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The Good Schools Guide reviews Westonbirt




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Senior


Head

Since 2013, Mrs Natasha Dangerfield BA QTS (40’s). A graduate of Brighton University with a degree in PE with English, Mrs Dangerfield’s career has taken her through various roles in several of the UK’s top girls’ boarding schools: Downe House, North Foreland Lodge and Harrogate Ladies, plus a spell at Gordonstoun.  As a promising schoolgirl lacrosse player, she had played at Westonbirt; her youthful verdict was ‘Crikey! This place is really spooky!’ but this has mellowed into an appreciation of its rural situation, its heritage and not least, its commercial possibilities. Her first three years she readily admitted were a question of ‘keeping the place going: we had boilers breaking and waterfalls down the stairs!’ but since then she has turned her attention to the longer term sustainability of the school, embracing the sale to the Wishford Group, looking closely at affordability and recently, the introduction of boys after 90 years as a girls’ school. Resolute in her determination to keep Westonbirt academically inclusive – in fact in all senses, she nonetheless puts ‘driving the academics up’ at the top of her priority list. Despite the kind of name which belongs to the dashing heroine in an airport paperback (along with a fabulously flamboyant signature), Mrs Dangerfield is refreshingly candid, self-deprecating and funny, not half as formidable as her name might suggest – though ‘when she teaches us, she can be strict’ according to students. Parents universally rate her: ‘compassionate, emotionally intelligent, approachable, professional, energetic, fiercely determined, a force to be reckoned with’ were just some of the compliments we heard, the only minor flaw being a tendency to micromanage on occasions, possible only in a small school. Married to Matt, a fire-fighter working in Oxford with three teenage children of her own (two at the school) Mrs Dangerfield is still a country girl at heart and loves walking in her idyllic surroundings and refereeing lacrosse when required. Her chosen reading veers from Sapiens via Wolf Hall to Why French children don’t throw food and she enjoys running a book club for international students.  

The prep school has since 2016 been headed by Mr Sean Price BA PGCE (30’s), an unmistakable and proud Welshman with a degree in English from Cardiff. Mr Price has made his home and career across the bridge in England, starting in the state sector and moving to Westonbirt as pastoral head three years before taking on the top job. Voluble and immensely likeable with a propensity to laugh at himself, Mr Price has gone down very well both with his young students and their parents. ‘A phenomenal maths and games teacher’ one mother raved and one who was nominated for a local ‘teacher of the year’ in 2017. Youngsters necessarily see less of him now but our hearts were gladdened by the clamour and press of children wanting to talk to him when he showed us round. Clearly extremely child-centred: ‘the children come first every time’ one parent stated. Married with a son in the school.  

Entrance 

Academically non-selective all the way from nursery up, where the youngest children are informally assessed at individual taster days, plus school reports and references from previous schools for older ones. From year 4 onwards, children wishing to join the prepare assessed on CAT scores ‘to ensure they can access the curriculum’, states school and ‘on character and potential’. Barring disaster, it appears that the transition from nursery to sixth form is seamless. New starters appear to be welcome at any time, but the main entry points for the senior school are year 7 and to a lesser extent year 9; they come from the prep, Wishford Group’s other prep schools and a slew of local prep and primaries. Any learning support needs are assessed on a case-by-case basis.  

Exit 

Not every child goes on to the senior school from the prep and there is no obvious pressure to do so. Parents reckon the preparation for the 11+ for the prestigious Gloucestershire grammar schools is good, but that the prep school could usefully gen up on other local senior schools. At sixth form, the vast majority of students are accepted at their first choice university; in 2020, the success rate was 100 per cent; most popular destinations were Exeter and Newcastle, one medic. The weekly careers lesson (to include apprenticeships and options apart from degree courses) and UCAS preparation gets the thumbs up from sixth formers. Retention rates post GCSE seem to be improving, a habitual problem for girls’ schools. The introduction of sixth form boys may well help here…  

Latest results  

In 2020, 49 per cent 9-7 at GCSE; 49 per cent A/A* at A level with exceptional results in further maths, physics and drama. Business studies BTEC particularly successful with 90 per cent of entries being awarded a distinction. For some years the school has been in the top five per cent of Durham University’s national measure for value-added.  

Teaching and learning 

The curriculum here really is, in that well-worn phrase, ‘broad and balanced’ with enough options at GCSE and sixth form to cater for the wide range of ability the school attracts. French, Spanish and Latin are compulsory to start with. Six GCSEs form the core of the course, including a ‘gateway combined science course’ (triple science for stronger candidates) and – unusually for these secular times – religious studies; no compulsory language though. Options extend as far as a level 2 BTEC in child development.  At sixth form, an even broader choice is on offer, comprising 20 A level subjects, five Btecs, one Cambridge Technical in dance and that gap year jolly-useful, if not must-have, Leith certificate in food and wine.  

Teaching was necessarily front-facing when we visited, and the several tests in progress plus the male teachers in suits gave the senior school rather a formal impression, dispelled somewhat by a lively drama class warming up for their modern melodrama.  Laboratories not quite the age of the house, but almost – we heard no complaints, however. We were heartened to see an A level classics set with just 2 takers. A geography lesson on the Greenwich meridian delivered remotely by a teacher in isolation (another was in the room to oversee order) lost little in translation and students were interested and attentive.  Our last review described the IT as ‘somewhat prehistoric’ but school has now implemented a ‘bring your own device’ policy, which sees students with their own I-Pads – though not at the expense of handwriting, we were assured. Prep school teaching takes place in 2 permanent buildings and some light, bright refurbished temporary ones; ‘But please get rid of them!’ at least one mother begged. We were delighted by the enthusiasm of the girls learning the dagger speech from Macbeth; the boys seemed keener on maths. Most parents greatly appreciate the apparent lack of academic pressure – ‘the children are pushed enough to get the best out of them’ one father told us; another adding that ‘they do just enough in the prep school to get them into the senior school of their first choice’, yet we also heard that staff are receptive to parental suggestions that their little darling could be pushed just a bit harder. Brighter sparks are generally reckoned to be well-served, and they are encouraged to be academically ambitious (scholars are provided with ‘extension and enrichment activities’), but we wonder whether an outstandingly clever youngster would find enough of an intellectual peer group. Communication with individual members of staff seems to be open, swift and two-way.   

Learning support and SEN 

Making it possible for children to access the curriculum is the watchword here, so the highly experienced and respected head of learning support and her team address a wide range of educational needs, including social skills to navigate school life. Classroom support is provided through differentiated work and homework, rather than through dedicated classroom assistants. English language training for those students whose first language it isn’t is prominent and at sixth form, they are entered for the IELTS qualification, essential for entry to a UK university. The parents of children needing learning support that we spoke to were unstinting in their praise, not only for the way academic barriers such as dyslexia are broken down (eg one child was relieved to be told, possibly by a teacher who makes no secret of his own dyslexia, that he could listen to his English books, rather than read them) but also for the way in which less confident or anxious children are gently encouraged to come out of their shells. ‘The learning support staff are proactive, and ambitious for the children they teach’ one mother told us, ‘I found it hard to accept my child’s diagnosis – and they helped me with that too’.  

The arts and extracurricular  

From the imposing great hall via the orangery to the intimate camellia house, there is somewhere to stage drama of all types at Westonbirt. It is central to the curriculum both in the prep (where, alongside music, a combined offer of performing arts is laid on and everyone has a chance to appear on the stage during the year) and in the senior school; ESB and LAMBA exams are an extracurricular option. Budding thespians perform - and win - at local festivals and take shows to Edinburgh some years. As well as ambitious productions at school (eg Les Mis in 2018), students enjoy the opportunity to showcase their talents on a smaller scale: we heard them excitedly discussing an outdoor staging of Antigone in the school’s very own amphitheatre.  

Music also hits the top notes, with two thirds of students playing an instrument and again, a sensational concert venue in the great hall with its Victorian organ. Music is timetabled right up until year 10 and students learn all genres from Baroque to pop, as well as having the chance to compose their own works in the technology suite. Instrumental and singing lessons are provided by a team of peripatetics. Singers are well catered for, with several choirs; occasional services at Gloucester Cathedral are a highlight.  

We loved the art studio, a beautiful light space where sixth formers are glad to have their own place to leave their work out. Fine art and photography are front runners here. The standard of drawing is high – one of a foetus in utero would not have been out of place in a biology textbook (if anyone still uses textbooks..). GCSE and A level exam pieces are put on show as an exhibition every summer. Masses on offer too beyond timetabled arts: national schemes such as DofE and Model UN but also the Westonbirt Baccalaureate for sixth formers which aims to round out their academic work and doubtless contribute to good UCAS personal statements, plus opportunities to explore leadership. Plenty of trips laid on too: ‘I know we live in the middle of a field’ the head acknowledged, ‘But we do go to Bath, Bristol, Oxford and Cheltenham in search of plays, concerts and galleries.’ Further afield, students can sign up for the biennial ski trip or older ones for service projects to India or Sierra Leone.  

Sport 

A longstanding lacrosse school through and through - and proud of it (‘My daughter couldn’t possibly leave after GCSEs because of her lacrosse!’ one father told us), but seemingly adapting well to the necessary addition of rugby for the boys. It’s clearly catching on: we were amused to see an informal game of mixed rugby in the sunlit prep school playground. Parents and students alike all crying out for an Astro though; one parent furnished us with a list of upgrades the school should, in his view, also have: a new block of changing rooms and floodlit tennis courts for starters. Happily, plans for all these are well advanced under the eagle eye of Heritage England, who guard the historical and environmental integrity of Westonbirt very zealously. Space and grass it has in abundance: there’s even a 9 hole golf course.  Netball and cricket on offer at all ages; hockey just in the prep school. Sporting provision greatly beefed up by the leisure centre just beyond the prep school, comprising a multi-use sports hall plus viewing gallery and lovely pool (ecstatic 3 year olds from the nursery were jumping in and swimming a width under the watchful eye and vocal encouragement of their former Olympian teacher when we visited), open to the public at weekends only. Fixtures are held against local schools and because numbers are small, everyone gets a game. Westonbirt girls have gone on to play lacrosse for England and Wales. A strong equestrian team, as befits this very horsy part of Gloucestershire with the Beaufort Polo Club across the road, completes the sporting array.  

Boarding  

Offered only to girls in the senior school (boys from 2021), but every permutation (weekly, flexi-, full) is possible, with each day student getting a night a week free of charge. Below sixth form, two houses are accommodated on the rather grand upper floors of the main building. Glorious views right into the trees from dorms which 4-5 junior girls share; combined sleeping and study spaces make it slightly claustrophobic in our view, but the communal spaces are cosy enough; we heard that some parents consider that it is ‘scruffy and needs sorting’, however. Sixth form boarding occupies a separate building designed for the purpose, with university-standard accommodation, kitchen and study hub. Their café also serves alcohol (no spirits) on set occasions and doubtless under close supervision.  

Ethos and heritage  

The wow factor starts to build as soon as you turn in through the narrow gate and make stately progress along the long one track drive, designed for carriages rather than the wider and ubiquitous 4x4, through the expansive Victorian parkland. The main house (now the senior school), completed in 1871 by Sir William Holford who also founded the world famous arboretum across the road, owes its grandeur and flamboyance to the Jacobethan fashions of the day. These days, its gracious rooms are still warmed by blazing fires and have been put to good use as a school since 1928. Certain parts though have a distinctly below-stairs feel with narrow staircases, red lino and the finest collection of household bells we have ever seen (preserved as a curiosity and out of bounds). But it is heart-warming to see such an imposing monolith so purposefully used, with youngsters scurrying about and revelling in the expanse of gardens – not one officious notice about keeping off the grass in sight.  ‘I love the fact that my son’s free time is spent outside climbing over various monuments instead of being glued to Fortnite’ one mother remarked. The prep school surrounds are more modest but skipping through the Italian gardens (filled with magnificent dahlias when we visited) to get there is a treat. It might be lost on the students, but parents are alive to the beauty their offspring inhabit every day: more than one told us how they encourage them to ‘Look at the trees! Look at the colours!’ An exclusive setting, It might appear very privilege certainly,d, but we kept hearing how inclusive the school is, how academics are not the only measure of success and how the students are ‘not numbers or pay cheques’. All the parents we spoke to reckoned their children were not only well known by all members of staff, including the heads, but also that they were always treated as individuals. Not a pushy place, but one where great efforts are made to find out what makes each child tick or could do: one mother told us that her not very out-going daughter had been asked to captain a sports team, not just play in it. ‘And they don’t give up on anyone’ one father added, ‘they take on some difficult kids and do well by them.’ 

Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline 

Top marks here for pastoral care and well-being generally: ‘Happy children thrive’ as the policy puts it - and there’s a health and well-being centre to address ills of body and mind. We heard moving tales of difficulties that the school had supported not just the child but the whole family through. Students we talked to consider their mental health is well looked after and that there is always someone to chat to, starting with tutors; school also provides its own counsellor and listening ear service. ‘There’s always someone to catch the kids who might fall down the cracks’ according to one father. Diversity and inclusion is discussed in tutor sessions – and words such as ‘fat’, ‘skinny’ and ‘retarded’ are not tolerated. Order is maintained through a system of credits (for good work and deeds) and debits, with the emphasis on credits (some inconsistencies with debits, our interviewees reported). We did not sense that insubordination and poor behaviour were particular issues, however.  

Pupils and parents 

Such splendid surroundings might give students a misplaced sense of entitlement, but the ones we met seemed to be very grateful for their lot, and inclined to concentrate on the positives. Apart from a unanimous wish for an Astro, gripes concerned clocks telling different times all over the school and ‘That weekly meat-free day!’ as one young libertarian protested. Uniform is unflashy and practical. We got the usual spiel about a wide economic mix of families; one mother assuring us that it did not matter what car you drove, another that ‘you don’t have to have a Rangerover and acres, but it helps’; plus there is somewhere to land a helicopter, if need be (the school boosts finances as a wedding and party venue). In terms of an ethnic mix, Westonbirt is more diverse than the rest of Gloucestershire – not hard – and the head strives for a balance of nationalities. So who wouldn’t it suit? we asked parents: possibly a child who wanted just to be left to get on with things, a child who might struggle with the pace of a busy school, urban sophisticates and serious hockey players they responded.  

Famous old girls include children’s author Georgia Byng, TV presenter Ruth Watson and founder of ethical fashion brand Beulah, Natasha Rufus-Isaacs.  

Money matters 

Fees at the lower end of the scale both for day students and boarders; the head lists making the school more affordable as one of her achievements since taking over, and a bonus of joining the Wishford Group. Scholarships (10 per cent fee reduction and exhibitions (5 per cent) offered at years 7, 9 and 12 for all the usual attributes, but from 2021, 2 major academic scholarships also to an exceptional 50 per cent of the fees. Means-tested scholarships for entry to sixth form from local schools ‘open up a wide range of opportunities’.     

The last word  

‘A very posh-looking place with very normal children’ (in the words of one mother), but one which is moving with the times and managing that most unusual move to co-ed from a girls-only with finesse – just as long as they keep those boys’ numbers up. Memorably described as a ‘greenhouse, not a hothouse’ by the previous head, we cannot disagree. ‘If my daughter was a stick of rock, she’d have Westonbirt running through the middle!’ declared one dad – such is the love and loyalty it inspires. 

The original version of this review can be found here







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