Bruern Abbey School has quite the claim to fame – the UK’s only prep school with the main goal of helping boys 8-14 years old with learning difficulties to get into mainstream independent senior schools. As of July 2021, in fact, it’s announced the opening of its own secondary school, a short distance away, which will continue the existing school’s mission of educating boys diagnosed with learning difficulties. Exciting times — I expect to hear lots more about this very soon, so ears to the ground!
Set in 20 acres of Oxfordshire countryside (and a mere 10 minutes’ drive from Bicester Village – just saying), Bruern sits in shabby-chic glory in a late nineteenth century manor house that houses the boarders, dining rooms, the headmaster’s dogs, staff and feels like home to the 156 boys, two thirds of whom board weekly. Teaching is largely done away from the main mansion in a variety of boxy outbuildings, converted stables, garages and even an orangerie, giving the school a kind of eccentric charm.
Parents often come to Bruern Abbey School desperate for help and it’s an indication of its clear academic recipe for success, plus the lack of credible alternatives, that means the school is three times over-subscribed. So how’s it done? Firstly no class has more than 12 pupils. For 156 children there are 35 teachers. All younger classes have two teachers in English and Maths and have almost double the number of lessons in these subjects than a standard prep school. All boys use a laptop in lessons, and notes are circulated rather than written up from boards to save the boys the enormous time and effort it would take them, as dyslexics/dyscalculics to do it themselves.
It works. In the eight years the current head John Floyd has been in place, only two children have failed to move onto a mainstream independent senior school. From personal experience I have three close friends whose boys have all been pupils in the last four years and all three praise this place to the heavens and back for re-instating confidence and helping their children out of an academic abyss. (Texts I received this week – ’I only have great things to say about Bruern’; ‘Absolutely amazing school’, ‘Incredible’). The roll call of secondary schools includes Bloxham, Millfield, Rugby, Shiplake, Charterhouse and Gordonstoun and St Paul’s – so success is an understatement.
Exciting rumours at the moment surround Bruern extending its offering up to GSCES but I’ll fill you in on that when I dig around more!
No parent is going to dismiss this school on the quality of its facilities – they are desperate to get academic CPR for their children and anything is going to be a bonus. That said, a major asset of Bruern is that, although enormous energy goes into helping the boys in the classroom, it recognises that to release pressure from all this effort the pupils need to immerse themselves in extra-curricular activities too.
Facilities are not particularly shiny here, particularly in the classrooms that are largely in outbuildings or temporary buildings of old that are still performing their duties. But there are rugby pitches, an indoor swimming pool, 45 BMX bikes (the kids can zoom off around the 20 acres of grounds), a lovely library, and a very cool renovation of the old garages into a science building.
Core sports are rugby, football, cross country, athletics, swimming and cricket – there’s a real focus on getting the boys back out exercising at the moment to combat the inertia of the last year. There are some unusual strings to the bow too – clay pigeon shooting and skiing are strong, as you might expect from an independent school but practical pursuits such as cookery, gardening and carpentry are also a big deal here. Drama is also given its due with regular performances, and music lessons are offered across the usual peripatetic range of instruments.
Interestingly drama is being given more precedence in the curriculum, post lockdown. The reason? Teachers haven noticed that, with so long at home catering to their own whims, the children need a reminder on how to live socially and with empathy, and drama – where you have put yourself in other people’s shoes – is a vehicle to redress the balance. So they’re converting the old chapel into a drama studio and getting on with it. This is one of the things I like about Bruern – they’re not afraid to look at issues and then deal with them practically and sensibly.
I’ve met a lot of inspiring headteachers, but John Floyd takes the proverbial biccy for humour and charisma. He is dyslexic himself, as is the deputy head, and the head of academic has dyscalculia, a triumvirate that results in, as he says, ‘possibly the worst school newsletter in the country’. He’s been at the helm since 2011 and has been the driving force that has seen the school massively oversubscribed, and with wildly successful results. He used to write backwards as a child (literally – backwards written ‘sdrawkcab’, starting at the right of the page and moving towards the left) and knows intimately the energy and ‘in it togetherness’ that it takes to help these kids.
John Floyd will also be headmaster of Bruern’s new secondary school, opening down the road, of which I’m sure we’ll be hearing lots about soon.
Bruern Abbey pulls in children from all over the UK (nearly every southern county is currently represented), with half from London so it’s no surprise that boarding (weekly – Mon-Friday only) is a big deal here. Don’t expect buffed and preening luxury – the children live here in what I’d describe as typically functional boys houses – bunk beds in traditional dorms of 4-8.
Any jokes about boarding school food have no place here though. Bruern Abbey spends three times more per head on food than other prep schools, and have just won the Tatler Schools Award for their offering.
There are six different fish dishes available on a Friday, and on asking in the kitchen what was supper the day I visited, I was accosted by a set of adjectives best suited to Master Chef. Twice a week candlelit parent/pupil dinners are put on, with each pupil inviting four friends – a lovely way for parents to feel involved, chat informally to the teachers beforehand and teach the kids to behave well across a dinner table.
Now that all the boys are back at school, one thing Floyd has noticed is a decline in the boys’ manners at table and also an adventurous palette (all those fish finger TV dinners offered by working parents like me!) so the kitchen team is redoubling its efforts – on the day I spoke to Floyd, the lunch menu included confit of duck with cavolo nero with cherry reduction. Yes, seriously.
The most recent detailed report is the EQI from May 2017 .
Two dogs when I visited in 2019 – a black labrador hidden under the desk, and second spaniel ready for walkies, a number that’s doubled since lockdown, creating a homely atmosphere and charming chaos that you’d expect from 156 boys living in a mansion in the Oxfordshire countryside.
Boys in bright yellow school jumpers – a bit of a sartorial shocker, but no-one seems to care! – pad around the first floor in their socks if they remember to take their muddy shoes off. Others head outside and tend to the school chickens in the biggest chicken run I’ve seen since Aardvark Productions pitched to DreamWorks. There’s also a fantastic manor house in the Loire valley, known as ‘Bruern South’, that all boys visit in their annual trip to France. The jury’s out on whether that will happen for 2021, but if your child is in the class of 2022 – lucky lucky him.
WRAP AROUND CARE/TRAVEL
No surprise that the London-Bruern route is a well-oiled machine. A bus service has been operating since 1996 with seven stops from Hans Place to M40 Junction 4.
On the steep side, but then again Bruern Abbey does reach the parts other schools can’t reach. Per term, it’s £10497 for boarders and £8725 for day pupils. Flexi-boarding is £61 per night and speech/language therapy or occupational therapy costs £60 per 30 mins.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Not often I say this but the word ‘glowing’ comes to mind. The headmaster is wildly popular with parents and the results of the school speak for themselves. No-one seems to mind that the school is a bit scruffy in parts – it’s seen as part of the charm.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Any boy struggling with dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia. Bruern Abbey actively discriminates towards boys who need expert help in these areas. Watch self-esteem and exam results rise, amazed parents.
Not for: It’s rare for Bruern Abbey to take children on for a year or so as the school knows it takes time and more time to build the necessary academic building blocks. That’s tough for those parents who are late to recognise that their child needs meaningful help.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! There’s no particular open day here but get in touch with the school and enjoy the ride!
Bruern Abbey School, Chesterton Manor, Chesterton, Bicester, Oxfordshire, OX26 1UY. Tel: 01869 242448.
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