Ruckleigh wins Sunday Times Independent Preparatory School of the Year 2014

Sunday Times Independent Preparatory School of the Year 2014

Sunday Times Independent Preparatory School of the Year 2014

By Judith O’Reilly

Copyright 2014 Sunday Times

Creating happy memories of school is as important as academic achievement for our Prep School of the Year

Romantic novelist Barbara Cartland liked a happy ending. In 1909, the Cartland family bought a school for their daughter Cathleen (the author’s cousin). In 1948, ownership of Ruckleigh School changed to the Carr-Smiths and it has been a family concern ever since. The proprietors may have changed but the school goes from strength to strength – this year winning the Sunday Times Independent Preparatory School of the Year award – hopefully to live happy ever after.

 It’s an academic powerhouse, and the school makes plain in its literature. “We are unashamedly academic … Pupils are encouraged to reach the highest possible standards bearing in mind their own particular abilities.”

Barbara Forster taught at the co-educational independent day school for 16 years before taking over as head 14 years ago.

With 227 pupils aged between three and 11, a particular strength of the school is its small classes of no more than 18 students.

 “Small class sizes help,” said Forster. “There is more contact with each child. Each child is heard to read every day. Each child is spoken to every day. Their needs are addressed through their own individual and tailored programmes of work both in terms of their difficulties or where they need stretching. We want to identify their potential and maximise their opportunities to learn, succeed and shine.”

It isn’t just a case of small classes however. The small classes have to be full of happy children. Like our state primary school winner, Grinling Gibbons in Deptford, London, Ruckleigh prides itself not only on the achievement of its children but on their emotional good health.

 “School has to be a positive experience full of happy children making happy memories. If they are happy, they are more likely to contribute to lessons, to discussions and to feel part of things,” said Forster.

“This is a school where individual strengths and abilities are developed, where you become an independent and creative learner, where kids remain motivated and school equips them and guides them.”

Results may be tip-top – ranking third in the UK – but that doesn’t mean the school is success-oriented in any short-term way. The reverse is true. Forster actively wants the children to be able to fail.

“The big thing is to have a go. We ‘learn to fail or we fail to learn’ as they say. We learn by our mistakes. We have to make those mistakes in order to learn.”

 It’s an approach which encourages “brave thinkers” willing to take calculated risks.

 In practical terms, that means more problem-solving and challenge-setting, where even the brightest can experience failure, where they find different ways to reach the answer, and where they can also work collaboratively rather than just as individuals.

 Some children travel in to the converted Edwardian building in the centre of Solihull from as far as 24 miles away, including areas such as Stratford-upon-Avon and Kenilworth, as well as Birmingham and its surrounds, although most are from smaller settlements close by.

 Fees at the school are between £2,504 and £2,662 a term. But Forster makes it clear although some parents are affluent, others have to work very hard and make sacrifices to send their children to Ruckleigh.

Pupils come from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds – some speak a different language at home.

Whatever their background, according to Forster, none of them take their good fortune for granted, but make the most of every opportunity.

 “These are hardworking pupils who want to achieve. Our year 6 pupils know they are not reliant on the key stage 2 test results but they take their studies seriously and take the tests seriously.”

 Results bear out this approach with 96% of children in 2013 achieving level 5 – that expected of a 13-year-old –  in English reading and maths, 91% achieving the mark in English writing and all of them making it for spelling, punctuation and grammar.

 Younger children are encouraged to develop self-reliance and inquiring minds. They also sit weekly spelling and numeracy tests, while homework and reading assignments are set for every evening and weekend during the term.

Reading is considered critical.
“Pupils read aloud every day to teachers and parents. They have library sessions every week. Authors come in, and poets. We encourage children to discuss the books they have read. We want them to develop an impressive vocabulary and to write like authors, not primary pupils.”

 The school also places great emphasis on handwriting and presentation of work and again, like at Grinling Gibbons (See our Primary School of the Year feature), staff work hard to develop children’s verbal abilities through presentations, drama productions, show-and-tell, debates (the last one was on whether to leave the European Union) and role play.

During years 3 and 4, the workload and homework increase as children develop their independent learning and understanding. For the older children it is all about “breadth, depth and relevance” and, of course, working towards those entrance exams.

Inspectors from the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate said of the pupils: “They enjoy their studies and demonstrate outstanding commitment. They are keen to succeed and willingly persevere … the strong progress that pupils are making helps them to develop a confidence in their learning, which contributes to the generally high standards they reach.”Their report also described the children’s behaviour as “exemplary” attributing their success across the board  (not just in their academic work) to the “commitment of their teachers and their own positive attitudes.”

Ruckleigh looks to the future, and the school’s children are “progressively prepared” for 11-plus and entrance exams from early years through to their final year. Exam technique is considered an essential part of preparation in years 5 and 6.

Parental expectations of Ruckleigh are high – and they are not disappointed. Pupils go on to a variety of grammar schools in the area (such as the King Edward and the Camp Hill schools), while others stay in the independent sector (including King Edward’s School, Edgbaston and The King’s High School for Girls.)  Grammar schools’ entrance exams are in September, while independent schools test in January.

Pupils are encouraged to sit entrance exams for a number of schools rather than just one and many children get three to four offers – some up to six. Although there is a safety net in place, 99% of children get their first choice. Over the past three years, 49% have gone on to independent schools, 41% to grammars and 10% to other state schools.

Forster describes Ruckleigh pupils as being “sought after” by both sectors, adding that “the big thing about grammar schools is families don’t have to pay fees, but independent schools may offer more in terms of extracurricular activities, for example.

“Another factor is that some children may not be not ready for the independent learning and self-reliance necessary in a grammar school. It’s very much down to what suits the individual child,” she says.

A lot of time and effort goes on confidence-building, with children taking part in workshops and extracurricular activities including drama, ballet and music. In recent Lamda (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art) examinations there were 62 distinctions and nine merits, out of 71 pupils. Older children also mentor and support younger pupils when opportunities arise.

“They try new skills and have a go, whether they think they will like it or not. That kind of thing is trying to build character.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that pupils communicate effectively face-to-face, particularly these days when so much is screenwork and so many children are unable to look people in the eye. We want our children to be able to speak to the people they meet in life,” Forster says.

Another way of building character is fundraising for the less fortunate children in the world. Last year, Ruckleigh pupils raised more than £5,000 for charity.

Sport is also an area in which the children excel. Despite the relatively small school site (which includes a playing field, tennis courts and a playground), Ruckleigh has triumphed at regional and national level in cricket, football, athletics and triathlon.

Forster’s pride in her children is obvious. “They are polite. They speak beautifully. We are always complimented on their behaviour where there are trips or residential visits.”

The school is considered a good place to work. A recent teaching assistant job vacancy attracted more than 60 applications.

“We look for dedication, creativity and to be able to work as part of a team. These are hardworking members of staff who want the best for the children.”

Ruckleigh is currently owned by Charlotte Laurens (who works as the school bursar and managing director) and her brothers Hugh Carr-Smith and Rupert Carr-Smith. (Rupert comes into school to organise the ICT hardware.) 

“They are very supportive, very forward-thinking, and, together with the staff, are always looking for ways to improve the school,” Forster says. “Frankly, all of us consider ourselves privileged to be able to provide this standard of education for the children at Ruckleigh.”