The Good Schools Guide review
The Good Schools Guide review January 2017
Taunton Preparatory School is thrilled to have been described by an independent top UK school guide - The Good Schools Guide - as a ‘terrific all-rounder’.
The Good Schools Guide is the number one trusted guide to schools in the UK aimed at helping parents in every aspect of choosing the best education for their children.
Here is the review in its entirety:
Academically a very safe pair of hands across the board - just the right blend of extra-mile dedication and judicious professionalism. One pupil told us she’d really taken off at the school and showed us written work which demonstrated sound understanding of the parenthetical comma. You don’t see them very often these days. It doesn’t matter a bit if you’re not sporty, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing inexpertly, it’s meant to be fun.
Taunton isn’t one of those towns that tops any tables for loveliness, well-being or up-and-comingness. Closer inspection reveals that it’s no one’s best kept secret, either. When you discover that the town is the beneficiary of a regeneration scheme your expectancy levels may droop some more, leading you to suppose that its schools aren’t necessarily going to be anything to write home about. And there you’d be bang wrong. Just as we were. The town is home to a couple of blisteringly good state schools (‘outstanding’ in Ofsted speak) and three independents. When it comes to education, the good people of Taunton and environs are spoiled for choice. So how do you choose? One parent we spoke to chose Taunton Prep School - TPS they call it in everyday speak - because ‘We liked the way it made us feel.’ Much to be said for that.
TPS occupies its own self-contained campus bang next door to the senior school in the leafy northern outskirts of the town, bounded by the railway to the south and the A358 to the north. It has none of the huddledness of so many town schools, while the spacious playing fields further mitigate any urban vibe. It feels like its own place. Buildings a mix of Victorian and later, nicely maintained. That’s not all: we have never seen a cleaner school nor have we met cleaners who so much enjoyed their work. Shares its chapel with the senior school. Established to educate the sons of dissenters but not Methodists. In place of foundational sectarianism we found only indulgent broad church values. An international contingent, around 10 of them, feed through from the international middle school - TSIMS (tee-sims) - when their English is up to it.
Demographically there’s no pinning TPS down. It’s popular with hardworking local entrepreneurs and businesspeople wanting the best for their children and for whom this is their first experience of private education. They told us that the school didn’t talk down to them like others they looked round, it’s not ‘grand and intimidating’. TPS is also attractive to parents for whom private is second nature and who like the (relatively) wide social spectrum here. TPS has long been attractive to Forces families, for whom the school very much sets out its stall - to officers and other ranks equally. The draw for them, as for other nomadic families, is that TPS, together with the pre-prep and the senior school, gives them a fixed point from 0-18. So: not a muddy-wellie school, nor a set apart school, but a modern school very much part of, and involved in, the local community. To use a word du jour, inclusive.
Academically a very safe pair of hands across the board - just the right blend of extra-mile dedication and judicious professionalism. Every subject is well resourced. Parents of bright children tell us their child is stretched but not to snapping point; parents whose children need support tell us that’s what they get, and never in such a way as to make them feel like dawdlers. Lots of praise for the teachers. One parent said, ‘You fire off an email last thing at night and get an almost instant reply - it can be embarrassing’. Plenty of celebration of achievement according to your lights - a word oft-repeated by parents is ‘nurturing’. One pupil told us she’d really taken off at the school and showed us written work which demonstrated sound understanding of the parenthetical comma. You don’t see them very often these days. Maths exceedingly strong - terrific showings in Maths Challenge and an inspirational head of department who left one of your profoundly innumerate reviewers feeling there may still be hope. DT especially strong. Thinking skills a new addition to the academic mix. The head speaks of the children being on a ‘GCSE continuum’ which makes sense when pretty much everyone goes on the senior school. Lots of dialogue with the senior school and, big strength, some teacher sharing, especially in languages, classics and sport. Currently working on a joint IT strategy with senior school, a bring-your-own-device scheme ‘the intention for the future’. IT has just enjoyed a £600,000 investment. Good blend of male:female teachers, roughly a third male. Saturday school til lunchtime for years 7 and 8. Special educational needs addressed by a team headed up by a head of learning success (neatly standing a downside on its head). The full spectrum of SENs, mostly, note, on the mild side - 10 per cent on the register. Architecturally wheelchair-unfriendly but they’re willing to put themselves out for visually and hearing impaired children and wobbly walkers - head expresses a willingness to ‘address the needs of any prospective pupil and see what reasonable adjustments could be made’.
Former England batsman Marcus Trescothick coaches cricket here and former England netball team manager Lisa Manley coaches netball so yes, this is a school that takes its sport seriously, generates good stats and crowns a sportsperson of the week at every Monday morning assembly. A very few parents feel sport is taken a bit too seriously, worry that it distracts from the academics and don’t relish traipsing in of a Saturday evening and collecting their child from a bus. But maxing out every daylight hour in the week is what a good prep school does; it’s all bang for your buck, and busy children who do lots, studies show, get the best results. Around a dozen of the best children rise to county level. No also-rans if they can help it: they try to give everyone the chance to play for their school at least once. It doesn’t matter a bit if you’re not sporty, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing inexpertly, it’s meant to be fun. Decent mix of other sports on offer. Facilities are on the amazing side, many their own, some shared with the senior school.
Not many prep schools have their own performing arts centre but TPS does. Not many prep schools have quite such a passionate head of performing arts, either. We were particularly beguiled by five little French hornists parping away pluckily. The French horn is a frightfully difficult instrument at any age and to see so many seemed to set an aspirational benchmark. One mum we spoke to was taken by surprise when her son, having previously evinced neither interest nor aptitude, suddenly took to the trumpet, and this after a daughter had been identified as having an unsuspectedly good voice - ‘They spot talents you never knew they had’. Here’s a thing: in years 4, 6 and 8 everyone plays a part in a musical for which a whole week of all-day rehearsals is set aside. Everyone. The whole week. Don’t parents march on the school demanding proper lessons? No they don’t, they reckon the benefit outweighs any academic impact, they trust the school completely. Given that this is not a school whose parents are the sort to allow it to play fast and loose with scholastic attainment, what does that tell you? Lots of performance opportunities, formal and informal, at some of which parents join in. Senior choir sings in churches abroad. All in all, a rich and very classy mix. Heaps of lunchtime and after-school activities on offer. Go home at 4pm or stay to 5.30pm for clubs and prep (homework) periods.
Parents praise pastoral support and rapid response to glitches arising. First port of call is the form tutor. Head’s door is ever open - stride on in. No prefect system; it was abolished by the present head to universal crossness and dismay - a parent told us, ‘It’s the only time I went to the school and complained’ - and replaced by year 8 councillors. Senior pupils apply for a role in writing then stand for election by everyone, including teachers. All are trained in peer mentoring. And it has all come good, making for a kinder environment with higher mutual respect levels and without saying goodbye to leadership opportunities. Parents praise the way the school celebrates kindness and ‘is quick to support self-esteem’. You quickly pick up on the social atmosphere here because everyone is so naturally nice and courteous, welcoming of strangers, and that’s not something you find everywhere by any means. Try this: flip through the photos in the school magazine - the unstaged ones. Don’t all parents want their children to look like these?
Some 30 children are full boarders, around 10 per cent of the roll, a number small enough to make you justly jittery. Aren’t these simply left-behind children? Lots of schools couldn’t make this work, not with so few. But TPS does. The accommodation is clean and snug. There’s access to senior school facilities. The staff are brilliant, that’s key, and the children are clearly well looked after and happy. Our misgivings evaporated. In the course of the year around a third of all pupils board. All flexi options available down to sleepover, and if you’re caught late at work the boarding staff will look after your child till you come to collect.
The nursery and pre-prep is self-contained on the prep school site. None of the higgledy-piggledness that characterises some pre-preps, no sense of being an architectural afterthought. Described by one parent as ‘the jewel in the crown’. Lovely atmosphere, really good staff, brilliantly led. Intelligent use of teaching materials, the best of the new plus golden-oldie classics. Huge pride in their forest school - outdoor areas where the children can play, hunt for bugs and bumble about. Aftercare til 5.45pm at no extra cost.
Marmite schools are schools with a highly distinctive personality and probably a stand-out specialism. These are schools that some children love and others don’t. TPS is not a Marmite school. So, a very good ordinary school, then? Well, if you want to put it that way, yes, this is a school for every child, a place where values of humanity come first, where happy children find out who they are and what they can do and then go on and play out of their socks. Ordinariness at its best, then. Extremely personable. A terrific all-rounder.
Until July 2017 Duncan Sinclair MA HDE. Ex-semi-professional rugby forward, clarinettist and chorister. Born in Zimbabwe, moved to South Africa aged 7. St Michael’s Sevenoaks since 2002. Here since 2013.
Incoming head from September 2017, Andrew Edwards BA PGCE. Early 50s. Also an all-rounder: degree in French and German, coaching qualifications in football, tennis and cricket, cellist to diploma standard, school inspector - and solicitor. Two years of lawyering in the City just didn’t do it for him so he pluckily bundled sports kit, French text books and a cello into the boot of his disreputable Nissan Cherry and went peripatetic until snapped up by Cottesmore. Here he is 20 years later having done time at Port Regis, Dumpton and Castle Court. Currently head of Park School, Bournemouth for the last six years.
The interval between one head leaving and another beginning is a corridor of uncertainty. Seeking to address qualms we tracked down Mr Edwards and quizzed him. Turns out he likes things just the way they are at his next school, so no major engine rebuild planned, fine tuning only. Not a believer that an eye-catching USP is everything - ‘There’s nothing wrong with doing what other schools do, the important thing is to do them extremely well’ - so no hey-look-at-us joy-riding, either. Not so much a continuity candidate, more a continuous improver. Parents feel that following recent restructuring and staff departures - for the best, all agree - a period of calm is in order. Mr Edwards is a believer in rigour, challenge and respect, but his educational philosophy has it its heart the s-factor. Smiles. The more the merrier. Sound a tad, we don’t know, mawkish? Okay, so what better way to measure a school? Our view: Mr Edwards is a Good Thing, a good fit. As an all-rounder, he’s exactly what his new school is. Following two relatively quickfire headships here parents will be pleased to know that he has his eye on a decent innings. Married to Robyn, also a teacher. Two boys.
Non-selective. Start at 0 in the nursery or come any time from a local school or other prep schools if (big if) there’s room. Overseas students join when they’re ready from Taunton International Middle School. Taster days on request. Range of scholarships at 11 for entry to year 7.
Pretty much everyone to the senior school, a natural progression and for most parents the whole point. No one is de-selected; this is a cradle-to-adulthood school.
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