THE ABBEY SCHOOL
Muddy says: One of the top day prep and secondary girls' schools in the UK, The Abbey School in Reading is unusual for its central city location.
One of the best day girls’ schools in the UK, The Abbey School in central Reading takes kids from nursery through to Sixth form.
THE ABBEY SCHOOL, READING
What? Where? The Abbey school is an independent girls’ day school in central Reading, taking kids from nursery through to Sixth form. The school is spread over several sites – the Nursery school in Knell House, the Junior School in its own multiple buildings, and then the Senior School a couple of minutes drive down the road. There’s a large intake here – 358 girls in the Junior school rising to 717 in the Senior, with several coach routes bringing in girls from Oxon, Bucks, Berks and Hants. Many Senior girls come on the train to the new Reading station – walkable to the school.
The school buildings are largely Victorian villas, with modern additions – the Senior school being the most impressive-looking. Though there is some outside space (the Junior school provision being particularly good with a new astroturf and play equipment), don’t expect acres of grassland here – this is a proper city school and space is not the selling point here.
The Junior School (up to Y6) has recently expanded and bought Abbey Gardens, a Victorian villa to house Reception and Year 1 kids, which has a brand new astroturf for the school. There’s a large drama studio with ballet barre which connects to the music room next door, a science lab and two separate dining spaces.
Across at the Senior school, there’s a newish building at the front of the school (built 5 years back) with 8 modern classrooms, 3 Art studios, kiln room, Graphic Design ICT suite, and a Conference Room for when the Sixth Form want to take a vote on whether to bunk off for the day (JOKE!). The science block has 12 labs – they’re keen on science here, with biology using cutting edge 3D teaching with the whole 3D glasses thing going on. Beats dissecting rats (remember that?), that’s for sure.
There’s a full size floodlit astro for hockey and athletics, 25m swimming pool with 3m diving board and springboard right in the middle of the school (you walk past it down a main corridor – pretty cool) , gym, netball and tennis courts and a dance studio. Sport is strong here – last year the U16 girls were Berkshire Netball and Berkshire Hockey Champs (something about these U16s), but swimming and athletics are also well supported.
For thespy girls there are two drama studios and there’s an enormous main school hall with lighting rigs etc where full scale productions are put on. For budding actresses there are two drama studios and there’s an enormous main school hall with lighting rigs etc where full scale productions are put on. The girls recently made headline news performing Beauty And The Beast the night before Emma Watson’s Disney blockbuster launched in UK cinemas. No pressure then – though what did they care? They sold out all three shows!
There’s the usual array of peripatetic music teachers with promises to find any musical tutor to weird instrumental choices, but it seems that music is taken seriously, particularly classical – at Senior School the Orchestra, Choir and Concert band take it in turns to do a summer European tour and there’s a major musical production every two years. At the Junior School there’s a chamber choir, orchestra and instrumental groups.
Academic results: Excellent. For GCSE in 2016: 50% of papers received A* grades and 82% were graded at A*- A. Seven girls gained a clean sweep of 11 A* grades. And in IB, it’s in the Top 10 schools globally with a 38 point average. The combined results of IB and A levels saw 89% of all girls earning the equivalent of A*-B grades, with 43% gaining the equivalent of straight A*-A grades. Bonkersly good.
Rachel Dent (above) started in September 2015 as Head of The Abbey having been Deputy at the Senior School and Head of Sixth Form when she joined in 2006. Remarkably she’s only the sixth Head in 128 years (I know, the mind boggles – she may combust into dust in 2085 in a school corridor). I’ve met her a couple of times now and she’s clearly passionate about the school. She handled a recent tragedy in the school with strong leadership.
Over at the Juniors, Nicola Dick-Cleland (above) is the new leader, having been promoted after three years as Assistant Head. Formerly a psychotherapist (too easy to joke about how useful that will be in the job), she seems to have a grounded approach to education. I liked her emphasis on letting the children stay young as long as possible and not putting too much academic pressure on them. Certainly the lessons I poked my head into seemed very practical and lots of fun and not hot-housey.
I think if you’re used to thinking of private schools as having loads of land, the biggest quirk to The Abbey is that it simply doesn’t have it – but the converse of that is that being so central, the girls grow to understand how to stay safe in a city and become mature young adults and being 5 minutes walk from The Oracle, how to shop in it too (just saying). I would never have considered a city school for my daughter prior to coming here, having specifically left London for space and fresh air for my kids, but it’s definitely opened my eyes to some potential benefits. If you can’t offer grand vistas and roaming, you have to work doubly hard to offer the other stuff. And the other stuff is important.
Finally, The Abbey is the only all girls school in central Reading – not so much a quirk as a fact! So no boys twanging bra straps, and a whole lot of smart ambitious girls – anyone who wants to be head girl, prefect, even the person who shows around prospective parents has to apply and be interviewed for the ‘job’. That by nature makes The Abbey competitive and sharply aspirational. Your judgement call will be whether that suits your daughter’s personality and what you want for her.
Academically girls can choose at Sixth Form between International Baccalaureate or A level – there’s a pledge to timetable all desired combinations which sounds impressive to me. The Abbey is a Pilot school for the IB in Global Politics which sounds quite groovy for those who want to save the world (or just make sense of it).
Wrap around care:
The school has relatively short days – it’s hometime by 3.30 (Reception – to Y2) or 3.45pm (Y3 onwards) unless you’re staying for after school clubs. There’s actually an ethos to this, which is that The Abbey encourages a life outside of the school gate. So where some private schools will keep kids until 6pm and do everything within the grounds, The Abbey sees a benefit in experiences away from school.
However, if you’re a working parent there’s a school supervised homework club (no charge) for those that want to stay until 5.45, along with various after school music, drama and sport activities. Sixth Formers can stay in Sixth Form Centre or Library for independent study as and when they like. In the Junior School, you can pay extra for a morning session (7.45-8.30am) with or without breakfast (a princely £3-3.50!) There’s also an after-school session from 3.45-5.45pm for £8 including a snack. Seniors can can buy breakfast from 8am (unsupervised).
Fees: Average and on a increasing scale as you go up the school. Junior School prices are from £4,150 (Y1), £4,620 (Y2), £4,770 (Y3-4), £4,810 (Y5-6). Senior School prices for all years are £5510 per term. If you’re interested in the Nursery, a full day is £3,370 going up to £3,950 for a 4+ child.
Word on the ground: The whisperings from parents reflect the very positive ISI report that came out late last year – The Abbey excels academically and pastorally too. The old criticism levelled at The Abbey it’s pushy and hothousey seems to have disippated. Also, the mums I spoke to didn’t care about the lack of space which kind of surprised me, but I guess they see the benefits elsewhere.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Free thinkers. The Abbey puts massive emphasis on getting girls ready for the world, creating independent, street-smart, well rounded women. Those who like progress – a brand new uniform has come into force and it’s ruffling feathers!
Not for: Those looking for acreage. There’s very little outdoor space in the Senior school, so if your idea of the perfect school includes gamboling children in rolling fields, this isn’t the place for you. Also, The Abbey is oversubscribed as a school and so has the ability to take in clever, ambitious, driven girls, so you’d want to make sure that your daughter wasn’t going to struggle to keep up with the pack.
Dare to disagree?! Have a look for yourself at the Senior Open Day on Friday 28 April or the Junior Open Day on Friday 5 May 2017. As ever, if you make it, please let me know your thoughts, I’m all ears!
The Abbey School, Kendrick Road, Reading, RG1 5DZ. Tel: 0118 987 2256
The Abbey Junior School, 30 Christchurch Road, Reading, RG2 7AR. Tel: 0118 931 3111
Updated facts and figures from my visit in Sept 2016.