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New review of RGS by The Good Schools Guide published


Reigate Grammar School’s latest review by The Good Schools Guide, which comes out every five years, has just been published.

Freelance journalist Kate Hilpern toured the school and interviewed the Headmaster and a selection of parents in order to prepare her comprehensive review of every aspect of the school, from the Headmaster to Academic Matters, Pastoral care & Discipline, and Pupils and Parents.

Summarising under ‘Our View’, Kate Hilpern concluded that “Priorities one, two and three for this selective school are pastoral care”, also commenting: “Students a delight – grounded, chatty and refreshingly comfortable in their own skin.”

Reigate Grammar School in the words of Good Schools Guide reviewer Kate Hilpern, June 2019:

Headmaster

Since 2012, Mr Shaun Fenton MA PGCE MEd NPQH (50s). Formerly head of Pate’s and founded and chaired National Grammar Schools Association; more recently became chair of Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (‘great for new opportunities for students’ e.g. recent lunch for politics students with Minister for Education, partnership work that has helped grow the school’s bursaries). Educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s, then PPE at Oxford. Started and ditched City career for education, first in west London comprehensive until drawn by challenge of The Ridings School in Halifax, labelled worst in Britain in TV documentary. Exhilarated by challenge of working with one of the first superheads, who achieved rags to riches magic, forged in hotbed of innovation. ‘If something worked here, would work anywhere.’ Much in demand to repeat the process, quickly promoted to first deputy headship in Hertfordshire, followed by spell as troubleshooter injecting aspiration into other troubled schools that had shed senior management following inspection failures. Jumped ship to independent sector specifically for Pate’s’ where he could ‘educate society’s leaders directly’; later drawn to RGS because of its ‘ambition to make a real difference’. Since his arrival, school has been on ‘quite a rollercoaster journey,’ says one parent – ‘his early ambitions were to make this school one you drive past others to come to and he’s succeeded with bells on’.

There’s something about his suited and booted exterior and formal-ish demeanour that seems to belie the liberal-minded progressor within. Animated and energetic, staff say he comes up with about 1,000 ideas a week – we reckon that during our visit alone, he came up with half that week’s quota. Parents ooze approval, calling him ‘dynamic’, ‘forward thinking’, ‘part of the community, not just a presidential figure’ and ‘a very strong leader with an excellent business brain – he’s made it one of the most popular schools in Surrey’. But, agree all, it’s pastoral support that has been his real hallmark, winning the school the accolade of TES School of the Year 2019 in that category. Don’t expect ‘your typical headteacher sales pitch,’ cautioned one parent – ‘there’s no need for the hard sell here’.

Students roll off all the usual acclaim – claiming he’s ‘approachable,’ ‘visible’ and ‘involved’ etc.  – but can it really be possible when he doesn’t even teach (not enough time, he says)? Absolutely, they insist – one told of how he turned up ‘not just to one performance of the play I was in but all six’; another described how he once did the ice bucket challenge on stage; and they all love the extra touches such as birthday cards and, for older ones, birthday teas. Even with his large pristine office, there’s more to it than meets the eye – having moved location so he overlooks the playground (‘where I can sense the mood of the school and be at the heart of it’), he essentially loans it out as a social space for students on ‘really cold lunchtimes’ – a generous approach, if ever we saw one.

Particularly good at unpicking already good educational practice and refashioning with even more stuffing. Sixth form mentors, for example, don’t just talk to pupils but meet them weekly and speak to their families – ‘it’s a real big brother or sister role – many keep in touch beyond school’. Lots of praise, too, for his reintroduction of house system, now embedded as if it’s as old as the school itself. Lives locally, with two sons at the senior school. Supports Liverpool FC – ‘my guilty pleasure’.

Academic Matters

‘Not a hothouse, but academic’ is the general consensus, with current head credited with ramping up results, chiefly via the pastoral route and oodles of extra academic support (known as learning pathways) where required. Expect best feet to be put forward and pips squeaked – all, however, without imposing undue stress, say parents, with the relaxed students we saw clearly not feeling the strain (and we visited during exam season). ‘When students do feel pressure, it tends to come from the students and their families, not the school,’ reckoned one. In 2018, 81 per cent of GCSEs A*-A/9-7 and 70 per cent of A levels A*/A grades.

While many young people treat education as castor oil – they don’t like it but know it’s good for them – here the emphasis in years 7 and 8 is on finding subjects that inspire you, then choosing faves for the extended three-year GCSE programme (usually nine or 10 taken, but with leeway for more or less), which gets the thumbs up from students and parents alike. One student told us she ‘couldn’t imagine cramming it into the usual two years’ while a parent said, ‘it helps keep the joy of the subject alive because there’s no mad race to prepare for the exam’. Unrelated modular programmes (digital photography, 20th century civil rights, Mandarin, yoga and Mediterranean cooking just a flavour of what’s on offer) keeps breadth – ‘a great education is about far more than a fist full of qualifications’, says school. No setting, but some banding, in maths. Mandarin, French, German, Spanish and Latin on offer from year 7 – students pick three, to which they can add from Japanese, Italian and Greek from year 8, with a view to doing one for GCSE (not compulsory).

Sixth-form seen as bridge between school and uni, with seminar-like learning and more opportunity to go off-piste in lessons. Most do three A levels – 23 to pick from with less traditional options including psychology (‘a real growth area’), computer science, Mandarin and politics. Maths statistically the most popular, humanities a close second. Art, drama and music get strongest results. All do the Henry Smith Studies Project (a home-grown independent research project), which around half convert to an EPQ (recent examples include sustainability and construction and criminal profiling of couple killers).

Has introduced High Performance Learning: ‘an innovative, world-class education profile that helps students become enterprising learners, advanced performers and global citizens’. And it’s not just behind-the-scenes, inset day speak – students drop acronyms and educational jargon such as ‘HPL’, ‘metalearning’ and ‘growth mindset’ into their conversation as easily as they talk about their favourite lunch options; they even reeled off examples – collaborative learning, focusing on effort not achievement, seeing assessment results in terms of how the learning could be improved next time etc.

‘Well, young people are used to highly technical language in the likes of gaming and football and academically in the likes of chemistry and maths,’ shrugged head when we commented on our surprise at their lack of bewilderment around this neuroscience terminology.

Some classrooms plain rather than purl when it came to display but judging by interest levels –engaged pupils clearly absorbed in subjects, with lots of laughter and interaction – teaching is quality stuff. Maximum class sizes of 20, dropping to around 14 for GCSE and 8 for A levels. Some parents would like homework ‘to be set online’.

Because the school starts with the assumption that all children need extra learning support at one point or another, there are around 150 children (most of whom don’t have a particular diagnosis) on the learning support register, led by two SENCOs. Parents of youngsters with SEN praise the ‘tailored approach to learning’ and that ‘we haven’t had to push for anything’, although one said ‘some teachers are more patient than others’.


Games, Options, The Arts

Extra-curricular leaves no stone unturned, with clubs and activities getting a brochure of their own. There’s even a flourishing forensic club (DNA testing one of covetable skills covered) with music, drama and sport taking joint curtain call in neatly blended annual summer festival featuring show-stopping goodies like fashion catwalk, school v MCC match and assorted productions and concerts. DofE, CCF and many, many trips.

Sport big but not bloated and gets unusually modest showing in school literature. Success, though substantial (there are national champions in hockey, athletics, biathlon and swimming, plenty of fixture wins and at least one student going off to play professionally every year), isn’t a front, back and middle pages splash. Head explains, ‘I’d never say we don’t play to win, but the moral purpose is to be a good sport not just good at sport.’ This explains the huge emphasis on sporting values e.g. punctuality, not arguing with the ref and teaching team captains to see that looking after someone who didn’t get in the team because they’re injured is as important as winning a match. Core sports are rugby, netball, hockey, football, swimming and cricket (for both boys and girls), with athletics, golf tennis and squash also available, plus some opportunities for the likes of kayaking and sailing. ‘But there’s still too much emphasis on hockey and rugby’, reckoned one student.

With A-E teams, parents say those that want to generally get a chance to play but not in a sausage machine kind of way, hence no tweets that every boy played rugby today – ‘just wouldn’t happen and nor would anyone want it to’. On site facilities on this 32-acre site include snazzy swimming pool (open to parents every Sunday), sports hall and some pitches, but students are coached 10 minutes away to Hartswood sports ground for most serious stuff.

Every student performs in at least one choral or drama event a year, with 12 drama (from much-loved half-termly ‘carnage’ of two-minute montages to whole school shows) and 35 music (from ear-bleeding battle of the bands to hi-brow classical at the Cadogan Hall, Chelsea) performances in the year we visited.

Recent plays include Find Me, written and performed by students, Macbeth and a mental health themed production taken to Edinburgh Festival. Backstage responsibilities as popular as wanting moment in the limelight. With strong singing (many prep choristers move up to senior school), you’d expect super music and you get it. ‘Jaw-dropping,’ said parent. Around 50 per cent have individual music lessons, some reaching diploma standard. Once a year giant orchestra scoops up local junior school performers. Normal sized version for daily use plus concert band, intermediate versions too, for those en route to grade greatness but not there yet.

Add free theory/aural classes, five choirs, most audition-free, one open to staff and parents, house music competition, live music in most assemblies and evening soirées in head’s garden, and it’s a wonder the director of music isn’t fraying at the edges. ‘The music is one of the reasons we chose the school – there’s so much going on,’ said one parent, who was heading off to an informal teatime concert as we spoke. Recording studio of professional standard.

Art drips off every wall – you’re as likely to see these beautifully hung works outside the science labs as around the organised chaos of the spacious art studios. Big and bold is order of the day, judging from the sheer size of canvases. While some of the talent was enough to stop us in our tracks, other works are reassuringly mediocre, reflecting school’s claim that art is a ‘key part of the development of the whole person’ and that ‘we need our engineers and scientist to be artistic in their thinking too – it’s not just about the most beautiful end results’.

Background and Atmosphere

Despite 17th century foundations, it’s the 19th century that dominates, with seamless fusing of blocks. Newest kid on the block (in newly acquired land) is £8m learning and resource centre providing a library, sixth form café, classrooms and sixth form centre surrounded by landscaped gardens.

Close to Reigate centre, with canny land acquisition almost allowing stroll into town to be accomplished entirely on school land. Its two sites are mere yards apart, through (unusually) a graveyard (students told us of recent ‘Ghostly Grammar’ play they wrote about school heritage).

School has personable, unintimidating, family-centric feel. Uniform smart but sensibly, students are not expected to wear blazers and ties ‘in sweltering heat’. Some criticisms of the food – ‘can be a bit stodgy and unhealthy’.

Is opening five co-ed, all through boarding schools in China for Chinese children in conjunction with the Kaiyuan Education Fund. The aim is to promote character development as well as academic success and to use part of the income to fund bursaries in the UK. Longer-term vision is to open 10 more across south east Asia, south America and Africa. Students are well versed in the dream of having ‘Reigatians all around the world’.

Pastoral Care, Well-Being and Discipline

‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care’ is the mantra about teaching, with student happiness and pastoral care the beating heart of the school. Everything about this place – the policies, the teaching styles, the whole building dedicated to wellbeing – seems to be underpinned by a sense of community, caring and communicating and that goes right down to little touches such as hiring of a fairground at the end of the revision process ‘to keep hold of your sense of fun’ and every student getting a Valentine’s card signed by all members of their tutor group who each write something nice about them. Surprising, then, that they almost appear to have tossed out conventional pastoral manuals – not for them the role of pastoral deputy head (‘pastoral can’t be siloed into one person – it needs to be the key responsibility for every person’) and there’s no wellbeing week (‘every week is wellbeing week’). They even put their own spin on the concept of heads of year, whereby they go up the school with the students, as do the form tutors (‘why break up these relationships with the pupils and parents every year, why not deepen them instead?’).

The idea is that by the time these kids reach the teen years, aka the risky years, these strengthened and authentic relationships could save the day. Students say the peer mentoring, extra-curricular and house system encourages relationships between year groups.

Hearteningly, no sugar-coating around bullying, though: ‘Are all children nice to each other all the time? No. Do we have to sometimes intervene? Yes,’ says head, with the odd temporary exclusion for ‘unkindness’ (as well as problems with social media) although nothing more than we’d expect (almost certainly less).

Poor behaviour a minority interest, said students we talked to, mainly because ‘the focus is on relationships not rules’. So-called guidance points given for the likes of being cheeky or late work – the acronym GP a lucky co-incidence ‘as it’s all about identifying what went wrong and referring as necessary’, says head, who believes ‘you don’t usually change people’s behaviour by punishing them but by helping them see how to do it better next time’ (although students said GPs can lead to detentions, albeit ‘rarely’). Rewards via on-line credit system.

Pupils and Parents

Mainly from Surrey and some from south west London. Ethnic mix, as you’d expect in deepest Surrey, not exactly diverse but more than once was, with 12-15 per cent who don’t identify as white British. Dual income families on the up too – many commute to London. Students a delight – grounded, chatty and refreshingly comfortable in their own skin. Most famous old boy is David Walliams, with other alumnae including Trevor Kavanagh, Keir Starmer, Susan Gritton and Ray Mears.

Entrance

Twenty per cent from the RGS junior schools – Reigate St Mary’s and Chinthurst – and the rest from state primaries and preps. Although now eight form entry, competition hotter than ever – generally 350 applications for the 150 year 7 places. For the right candidate, computer doesn’t invariably say no, however, even out of season – ‘come and talk to me,’ says head. School says it wants to ‘understand children, not just measure them’; teacher feedback and reports count in addition to tests in maths, English and reasoning. Choristers, though welcome, subject to same criteria as the rest. Now pre-tests for 13+ entry in year 9 (maths, English and reasoning). For sixth form, school looks for at least grade 7 in the subjects they wish to study and an overall grade profile of at least four grade 7s and no other grades lower than a 6 at GCSE. 

Exit

An impressive 80-90 per cent stay on to the sixth form. Eleven to Oxbridge in 2018 plus seven medics. Highly rated for quality of HE destinations by Sutton Trust which placed school in top two per cent of all UK co-eds – Durham, Bath, Loughborough, Exeter, Nottingham and Edinburgh most popular destinations currently, with one off to the US in 2018. Extra sessions, including on Saturday mornings, for leavers needing help with deferred entry post A level a real boon.

Money Matters

A scholarship programme (about 150 awards across the school), with awards of up to 30 per cent, potentially ‘significantly more’ at head’s discretion. Also head’s scholarship for children bringing a je ne sais quoi activity or interest which offers ‘value to the school community’. Unusually, scholars are encouraged to expect of the school, not the other way round, say parents – ‘makes things much less pressured’.  Over 170 (one in five students) are on means-tested bursaries, up to 100 per cent, and no stigma with students and parents clearly proud to receive them. Aim is to become needs-blind, says school. Parents of particularly bright sparks should note that those with straight A*/9-8s at GCSE automatically get £1,000 off the sixth form fees (parent to child bribe chats, you’d imagine, are rife as a result).

Our View

Priorities one, two and three for this selective school are pastoral care and this – coupled with fabulous teaching, students’ almost uniquely acute awareness of their own approach to learning and a heavy dose of extra-curricular – makes for happy kids and great results. Transformational head can take much of the credit, say parents; we agree. ‘They build the school around the child, not the other way round,’ summed up one.

This review can also be read on the Good Schools Guide website.

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