoidance of the traditional pitfalls of independent study in the evening. The weekly structure is built around a 9am arrival on Monday morning and 5pm on Friday afternoon, with boys able to choose whether they will be a day pupil or boarder. Like Bruern Abbey Prep School, there will be a dedicated bus service to and from London.

ACADEMICS

Parents often come to Bruern Abbey School desperate for help and it’s an indication of its clear academic recipe for success, plus the lack of credible alternatives, that means the school is three times over-subscribed. So how’s it done? Firstly no class has more than 12 pupils. For 159 children there are 35 teachers. All younger classes have two teachers in English and Maths and have almost double the number of lessons in these subjects than a standard prep school. All boys use a laptop in lessons, and notes are circulated rather than written up from boards to save the boys the enormous time and effort it would take them, as dyslexics/dyscalculics to do it themselves.

From personal experience I have three close friends whose boys have all been pupils in the last four years, and all three praise this place to the heavens and back for re-instating confidence and helping their children out of an academic abyss. (Texts I received this week: ‘I only have great things to say about Bruern’; ‘Absolutely amazing school’, ‘Incredible’). The roll call of secondary schools includes Bloxham, Millfield, Rugby, Shiplake, Charterhouse and Gordonstoun and St Paul’s – so success is an understatement.

FACILITIES

No parent is going to dismiss this school on the quality of its facilities – they are desperate to get academic CPR for their children and anything is going to be a bonus. That said, a major asset of Bruern is that, although enormous energy goes into helping the boys in the classroom, it recognises that to release pressure from all this effort the pupils need to immerse themselves in extra-curricular activities too.

Facilities are not particularly shiny here, particularly in the classrooms that are largely in outbuildings or temporary buildings of old that are still performing their duties. But there are rugby pitches, an indoor swimming pool, 45 BMX bikes (the kids can zoom off around the 20 acres of grounds), a lovely library, and a very cool renovation of the old garages into a science building.

EXTRA CURRICULAR

Core sports are rugby, football, cross country, athletics, swimming and cricket – – things are back to normal and there is a welcome return of the infamous Match Teas! There are some unusual strings to the bow too – clay pigeon shooting and skiing are strong, as you might expect from an independent school but practical pursuits such as cookery, gardening and carpentry are also a big deal here. Drama is also given its due with regular performances, and music lessons are offered across the usual peripatetic range of instruments.

Drama is a great way to remind the children how to live socially and with empathy, since you have put yourself in other people’s shoes. It’s a great vehicle to redress any post-lockdown social imbalances! The old chapel has been converted to a theatre where the boys not only get stuck into performing, but also try their hand at stage management with the work they write and produce.

THE HEAD

I’ve met a lot of inspiring headteachers, but John Floyd takes the proverbial biccy for humour and charisma. He is dyslexic himself, as is the deputy head, and the head of academic has dyscalculia. He’s been at the helm since 2011 and has been the driving force that has seen the school massively oversubscribed, and with wildly successful results. He used to write backwards as a child (literally – backwards written ‘sdrawkcab’, starting at the right of the page and moving towards the left) and knows intimately the energy and ‘in it togetherness’ that it takes to help these kids. John is excited to add the Senior School to the Bruern family; it is long overdue and the news has been welcomed enthusiastically from parents and boys equally!

BOARDING

Bruern Abbey pulls in children from all over the UK (nearly every southern county is currently represented), with half from London so it’s no surprise that boarding (weekly – Mon-Friday only) is a big deal here. Don’t expect buffed and preening luxury – the children live here in what I’d describe as typically functional boys houses – bunk beds in traditional dorms of 4-8. The Senior School will typically have between 2 and 4 boys to start with.

Any jokes about boarding school food have no place here though; Bruern Abbey spends five times more per head on food than other prep schools!

There are six different fish dishes available on a Friday, and on asking in the kitchen what was supper the day I visited, I was accosted by a set of adjectives best suited to MasterChef. Twice a week candlelit parent/pupil dinners are put on, with each pupil inviting four friends – a lovely way for parents to feel involved, chat informally to the teachers beforehand and teach the kids to behave well across a dinner table. This will be replicated at the Senior School on a Wednesday evening with Evensong in the local church followed by formal dinner in the main Chilton House – an event that is not to be missed by boys and parents alike. One standard menu I saw included lamb shawarma with saffron tomato sauce, game pie with suet crust and redcurrant gravy, and Moules Marinieres — yes, really!

ISI REPORTS

The most recent detailed report is the ISI Regulatory Compliance Inspection Report from Dec 2021. See all recent reports here.

QUIRKS

There are around 11 dogs on site compared to the two dogs I met when I visited in 2019 (a black labrador hidden under the desk, and a spaniel ready for walkies), creating a homely atmosphere and charming chaos that you’d expect from 159 boys living in a mansion in the Oxfordshire countryside. I have been informed that there will also be a number of four legged friends moving into the Senior School…

Boys in bright yellow school jumpers – a bit of a sartorial shocker, but no-one seems to care! – pad around the first floor in their socks if they remember to take their muddy shoes off. Others head outside and tend to the school chickens in the biggest chicken run I’ve seen since Aardvark Productions pitched to DreamWorks. There’s also a fantastic manor house in the Loire valley, known as ‘Bruern South’, that all boys visit in their annual trip to France. This year the boys are planning an Easter ski trip to Norway, as well as a tour of Sri Lanka – technically for the cricket team, but open to other boys who would like to go just for a cultural experience. (Wonder if they’ll take me, too…?)

WRAP AROUND CARE/TRAVEL

No surprise that the London-Bruern route is a well-oiled machine. A bus service has been operating since 1996 with seven stops from Hans Place to M40 Junction 4. This will be replicated for the Senior school.

FEES

On the steep side, but then again Bruern Abbey does reach the parts other schools can’t reach. Per term, it’s £10.5k for boarders and £9k for day pupils. Flexi-boarding is £63 per night and speech/language therapy or occupational therapy costs £60 per 30 mins.

WORD ON THE GROUND

Not often I say this but the word ‘glowing’ comes to mind. The headmaster is wildly popular with parents and the results of the school speak for themselves. No-one seems to mind that the school is a bit scruffy in parts – it’s seen as part of the charm.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Any boy struggling with dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia. Bruern Abbey actively discriminates towards boys who need expert help in these areas. Watch self-esteem and exam results rise, amazed parents.

Not for: It’s rare for Bruern Abbey to take children on for a year or so as the school knows it takes time and more time to build the necessary academic building blocks. That’s tough for those parents who are late to recognise that their child needs meaningful help. Though, this has changed slightly now with the addition of the Senior School taking boys up to the age of 16: they can start their Bruern journey in the Prep School and then have the option of carrying on up the ladder.

Dare to disagree? Be my guest! There’s no particular open day here but get in touch with the school and enjoy the ride!

Bruern Abbey School, Chesterton Manor, Chesterton, Bicester, Oxfordshire, OX26 1UY. Bruern Abbey Senior School, Chilton, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP18 9LR. Tel: 01869 242448. W: bruernabbey.org.

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