Thornton College, Milton Keynes
A peaceful rural setting and nurturing ethos underpins this high-achieving all girls school 3-18 in North Buckinghamshire
Thornton College is a non-selective day and boarding school for girls in the village of Thornton, between Milton Keynes and Buckingham. It luxuriates in 25 acres of grand, verdant, grounds with a centrepiece Victorian Tudor-gothic house (in which around 60 of the children board), with attendant walled garden, ancient orchard and 14th century church.
The school provides a unified site for over 410 girls (3 -18 years) from pre-reception through to Sixth Form, with no more than 20 in a class. A Catholic foundation, it upholds Christian principles and values but welcome all faiths (currently 18% of students are Catholic).
What to do with such lovely grounds? Fill them of course! The headline sports facilities include an astroturf, running track and long jump, heated 20m swimming pool, whopper sports hall, netball courts, hockey pitches and eight tennis courts.
The main sports are as you’d expect, though rounders has been replaced by cricket, plus football and dance are high on the physical agenda.
In terms of buildings it’s impressive too – I’m loving the Expressive Art Studio, above (I’m not being facetious, that’s its name!), a bright, modern dance and performance space. There’s also a ballet studio and green room at Thornton. Drama and dance are big here and the school has won countless awards for both, from remote learning accolades to recitation of Shakespeare.
What else? Well if you fancy a flat white, there’s a snazzy one for sixth formers, staff and parents (before and after school til 6pm!) in the grounds. And the Junior School had a serious spruce in 2010 – well, more like a total reinvention – with the St Clare building, which provides classrooms, ICT suits and four labs (one for Junior Science, the other three for Chemistry, Physics and Biology).
The Sixth Form came into existence in 2016 and has its own rather quirky quarters up in the rafters of the school. The most recent renovations have been to the dining room, which the head now compares to a John Lewis café, and includes a salad bar and cooking station for pancakes and noodles. The Head Chef has recently used the catering company van to serve special boarders breakfasts and ice creams for all on Sports Day!
Catch ’em young and watch them grow! Like many schools I visit, Thornton has invested in its pre-prep, hoping to nurture the little ones right through the school. In the last year it has rebranded nursery as a girls-only pre-reception, starting from age three.
The idea is that pre-reception isn’t so much a creche as a transition year, getting the littlies ready to start school by learning phonics, literacy and numeracy. If that all sounds a bit too tiger mum, the head assures me this is done in an age appropriate way and with plenty of play and outdoorsy fun at forest school. The Thevenet Wing is purpose built building (June 2002) for little ones, with its own playground and cottage garden, and room for their assemblies.
The school is ‘proudly non-selective’ according to the head Val Holmes, and its continued offering of vocational courses in addition to A-levels nods to this breadth of academic ability. Sixth Form students can, for example, combine a B-tech in Health & Sociology with an A-Level in Psychology. Criminology and Forensic Science is the other B-tech, and alongside offerings like coding, AI learning, robotics and virtual reality workshops, it feels like the education offering here is moving with the times. The most recent ISI report is still the 2016 review. It suggested a need for a greater range of GSCE subjects, which was acted upon, and lo-and-behold study options at this level now include Dance, Business Studies, PE, Government and Politics and Psychology.
And you can’t be too miffed with results like these in a non-selective school: GCSEs: 27% grades 9/8 (A*); 45% 9/7 (A*-A); 88% of all grades (A*-C). For A Levels, 53% of all grades A* – A; 75% A*- B and 92 % of all grades A* – C with 100% of Vocational Awards graded at Distinction and Distinction*.
Another nod to academic success and a university/careers department that’s doing its job, is that every student got her first choice of university/course to follow onto after Sixth Form in 2020 and 2021.
Around 60 girls board here, the majority weekly but there’s also a termly option for those further afield (the school has its share of students from abroad), and also flexi boarding on offer. Kids can board from the age of 7 (Y3), with many boarding weekly from Y5.
The latest addition to the Boarding offering is The Villa – a block for Year 13 boarders that gives them more independence and a taste of adult life. It’s a great idea for molly-coddled who otherwise might head off to uni without a clue how to work a washing machine or make themselves beans on toast.
Across the boarding houses, the rooms were better equipped and better kept than many I’ve come across (let’s face it, being an all girl school helps!) and there are plans to extend the boarding provision further, depending on demand.
Val Holmes has been in situ since Sept 2018, and her plans include expanding links with overseas and local schools, building up boarding and growing the Sixth Form. A chatty, energetic presence, she’s also spending time emphasising the inclusive nature of the education she believes Thornton offers – her own upbringing in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, she told me, has given her a taste for bringing together different nationalities and religions, tolerance and respect, rather than keeping them separate.
Not a school easily described as quirky – Thornton feels pretty hot on tradition and order to me. But there’s definitely a progressive vein in the education, with the mastery approach to teaching inspired by Shanghai Mathematics and afore mentioned STEAM subjects. Thornton was the first school in the region and one of the first in the UK to trial MekaMon quadruped robots to teach coding and is a 2020 winner in the Independent School of the Year Awards for its Careers Programme.
Thornton College is part of a large international trust, Sisters of Jesus and Mary, with family schools in 28 countries around the world, and regards itself as a family. Rather like my New Zealand husband who was welcomed any Kiwi home wherever we were in the world, so it is with Thornton College girls who, by all accounts, can find a warm welcome with members of Sisters of Jesus and Mary wherever they are. Sure beats the YMCA, right?
Jazz hands at the ready and leg-warmers on – the creative arts are a big deal here, proven by the most popular subject across the whole school being drama. That’s pretty incredible, I’ve never come across that before.
Dance and ballet are offered from pre-reception upwards, and there’s a high take up of LAMDA – the latest results claimed 100% Distinction or Merits. On the music front, the Thornton College Choirs are standard bearers, winning local festivals and fielding 6 different groups. Music GCSE results have all been 9-6 (A* – B) for the last four years, and there’s a wide variety of ensembles, from samba drumming and ukulele ensembles to jazz band and orchestras.
WRAP AROUND CARE
A bus will pick your little angel up and drop off at your front door (for a fee naturally), covering the whole of MK area and surrounding towns and villages. But if you need out of hours attention, there’s a breakfast club from 7.45am, pick up for Y1,2 and 3 at 6pm or 7pm after supper for Y4 upwards. If you’ve really overdone the after-work drinks, there’s also flexi boarding on offer (for your daughter, not you!).
I’d say fees are slightly better value than their south-Bucks counterparts, starting at £3,515 per term for Reception and Y1, going up to £4,395 for Y4-6, and boarding starting at £6,175 (weekly) to £7,680 (termly), going up to £7,815 (weekly) to £9,525 (termly) for senior students.
School transport fees are £470 (one way) and £810 per child per term depending on location. Overnight stay at Thornton is £39 including all evening supervision, meals and accommodation. Weekend stays £147 per weekend plus the cost of any excursions/activities. Breakfast club is £3 per day, and study & supper £6 per day.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Thornton’s been described by Val Holmes in the past as a ‘hidden gem’ but its reputation is now starting to be felt locally and beyond with its recent national accolades – it’s currently shortlisted for Independent Girls’ School of the Year 2021 – and a growing awareness of its strong academic and extra-curricular offering.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Those looking for a nurturing, affirming school that is also strong on academics and extra-curricular experiences. Parents who want a peaceful, rural setting for their daughter’s education. There’s much to be said for a school with a mixed and tolerant religious cohort too in these troubled times.
NOT FOR: 26 acres in rural Buckinghamshire might feel a bit quiet for more flamboyant characters as they rise up further through the school. Thornton welcomes all religions, but the school is underpinned by a strong Christian ethos which you’ll either buy into or not.
DARE TO DISAGREE? Be my guest! The next Open Day is on 9 October 2021 – let me know what you think. Thornton are also happy to offer personal tours on a date and at a time that suits you; to arrange this please email Miss Alice Ho, Admissions Manager, Aho@thorntoncollege.com.
Thornton College, Thornton, Milton Keynes, MK17 0HJ. Tel: 01280 812610