West Buckland School, Barnstaple
West Buckland School is a medium-sized co-ed Boarding and Day school in rural North Devon (9 miles south of Barnstaple) for children aged 3 to 18 years old. It’s off the beaten track in 90 large and lovely acres of leafy greenery in air so clean, pollution-hating lichen grows on the trees in the grounds. It’s only partially selective but racking up excellent academic results that gives selective schools a run for their money. It’s not hard to see why it was shortlisted for Boarding School of the Year in the TES Independent Schools Awards 2019 and is currently 35 in the Top 40 Co-ed Boarding Schools in the country for A-level results.
Established in 1858 as an all-boys’ school for the children of farming families, the school is a well-integrated mix of old and new with a centrepiece of the grand old building and courtyard, surrounded by a separate prep school, and new art dept, theatre, library and sports centre – all built in the last 10 years.
The 630 co-ed pupils are 50/50 split of boys and girls, made up of 75% day school and 25% boarders, with kids coming from as far afield as Europe, South America and Asia.
They’re very big on outdoors here – maxing out on their fab location, between two national parks and famed north Devon coastline in the knowledge that all the healthy air and outdoorsiness adds up to healthy, resilient kids.
As you’d expect they’re involved in DofE and Ten Tors, but have their own annual Easter tradition called ‘The Exmoor’ when the kids don war-paint and head out with the teachers on an 8-mile walk to the start of the race followed by a 10-mile muddy run uphill and down dale. It’s considered wonderful and awful in equal measure and it’s not hard to see why with the unpredictable North Devon weather but all pupils – bar the Year 7s who act as marshals – are expected to participate unless, I was told, a leg’s dropped off. I’m pretty sure they were joking.
Two teachers told me separately the story of how during one Exmoor, a couple of pupils noticed the lead runner take a wrong turn, and instead of leaving him to it, they gamely called him back and let him resume his lead. Now that’s a school that engenders good values. The message is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re sporty or not, we’ve all got this – and we’ve got each other’s back while we’re doing it. Warms your cockles a bit doesn’t it?
Not surprisingly, their alumni are hale and hearty, with notables including triple-jump champion Jonathan Edwards who still holds the World Record since gaining it in 1995 and jockey Lizzie Kelly, the first woman to win a Grade 1 race in Britain.
There’s a distinct university-campus vibe, with a fluid spread of old historic buildings abutting new, in the shape of a modern wood-clad suite of art, theatre, 6th form and brand-new Michael Morpugo library along with new astro-turf sports pitches.
The Karslake Hall dining room has also been zuzhed up, a hybrid of Hogwarts and Gloucester services, with modern lighting and a mix of healthy hot and cold pies, pasta and salads, worthy of an upmarket farmshop cafe. I had a delicious Muddy review-worthy dish of chicken and ham pie for lunch and would have happily had second helpings, or gone back for supper.
Arts-wise, the modern 150 Art and Design Building – so-called as it was built to mark 150 years of the school in 2008 – has a brilliant theatre which seats 150. Kids can learn any musical instrument they like, and music is integrated into the community with the Head of Music also running the North Devon Sinfonia and West Buckland Community Choir.
Facilities-wise, the star attraction is the 25m pool which the prep school uses weekly, and all that space means they can go large with 16 tennis courts, 5 cricket pitches and a pavilion, 6 rugby pitches, 2 squash courts, an indoor and outdoor rifle shooting range, a fitness centre that gives my local gym a run for its money and for your budding Patrick Moores, an observatory with three telescopes for star spotting in those light pollution-free Devon skies.
There’s everything and more you’d expect a top-notch school in a rural location to have on its extra curricular agenda – including horse riding, coasteering, surfing and climbing. Cool fact: they have more champion climbers than the whole of Wales. Must be all those Devon hills, so good for the glutes.
Formerly deputy head of Ardingly College, Sussex, headmaster Phillip Stapleton has been in the hot seat for five years and has three kids of his own at the school. He’s a trained chemist and still teaches, with an eye on upgrading the science facilities with a new STEM centre to be on a par with the excellent arts facilities. Suitably for a sporty school, he ran the 130-mile Marathon de Sables and yet can keep that competitiveness in check to run the annual Exmoor Run with the kids at the back. He’s warm and crinkly-eyed with a genuine ability to poke fun at himself, joking the acronym PIE for his vision for education (Personalised, Innovative and Excellent) says a lot about his other interests. He’s not up for banning things like mobile phones for example, as it just makes them more covetable in his view, though the internet is limited in the evenings and social media restricted. He’s philanthropic and community-focussed, actively reaching out to other local schools to share facilities. I liked him – and his strong moral compass – a lot.
In a word, excellent. West Buckland are rightly proud of their results, with 46.5% of pupils achieving A* to A at GCSE in 2018 (compared to the national average of 26.4%). At A-level, 78.6% of sixth-formers achieved A* to B. Fifty per-cent of leavers go on to Russell Group unis and recently students have bagged places at Ruskin School of Art and Birmingham Conservatoire. Average class size is small – around 18 and most of the children get involved in the after-school activities. That said, they’re vehemently non-hothouse and keen to turn out well-rounded, non-pompous kids who are ballsy and resilient. The message is if you want your child learning Russian by the age of 3, then look elsewhere.
On weekends the focus for boarders is less on homework and more on getting everybody up and out, so there are sports fixtures in favour of Saturday school, while Sundays are for shopping trips, fun runs, or a trip to Bristol, Cardiff, or it’s off to London to catch a show. It’s a really caring community with the heads coming along to support the sports fixtures, and children are safety-netted within four houses academically, with a head of pastoral care and a live-in head of boarding who is there to focus on well-being as well as academic progress.
Since Easter 2018, the prep school and its 14 staff have been headed up by Nick Robinson, father of four, who teaches sport and oversees 150 pupils, including some year 5 and 6 flexi-boarders. Though senior and junior share many of the main school facilities, including the canteen, prep has its own mini-library, art room, science lab and playing field, meaning littlies have space to develop away from the big kids. Music-wise, they start them young here (so ear plugs at the ready) with a prep director of music and chamber choir which has performed at Devon County Show.
Rather than appointing a head boy and girl, the school gives all year 6s leadership roles as ‘Helping Hands’, overseeing pre-prep break-time games or tidying up duties, and rewards things like good manners with a weekly postcard chosen by the child. Homework is kept to a minimum, and I was impressed that Nick has recently extended what were next-day deadlines to give children a whole week to complete work – so more time for the fun extra curricular activities.
West Buckland has something called their ‘7 C’s’ (Courage, Confidence, Commitment, Creativity, Caring, Curiosity, Critical Thinking) whereby children, who are split into four ‘houses’, are rewarded for achieving, meaning not only academic and sporting success is recognised. It’s not just a trendy initiative, the kids seem to really like the idea (and the tuck shop vouchers as rewards), and the display board name-checking who’d done what to get praise.
They have just launched their Go West campaign, a best-of-both worlds option aimed at south-east city-based parents looking to give their kids a healthier, rural lifestyle. The five-night weekly boarding package means you can have the little darlings on the Friday night train and back in the big smoke for a weekend at home. Or, for a parent looking to stay nearby during the weekend, they’ve curated a preferred supplier list of accommodation, which all sounds very humane and family-focused to me.
Due to the rural location, many day pupils come and go by bus, in a long convoy down the leafy narrow lanes, and weekly boarders can use buses on Monday mornings and Friday evenings. So, no school runs and an uninterrupted working day – yay!! There are bus prefects on each bus to keep the peace and make sure the littlies are strapped in.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Younger boarders are housed in older buildings with shared bedrooms and bathrooms, while sixth formers are in the modern purpose-built Parker’s with 70 ensuite rooms. The 6th form common room is downstairs so boarders (which make up a quarter of pupils) and non-boarders mix seamlessly, with a kitchen where delicious-looking lunches magically appear – and two further lounges upstairs. In addition to the four academic House families, there are boarding House parents, a pastoral team, matrons and school counsellor who take a holistic, pastoral approach, there to encourage kids away from screen-scrolling.
Non-boarders can take advantage of the flexi-boarding to access the extra-curricular stuff going on, even just a night here and there. The school encourages self-sufficiency but subtly – there is a laundry service but it’s not overtly promoted in the hope that kids get a good prep for going off to higher education. Pupil personal development was rated excellent in a recent inspection thanks to their proactive approach and an educational outdoor programme designed to promote physical and mental resilience.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents are obviously attracted to to the healthy, pollution-free setting away from city-centre temptations, and the family atmosphere. It says a lot that all the teachers I spoke to had children at the school while the kids I spoke to were all well-mannered and genuinely keen on the school. The perception is that sciences and social sciences are especially strong here, but that academic results are pretty consistently high right across the curriculum. The focus on music and drama is a big appeal, thanks to the chamber choir for junior and seniors, as well as chamber and concert orchestras, a concert band, string quartet and jazz band.
Fees are in line with other North Devon prep schools: £2690 per term for Reception; £2815 Year 1-2; £3390 Year 3-4 and £4210 for Years 5-6 with lunch included up to Year 2. Senior school day termly fees start at £5170 Year 7-9/boarding £8400; £5170 day school Year 10-11/boarding £10,020; £5170 day school Year 12-13/boarding £10600. Flexi boarding per term costs £1120 for four night stay or £25-£45 per night depending on the age of your child.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: outdoorsy kids, parents wanting Flexi-boarding options and a safe countryside environment, anyone wanting a non-hothouse environment, a strong moral and family ethos and consistently high academic achievement. Parents wanting their children to join in, the Exmoor is compulsory and pretty much all pupils perform at some level across music, arts and drama. With the recent news the effect pollution can affect academic results, never mind your littlie’s respiration system, West Buckland are naturally keen to promote its clean air location.
Not for: urbanites may find all that fresh air and rolling fieldiness a bit much (no Costa Coffee here) and ditto for the purely academic and kids who’re not joiners. Being in a remote setting there is a slight West Buckland ‘bubble’ that’s more rural idyll than real life. Though the sixth form boarding is pristine, the younger boarding is in an older building, and kids share boarding and bathrooms. If you like schooling to be more formal and starchy, less family and wholesome, here is not your place.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! Why not book in for a tour and let me know your thoughts?
West Buckland School, West Buckland School, Barnstaple, Devon, EX32 0SX. Tel: 01598 760000