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24 April 2020
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding School in Profile: Bedford School, a modern boys school with a stunningly broad extracurricular offer

Hello from London!
British schools might be closed at the moment, but that does not keep us from writing about them.
Two weeks before shutdown, we visited the all-boys school Bedford School. Bedford is rather different to the other boys schools we know in the UK. It feels more modern, less formal and more vibrant.
We really enjoyed our visit.
A slightly gloomy looking Bedford School from the front
The Setting
Bedford School is located in the county town Bedford in County Bedfordshire. The school's excellent location allows easy access to London by train (35mins into London St Pancras Station). London Airports Luton (40mins by car) and Heathrow (70mins by car) are within easy reach, too.
We'd like to level with you at this point: Bedford town itself is not much to write home about. Its center struck us as a bit run down, loveless even.
That said, once we were inside the school gates everything changed. Bedford's vast, immaculately kept grounds and beautiful combination of old and modern buildings are very impressive. No doubt about it, this is a beautiful school.
As we strolled past the cricket pavilion and tennis courts, we passed a group of smartly dressed boys, greeting us politely as they strolled of to class. Well dressed and polite. Always a good sign!
Sports pitches as far as the eye can see!
What (we think) Bedford School is about
Bedford School is a caring, modern all-boys school with a very impressive, all-round academic and extracurricular offer.
Let's unpack this summary a little bit.
Bedford School is a boys school. To many outsiders this type of school insinuates outdatedness and stuffiness. Bedford is anything but. You won't find the macho bravado around elite sports, or stiff-upper-lip aloofness that some of the other top boys schools have. Bedford is inclusive (everyone can participate in everything, here!) and extraordinarily supportive and caring. The school's strong focus on mental health The proof is in the pudding: we met several boys, all of which struck us as happy, grounded and polite. Moreover, boys school does not equal monastery - the boys regularly interact with the girls from the Bedford Girls School in theatre productions, Duke of Edinburgh and CCF. We love this modern take on boy schooling!
The path towards the main house
The school is doing very well academically and offers a refreshingly modern take on education, including a strong focus on digital savviness, entrepreneurship and innovative thinking, thanks to its amazing design and technology department.
Bedford School's extracurricular offer is stunning, both in breadth and depth. The school offers amazing sports, arts, music, design technology, theatre and a multitude of exciting clubs.
Amazing design technology here!
The Academics
Bedford Schools offers both A-Levels and the IB.
Whilst not as academically high-flying as the Etons and Harrows, Bedford is doing well academically. In 2019, 66 per cent of GCSEs were A grades; 43 per cent A grades at A level and an average IB score of 34. For a school that is much, much less selective than other top boys schools, this is a very decent effort indeed.
So, where do the good results come from? For starters Bedford School has great teachers. We met some faculty in the school's amazing science-, music- and design departments and found them all approachable and inspiring. Also, the schools vertical tutoring system where every pupil meets weekly with a designated tutor helps to monitor progress.
Art just as impressive!
An aspect of Bedford's education we love especially - and certainly a key factor underlying its modern take on education - is the school's focus on digital learning and entrepreneurialism. For this purpose, Bedford hired a Director of Digital Learning recently, who has been tasked to think about what the boys will need in terms of digital knowledge and experience when they leave school. Now they are getting familiar with anything from designing power point presentations, to coding apps and getting creative with blockchain technology. This goes hand in hand with honing the boys' entrepreneurial nous. Some even leave Bedford intending to set up their own businesses. Excellent stuff!
Bedford School has a very good track-record of helping boys into Russell School universities in the UK and Ivy League universitites in the US. 3% of leavers end up going to either Oxford or Cambridge.
Star-gazing at the school's observatory
The Extracurriculars
So, to be perfectly clear up front - Bedford School has one of the best, broadest and most exciting range of extracurricular activities that we've seen so far. Amazing!
Let's start with the sports. In terms of the high quality provided across the board, Bedford is a classic boy school. Top rugby, cricket, hockey, rowing, tennis and golf here. Bedford is one of the few schools to offer rowing as a major sport and the school has its own, beautiful boat house on the river Ouse. But there's much more: archery, fencing, yoga, equestrian, swimming and water polo are very popular. The school's own gym and pool are state-of-the-art.
Bedford's own theatre - here in transition...
On to the amazing creative offer. Bedford has a fantastic modern music center complete with practice rooms, performance space and recording studio. In the school's arts department we saw some highly impressive paintings and sculptures. However, we were most impressed by Bedford's design and technology department - in fact, we'd put this right up there with one of the best we've seen. Why? Bedford uses it to great innovative effect. No boring furniture prototypes like in most other school DT departments. No, the boys design solutions to real human problems like the wooden box made by a boy for his grandfather with dementia containing sections for pills, notes, visual reminders of family members and the like. Amazingly clever and thoughtful. Also, rather impressively, Bedford's design department is currently open for business: it is producing masks for NHS staff to combat the corona epidemic.
A small glimpse into the brand-new music block
But there's so much more - bee-keeping anyone? Bedford has its own population of Bedford Bees for you to take care of. Ambitions to become a pilot? Then join the school's aviation society and practice take-offs and landings in the school's own high-tech flight simulator. More into star-gazing? The join the school's astronomers! And we are only scratching the surface here. Other popular activities include robotics, veterinary medicine, debating, archtectural drawing, creative writing - and cheese! What'd we'd give to go back to school again....
Billiard at one of the boarding houses
The Boarding
Bedford School has a total of 706 boys, 233 of which are full boarders. If we had one criticism of the school, it would be that we'd want more boarders relative to day pupils. Max, a young man from Hamburg that we helped to a place here, told us that this didn't matter. " Day boys and boarders are one tight-knit unit. We become friends through all the things we do together!". That did reassure us somewhat.
One of the spacious boarding rooms
There are six boarding houses, four as part of the main campus and two a five minute walk from school. The boarding houses are all beautiful, converted Victorian villas with large, well-kept rooms that house between 30 and 50 boys each. Parents past and present tell us how caring and responsive the boarding house parents are.
The boarding community is a colourful mix of Brits (50%) and 25 other nationalities including Germans, Russians, Spaniards, French and Chinese.
Boarding house common room - cozy!
Thanks to the schools proximity to major cultural attractions in Oxford, Cambridge and London, there are regular cultural and entertainment outings to these places on week-ends.
Bedford's science building
Applying to Bedford
As mentioned above, Bedford School is not especially selective. Decent but not top grades in English and Maths are important. The school requires a visit including an interview with a senior staff, often the very likeable headmaster James Hodgson.
Admissions tests in English and Maths to follow the visit. All of our boys passed the tests with a little preparatory work beforehand.
Our View
People generalize about British boys schools as bastions of stuffy elitism at their own peril. Bedford School is an amazing, modern boys school with the very best that such an institution can offer. We highly recommend this school!
Essential Facts about Bedford School:

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