Hello from a very sunny Oxfordshire!
This month we finally got to visit a school in person again, and we cannot tell you how good it felt to get away from Zoom calls! English boarding schools are really getting back to near-normal life now, and we had a lovely day at Monkton Combe school in Somerset. Monkton’s headmaster, Chris Wheeler, is also the subject of our latest Tea with the Head podcast, which you can find here. Enjoy!
Monkton Combe School from above, nestled into the stunning Midford Valley
Monkton Combe, the village from which the school takes its name, is just a ten-minute drive outside of Bath, the Somerset spa town popular for its beautiful Regency architecture and Roman baths. The school campus sits in the picture-perfect Midford valley, a sprawling and unassuming cluster of warm Bath stone buildings mixed with a few modern blocks. The natural landscape surrounding Monkton is so special that the school’s cricket pitch has been voted the third most picturesque cricket pitch in the country by Wisden, the UK cricket bible!
There isn’t much to pull pupils away from school in the nearby vicinity, but trips can be organised into Bath and occasionally to Bristol, a 20 minute train from Bath.
Trains from Bath to London take around two hours; otherwise Bristol airport, a 40 minute drive from the school, has a good flight schedule across Europe.
Monkton's stunning cricket pitch!
What (we think!) Monkton Combe School is all about
When we asked Chris Wheeler, Monkton Combe School’s headmaster, how he’d describe the school to our podcast listeners, he said “it’s a bit of a hidden gem”. He’s not wrong — a member of the Rugby Group of public schools in England (which includes the likes of Harrow, Oundle, Radley and Cheltenham), Monkton Combe School does go slightly under the radar. This is in part to its size: the school is small, with only 400 or so students. But the personal attention you’d expect each pupil to get in a small community like this has become Monkton Combe School’s beating drum: it prides itself on its individualised teaching, its ability to “be different”, and its renowned pastoral care.
Monkton's music department - music is huge here!
“The starting point isn't what exam results you want to achieve, or what team you want to play in, or any of those sorts of things. It's the ‘who you are’ rather than ‘what you are’,” says Mr Wheeler. Mr Wheeler plugs this mantra into the school’s day-to-day functions by having students write their own reports, and encouraging initiatives such as the “failure awards”. While we noticed that the examples of students who won “failure awards” were those who also happened to go on to amazing achievements (like rowing for Great Britain!), we’re told this is the point — Monkton Combe School is trying to teach children how to benefit from failure and not to be scared of it. As Bethany, a pupil in Year 12, described it to us: “You're encouraged to not think that if you do something wrong, that means that you're going to just be judged for that one thing. It's more about developing your character.”
Failure awards aside, a spirit that certainly does underline the school is its Christian foundation and focus on pastoral care. Tutoring happens one-on-one, and there is a strong family feeling to the school community, as well as one of spiritual enquiry — whether through a Christian interpretation or otherwise.
Christian foundation, but no indoctrination!
“You know, there are your sort of academic curricular skill sets, and then there's this sort of pastoral piece, that kind of who you are, and then there's your spiritual life,” says Mr Wheeler. “And any school that's failed to engage you in the idea that you have a spiritual life has, in my view, failed.“
We also definitely saw how happy the school is to be different, whether it’s having lessons outside when the weather’s warm, encouraging girls to join the boys’ cricket team, or putting aside a specific cash pile for innovative ideas that crop up mid-term.
The school's art and design department - the creative offer is amazing here!
Monkton Combe School is not particularly selective, but it has a strong set of academic results nonetheless. In 2020, 71 per cent of pupils achieved between a 9 and 7 at GCSE; 47 per cent achieved A or A at A level (78 per cent A or B). In 2019 (the last year when exams took place), 59 per cent achieved between a 9 and 7 at GCSE, while 60 per cent received A or A at A level (72 per cent A or B). There is no IB offering, and no plans for there to be in the future.
Maths is a particularly strong subject, and one of the most popular choices at A Level. Bethany and Alexander, another Year 12 student, told us that the English teachers are excellent and that academic Arts subjects are also a real success — multiple arts and design subjects are available at A Level, and at GCSE pupils can also choose from dance, photography, fine art, and design.
Art from the inside - a little peek into the art department
Teaching at Monkton Combe School likes to be flexible — students are encouraged to bring a laptop to every lesson in Sixth Form, but lessons are also held outside in a number of specifically designed seated areas when the weather is good (think wooden-stepped amphitheatres and log benches). The close attention paid to each student also allows pupils to explore interesting niche projects that might get overlooked elsewhere — Alexander told us he is currently working on an A Level architecture project that looks at areas that are regularly flooded, or where people are forced to live in water!
Rowing is one of the key sports here.
Like any small school, Monkton Combe School faces a trade-off with its extracurriculars. Everyone is encouraged to muck in, partly because of the school’s ethos, and partly out of need — nearly all of Years 9 and 10 and 75 per cent of Sixth Form pupils take part in sports fixtures at the weekend. While this means that everyone gets to try everything, it does naturally make the school less competitive when playing against others. But clearly the student body can see the argument on either side — when Alexander told us that it bothers him because he’s really into his sports, Bethany piped up to say she thinks it’s a benefit, because it enhances the community spirit and everyone gets a go. So you’ll have to make up your own mind on that one!
A peek through the window into the art department...
Unsurprisingly given their academic popularity, the arts are also a big extracurricular hit for Monkton Combe School. The Art and Design Centre, opened in 2016, is a beautiful wood-panelled building that the students clearly appreciate and are free to use as their own. “All the rooms are so light, and they have all this equipment, it’s so good,” Bethany tells us. There’s also an in-house artist who helps guide students’ practices. Music and drama are also popular, with a new theatre space in the works and regular summer jazz evenings as part of the Longmeade Jazz Festival on the beautiful cricket pitch in the valley. (In line with the Monkton ethos, there’s also the famous “Choir Who Can’t Sing”, as well as choirs who clearly can sing, and do so regularly in Bath Abbey.)
Astroturf for hockey, tennis and football
As well as the traditional sports such as netball, hockey, cricket, tennis and rugby, pupils at Monkton Combe School can row from their own boathouse, take part in CCF, the Duke of Edinburgh, or join the Conservation Group. The theme running throughout is a focus on activity and life outdoors — “Wild Monkton” is a newly popular initiative that has seen students building paths and flowerbeds, planting trees and tending to bees across the campus.
A stunning view onto the Longmeads cricket grounds
Boarding life is where Monkton Combe School really excels. Students are unequivocally enthralled by their boarding houses and parents, and are clearly very happy to spend most weekends at school without clamouring for trips to Bath or Bristol. “You can get leave on a Saturday afternoon, but you’re encouraged to stay in on Saturday because there’s activities and stuff you can do. You might have a sports match, or just be going to support people in one,” says Bethany. “It’s such a family, especially Grange, the girls’ house that I’m in,” she adds. “My house parents are so nice, you can go and talk to them whenever you need.” Alexander, a day pupil, also adds that despite the fact that 40 per cent of Monkton’s community does not board, the day and boarding pupils are completely integrated. “You’re all just part of one house,” he says.
A boarding house on campus - Monkton's boarding is famed for its warmth and inclusivity
Part of Monkton Combe School’s boarding success is down to the fact that students get a say in their choice of tutor and house parent, something they clearly appreciate. Mr Wheeler says it provides an interesting insight into the pupils’, with some going for those that will test them and others going for their favourite softies!
Boarding houses are unfussy but nice, with some buildings recently refurbished. In exam years, such as Year 11, pupils get their own room, but otherwise share.
Monkton from the air!
Our view on a student suited to Monkton Combe School
Who best to answer this than the pupils’ themselves? Bethany told us that “it isn’t really about the person that would be suited to Monkton Combe School,” because, she says, “Monkton Combe School could welcome any type of pupil into the community, and they’d fit in and thrive here”. Alex agrees, but says “one thing” to point out is that the school really encourages a spirit of mucking in, especially in sports and the creative arts. “If you’re not great at anything, just still put effort into it, and you’ll get a lot out of it,” he says. “One thing the school really encourages is effort. Someone who is willing to try and has the willpower to start at least will be of course loved and accepted here.”
We think that’s a pretty genuine reflection of Monkton Combe School, but the language that the pupils chose to use is even more telling. This is a school where pupils are “loved” and “thrive”, and their peers don’t find it embarrassing to say so. Any child that benefits from the special care and attention of a small community is, as they say, sure to be loved and thrive at Monkton Combe School.