Blundells 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 Blundells blend works.
Blundells 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 2016 (every 3 years), everything seemed to be tickety-boo, as it did for the full Qualitative Inspection in 2013, so no nasties to report there.
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 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 and brass, so lots of stimulation for busy minds.
There’s a relaxed, happy vibe around the school, without feeling slack. On the day I visited, it was World Book Day in pre-Prep and the kids were rocking their costumes in a kind of JK Rowling/David Walliams mash-up of Gangsta Grannies and Wizardy types, whilst sipping on hot chocolates with toasted marshmallows in the playground (the order of the day, well it was Friday).
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 and red 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 records, 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. 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 have been working closely with the London Chamber Orchestra (not every day you can say that). Academically, results are really good, with the majority achieving A*- B at A level and A*-A at GCSE. 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. I love the sound of the ‘play in a day’ where the kids are challenged with line learning and performing in 8 hours flat! 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.
Blundells 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. 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 internationals coming from 31 different countries.
The rooms looked comfortable and safe, as you’d hope (boy’s functional, girl’s 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 Blundells.
Boarding is definitely 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.
THE HEAD TEACHERS
Over in prep Andy Southgate has been headmaster since 2011. I bumped into him en-route between prep and senior school and he certainly makes for a good first impression, in that he’s friendly, keen and genuinely flattered when people show an interest in the school. With 2 kids of his own firmly ensconced, he acts and reacts as both a parent and a head, which is always reassuring.
In the Senior School, it’s all change, sadly for many, but excitingly so at the same time. The current head, Mrs Nicola Huggett, is Blundells’ first female in its 400 year history (woohoo!) and word on the ground is that the Supermum (of 4!) has made an incredible impact in her five year stint (including *ahem* removing the ‘headmaster’s visitors’ signage that greeted people on their arrival.)
Nicola is moving on to head up Cheltenham College in July 2018, but her successor, Bart Wielenga (currently Deputy Head) feels like a strong and natural replacement, according to those at the school. Again, I stopped to chat briefly with Bart on my travels; he’s a friendly South African, with a strong presence 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 of being the Deputy Head, he’s genuinely excited at the challenge of reinventing himself as the Head and looks forward to surprising people in showing them a different side. His ambition? “To deliver an inspirational education to young people”, plus “the megalomaniac in me just fancies being in charge – although I fear that to be a delusion: my PA Helen will undoubtedly be calling the shots!”
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 the past, Blundells has majored on sporting accolades and still does, but Nicola Huggett’s 5 year term has apparently raised the game academically-speaking. In 2017, 69% of A-level students were awarded A*/B and 42% A/A*, while at GCSE, 51% were graded A*/A/9-7 in 2017. This year, the school are celebrating 6 successful Oxbridge applications, too.
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.
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 the last 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 5.40pm. 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.
Nursery: half-day sessions are £17.90 p/d. A full day is £41.20 inc. lunch. Full-Time fees are £1960 + £270 for lunch (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 £4,575 (Y 7 & 8) – £7250 for Y 9-13 (£6,090 for locals); Flexi-boarders £5,290 (Y 7 & 8) – £7,930 for Y 9-13 (£6,805 for locals); Weekly boarders £6,980 (Y 7 & 8) – £9,920 for Y 9-13 (£9,295 for locals); and Full boarders £7,710 (Y 7 & 8) – £11,285 for Y 9-13 (£10,650 for locals).
WORD ON THE GROUND
The most reassuring thing amongst parents is that Blundells 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 MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who appreciate the prestige that comes with the Blundells educational experience, but essentially want to end up with grounded, all-rounders, who’ve been there, done that, given everything their best shot.
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 a taster session, family visit or one of the open days? The next one is an enrichment morning for the Prep School on Mon 7 May (bank holiday), at 9.30am, 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!
Blundells School, Tiverton, Devon, EX16 4DN. Tel: 01884 252543/ Prep School 01884 252393