Prior Park College, Bath
Muddy says: This independent co-ed senior school may have a grand setting but the education is far from grandiose: it's down-to-earth, holistic and with happiness and wellbeing at the core.
Independent co-ed Catholic day and boarding school for 11 – 18 year olds, on the top of a hillside in Bath, with surely one of the most spectacular views in the land (no exaggeration).
Prior Park College overlooks the Palladian bridge and – probably – Capability Brown designed-grounds of the Prior Park Landscape Gardens (great for boarders to go sledging in the winter) now owned by the National Trust, and the city beyond. The grand Mansion, which lies at the heart of the school, was built as a home for landowner/entrepreneur Ralph Allen around 1742, purchased by Bishop Baines in 1829 and opened as a school in 1830.
Although the school was founded by a Benedictine bishop and run for some years by the Christian Brothers, it’s under a lay management team today. With around 600 pupils – and 18-20 different nationalities – it’s one of the UK’s largest Catholic independent schools.
Former pupils include theatre producer Sir Cameron Macintosh and Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor.
The school’s part of Prior Park Schools along with The Paragon Junior School, also in Bath (read our review), and Prior Park School in Gibraltar.
Before we go on, let’s take in that view…
The Palladian Mansion – neo-classical portico, high ceilings, golden stone, hidden spiral staircases and that view – houses assorted classrooms, the atmospheric Academy Hall, Round Room for debating, Dining Hall (the food is delish), Library (10,000 individual resources), the John Wood Hall Chapel (also used for meetings and venue for choral and other productions, like Hedda Gabler – the acoustics must be incredible) and the 6th Form centre (The Dairy), which has a couple of common rooms, cool study area and its own deli (nice).
Next door, the impressive Our Lady of the Snows Chapel (more columns, ornate dome, soaring ceiling) is a place for worship, with Wednesday services, whole school mass every term and for boarders every weekend.
The professional level 180-seater Julian Slade Theatre and the MacIntosh Studio (old boy Sir Cameron, who remains involved with the school) allow for a large number of productions ranging from Electra to Daisy Pulls it Off, whole school performances and visits by professional theatre companies.
Traditional to high tech in the Music Centre, with five choirs, two orchestras, assorted trios, quartets and bands across the musical genres, 27 different musical instruments including African drumming and the accordion. Musical shows are eclectic, from Beauty & The Beast to The Marriage of Figaro and lunchtime recitals.
Visual Arts Centre with light-filled art rooms as well as photographic dark rooms where no light is allowed. Once a boys’ boarding house, the studio cubicles are divided with old bedposts.
Two-storey Product Design (Design & Technology) Department, recognised as a Centre of Excellence for its work with laser processing and 3D print technology, with CAD,CAM, laser cutters, mills and lathes.
All the sporting facilities you could want on site, including assorted pitches, astro, an indoor swimming pool and The Bury Sports Centre with well-equipped Fitness Centre which parents and other family members can use too. Sailing on nearby Chew Valley Lake/reservoir.
The new health and wellbeing centre, headed up by trained nurse Mel (first names here), is a welcoming laid back space for pupils to come to escape and take time to reflect as well as to get health advice and care, with a GP visiting regularly.
Lots of sessions and info on skills for life, stress management, yoga, relaxation, mindfulness with colouring books, Lego and more. System of Upper 6th Formers peer mentors, who complete a six-week training programme beforehand.
Every pupil is a member of a House with its own house master or house mistress. Everyone goes to their own House first thing in the morning and each pupil’s assigned a Tutor with regular one-to-one meetings.
Had a nose around Baines House which is for all Year 7 pupils and designed to help the transition from the Junior school up to the Senior. In Year 8, pupils move to Brownlow House. From Years 9 – 13, the Houses are mixed year groups but single sex: Burton and Clifford Houses (day boys); Arundell, English and Fielding Houses (day girls); Allen and Roche (mostly boarding boys); and St Mary’s (mostly boarding girls). Pupils can make friends across the school and there are assorted inter-house competitions – music, debating, sport – creating strong bonds as well as friendly rivalry.
It’s a Catholic school, so Christian principles underpin the school’s ethos, there’s a school Chaplaincy and weekly masses for those who want to attend, theology is a core GSCE subject and Sixth Formers follow a general Religious Education programme. Having said all that, the school is open to all faiths and none.
Dedicated Learning Development Programme for pupils with specific additional learning needs, with one-to-one and small group sessions.
Lots of opportunities for leadership, with the Head’s committee made up of head girls & boys, deputies, heads of houses, heads of charities/liturgy/eco committees.
Rugby, hockey, netball, tennis (links with Bath University Tennis Academy) and cricket (where girls and boys play together) are core sports plus 7s rugby, football, biathlon, swimming, basketball, athletics, cross country, table tennis and badminton. Emphasis on sport for all with around 10 teams per sport playing Saturday fixtures, the school has excelled at regional, national and even international levels.
Admission is by entrance exam and an interview with the Head. 2019 results: GCSEs A*/ 9/8 (26%); A*– 4 (95.1%); A Levels A*/A (33.6%); A* – C (85.1%). The Value Added score – how much progress pupils make in the time they are at the school, compared to other students in England – is 0.45 (‘well above average’), putting the school in the top 5% in England. Almost every pupil goes onto University, usually their first choice.
Head teacher Ben Horan has been in post since September 2019, after taking a degree in History (Ancient & Modern) at Magdalen College, Oxford, many years at Eton (Head of History and History of Art, 1st XV Rugby Coach and Deputy Housemaster) and more recently as Senior Deputy Head Academic at Merchant Taylors’ School in London. He talks about the school’s strong sense of community, the importance of kindness, and love, about confidence, collaboration and pupils finding ‘their thing’. This is a school which views education as an ‘holistic endeavour’, with happiness and wellbeing at the core, rather than a means to an end which is just a string of A* results (though they don’t do badly on that front either).
Around 150 full, weekly and flexi boarders live in two boarding houses: Roche and Allen Houses in St Paul’s for 90 boys and St Mary’s for 60 girls. Home-from-home atmos with large communal rooms – pick a chesterfield, any chesterfield in Roche – games rooms, prep rooms (with supervised prep), computers, kitchen. Dorms of five for younger pupils; doubles for older and single study bedrooms for 6th Formers. A plethora of sporty, crafty, computer, music, cookery activities as part of Saturday Active and more activities and trips out on Sundays.
The most recent ISI inspection was ‘excellent’.
Rather good trips, combining study and fun, the Biology trip to Dominica involved collecting data in the rain forest and scuba diving.
Assorted inter-house competitions, including music comps and The Fisher Relay, an annual race around the campus.
They’re introducing personalised learning devices for every pupil.
The girls are whizzes at tennis: the team were 4th in the 2019 National Schools Tennis finals and the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) ranks the school 2nd in the whole country for girls’ tennis.
Prior 4 Life, in Year 9 and the 6th Form, encourages students to learn practical/enriching life skills, so stuff like politics and careers in Year 9 and DIY, interview technique, basic cookery and managing finances in the 6th Form.
WRAP AROUND CARE/CO-CURRICULAR
School day runs from 8.30am to 5.45pm, with a short break at 4.30pm before prep, co-curricular etc (students are allowed up to two early homes a week).
Everyone’s encouraged to take part in one activity a week from the 60 available. Clubs include Tycoons in School (where pupils can set up a small business), Greek, Fencing (run by ex-World Champion), Sci-Fi, MEDSOC (for anyone interested in medicine) and as well as assorted arts and sporty stuff. Pupils can do their Duke of Edinburgh and join Combined Cadet Force (CCF) army or navy sections from Year 8.
The regular Academic Scholars Lecture Series brings inspirational people into the school: alumni, Olympic Gold medallists, Auschwitz survivors, politicians, art historians, mountaineers and more.
They have OAPs here but you don’t have to be a Senior Citizen – it’s the health and wellbeing centre’s Outdoor Activity Programme, with walks around the woods (great for less sporty types).
Transport into school from Warminster, Calcot Manor (near Tetbury), Shepton Mallet, Trowbridge, Hullavington, Keynsham, around Bath including Bath Spa Station and the Chew Valley.
Fees 2019/20, per term: day (Yrs 7 & 8) £5,085; day (Yrs 11–9) £5,650; 6th Form £5,750; weekly boarding from £7,320; full boarding from £8,250.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents describe the school as inclusive, nurturing, a place where kids are encouraged to think for themselves and develop a love of learning. Pastoral care was highly praised, tailored to each child, with dedicated staff whose sole desire is for their pupils to achieve their maximum – one parent said the school was a forum for achievement. Pupils rave about the new health and wellbeing centre. Above all, this is a happy school.
Good for: Parents who want their kids to go to school in a happy, nurturing environment where the pastoral care matches the academics and with an underlying Christian ethos that’s not in your face. Those who fancy a country estate setting yet still be close enough for pupils to walk into the centre of Bath and all it has to offer.
Not for: People who think that education’s only about narrow academic outcomes, though there’s plenty of support for pupils aiming for success in that field. Definitely not for those who think the grand setting will reflect a grandiose approach to education: this school and its pupils are down-to-earth and grounded.
Want to know more? Register for their virtual Q&A with the head and other members of staff 10am- 12noon on Sat 23 May.
Prior Park College, Ralph Allen Drive, Bath, Somerset BA2 5AH. Tel 01225 835353. priorparkcollege.com