The Good Schools Guide Review of Bruern Abbey School, Bicester, OX26 1UY

Our View

"The school has an incredibly warm and compassionate approach to all the boys"; "A success from the beginning, the environment is nurturing, secure, safe and above all fun"; and "Pastoral care is exceptional - very understanding and caring staff."

Many youngsters here have typically suffered a terrible crisis of confidence and most are unable to access or assimilate a conventionally delivered curriculum. Almost half the timetable is dedicated to English and maths, French a must (except in very exceptional circumstances). Withdrawal is limited to the essential but class sizes are kept at ten or under, with individual attention as a given. 'Boys don't come here to have learning support but to be in a class with others and a teacher who understands their difficulties,' says head. All juniors have one group lesson per week with the wonderfully experienced SENCo. The session determines strengths and foibles; what makes the children tick and what causes them to kick, 'When I write their reports or speak to the Ed psych, I truly understand each child.' Not that staff wait to put in place whatever is required, 'My child has needs beyond his dyslexia and they quickly implemented what he needed; no waiting, no protracted multi-agency discussions'.

Subjects, including Latin, are taught separately but classroom thinking is joined-up, with cross-curricular themes whenever opportunity affords. In an RE lesson children studied a time-line, estimating when the Old Testament was written by examining evidence and reaching supported conclusions. We dropped in on a French dictation where, in an attempt to understand and improve along the way, words were analysed and sounds explained as the pupils worked. It's a long day and expectations are high but lessons are fun and much is done to build confidence and success. 'My son comes home animatedly recounting the funny things, bits of naughtiness, and hilarity of the day. He enjoys every lesson but they do work hard.' Most boys are quirky, go off-piste, do the unexpected, 'My child has started writing a book. His spelling is atrocious but his imagination unbounded, thanks to inspirational teaching and an emphasis on giving the boys an interest in learning rather than just unquestionably absorbing it.' Computers everywhere. All learn to touch-type, the laptop a lifeline, voice recognition technology and dyslexia friendly software all in evidence.

A number of teachers are dyslexic and so get what the boys don't get, 'Teachers genuinely really, really care about us and make learning fun and enjoyable,' say boys. Each has an individual learning plan tailored to his specific strengths and weaknesses with speech, language and occupational therapists on hand when needed. Parents gush with enthusiasm 'Staff help the boys understand their difficulties, develop coping mechanisms, haul them through CE. Their approach is extraordinary; it is a shame all my (non-dyslexic) children couldn't go there.' Another added, 'We keep waiting for the bubble to burst but it gets better. We missed the boat for our first son, discovered Bruern for our second and the instant our third showed signs of struggling we catapulted him in.' Former parents include a rock star, ex-Cabinet Minister and best-selling novelist; current crop includes actresses and directors. But plenty of 'ordinary' boys too. Parents say 'Its a hard-core community, no embarrassment no shame. Typically others have experienced the same or worse so if they find a way to do something they will share that with you, so you don't undergo the same agony.'

Invariably parents stumble into Bruern, battle-weary and beleaguered, 'My child was in a trench, he crawled into Bruern. They didn't just pull him out, they winched him up and propelled him to heights we never thought possible.' Most tell of at least a few wobbles along the way. Years of embedded frustration won't disappear overnight but there are plenty of safety nets and, for most, it doesn't take long for the Bruern panacea to work its magic. One or two parental grumbles about overzealous boys but equally, many are shy or reserved. Said one parent, 'Some have serious learning difficulties, some can be disruptive but so can children everywhere. My child is measured but it's good for him to see different colours of intelligence and temperament. The mix reflects society, it helps them develop tolerance, understanding and awareness of others and their strengths and difficulties and makes them realise you can't just write someone off.'

There's a huge, collective sense of responsibility for pastoral care. Immediacy is the name of the game so, as well as end of term reports, expect frequent calls or emails. Parents speak of excellent and frank home school communication. 'Staff are wonderfully blunt, if your child needs a projectile near his derrière they'll make that pellucid,' said one, another added, 'When boys are naughty, mucking around, they get punished – detentions usually but it's not a big deal in grand scheme of things.' Children are continually praised and rewarded for their efforts, though the head put a stop to the constant dishing out of sweet treats, 'very Pavlov's dogs,' and is now trialling different reward systems.

Bruern is steeped in faded grandeur - peeling, lived in, respected. It may be full of scuffs and scruffs but it smells good and exudes a generous warmth of spirit and a quirky, homely feel. That said, a lick of paint here and there would do wonders. Takes its name from a Cistercian monastery, the current yellow stone building dates from the late 19th century with recent sympathetic additions. This grand house set in 23 acres of grounds and woodland tranquillity may look like a traditional country prep but its dual mission of helping boys overcome learning problems and prepare them for CE to major English and Scottish public schools, makes the place unique. Dorms are large, airy, clean and tidy but need smartening - frayed carpet regrettably draws the eye (though we're told smartening is imminent). Bathrooms newly kitted out, but even we couldn't feign enthusiasm for shiny urinals.

Being relatively young by English school standards Bruern is not blessed with a huge endowment fund, but does benefit from loyal parents who work hard to fund raise, not for fripperies but for fixtures as well as fittings. It's not so much about thrift but spending wisely and keeping fees affordable. Most school cash is ploughed into teaching and learning needs, however, thanks in part to parents, there are signs of considered investment. We spied a good-sized pool with retractable roof and chanced on the wonderful new DT log-cabin where boys beavered, smoothing away the last imperfections of their creations, on multi-purpose work-benches. Art, now in own dedicated studio, provokes mixed responses - some parents enamoured, others give it a 'could do better'. Our investigations suggest art has been something of a Cinderella subject but recent success in local art competition is set to change that. Majority of boys play at least one instrument and many sing in the chapel choir. Sport is important and abundant with regular fixtures - cricket, football, rugby - for all. No indoor gym or Astroturf so they make full use of local countryside with riding, shooting, polo, archery, golf (nearby course) and cross-country. Food is a major part of school life (all faiths, intolerances and allergies catered for). Al-fresco dining on dry days plus weekly, revered, formal candlelit suppers to which parents are invited. The Thursday session begins with a spell in Chapel followed by mirth, mayhem and manners as eloquent boys host their appreciative guests.

The typical Bruern boy is well-spoken, polite, articulate, amusing and enthusiastic. Said one parent, 'My child cried on his first day but has smiled ever since.' A truly unique school; youngsters devour copious helpings of carefully prepared academia, served with generous dustings of laughter, a sprinkle of boyish boisterousness and the odd dash of naughtiness. Presents boys with an exceptional opportunity to understand and tackle their difficulties and make prodigious progress.

Headmaster

Since 2011, Mr John Floyd MA PGCE (thirties). Born in London, grew up in The Ivory Coast, Holland and New York. Eucated at Cothill and Radley, read geography at Edinburgh University. Previously deputy head of Westminster Cathedral Choir School; prior to that, as a graduate of the 'Teach-first' programme, he spent an illuminating three years at Crown Woods – an inner London comp. Married to Henrietta, they have two young sons. He enjoys fly-fishing and food – especially 'proper cooking' which he learned during a gap year in the South of France. Still occasionally runs 'silly distances', the length of Hadrian's Wall just one of many.

A large ultra-ordered, exceptionally tidy desk, dominates one corner of his study, a touch of the OCDs we mused but the reality is a dyslexic head who practises many of the coping strategies he advocates to his charges. A quick glance at the ceiling reveals not the anticipated intricate, ornate plasterwork but a coffee-coloured, water-marked, paint-peeling to-do list – courtesy of a burst pipe. As fits with the school philosophy of boys' needs first, they have sparkly new facilities for ablutions while the head makes do. Young, smartly dressed, well-spoken with a distinctive crop of ginger hair, Mr Floyd has injected a new sense of purpose and order to Bruern. All speak of his warmth, light touch and finely tuned sense of humour. He has the knack of the one-liner – wit, rather than sarcasm and jokes. Staff praise his wonderful organisational skills, ambitious ideas, distinct strategy and purpose. They speak of the seamless transition from old head to new. Head says, 'It was meant to be a year but after a term of Cameron-Clegg co-habiting and polite 'after-yous' I was trusted to steer a new course'. Admits it has been more manoeuvring by degrees than wholesale changes but that's very much a nod to the prized work of his 'amazing' mentor. Parents impressed, 'He's sensible, good fun; he gets it, he gets them.'

Entrance

Though intake starts at seven, most join at nine or ten after being 'let down' by educational system elsewhere. Majority weekly board, some flexi, handful of day boys. All have specific learning difficulties, dyslexia, dyscalculia and/or dyspraxia, a sprinkling also have additional needs eg Aspergers and ADHD (medicine okay). Parents must provide recent educational psychologist's report. Typically looking for IQ of 110+, but flexes with talent in music, art and sport welcomed. Young hopefuls invited to spend a day and a night at school for informal interview and assessment.

Exit

All pass common entrance to their guided first choice senior schools including: Winchester, Rugby, Stowe, Milton Abbey, Charterhouse, Bryanston, Sherborne and Shrewsbury. 'We measure success by the outcome of their first senior year – are they settled and happy?' Parents speak of the CE zone, 'They achieve exponentially. It's really impressive. The children stay at weekends and eat, sleep, breathe CE - revision, past-papers, exam conditions – so they are wholly in the zone.'

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© Bruern Abbey 2012
Chesterton
Oxfordshire OX26 1UY
Tel: +44 (0)1869 242 448
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