You’ll find Sibford School nestled in 50 verdant acres of countryside just outside Banbury, North Oxfordshire. A non-selective co-ed day and boarding school for 3-18 year olds (boarding starts at 11+) Sibford was originally established in 1842 for Quaker families, and though you no longer have to be religious to come here, the school retains its Quaker ethos of seeking ‘that of God in everyone’ (in plain speak: finding the good in all).
There are just 428 pupils across separate reception, junior and senior school faculties (80 of whom are in the Sixth Form), so what the school lacks in shiny posh buildings – the hulking early 20th century main building is as good as it gets – it makes up for in attentiveness to its students. Class sizes are some of the smallest I’ve come across with an average of 12, and Sibford’s reputation for outstanding pastoral care is supported by its most recent ISI report.
All the usuals you’d expect with great use made of the grounds for rugby, football, cricket and hockey. There’s a 25 metre indoor swimming pool that the kids use every week, and – the big new plaything – a hugely impressive climbing wall that has taken over two former squash courts.
Both the Junior School and Sixth Form benefit from their own distinctive areas on campus. There’s a 5 lab science department, and outside is a large nature reserve used for Forest School as well as a space for reflection. There’s a replica Iron Age roundhouse that students made that’s used for outdoor learning, and a dedicated horticultural area.
Creative arts are a huge focus here – it’s regarded by the school as one of its major strengths. You’ll find a sound-and-light rigged hall with raked seating, a fully-equipped recording music studio, and for musicians a large ensemble room and practice rooms in the Music building. There’s an impressive art department with large separate studios for painting, textiles, ceramics and sculpture plus a separate Sixth Form art studio too. The DT suite is massive too.
Despite a superior SEN provision, the school is keen to shake off its ‘special education’ reputation with a greater emphasis on academics. Head teacher Toby Spence has introduced two Gifted & Talented co-ordinators, a Head of Support for Learning, better data tracking on children’s progress and an emphasis on its mainstream success. 90% of A level students go on to university (there were 4 Oxbridge candidates this year) and in 2020 Sibford’s A level results saw it reach the top 10% in the UK for added value scores.
That said, Sibford is not an ‘academic’ school in the hot-house meaning of the word – it can clearly stretch the most able students but with 10% international students and 30% pupils with special educational needs (mostly dyslexia) its results reflect the diverse cohort. In 2020, 56% of Sibford students gained A* – B grades in their A Level and BTEC exams, the highest on record, with pupils achieving a 100% pass rate across all subjects. GSCE’S also saw the highest marks on record, with 40% of pupils achieving at least one grade 8 or 9. 100% of pupils gained five or more grades at 9 – 4 (or A* – C).
The curriculum here is largely traditional, though horticulture is a subject that kids can study here which sounds fantastic, and is particularly beneficial for kids who prefer practical work. There are also 8 B-Tech courses on offer here, as well as the option to take EPQs as credits towards UCAS applications.
Sibford’s sporting reputation has historically not matched its potential, but it’s an area that has been given some focus over recent years, no doubt in large part due to the head, Toby Spence, who is superkeen on sports (he’s done a fair few mountain triathlons in his time – not even kidding). The pool and expansive grounds have allowed Sibford to become a youth cross country hub, part of the North Oxfordshire School Sport Partnership. There’s also an annual Rugby Sevens tournament held at the school, and it’s become a South Central Academy for triathlon. Spence talks disarmingly about Sibford becoming more competitive “in a Quackerish way” – given Quakers are pacifists by nature, the tension between the desire to win and impulse to be kind is an interesting one.
Unusually here there is little division between female and male sports, it’s all about participation. For example, all the younger boys do netball and dance, and the girls play rugby.
I first met a jocular Toby Spence, only the 12th head in Sibford’s 174 year history, on his first week into the job in September 2016, when he had just returned from Kenya as head of a British curriculum school. Five years later and still smiling, he can be judged on how far the school has come. Raising academic standards was top of his list back then and this is an area that he’s clearly succeeding in. Though not a Quaker himself, Spence clearly understands the value of the Quaker USP, particularly in pandemic times, when reflection, quiet, space and wellbeing are top of the agenda. Londoners, in particular, have been sending their children up to Sibford over the last year, raising pupil numbers. A realist about the strengths and weaknesses of Sibford he quite rightly points out that no-one is going to be coming to Sibford on the strength of its buffed, shiny buildings – firstly, let’s be frank here, there are none! And secondly if that’s your bag there’s Grade 1 listed Stowe School up the road for an extra £15,000 per year. That said, Spence does have some development plans for Sibford – namely an full refurbishment of the Fielding House common room, and a new pavilion. Watch this space.
NURSERY AND JUNIOR SCHOOL
The nursery is super cute, with a lovely safe outdoor area, fields to look at all around and a modern building, and takes kids from 3 year old up to Reception. The Junior School (5 – 11 years) is strong, and again has lovely outside areas, a huge wooden climbing and play area, plus access to all the senior facilities.
From 11 years and up, pupils can board at Sibford School on a full-time, weekly or flexi basis in one of two boarding houses for either girls or boys. Boarding houses and rooms are perfectly fine, nothing flash but perfectly serviceable
If you’re not familiar with Quakerism, you might be thinking it sounds a bit strange. But the 7 central Quaker beliefs in of respect, integrity, simplicity, equality, peace, truth, and sustainability transfer aren’t really about religion in this environment, more a guiding set of life principles. As a Quaker school, Sibford also use forenames and surnames rather than your usual Mr and Ms. for teachers.
There are some specific Quaker practises like the morning ‘Collect’ meeting which you may never have come across – it’s the Quaker equivalent of the morning assembly which happens in total silence twice a week. This is also where any child or staff member can have ‘Ministry’, when they’re able to stand up and speak without being interrupted about anything that’s important to them. Who’s to know if the kids just zone out and enjoy their 20 minutes chill-time or whether they think deeply about the world around them? In a way it doesn’t matter – just to have some stillness must be amazing.
WRAP AROUND CARE
For both Junior and Senior schools, you can book your kids in from 8am and pick up after tea at 6pm if you need the flex. Occasional boarding is an option too – just give 24 hours’ notice.
Fees are less expensive than local competitors though full boarding is, by definition, still pretty punchy.
Junior School per term: Day Pupils R-Y2: £3267; Y3-6: £3953. Senior School per term: Day Pupils Y7–9: £5144; Y10-13: £5245. Weekly Boarders per term: Y7-9: £8644; Y10-13: £8741. Full Boarders per term: Y7-9: £9992; Y10-13: £10193.
WORD ON THE GROUND:
It’s definitely a school that’s highly nurturing and parents I spoke to love the inclusive, non-judgemental ethos and the mix of students, and were cock-a-hoop at 2020’s academic results. The scruffy buildings irritate some, but most accept that the lack of interiors finesse is reflected in the cost and doesn’t negate the many positives.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Parents looking for a rural, spacious, non-hothousy school with a high level of pastoral care and low numbers. Those who value the diversity of non-selective entry and the inclusion of international students. The smaller cohort means that there’s a greater participation in sport, music and the arts amongst pupils and everyone has a chance to shine. The convenience of a through-school environment (from 3-18 years) is ideal for those who don’t want to go through the hassle of ‘next schools’ at prep or senior level.
Not for: Those who like their private schools to look like Hogwarts. The grounds are large and lovely but the buildings, particularly in the senior school, are functional rather than flash. Sibford is a mainstream school with good teaching but with 30% SEN children in class it won’t appeal to all parents. There’s no full orchestra here so if you’re imagining a mini Royal Philharmonic moment, think again, though there are a plenty of ensembles, choirs and bands.
Want to see for yourself? Be my guest! There are several open days coming up: Whole School (10 Sept, 1 Oct, 12 Nov), Junior School (18 Sept), Sixth Form (12 Oct).
The Hill, Banbury, Sibford Ferris OX15 5QL. Tel: 01295 781200. sibfordschool.co.uk