Clayesmore Senior School, near Blandford Forum
Muddy says: Set in the most bucolic countryside and with a main building that is oh-so-pleasing to the eye, there's a lot more to Clayesmore than its setting – including its innovative LEX programme
Clayesmore Senior is a co-ed boarding and day school for kids aged 13 to 18 in stunning grounds a few miles north of Blandford Forum and a step further from Salisbury, Bournemouth and Poole. It was founded in 1896, having moved to the West Country from Middlesex in 1933, via a stint in the buildings that are now Pangbourne College and Winchester.
There is a small yet impressive Prep School on site (read our Muddy review), acres and acres of playing fields and parkland and, with 400 pupils (plus 160 in the Prep), it makes for a lot of space per child. 50% of children board in the Senior School and the nurturing, family feeling is strong. A significant proportion of children have moved up from the Prep (about 90% stay on at 13), with others arriving from local schools as well as Wiltshire and Dorset Prep schools, including Sherborne Prep, Port Regis, Sandroyd, Castle Court, Dumpton and Knighton House.
Not surprisingly, the facilities are top notch here. Tennis courts, a full-sized astro pitch, contemporary dance studio and a large sports centre with squash courts, sports hall for badminton, volleyball and basketball, a swimming pool and fitness suites.
Endless sports pitches enjoy a view of the stunning school building and parkland beyond. Unsurprisingly, sport is taken seriously here, with the 1st Netball team as county champions, Cricketer Magazine naming it as one of the top 100 schools for cricket for the 6th year in a row, frequent Wisden accolades and other top teams holding their own against local neighbours Canford School and Bryanston. They also boast county and regional championship titles in hockey over the past few years. Having said that, sport is totally inclusive here and everyone gets the chance to represent the school.
The library is situated in the main house and is, unsurprisingly, lovely, large and bright; the DT block is impressive and the theatre is large and purpose built, hosting at least two plays per term (there is real encouragement of the students to pen their own dramas, and in Year 10 students write their own plays, pitch them to a panel and, if chosen, go on to direct them. Even in these strange Covid times, the show must go on, and the ingenious Head of Drama and a cohort of Year 9s staged a version of ‘Taking Breath’, live streaming to an audience of family and friends by a student-led crew managing a suite of cameras to capture every emotion and movement. Nothing stops Clayesmore treading the boards.
The Art Department (situated in the local village of Iwerne Minster) welcomes all students, with regular Drawing Days and cultural trips to Pitt-Rivers museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate and National Galleries and many students heading off to study the subject at University.
The Music Department is excellent, with a school orchestra, Choral Society, Concert Band, Chapel Choir, Horn Quartet, Bassoon Quartet, Bagpipe Band (I fancy being in that one), all led by an inspirational Director of Music who has really set the department on fire. Concerts take place almost weekly and there is at least one major concert each term, with some smaller, more intimate events held in the Main House and other larger festivals in the chapel or on the lawns. During Covid, bands and orchestras have met outside to practise and there have been virtual student-led performances to all-school renditions of classics to keep spirits high. Every year pupils head off on scholarships to conservatoires.
Clayesmore is forward-thinking and if you look at the results, all students end up at their first choice of university, college, drama school or degree apprenticeship. Small class sizes mean pupils get as good as one-to-one attention and so follow a steep gradient of academic improvement during their time at the school.
What is obvious is that education is tailor-made here, with all pupils offered a bespoke package of their choice and the school knocking away at the shrinking stigma of BTECs. While all pupils take GCSEs, in the Sixth Form A-Levels are on offer but many pupils take both A-Levels plus one or more BTECs (or all BTECs if you are more practically-minded), which more and more universities view as a huge strength – even the most academic colleges are starting to prefer a blend of both. At Clayesmore it is not unusual for pupils to take extended BTECs (equivalent to 2 A-Levels) and achieve Distinction *.
My impression of Clayesmore is that whilst it’s not a hothouse for Oxbridge, it has the capacity to stretch the brightest pupils as well as support all the extra-curricular activities that make for happy, well-rounded adults. Students go on to a range of universities, from Medieval and Modern Languages at Cambridge,Mathematics at Oxford, and Law and Engineering at Russell Group universities, to RADA and Bristol Old Vic, art foundation courses, degree apprenticeships and even family farms. There is no academic snobbery here – their motto is ‘tell us what you want to do and we will get you there.’
Alongside the academic sits the school’s new weekend LEX programme (named after Lex Devine their founder), which aims to equip pupils with competencies and confidence for life through activities within five ‘pillars’: the great outdoors; arts, creativity and culture; enterprise/employability; academic extension; and service/leadership. More of that later.
The boarding community is strong and operates with a warm and happy family atmosphere. Day pupils are encouraged to stay on for tea, prep and clubs in the evenings – as late as they like, really. Five relaxed and homely boarding houses (three boys’ and two girls’) accommodate the children, with day pupils being allocated a house rather than being plonked in a separate Day House.
The relationship between day and boarding pupils seems seamless, and if you do choose to board I’d plump for the impressive girls’ space in the Main House – such lovely large rooms with original features, high ceilings and picture windows with views across the park. It even has a large, fully-stocked kitchen where I understand regular baking sessions take place!
Jo Thomson is the woman at the helm here (I can’t believe how rare it is to have a woman as head of a co-ed school) and she is a pretty inspiring figure.
Previously deputy for eight years at Christ’s Hospital School (of the white collars and knee breeches fame), she is proud to say that it was Clayesmore’s holistic ethos that brought her here. Although no longer teaching, she spends much of her time with the students and is a regular fixture on the side lines supporting Saturday matches. Indeed, her pride in the school and pupils is visible.
See the latest reports from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), equivalent to Ofsted in the state sector, here.
There is a real mucking-in vibe at Clayesmore, and both students and staff seem open and interested in new ideas. The sense of family prevails, with older children looking after younger ones and the Sixth Form definitely not being too cool to talk to first years. Everyone knows everyone, and it is not unusual to see older pupils supporting sports matches – and not under duress! The support of the individual runs throughout the school, from finding an unusual activity for a child to get stuck into, to researching and offering a new BTEC.
Of course there are some fabulously quirky elements too – on the social calendar is a Monte Carlo-themed ball for Years 11-13, the House Music Competition is taken very seriously by all, and the list of trips on offer includes everything from the expected sports tours to Sri Lanka and South Africa, to language trips to Biarritz, Kaarst and Granada, work experience in factories overseas and expeditions to Everest Base Camp, just…well, because it’s there.
The latest innovation at Clayesmore is the introduction of the LEX weekend activities programme. Doing away with the independent sector’s traditional Saturday school, LEX replaces academic lessons with an exciting menu of trips, experiences and events on Super Saturdays – anything from cipher challenges to fashion design, kitesurfing, to film-making or country pursuits. Pupils choose which activities they’d like to try; all are designed to offer new opportunities and experiences and allow them to develop new skills to help them thrive in our increasingly challenging modern world. Sounds fab – can we come along, too?
Opportunities continue with CCF, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, Young Enterprise and Model United Nations all big deals in the Clayesmore community.
Service in the community is important, with pupils helping out at The Forum School, a local school for children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder, playing The Last Post at the village Remembrance Day service, doing community work at Kingston Maurward gardens, coaching sports and providing reading support to Prep pupils. Not only does this help others but it instills a sense of self worth in the children – that it is not just about doing well that is important, but contributing to your community and helping others is vital in ensuring they develop into outstanding, broad individuals.
The not-too-big, not-too-small size of the school means that it can offer a range of subjects and activities to suit everyone, yet maintain that oh-so-important family feel. I came away with a strong sense that this is a warm, encouraging school where everyone is able to be themselves. Everybody is known and has their space, and while strong academic foundations are clearly important, they prioritise building confidence, enabling children to reach goals they’d never dreamed of, and seizing opportunities, so a bright child will thrive and a less able one soar.
Day fees are £9,093 per term, boarding fees £12,391 per term.
WORD ON THE GROUND
‘Clayesmore has surpassed our expectations. We couldn’t have wished for a better school to prepare our daughter for adult life and we shall look back on her time there with great fondness’ says one parent. Others describe the school as having an ‘incredible atmosphere’, ‘superb, with a big heart’ and ‘one of Dorset’s gems’.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: If you want a forward thinking, dynamic school for kids of all abilities with an incredibly happy family atmosphere and where everyone is genuinely valued as an individual – this is the school for you.
Not for: Parents who want a singular fast-track to Oxbridge.
Dare to disagree?! To find out about visiting the school, email email@example.com
Clayesmore School, Iwerne Minster, Blandford, Dorset DT11 8LL. 01747 812122, clayesmore.com