Leighton Park School, Reading
Muddy says: A progressive, non-selective, first-name only Quaker school with huge grounds in the centre of Reading, and out-of-this-world facilities.
Something a bit different – my first Quaker school on the Muddy Best Schools Guide, and not what I was expecting at all. Really fascinating school this one, I think you’ll be surprised by it.
LEIGHTON PARK SCHOOL, READING
What? Where? Leighton Park School is an independent, co-ed boarding and day school for kids 11–18. There are 455 students with a 60% boy/ 40% girl split The school offers day, weekly, flexi and full boarding in five co-ed boarding houses. Yes people, co-ed boarding houses! I’ll come back to that little gem later on…
The school is set in a whopping 60 acres of parkland. The kids get to lessons in golf buggies (only joking) and it’s within walking distance of Reading town centre. Its been described as ‘one of the two lungs of Reading’, the other being the University right next door, and the green open space as far as the eye can see is definitely a huge tick in the box and rare for a town school. It goes on….
Leighton Park is one of 10 Quaker schools in the UK. In practice, it’s not a religious school (only a small number of staff and students are actually Quakers) and is open to all faiths, but the school was founded on Quaker principles. Though Quakerism has its roots in the 1650s (read more on it here history bods), the 7 Quaker principles of respect, integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, truth, and sustainability on which the school is founded and continues to run, feel very modern.
In fact, one of the students put it perfectly – ‘If you take God out of the equation, it’s just about teaching you to live in a nice, respectful way.’ So if you’re not a particularly religious family, and were doubtful about the Quakerism aspect of the school, I’d say park that fear. Quakers believe in the immense potential of each individual and that’s probably the overriding element I felt aware of during my visit.
There are some specific Quaker practices that will be entirely different to what you, I and no doubt your children have ever participated it, the most obvious being the morning ‘Collect’ meeting, the Quaker equivalent of the morning assembly. But instead of doodling on hymn books and swapping postcards of popstars you fancied (come on, you must have done that too!), or yawning through Morning Has Broken for the hundredth time, staff and students at Leighton Park gather in the school hall below in the round to have 20 minute’s quiet time to reflect in silence.
It’s also the place where any child or staff member can have ‘Ministry’, when they’re able to stand up and speak without being interrupted or listening to a rebuttal. I think that’s incredible – both the meditative side of it, plus the sense for all kids that they have a voice and a right to be heard, but also the lesson in listening, something the wilfully deaf Mudlets would definitely benefit from when I’m screeching Tidy your rooms now. Now. NOWWWWW! ‘
There’s a strong sense of internationalism at Leighton Park and not surprising really – it’s one of those bucolic-looking English schools that overseas parents gaspingly want their kids to experience. A fifth of students come from overseas and they represent a staggering 36 different nationalities, but importantly, they all speak good English before they come to the school, so that they can learn with the rest of the class and the kids can integrate properly.
Facilities: As you might expect with such amazing acreage, the school isn’t lacking in things to fill the space. There’s a 25-metre indoor heated pool, trampolines, a floodlit astroturf used for hockey, netball and basketball, 16 all-weather tennis court and a new cardio fitness centre with top of the range running and fitness machines, as well as acres of pitches to help burn off that boundless energy.
Newer additions include a spinky spanky ICT suite (in addition to the three existing) and PCs throughout the school recently replaced with over 130 new machines, plus 12 new computers installed in the library, a new Food Technology facility and the purchase of 19 new Yamaha pianos in the school’s 125th anniversary year. Phew!
The school buildings are a typical juxtaposition of old (mostly Victorian) and a mish-mash of modern additions spanning the decades. I’ve gotta be honest, some ain’t pretty, but then some are beautiful, so just blink at the appropriate moments.
What else? Well, the big flagwave to an already brilliant music department is that work is well underway for a new Music and Media Centre being incorporated into the current main hall, due to be finished in Autumn 2017. I saw the plans and they’re really cool, including 10 new practice rooms, 3 new classrooms, a Radio 1 style live lounge (loving that idea), media room and extended foyer which can be used for smaller productions. It’s costing into the millions, so the school definitely puts its its money where its mouth is.
More? There’s a large library that stretches over a series of six rooms on the top floor of the main Old School building, with views out over the grand central turned staircase…
… plus a swanky new purpose-built restaurant with a strong emphasis on healthy eating with a budget to back it up.
Music: Music is one of the school’s massive strengths (Brit Award Laura Marling is a former student) and is of an exceptionally high standard. 33 peri teachers come in to teach over 260 music lessons a week – so that’s more than half the kids. I met the Director of Music, Rosemary Scales (could there be a better name for a music teacher?!) who’s been at the school for nearly 14 years and she’s one of those charismatic, can-do teachers that kids never forget.
She organises weekly concerts, international music tours (Malta, Sicily, Holland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Croatia and Bosnia), choirs, chamber groups, and a bi-annual massive music production that, judging from the photos, looks scarily professional. As you know if you read Muddy regularly, I’m a lapsed musician myself, so I have a very beady eye when it comes to music facilities. Parents of talented musos, send them here in a flash.
Sport: Like most secondary schools with less than 500 kids, Leighton Park finds it tricky to field teams against the bigger, super competitive schools. There’s no doubt that much of the investment goes into music and the dramatic arts, and there were rumblings from some kids that they’d like more money to be siphoned into sport but there are some successes – the girls’ netball and hockey teams are smashing it at the moment with both senior netball teams playing in the Super 8 League, and there’s also an arrangement with London Irish who use the school grounds to train in return for holding rugby coaching clinics. The indoor sports facilities are earmarked for improvement.
Boarding The school is co-ed ‘to the core’ and this includes co-ed boarding houses. Before you reach for your smelling salts and apply your moral chastity belt, it’s not as risque as it sounds. Yes, the co-ed concept goes back to the Quaker belief of mutual respect but the sharing only extends to the social and recreational areas on the ground floors – lounge, games room, small kitchenette, lockers – where the boarders (including day boarders) can watch TV, play games and chill out.
Boys and girls are housed in separate wings with alarmed doors and if there is a ‘breach’ then the sirens go off at full pelt, men in black wire in from the roof and growling Alsatians appear from dormitory wardrobes. Oh alright, maybe not, but the Head was quite clear that such issues would be dealt with swiftly. Plus there are five adults in every boarding house with one living on each floor so you know, opportunities to do some unQuakerly quaking don’t come around often.
I stuck my head into a few bedrooms which were all pretty standard, single study bedrooms for sixth formers while younger students share a room with one to three others. They all had the usual home-from-home comforts – posters, photos, ‘I Love One Direction’ duvet covers.
The boarding house I saw was was fine in terms of space and facilities but looked a little tired. Apparently, Reckitt House boarding rooms have just been refurbished with new furniture, carpet, lighting and a coat of paint – I think some of the other houses could benefit from a facelift too.
Academic results: The Head describes Leighton Park as ‘selective but not highly selective’ and I definitely didn’t feel that pressure cooker element that you do in other selective schools. Results are very good. Just under 70% of the kids gained A* to B grades at GCSE. This year the school has seen considerable success in the STEM subjects with 84% of Physics students, 82% of chemistry students and 82% of maths students awarded A*-B grades. Design Technology is hot too with an impressive 91% of students getting A*-B.
In A-Levels 62% of pupils gained A* to B grades and at IB students achieved an average of 34 points out of a maximum score of 45 (set against a worldwide average of 29).
Head teacher: Nigel Williams, below, has been at Leighton Park for an incredible 22 years in various roles (someone give that man a medal, a gold watch or a Med cruise) and became Head in 2013. He was open and relaxed and very chatty, and I liked his method of ‘I will trust you until you show me that I can’t trust you’, which seems to be working. He was so jolly I’m not sure I can picture him being stern, but you don’t get to become a headteacher these days without some kind of inner steel so I’m sure he’s no pushover.
Quirks: Depending on how forward thinking you are the school’s Quakerism could definitely be considered quirky to some. The Quaker values, the value placed on individuality, the collective moments of silence – it’s a different approach to education that some parents and children might not be ready for. I would just say keep an open mind.
Students and staff all call each other by their first names and this approachability permeates throughout the whole school, there’s no ‘them and us’. If a child steps out of line or breaks the rules, it would result in a lot more discussion than at other schools, rather than automatically resorting to punishment. Discipline can almost seem hidden but it’s not soft. Personally I think that’s a good way round – more carrot, less stick.
There are some lovely quirks within the grounds including an artist-in-residence in one of the portacabins and a lovely orchard with bee hives and a seating area under the trees made up of a circle of logs for outside lessons. There’s also about 10 acres of fields and meadows in the immediate vicinity of the school buildings and boarding houses where children can roam free, with a strictly enforced signing in and out system in all the boarding houses.
Wrap around care: Quite simply, excellent. Available from 7am to 10pm. Day pupils are known as ‘Day Boarders’ and each student is attached to one of the five boarding houses. Day students can arrive for breakfast at 7am and stay for activities, dinner, prep and just hanging out with their friends, and only have to leave when the boarding houses are locked at 10pm. So if a parent is running late, they only have to call and they know their child is safe and being fed! All meals are included in the fees. Basically, the safety net is totally there if like me you are habitually running late or have to juggle work, school and home life and drop more balls than you keep in the air.
Fees: Juniors (Y7 and 8) – £5,563 per term for day students and £8,623 for full boarding; Seniors – £6,940 for day and £10,808 for full boarding. Fees include all meals for all students regardless of whether they board or not.
ISI Report: A relatively recent report – the ISI inspected the school in November 2014, and awarded it ‘excellent’ in most aspects.
Word on the ground: I spoke to a mum whose children were at LP. Firstly, she said the food is blinking amazing (I am liking her priorities). She admits the school offers a broadly different approach that might not suit everyone, but they get results by going a different route. She feels the ethos is really good preparation for uni and the real world in terms of confidence and people skills. Another mum I spoke to who knew several Old Leightonians made an interesting point that many of them were entrepreneurs. You can take this either way – that they don’t handle authority well or that they are independent free-thinkers who like to blaze a trail. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Children of more liberal parents who like the idea of their child being given more freedom than they’re likely to get at other independent schools. Children of all abilities who want to be taught in a nurturing, gentle and positive environment – there is definitely a sense of calm and openness about the school that resonated with me in the few short hours I spent there. Quirkier children who might not fit the typical school model – individualism is celebrated here. Music and drama are outstanding and sport is covered off well for a school of its size.
Not for: Well, if you’re not into co-ed schooling you can cross it off your list right now! The school’s unique approach – calling teachers by their first names, co-ed boarding, giving students freedom to roam – this might be a red flag for some parents if they feel their child needs more boundaries. A town centre school might not suit everyone, but given the extensive grounds, you really wouldn’t know you were in the centre of Reading.
Dare to disagree? You can have a look for yourself at one of the school’s regular open mornings – the next one is on Tues 13 Sept 10.15am-12.30pm, or there’s the big annual open morning on Sat 1 Oct. Let me know what you think.
Leighton Park School, Shinfield Road, Reading RG2 7ED. www.leightonpark.com