Taunton School, Taunton
Muddy says: A school for the 21st century, that wears its 150-year history lightly, embraces difference, and excels in involving all its students in a whole-person educational experience
Founded in 1847 for the boys of dissenters (not Church of England) this co-educational, non-denominational, independent day and boarding school moved to its current location at the northern end of Taunton in 1870. A large and interconnected range of buildings huddle together behind a slightly imposing Gothic revival building with an impressive central clock tower. With the look of a Scottish baronial hall, the central building peers over a vast swathe of open playing fields.
The 56-acre site houses the main co-educational Senior School for 13-18 year olds, a Prep (7-13 years), Pre-Prep (4-7 years) and Nursery (6 months-4 years) as well as Taunton School International (TSI) all on a single, integrated campus. This brings cohesion to the school with all generations passing each other en route to sports, music or meals in the light and airy new dining hall – more Tate Modern than Hogwarts. Almost all the pupils in the Prep continue in the Senior School.
A pioneer in British education, the school went co-ed in 1973 and is fiercely proud of and true to the principle of teaching boys and girls together. It was an early adopter, too, of the provision of an international education (TSI was founded in 1996) for 14-16 year olds wanting to follow a one-year or two-year GCSE/pre-IB education. Post-16, students can follow an IB route, A levels, an International Business Foundation Programme and a range of BTEC options. Some 45 nationalities are represented and students are again integrated into the life of Taunton School, sharing facilities, meals and lectures.
Boys and girls can board from 7-18 years and with eight boarding houses across the Prep and Senior schools, boarding is a popular option, with typically 350 of the 1000 pupils choosing it.
Here children can make Taunton School their home-from-home, with a huge amount of pastoral support from the dedicated and highly experienced team of house staff.
A strong house system in the Senior School mixes all age groups vertically, encouraging inter-generational mentoring and what the Head calls a family-style organisation.
In contrast to the architectural austerity of the main Senior School building, the school has a relaxed vibe, with groups of teens chatting on “the front”, a crocodile of pre-preppers making its way through the school to listen to the lunchtime concert in the Chapel, and classes buzzy and relaxed.
This is a school that is unusually easy in its skin. It knows what it’s doing and is sure-footed, unstuffy and unstuck-up.
With 56 acres to play with, the school is rich in a variety of both historical and contemporary buildings and theatres, Arts and Music, D&T and Science centres. The sports fields surround the school, including astro pitches, all-weather tennis courts, not one but two indoor swimming pools, indoor cricket, netball courts, squash, basketball, climbing wall, gym, three sports halls and a dance studio.
Specialist blocks for Science, D&T, Art, Music, Languages and Humanities are all fully equipped, inviting and airy.
The spanking new Dining Hall is open throughout the day for students to enjoy locally-sourced food all cooked on the premises. Taunton School is the only school in the region to have full kitchens on-site.
PRE-PREP AND PREP
The Nursery and Pre-Prep are housed in airy classrooms spilling with collections of bricks, dinosaurs, fossils, pens, puzzles and, yes, books. But learning at these earlier stages appears rooted in the experiential.
Classrooms are arranged round a large play quad, bordered with passenger trikes – a major hit. There are “wild” forested areas right on the doorstep of the classrooms for exploring within the safe boundaries of the school campus, and the many rows of Wellington boots are evidence that children spend plenty of time in the fresh air.
The Prep proper has more traditional classrooms with dedicated Science labs and a D&T space filled with grown-up-looking jigsaws, laser cutters, and children’s models. Kids learn to code in the ICT class and classrooms are fitted with interactive whiteboards and video cameras to allow remote learning using Microsoft Teams – especially useful in these coronavirus times. The prep has a professional-looking kitchen for cookery classes also used in Saturday Enrichment classes, of which more later.
There is outstanding performing arts provision that starts with the prep and continues through to the senior school. A fully-equipped large theatre is home to full-scale productions that rope everyone in: it’s all about teamwork and inclusion. No-one is left out.
Historically the school choir (all abilities) tours to sing across Europe, but this year COVID-19 has put a temporary end to that. Music is a major strength and even in the prep years there are 17 specialist music teachers coming in to teach instruments.
If the pandemic has been a test, you feel that Taunton School has aced it. The school continued to operate as soon as lockdown was lifted and under the Head’s guidance put on an August summer school, staffed by teachers volunteering their time and students drawn not just from the school, but anyone who wanted to participate. Some 200 kids per week came in and there was no shortage of teachers committed to offering their time to facilitate it.
While safety measures are certainly enforced (one-way systems to maintain social distancing; masks worn in public corridors; anti-bacterial spraying of every door across the school every day) the effort has been all about continuing to deliver as normal a school experience as possible. There has been no let-up in activities, in the setting and marking of prep, in sport and music and co-curricular activities. You feel again the commitment of a school determined to do what it does, to work around what you can’t change, to put students first.
With all the co-curricular activity, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s hardly time for study, but 94% of Tauntonians leaving at 18 go on to university here and overseas, with 40 earning places at Oxbridge over the last decade. In 2019, 93% gained five GCSEs, A*-C, and an impressive 43% A*-A (or 7-9 in today’s money). At A level, almost two-thirds (61%) achieved A*, A or B, and the IB average was 32 points.
It seems that spending time acting, playing golf or learning violin only enhances academic performance, rather than dilutes it.
Lee Glaser has headed the school since 2015, after five years as Deputy Head. An accountant by training (he left Coopers & Lybrand, now part of PwC, to join Millfield where he headed up sport) he is big on democratising independent education. On his bookshelves is a copy of Jim Collins’ management bestseller, Good to Great, and his LinkedIn profile gives his title as both Headmaster and CEO.
There is nothing fusty or schoolmasterly about Mr Glaser. When he became Head, he established a new senior management team to undertake a complete review of teaching and learning, asking them to conclude only when they felt confident they’d be happy for every member of staff to teach their own children.
He has overseen a major refurbishment program, improving lighting and paintwork rather than whole new trophy facilities. “I wanted to feel parents could open any door, anywhere in the school, without my stomach turning with dread”. While the school’s facilities are extensive and impressive, he isn’t one for showy buildings.
Nor is he a fan of selective education, saying that since students will have to learn to work and live with people of all abilities, they may as well start at school. He believes passionately in the school’s ability to create individual pathways for each and every one of its students, to bring out the best and foster a strong sense of community. All kinds of success are celebrated and he has no time for the kind of elitism that only values successful Oxbridge entrants.
He is particularly proud of the school’s approach to mental health, which has been fully integrated into all teachers’ skill sets – every teacher is trained in mental health first aid – and they also employ two mental health nurses and a school counsellor in the Health Centre. Working closely with Deputy Head and pastoral care lead, Ed Burnett, students are encouraged to be open about depression, anxiety and low mood. “We see it is a normal part of life,” he says.
The down-to-earthness that is tangible throughout the school is a source of pride. He believes the international feel of the school (30% of the senior school comprise overseas students) is a major strength, particularly in this part of the South West where ethnic diversity is low. “Many local parents send their kids here because of it,” he says.
Asked what he would change about the school if he could, he says a widening of the available bursaries so that more children could benefit from what Taunton School has to offer. He has established a scheme in which students unable to afford fees in the 6th Form can be matched to donors. Some 23 students have been educated entirely free of charge through this scheme.
You can see the latest reports from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), equivalent to Ofsted in the state sector, here.
The sports provision includes plenty of options for all: rugby, netball, hockey, golf, football, cross-country, swimming, athletics, basketball, squash and tennis are all taught and played, both in competitive inter-school matches and for fun. A fully-equipped fitness centre and dance studio offers both classes and options for individual work-outs.
All-weather pitches and courts extend seasons. Coaches include former professional sports men and women like ex-England cricketer Marcus Trecosthick, former French International and Exeter Chiefs rugby player Nicolas Sestaret and ex-England hockey player Elliot Foweraker.
The Prep school’s Saturday Enrichment classes (cookery, performing arts, art) are open to anyone in the locality who wants to come, and many do. This softening of the school’s boundaries to engage with the town is typical of the school’s ethos as inclusive and unselective.
An extensive outreach programme sees around 1200 pupils each year at local state primary schools benefitting from sessions with the school’s specialist coaches and teachers, with many coming to use the facilities.
Clubs a-gogo: choose from the Investor Club, Scientific Society, Enterprise Club, or chess, debating, modern languages, stomp percussion, saxophone ensemble…the list goes on. The school supports the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and of course the Combined Cadet Force, of which it has the largest contingent in the South West.
Active stream of external speakers, lecturers and specialists from every walk of life to help inspire and stretch.
Music is big here: plenty of students gain places in the National Youth Orchestra and are encouraged to compete in both local and national music competitions. The dedicated music building, presided over by Director of Music, Mark Cracknell, fizzes with energy and even has its own student-produced magazine.
In 2019, a group of 12-year-old swimmers from the Prep School became one of the youngest ever relay teams to swim the English Channel, completing the 22 mile feat in just 12 hours and 38 minutes. Wow! They raised over £7,000 for the neo-natal unit at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton.
Green credentials aplenty: the first school in Somerset to go “zero to landfill”; all waste is processed for recycling and residual waste used to generate energy; they use a chemical-free, environmentally-friendly cleaning product which turns tap water into a powerful cleaner supplied by a company founded by a former pupil; and they won the “Green Award for Environmental Impact” at the 2019 Independent Schools of the Year Awards.
One of the recipients of the 6th Form patrons’ bursary, Haleem Clift, has been selected to join the fantastically competitive National Youth Theatre.
A virtual 60-strong school choir earned huge plaudits for its VE-Day concert, undeterred by COVID-19 restrictions.
No messy parental drop-off here: an excellent network of designated and branded school buses brings in many day students from across the county.
An amber light over the school’s war memorial is the first to be lit every morning and the last to be turned off. There is a poignancy in that.
Fees per term 2020/21. Pre-Prep: Reception, Years 1 & 2, £2,525 (day). Prep: Years 3 & 4 £2,875 (day), £4,995 (full board); Years 5 & 6 £3,930 (day), £6,525 (full board); Years 7 & 8 £5,280 (day), £8,755 (full board). Senior School: Years 9-13 £6,990 (day), £11,460 (full board). 10% discount for siblings at the school at the same time.
Scholarships are available at entry to Years 7, 9 and 12; Headmaster’s Awards are offered at entry to other year groups; and means-tested bursarial support is accessible through the Assisted Places scheme.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents say that the school feels like home, with ‘incredibly dedicated’ staff who really ‘get’ each child, developing strong individual connections, which the pupils cherish. They work as team, with no barriers between departments, and take time to connect with parents too.
Being non selective, having such a broad curriculum and a ‘wealth of opportunities’, means that each child can find at least one area in which to excel and usually many more. Whilst there is academic rigor, even in the Prep, no SATS or Common Entrance takes unnecessary pressure off.
The school feels really nurturing when pupils are little, moving to an environment where they are expected to take greater responsibility for themselves. It encourages them to try out new things, be adventurous, take a lead but always be part of a team.
The school is super welcoming to new families, with a ‘Classmates’ app for parents to make contact – and friendships – with other parents, and boarding house staff communication is ‘off the chart’.
Parents appreciate the school’s traditions and strong culture but say that the school feels fresh, exciting, dynamic and responsive; it’s continually evolving and aiming for the highest levels and is ‘agile and humble enough’ to make changes that work for the whole school community.
Provision during lockdown was ‘ insanely comprehensive’ and ‘incredible’.
Good for: Parents seeking an excellent all-round co-educational experience fit for the 21st century with a strong emphasis on international community and plurality.
Not for: The snobbish, the narrow-minded or the entitled.
Taunton School, Staplegrove Road, Taunton, Somerset TA2 6AD. 01823 703 703. tauntonschool.co.uk