Hello from Oxfordshire!
As we prepare ourselves for some much needed rest and relaxation over the Easter break, we’re bringing you our lastest boarding school profile. This month we seized the beautiful weather to head North East England to visit Barnard Castle School, a cosy, down-to-earth boarding school that’s a reliable success with all pupils we send there. After refreshing ourselves with cake and lemonade, we cracked on with our usual tours and interviews — do read on to hear our thoughts!
Barnard Castle School from the air
Barnard Castle School is in the market town of Barnard Castle, in County Durham. Unsurprisingly, the town takes its name from the medieval castle it was built around, now an English Heritage site and popular tourist destination. Nearby, you’ll find some of England’s most beautiful scenery in the Yorkshire Dales and North Pennines. This isn’t a quaint and gentle landscape like the Cotswolds; instead you get the moody drama and majesty of some of the UK’s most breathtaking expanses of fells, valleys and heathlands.
On the edge of town, the school itself is also a real showstopper, a long stone building that towers over the road in true Victorian glory! Once you’re in, however, like its nickname, Barney feels much more intimate and cosy than you might expect from the approach. Interiors of the original buildings are grand but well-loved and much used, and there’s the obligatory cluster of less attractive ‘60s add-ons—earmarked for an upcoming renovation plan—hidden from the road at the back of the school.
Barney is easy to get to, but public transport options that take you right to the school’s door are limited. The nearest large town with a train station, Darlington, is about a 30-minute drive away, although buses do also run from Darlington to Barnard Castle town, a short walk from the school. Barney’s nearest international airport is Teesside International, but more flights are available to Newcastle or Leeds, both of which are about an hour’s drive away. Fast trains also run from London to Darlington, covering the 250 miles in only two and a half hours.
Happy faces - THAT's what Barney is about
What (we think!) Barnard Castle School is all about
Barney is a school that is all about its pupils. As Lena, a German student in sixth form told us, “it’s the friendliest school I’ve ever known, it’s so open”. This means there’s a very close relationship between pupils, teachers, and houseparents, and no stuffy formalities. There’s also no preferential treatment towards those who excel in sports or academics — everyone is on the same page at Barney, which values achievements relative to an individual’s own goals, rather than league tables or grades. While particular academic or extracurricular strengths might be other schools’ proud selling points, Barney offers a solid provision across the board and instead excels at providing a strong, warm community and dedicated pastoral care. (Staff clearly value this too: when headmaster Tony Jackson asked all staff to submit three words that describe Barney into an online programme, “happy” and “community” emerged as the most common choices by a mile.)
The school is down-to-earth and outdoorsy, a product of its location and the large number of local pupils from farming families that attend. In the same vein, attentive pastoral care does not mean cotton wool mollycoddling, but is a bit more like the embrace of a warm fire at the end of a long day!
Seen in Barney's art department
Barney’s academic approach is summed up well by the headmaster: “We’re preparing pupils for the test of life, not a life of tests”. It is, he says, about being able to “fail in a comfortable environment” and providing a breadth of opportunities to cater to diverse and varied interests.
Results are still strong though, a reflection of how Barney’s pastoral care brings the best out of everyone. In 2020, 42 per cent of pupils achieved A or A grades at A Level or Pre-U equivalent, and 88 per cent achieved between A and C. At GCSE, 40 per cent achieved grades between 9 and 7. In 2019, the last year that exams took place, 28 per cent of pupils achieved A or A grades at A Level or Pre-U equivalent, and 73 per cent achieved between A and C. At GCSE, 25 per cent of pupils received grades between 9 and 7.
There are a broad range of subjects for pupils to choose from, including GCSEs in Creative iMedia, Classical Civilisation and Business Studies as well as the usual options. At A Level, interesting options include Ancient History, Psychology, and Computer Science, and the arts are well catered for with Drama and Theatre Studies and Design and Technology on offer too. Latin can also be taken all the way up to A Level. Facilities are fairly normal, although there is a standout new sixth form centre which includes university-style study spaces and break-out rooms that pupils clearly make good use of.
Barney's fabulous 6th Form Center
For international students, there’s a full time EAL teacher, and a new dedicated international registrar who handles any specific academic requests (as well as airport pickups and other logistics). We were particularly encouraged by this new appointment, as Mr Jackson admits that his previous life at Radley College—where there are few overseas pupils—did not give him the experience needed for Barney, which has around 30-35 international boarders. It’s testament to the school’s humble and professional ethos that Mr Jackson hired a specialist to do the job, rather than presuming he could handle it himself.
In terms of admissions, Barney is not selective and is proud to be so. There are entrance exams, but the school will take pupils that show potential or an appealing character despite their results, Mr Jackson tells us. Equally, he will happily say no to those who pass with flying colours but have a bad or arrogant attitude that wouldn’t suit the school’s ethos.
Not an uncommon sight: Barney's Ist rugby team huddling in the rain
As you might expect from a school in County Durham, Barney is an all-weather, outdoorsy school. Despite a quick rainshower during our visit, we saw pupils hanging out at break times on the sports pitches, happily running around and chatting in rugby shorts and netball skirts.
There are extensive and very beautiful fields and pitches as far as the eye can see at the back of the school, as well as tennis courts, an indoor swimming pool, a dance (or yoga) studio, and squash courts. Hockey, rugby, swimming, cricket, netball, squash, football and cross country make up the core sporting programme, but other options include rifle shooting, rock climbing, and fitness training. Sports are “pretty competitive” at A Team levels, we’re told by pupils, but everybody gets a chance to muck in and there’s an emphasis on everyone trying a few new activities each term.
Both teachers and pupils say that CCF is the most popular option across the board. Lena, a German student in sixth form, explained to us that while she came with her apprehensions about CCF—mostly misconceptions, she admits now—it’s since become her favourite activity. “It’s about strategy, first aid, and how to work in the outdoors, it’s not just about guns and shooting,” she says.
Over 100 other clubs and activities such as lectern club (a formal speaking club that meets over a black tie dinner), pottery, baking, gardening, and eco club, as well as the usual music, arts and drama are also available.
Cozy & homely: a kitchen and common room in a boarding house
Of Barney’s 540 students, there are around 170 boarders, including between 30 and 35 international students (a number which is capped because Mr Jackson is “conscious of the tipping point” in a British boarding school). Up until sixth form, when all boarders get their own room, Barney will also make sure to partner international students with a British roommate.
Lena assures us that despite day pupils leaving sharp at 5.10pm every day, the community is well meshed together. “When we’re in school, you can’t see the difference,” she says. “Obviously you know the girls in boarding a bit better at the beginning, but that’s just at the beginning.” There are no forced exeats, and on the weekend there will be at least 20-30 pupils in each house.
At Barney, Mr Jackson says, it’s “school first, house second”, a response to his time at Radley, where he felt the disparity between boarding house cohorts could lead pupils to have wildly different experiences at school. That said, house competitions are taken very seriously, from steeple chases to singing and tiddlywinks and other “totally bonkers” activities. (We noticed here that the diversity of activities means house competitions are inclusive, and don’t just become an extension of the sports field.)
Modern - Barney's double rooms
There are about twice as many boy boarders as girls (a curious consequence of many local families choosing to send their sons to board but their daughters to attend as day pupils) although there are plans to build another girls’ house. The existing girls’ house is in a newer building by the sports pitches, while the two boys' houses are on the top floor of the main school building. Girls therefore benefit from more modern rooms, while boys get slightly more old-school charm — but with that comes the need for housemasters to carry a radiator bleeding key on their key bunches at all times!
Girls will, however, often share the larger communal spaces in the boys’ houses, which include vast cooking facilities and snugs with sofas and pool tables, for film screenings or “Come Dine With Me” evenings. There’s also a gaming room, created because the school wanted to stop pupils bringing consoles to their rooms where they would spend hours alone. The idea to “bring it into the open”, as housemaster Luke Monument says, is also felt in Barney’s approach to alcohol. On Saturday afternoons, pupils will often sit around and have a few beers with a teacher present. Similarly, pupils are free to walk the five or ten minutes to Barnard Castle for coffee midweek and on the weekends, as long as they let their teacher know.
Despite the somewhat remote location, there’s a strong sense of independence in pupils at Barney. It might be one of the only schools where we’ve seen sixth formers doing their own laundry! The only strict rules we noticed are towards technology, with all gadgets collected at night up until Year 11.
Barnard Castle School from the air
Our view on a student suited to Barnard Castle School
It’s hard to pinpoint a student particularly suited to Barney because all pupils we send here do so well. Whether welcoming a high flying extrovert or someone who’s a little more shy and might have struggled previously, Barney’s warm community always brings out the best in each individual. Pupils of varying abilities and interests come home raving about their time there — Sanne, a German boarder we spoke to, had loved the experience so much she was desperate to stay another term.
Utterly focused on its people, with a down-to-earth attitude, Barney perhaps isn’t the place for those who are hankering for a truly cosmopolitan environment or for the grandeur of some British boarding schools. But for anyone without those specific requirements, Barney is a lovely place that focuses on the important, simple things — producing humble, confident, and happy pupils.