Blundell’s School, Tiverton, Devon
Muddy says: A co-ed prep and senior school set in 90 acres, with a distinguished 400 year history steeped in trad values and modern teaching; the Blundell's blend works.
Blundell’s School is like a well-used antique piece of furniture in Devon; the kind that never dates, nor shows signs of wear and tear (and if it does, in swoop the Estates team before anyone’s even noticed). Perhaps that’s why the school, founded in 1604, has educated 10 generations of one family and counting, I kid you not – how’s that for a mind-boggling endorsement?!
You’ll find both the prep and adjoining senior school on the outskirts of the market town of Tiverton, which is handy both for Devonians and out-of-towners, because of the mainline train station (it’s 2 hours from London here). Both under the same name, the prep school sits in its own site just along the road but, in reality, the two very much share the same breathing space, across some 90 acres, as well as many facilities.
The prep school is a day school, taking around 220 children from nursery, up to to 11 years, in class sizes between 10 – 19. I love the motto ‘non sibi’ (not for one’s self); how apt for these modern times, she says, going all grown-up for a minute and lamenting today’s Kardashianised selfie-obsessed culture *cough*.
The senior school (11 through to 18), with just under 600 students offers boarding too, with flexi-boarding proving to be a super-popular option for parents. Thanks to decent coaching routes across the county (and a school minibus service), the school brings students to class each day from Exeter, its surrounding towns and villages, into Cornwall and Somerset, plus boarders from London and beyond.
In the ISI Compliance Inspection report in Feb 2019 (every 3 years), they were deemed excellent across the board, from the quality of the education and quality of leadership to the spiritual, moral and cultural development of pupils and their welfare. Quite an achievement.
The Prep school is a modern campus of red-brick buildings, completely redmodelled in recent years so that it feels modern and bright indoors. Facilities are great and the layout nice and spacious, with an ICT suite full of laptops, PCs and interactive whiteboards, as well as a brilliantly equipped food tech room.
The Head Master Andy Southgate has worked hard to encourage the academics, with enrichment afterschool sessions and by introducing Senior School staff teaching in the Prep School. But with 12 acres, outdoor learning is just as big here (indeed, many of the classrooms have a direct route out to playgrounds and playing fields) and kids are encouraged to try out as much as possible, both in and out of the classroom. There’s definitely a feeling of space and fresh air prevailing, with a pond and wildlife area to boot. Music, games, PE, drama, dance and art are also taught alongside the traditional academic subjects, as well as plenty of extra-curricular activities, like ballet, yoga, judo and brass, so lots of stimulation for busy minds.
There’s a relaxed, happy vibe around the school, without feeling slack. On the sunny September day I visited, the year 6s were were in Mufti, gathered around a bonfire at The Hub, prep’s dedicated outdoor classroom, complete with a handmade mud kitchen and bug hotels, where they were rustling up a healthy home-made veg-soup from scratch. Jamie Oliver (and Bear Grylls) would approve.
Over in Senior School, the architecture turns more dramatic, with beautiful and impressive Victorian buildings greeting you. Here, you can feel the significance of the school’s long history and the kids I saw were rocking their tweed jackets with pride.
The facilities match the grandeur, with a huge and studious library, while other spaces are more modern to match the subject. I met the Economics teacher for 5 minutes and had my mind blown by his passion for the subject (just for the record, I’m not planning a career change anytime soon).
The Ondaatje Hall, a purpose-built theatre is a really impressive hub for creative arts and holds a series of musicals, plays, concerts and exhibitions throughout the year.
And let’s not forget to talk about the food for a moment, because how often can you say that your child’s school dinners are prepared by a Masterchef Finalist? With Craig Sampson in residence, I reckon that nutritious and balanced brain food is going to be the least of your worries, especially when you hear 95% of it is sourced from a 25-mile radius. The dining hall was certainly buzzing when I visited and it was barely lunchtime.
MUSIC & DRAMA
Both music and drama are a big deal across Prep and Senior School. In Prep, incredibly 75% of students play an instrument and get involved in concerts, which has led to significant success in Music Scholarships in the Senior School. Speaking of which, there are 3 choirs, 3 orchestras, 2 jazz bands plus other brass, string and wind ensembles, taught by top teachers, with serious connections. This past year, students won a competition to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York. Academically, results are really good, with the majority achieving A*- B at A level and A*-A at GCSE level. And, if you’ve a budding Hans Zimmer, they’ll love the 2 Mac composition suites and recording studio.
Drama plays a part throughout the school curriculum, from Nursery, right through Prep. Senior School takes the baton and carries it on, with 3 main productions a year. Music and drama performances are both big events in the social diary and the school makes use of its location, holding concerts in the likes of Exeter Cathedral, as well as in its own halls.
Blundell’s is famously sporty and the subject is probably still its strongest calling card, being the school to beat, so the facilities inevitably pass muster – and then some. The amount of pitches, fields, astroturfs and courts onsite is immense, plus an outdoor pool where kids can learn scuba diving on Wednesdays.
All of the usual suspects prove massively popular, including rugby, which has been played here for 150 years and a number of recent graduates fleeing the nest have taken up professional careers in the sport. That’s pretty cool.
Aside from ruggers, athletics is practiced with pride, along with basketball, riding, squash and ‘Fives’ (heard of it? I hadn’t either, but it’s as competitive as the rest!); it’s all part of the natty ‘sport for all’ programme, with the hope being that everyone will find something they enjoy and will continue beyond their school years. Indeed, around 300 students play in matches on an average weekend, apparently, and over the past five years, over 100 Blundellians have competed at county level or above. And then there’s the extra-curricular opps, including the Ten Tors and Duke of Edinburgh Award, plus taking part in the Devizes to Westminster canoe race. Puts my ambition to do 7 mins of HIIT training a day well and truly into the corner.
There are 7 boarding houses in total, with a co-ed house at each end of the educational journey and the remaining five divided into 3 boys’ and 2 girls’ houses.
Each accommodates roughly 80 boarders, who are either full, weekly or flexi and a mix of backgrounds, with 15% of the pupils internationals, coming from 31 different countries.
The rooms looked comfortable and safe, as you’d hope (functional and homely, with the odd obligatory pin-up poster); definitely nothing to put on Grand Designs anytime soon, but the really impressive house is the purpose-built Westlake, reserved for sixth formers. Here, it’s all designed to be as close to university life as possible, preparing them for life beyond Blundell’s.
Boarding is big business here and so there’s loads to do at the weekends, from surfing trips to various Ray Mears-esque activities as part of an Adventure & Leadership programme, as well as a strong pastoral care system in place to make sure that nobody slips through the net.
Bart Wielenga is a friendly South African, who comes from a long line of teachers and priests with a love of cricket, and as he describes a “relentless optimism”. He’s spent years at some of the best independent boarding schools around the world and, after six years as Second Master, he’s had a slick act to follow as the successor to Blundell’s previous (and first female) head, Nicola Huggett. One year into post and he’s overseen a rocking set of 2019 results and is rolling in a 2025 strategic development plan early next year to take the school into the next five years. A strong believer in evidence-based practice, he was behind the controversial step of removing setting for years 7, 8 and 9 with the result that GCSE grades improved, and he also jettisoned effort grades on reports in favour of a written appraisal which has also proved popular. I liked his reflective style, which is seeking a more nuanced approach to Blundell’s character-building ethos. Yes, it’s about can-do and getting your hands dirty but it’s also about emotional intelligence – children learning to accept themselves for who they are and being happy in their skin.
THE HEADMASTER – PREP SCHOOL
Over in prep Andy Southgate has been headmaster since 2011. With 2 kids of his own firmly ensconced, he acts and reacts as both a parent and a head, which is always reassuring. He and head of Pre-prep Laura Clifford, are proud of the learning-through-play ethos which sees every subject embedded in outdoor learning. The pre-preppers I met were variously enjoying a morning break with a glass of milk or prepping for a sport lesson and I was impressed by how well-mannered and engaged they seemed, all delightfully keen to share what they were doing with the ‘visitor’. Years 4, 5 and 6 have their own building where I bumped into Assistant Head Curricular Dan Morris who explained how they’re phasing in new technology in the shape of iPads, and also the speech and drama teacher Carla Rochfort, in the most comfy beanbag-filled cocoon of a library I’ve ever seen where kids can go at break-time. It felt like a happy, family atmosphere, and helpful wrap-around care with busy parents in mind.
The nursery is bright, spacious and suitably sweet, with plenty of outdoor space to play and learn. There’s a mixture of secure play areas and of course the wider school grounds, so plenty of opps for woodland welly walks. Facilities are clean, feel safe and well appointed. They hold a Toddler Group open to the whole community every Thursday for just £1 per family. A good way to get a proper feel for the place and see how your child liked it, I’d say.
As you’d hope, the school definitely makes the most of its position near Exmoor and the coast and being outdoors, breathing in oxygen is very much on-trend, happily. Not that it’s all pink cheeks and sparkly eyes every day. There are two words to strike fear (or masochistic joy) into the lives of Blundellians: The Russell. This cross-country race is Hell on earth to you and I, but it’s all a part of the school’s long tradition in sending kids across fields and moors in all kinds of swampy, wintry conditions, as local landowners open their land for this infamous event. You can guarantee that the weather will have been awful beforehand (if not during), but everyone seems to rave about it, looking back at their experience like a mother two years after childbirth.
Sticking with the Russell theme, I also love how one Head Girl actually exercised her right to bring a pig (Russell) to school. That’s girl power right there for you.
And if there’s one thing that Blundells excels in, it’s the techy stuff – they even have their own App for students, parents and staff. I forgot to ask if they have a loyalty points system, like a Boots Advantage Card.
WRAP AROUND CARE
In the nursery, the school day begins at 8.40 and ends at 3.40, but parents who need longer care can make use of the Games Club, which starts at 8am and the Owls Club, which runs until 6pm. Both are offered at no extra cost – hurrah! A big old list of after school clubs at Senior School takes care of later pick-ups, too, up to 9pm, with drop-offs possible from 7.30am.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The most reassuring thing amongst parents is that Blundell’s is actually very unpretentious. Kids are very grounded and appreciate what they’ve been given, possibly because there are a lot of working parents striving to send their kids here; so there’s no arrogance of having education delivered on a plate and, if there was, it probably wouldn’t go down very well.
The vast majority of prep-school students transfer to senior school (there’s no test to sit, in this case). Students coming from other schools sit entrance tests in English, Maths and non-verbal reasoning.
In 2019, 56% of GCSE pupils achieved grades 9-7, while at A-level, 65% achieved A*-B grades plus and the Department for Education highlighted Blundell’s in the top 1.5% of all schools in England for A-level results based on the value added and progress made by pupils. Most years, the school celebrates four or five successful Oxbridge applications, too.
Nursery: Fees range from £785.40 (for the minimum three sessions per week) to £2926 full-time per term (sibling discounts are available, so worth having a good read of the fees page).
In Senior School, there are set termly fees for Years 7 & 8, which jump up for years 9-13, as follows:
Day students £4,850 (Y 7 & 8) – £7695 for Y 9-13 (£6,605 for locals); Flexi-boarders £5,615 (Y 7 & 8) – £8,415 for Y 9-13 (£7,390 for locals); Weekly boarders £7,405 (Y 7 & 8) – £10,525 for Y 9-13 (£9,970 for locals); and Full boarders £8,420 (Y 7 & 8) – £12,320 for Y 9-13 (£11,655 for locals).
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents and kids looking for a prestigious school in a spacious green setting with a warm home-from-home boarding feel and superior sports and drama facilities. The free after-school care is a boon for busy parents.
Not for: There’s no getting away from the fact that this is one of the South West’s sportiest schools, so just bear that in mind.
Dare to disagree? Well that’s absolutely fine, but why don’t you get yourself along to the school for an individual tour or one of the open days? The next one is Open Day for the Senior School on Saturday 12 October, where you can ask all the questions you need and make your own mind up. Call or visit the website for the details and let me know how you get on!
Blundell’s School, Tiverton, Devon, EX16 4DN. Tel: 01884 252543/ Prep School 01884 252393