The Good Schools Guide Review
The Good Schools Guide review March 2017
Taunton School is delighted to have been described by a top UK school guide as a school ‘for every boy and girl’.
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:
Since 2015, Lee Glaser MA BSc PGCE, deputy head since 2009. Educated at his local comp in Blackpool and Liverpool University (maths). Qualified as a chartered accountant with Coopers & Lybrand, then turned his back on bean-counting and trained to be a teacher. Millfield for 14 years, maths teacher, senior master and director of sport; he’s a diehard sports enthusiast rather than a dead good player. By general agreement he has made a very decent fist of taking over from a bouncy, charismatic head with a silver tongue and a penchant for continuous change. There’s been enough of that; Mr Glaser’s here to get the trains running on time and bed things down. Doesn’t mean innovation is off the cards by any means, mind. Spent his first year appointing a new senior management team and agreeing vision and strategy which is expressed graphically by five pillars - see website - and is, we find, very definitely not a confection of buzz words and blah. If ‘challenge, inspire, nurture’ is what you want to hear, Mr Glaser is right behind them. A realist (as well as an accountant) he’s a big believer in sound finances. Everyone likes him - he’s ‘approachable’, a wysiwyg kind of a guy, ‘good sense of humour’, ‘accessible, a good listener’, ‘right person at the right time’, ‘a nuts and bolts person’, ‘sticking to the knitting’. Very visible, his door is open to students first thing every morning. Oratorical skills reckoned to be improving. When he eventually steps down he hopes the consensus view of his bottom line will be that he ‘improved everything’.
Wife Liz is a practising accountant. Two girls, both at the school. Chocolate lab, Lola. Mr Glaser enjoys music and drama. Faced with shipwreck on a desert island he would lunge for Sympathy for the Devil (Stones) and Sebastian Faulkes’ Engleby.
Results are sound considering the non-selective intake: 41 per cent A*/A at A level or equivalent in 2016, 51 per cent at GCSE. IB diploma average score was 32. GCSE results broadly strengthening. Good range of subjects offered in the sixth form resulting in some very small class sizes. In terms of national averages strong in maths, history, biology, geography. Fewer top grades in physics, economics, business studies and psychology but signs of recent improvement. Curriculum well judged to accommodate a relatively wide range of abilities. Subject range embraces the usual suspects and includes, classy touch, Latin to A level. Open-minded about adding vocational subjects to the mix if sufficiently broad-based to act as a springboard to a spectrum of career choices - hence the BTec in sport and exercise science, equivalent to three A levels and laying the ground for a variety of employment sectors. Just under half of the first cohort achieved three triple starred distinctions. Performance table data shows expected progress at A level and BTec while IB students do rather better. Saturday school popular with working parents.
Classrooms bright and well equipped, students engaged even as lunchtime became imminent, teachers giving it plenty. A good number of teachers here did something else first. Lovely library - the new name for a learning resource centre - staffed by specialists and open til 9 every evening. Design technology blinking brilliant, masses of kit - oscillating spindle sander, inverted trend router, Wizard CNC PLASMAWIZ 44 CNC plasma cutter, you name it.
Huge efforts to retain students post-GCSE, all of which redound to their benefit - ah, the joys of a highly competitive market. Outstanding guidance in opting between A levels, IB and BTec, choosing the right subjects and thereafter making university and careers choices.
Learning support - ‘educational progress’, they call it - delivered by a staff of five who also support children in the prep school, offering continuity for long-haul students. The customary range of interventions spanning long-term SLDs to short-term study support. SLDs on the mild side - you’ve got to be able to keep up. Typically professional, all learning assistants are graduates. Head of department told us it’s all about ’celebrating the differently gifted’.
Games, options, the arts
‘This is a school that really values breadth,’ a parent told us. Another: ‘Taunton students have absolutely no understanding of boredom’. All parents agree that when lessons are over there’s masses to do. Sport, for example. This is a sporting hotspot that takes a characteristically professional approach to maxing out the talents of all students. Cop these coaches: Pete Sanderson, ex-Somerset CCC first team coach; Marcus Trescothick, ex-England opening batsman; Nic Sestaret, ex-France, Exeter Chiefs and Toulouse rugby player; and Lisa Manley, ex-England netball development squad manager. Yes, blimey. If you’re any good you’ll go all the way. That’s not all. For students whose enthusiasm outruns their innate gifts there are B and some C teams where you can do your bit. Famous victories and lean spells alike are recorded in the Courier, the excellent weekly e-mag that records dash and enterprise in all areas of school life. Exhaustive coverage allows for the greatest number of students to be namechecked, a source of pride and joy to doting parents. As well as progressing to regional and national levels, students also play for local clubs, with some of whom the school shares facilities. All in all, impressive.
Some parents say the focus on sport has got a bit much, others disagree. One said, ‘If your child is not in one of the top two teams [As or Bs] you don’t get value for money’; others disagree. One said that there’s a danger that a sporty child will do nothing but sport and miss out on everything else on offer; others point to manifold achievements on a broad and eclectic front by their own child. Given the strength of the sporting culture here, what is the fate of the non-sporty? Do they shiver on the wing only to be hooted at on the rare occasions the ball reaches them? We spoke to the parent of a resolutely non-sporty child. After popping in for a constructive talk with the right people, a personal fitness programme was agreed. Very civilised, all happy, no stigma. Putting this in context, another parent remarked: ’This is a school which is far more interested in the welfare of every one of its children than it is in looking good to the outside world’.
The school’s minibuses carry the strapline ‘Offering more’. There may be something in it. The music offer is multifarious, everything from chamber music ensembles to big musicals - in recent years Phantom, Evita, Cats. There are choirs, overseas tours - in short, around 40 public performances a year. The busy drama department offers courses at GCSE and A level in addition to productions for which anyone can audition. The art studio is similarly open-house and evidence of the quality of work made here surrounds you. Students spoke glowingly of working relationships with their teachers as we gazed.
Outside the classroom there are heaps of clubs and activities on offer, many of them student-generated. There’s a fully fledged rationale behind the co-curricular programme - Horizons, they call it. It’s all about reaching out beyond the confines of the classroom, it’s self-directed and it embraces all abilities. There’s a CCF, compulsory for years 10 and 11. And for fresh air fans there’s a thriving D of E scheme. Is there enough range? Students told us unanimously yes; parents told us that their children are operating at the outer extremes of busyness, and cited by way of verification the way they sleep for much of the first week of every holiday. One parent said, ‘They are trained to cope with lots to do’. Lots of cultural, sporting and exchange trips worldwide reflecting the school’s global outlook.
Around 45 per cent board, of which roughly the same percentage are girls. House system in discrete houses, visitors need permission, so privacy (which tends to be in short supply in boarding schools) is safeguarded. Not a hotel school awash with pampering and fine fittings but students perfectly content with comfort levels, girls’ dorms softer and tidier than boys’, it goes without saying, for most chaps are strikingly insouciant in matters of interior decor at this age. Zero sock odour in the boys’ houses, testimony to regulated lifestyles and the care of terrific support staff whose pastoral role is crucial and, well done Mr Glaser, officially recognised. Happy campers, all. ‘One big family,’ say the teachers, as they do; ‘home from home’. When you hear the children say this too you give it credence. Eventide hunger pangs, long the bane of boarding, sated by after-prep snacks - we liked that. Busy weekend activities programme. Big boys look after little ones. Young people these days really are so much kinder to each other (sigh), the more so when vigilantly and benignly overseen as these are.
Background and atmosphere
Began life in 1847 as the West of England Dissenters’ Proprietary School supported by the Wills family, Bristol ciggie kings, who built the chapel. Original neo-gothic flagship building imparts an image of tradition at modest cost. Target market was nonconformists - manufacturers, industrialists, tradespeople. Within 40 years the sectarian rationale had largely evaporated, denominational differences not being what they were, and the school moved into the public school mainstream, competing directly with, eg, the two other Taunton indies, Queen’s and King’s. Never a supertanker sort of school, the sort that can sail serenely through economic bad weather, it has looked disaster in the face a few times, most recently the late 1990s. Existential peril has arguably been the school’s greatest friend, compelling it to look repeatedly to its wits and jolly well deserve to exist, denying it the doubtful luxury of complacency. Ever-adept at identifying new markets it went co-ed in 1976 - one of the first - and has offered IB since 2007. Business savvy - in the holidays there’s a thriving venue hire business including weddings.
A legacy of this adaptive mindset is the global outlook of the school today built on an admirably enterprising business model. Two separate international schools between them take overseas students aged 8-17, bring them up to speed and feed them into either the prep or senior school - somewhere around 45 different nationalities. This makes Taunton fundamentally different in spirit from schools that look abroad opportunistically to top up ad hoc. There’s a fully developed rationale behind this in tune with that of other international schools, yet Taunton remains essentially British because that’s what its overseas parents want. Another stand-out feature of the school is that it will take your children and educate them from 0-18. Their market research tells them this is what parents want, and parents we spoke to concur - ‘I didn’t want my son to lose all his friends at 13’. One parent, new to town, was only looking for a nursery. One thing led to another; her third child has just started as the eldest gets ready to leave. Taken together, the cradle-to-adulthood model and the international model account for the fact that the head girl who showed us round had been at the school for 16 years, the head boy for just two (he’s Russian). Striking for us, perhaps, not a big deal for them. Point is, it works. ‘The friendships my daughter has made,’ said one parent, ‘have made the world a smaller place.’ Whether Brexit is going to be a chill wind is yet to be seen. So far, so good and Taunton students emerge as global citizens, definitely not citizens of nowhere.
The campus, on the northern outskirts of Taunton, embraces also the prep and the pre-prep. The 15-17 year-old international students are semi-detached, just over the A358; the 8-14s are 10 mins to the north in Kingston St Mary. None of the crammedness you get in many town schools, the spacious playing fields and unnecessarily blue artificial pitches of the 50-acre site give way to agriculture. Architecturally there’s nothing here to take your breath away, though the Loveday building may elicit a low whistle. At the same time, there’s absolutely nothing to make your heart sink. No, there’s one of everything and everything’s eminently fit for purpose - deceptively so in the case of the theatre which, as performing arts spaces go, is a piece of work. It’s all at one with the down-to-earth nature of this place, a school that has no truck with servicing bank loans or wowing have-yachts. One parent said, ‘The facilities meet its needs. In real life most people don’t have pots of money to spend.’ Another said ‘One of the best things about the school: it’s not in the least up itself.’ Our observation: this is a school you quickly feel at home in.
Very much a part of its local community, the school issues invites to university fairs, talks, etc. There’s a community choir. The head enjoys good relationships with local state schools and sixth form college. Townsfolk come in and use the fitness suite. Taunton parents highly approve; they definitely don’t want their children growing up aloof and apart. Confident in its identity and values, very much its own place, wholly free of minor public school hangups.
Pastoral care, well-being and discipline
Of all the school’s greatest hits, pastoral care stands at #1. However hard we tried (and we did, we did) we could lure no one into uttering a bad word. First up, this is, in the words of one parent, ‘a school where teachers really like kids’ - which, interestingly enough, is exactly what the teachers told us when we asked them why they love working here. There is praise for rapidity of response times and sensitive, effective nipping in the bud of problems as they arise. One parent, worried about an unsupervised party planned for a weekend, went to share her misgivings with the deputy head. Sorted. Discipline is reckoned judicious and firm; a parent praised the way the school ‘doesn’t pander to parents’ in this respect. Another parent observed, ‘Family values are important to Taunton parents’. A new parent was rung by a teacher in the first fortnight to tell her how well her son was doing, point being this teacher didn’t even teach him. We fielded countless ‘extra mile’ plaudits and enjoyed ‘this is the biggest family ever’.
If the school looks big, ‘it’s not when you’re there; the house system divides it into manageable chunks’. There’s praise for the way year groups mix, look out for each other and integrate the newbies. There’s peer mentoring. Year 9s share their space with year 11s. One parent told us they reckoned the house groups socially too small. All parents see this as an open door school, they’ll always make themselves available and listen to you. You can drop in and taste the food anytime. It’s an inclusive sort of place; a parent told us ‘You’d struggle not to fit in’. Another said ‘There’s never been a day when my children have not wanted to go to school’. It’s an open-hearted sort of a place, too: there’s a pupil-led feminist society open to the full spectrum of LGBT students.
Pupils and parents
Especially popular with hardworking local entrepreneurs, businesspeople and professionals for a number of whom this is their first experience of private education - a higher proportion than you’ll find at many independent schools. Not so different, then, in terms of values, from the school’s original nonconformist parents - attributes of enterprise, thrift and social responsibility score high with them. They’re looking for a return on investment, they like the school’s groundedness and professionalism - and they bust a gut to pay the fees. We also encountered a number of seasoned veterans of private education who’d always seen themselves sending their child to a major-brand flagship school but, having found Taunton - in one case because their child was unhappy at a big-name school - count their blessings and have become passionate, even fierce, advocates of the school’s virtues. Worth noting the relatively high proportion of state educated teachers here, too, including the three most senior managers. Most children come up from the prep school, some from local preps, some from state schools. Longstandingly popular with Forces families. Buses bring day students from a 30-mile radius from all parts of the compass - Yeovil, Exeter, Weston-super-Mare.
Essentially non-selective. Assessment test and interview. Years 9 and 12 the customary boarding points but any other time if they’ve got room. Go to an open day or schedule a personal visit.
Pretty much everyone to university, half of them Russell Group. Given the international intake there’s expert advice available for all students looking abroad. Some British students go on to Harvard, UCLA, etc and the school is a national SATS centre. Plenty of support for anyone opting for vocational training or apprenticeship - eg, hospitality, design at NABA Milan. Up to a fifth leave but reducing year on year after GCSEs, lured by the excellent local sixth form college. A number of these, missing the nurturing, find their way back to the mothership, postponing installation of the new dream kitchen back home for another two years. School prides itself on parity of support for all routes from academic to apprenticeship. No one to Oxbridge in 2016 but there are normally three or four; four offers made for 2017.
The usual range of scholarships for year 9 entrants. Same for sixth form entrants plus IB scholarships up to 100 per cent of fees. Extras include books, food, daily bus and some trips. Big ongoing investment in bursaries. Application process as far as possible businesslike, never an ordeal. Help for students at all ages who exhibit ‘talent and determination’.
Most of Taunton’s hard-headed, analytical parents choose the school because it ‘feels right’, something that leaps out at them. It does. You quickly pick up on the professionalism - the admin systems are superfast. Never a school to fall in love with its own reflection, the new senior team, with its ‘improve everything’ agenda, is tweaking underperforming areas with precision. What makes the school so likeable, so agreeable, is its individuality: kind, hardworking, ambitious, terrific fun, very much its own person - a great fit for everyboy and everygirl.
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