Bedford Modern School
Muddy says: The superb facilities and friendly, unpretentious atmosphere at this selective co-ed make a refreshing change from traditional old-school independents.
Bedford Modern (known as BMS) is the only selective co-ed school in Bedfordshire (just minutes from Bedford town centre), and while it’s got a 250-year heritage, as its name suggests, it has a very modern feel, both aesthetically and in terms of its outlook. It’s also part of the Harpur Trust – a Bedfordshire based charitable organisation, which promotes educational opportunities in the county.
There are just over 1200 pupils at the school, aged 7-18, split roughly 60/40 boys to girls. Class sizes vary from 16-20 in Junior School, to 20-22 in Senior School. The majorty of pupils live within a one-hour commute, and while most are pretty local, others travel from Milton Keynes, Luton and north Beds.
Pilgrims Pre-Prep (another Harpur Trust school) is a key feeder to BMS, but students are assessed for entry at all ages (except Year 11 and 13 when students aren’t accepted into the school). This takes place over two and half days for Years 3-6, and one day for Years 7-10. Those applying to enter at Year 12 will be offered a place based on a combination of their GCSE results and interview performance. It’s worth bearing in mind that pupils who have already been assessed for a Junior School place are not required to be assessed again at Year 6 for entry into the Senior School.
There are six form groups in Years 7-8 (one for each House) and eight in Year 9 (two of which are mixed Houses), and giving the kids a say in their own education is top of the agenda. There’s a school council for every Senior School year (made up of two members from each form group), as well as a school government, for which 2-3 pupils per year represent the views and opinions of their peers to the whole school. Plus each year group has its own common room – not just the Sixth Formers.
They’re quite big on languages here. Year 7s study French, Spanish and German, then drop one at Year 8 in favour of Latin, and doing at least one language for GCSE is compulsory. The school also invites a foreign drama company to come and perform plays for foreign language students to help them to understand languages in context.
While the original school dates back to 1764, BMS moved to its new site in 1974 , so as you might expect, the main school building has a distinctly 70s look, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the staff and kids aren’t bothered by it, in fact they celebrate it as a point of difference from the more old-school independents. And, what BMS lacks in style, it more than makes up for in space and quality of facilities – one of the benefits of being purpose-built, of course – within a comfortable 45 acres to call their own.
Over the years the school buildings have expanded to include extensions to the Junior School, and the music department (in the early 90s), and the addition of the Rutherford Building in 2007 which houses the refectory and Sixth Form Centre, allowing the old facilities to be converted into a new library (which has amazing views across the grounds and into Bedford) and the brilliant 270-seat theatre.
Plus there’s a super-slick new canteen set-up now, since a major modernisation last year. And, part of a 10-year development plan for the school estate is a complete re-model of the outdated reception area, along with expansions of the Performing Arts and Music facilities, for a more light and open-plan feel. There are also planned updates to the catering facilities in the King Room where visiting teams are hosted for sports fixtures.
The biggie though is the super-duper Science Centre and wow, is it cool… (can I say that without sounding like a massive nerd?!) This £9m investment, built in 2017, has a separate floor for each science (colour coded, no less – pink for physics, blue for chemistry and green for biology), with 17 multi-disciplinery labs surrounding the stunning floor-to-ceiling atrium.
There’s a kinetic floor at the entrance, which converts students footsteps into power for the building; a video wall, where students and teachers can do break-out sessions and presentations; and an ‘exhibit’ on all three floors, each relating to the relevant subject, including an incredible interactive periodic table on the chemistry floor, complete with samples of all the elements and a video screen showing informative clips about each one.
The pièce de résistance though is a floor-to-ceiling pendulum, suspended from the top of the atrium, which was donated by the OBM (alumni) club. It’s as much art as it is science, and more than a bit tempting for the kids to reach out and give it just a liiiittle tap as they’re walking up the stairs to class – they manage to restrain themselves though (just about!).
MUSIC AND DRAMA
Performing Arts is big here, and not just within the school bubble – tickets to BMS concerts and productions are in high demand and often sell out within days of being released, plus the school runs various workshops such as a two-day drama festival for local school children in Years 7-8.
Added to that, BMS was shortlisted for the performance arts and music category in the Independent Schools of the Year Award 2018; more than 200 students entered the Bedfordshire Festival of Music, Speech and Drama, to be awarded the most placings ever; and last year 250 students took LAMDA exams with 97% achieving a merit or distinction and two students receiving 100% in their Grade 8 exams. Wowsers!
Around 30% of pupils in the whole school take private music lessons with one of the circa 25 visiting specialist teachers. There are 15 private practice rooms and even a recording studio. All students study music from Years 3-8 (it’s optional from Year 9) and there are bags of opportunities to get involved in extra-curricular stuff too.
In Junior School there are orchestras and choirs – the Year 5-6 choir won their category at this year’s Bedfordshire Festival of Music, Speech and Drama, and they were awarded the Bedford Choral Society Cup for the most outstanding junior choir of the festival. In Senior School there’s a chance to learn the ropes in the training orchestra, (and more practiced pupils can join the full school orchestra), as well as the jazz-based Big Band, the Groove Collective; a percussion group called Wallop!; a strings group; brass group and school and chamber choirs. There’s even an Open Mic night to give students a chance to show off their talents in a different genre – basically any form of music in any style.
What I like about BMS is that students of all abilities and interests get involved. Years 7-10 do a musical production every year. They’re rehearsing for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at the moment, and the set is just fab!) then Years 9-10 also do a more classical piece, such as a Shakespearean play.
Anna, one of the pupils who is showing me around tells me that you don’t have to be a drama student to be involved in the productions – she was in Sister Act earlier in the year, and said it was a real laugh even though drama isn’t her strongest suit (although I suspect she’s being modest!). The productions usually feature a live band too – often with the teachers roped in, too (I’m sure they love it really…) There’s also the Classical Showcase, where OBMs (Bedford Modern alumni) have an oppportunity to re-join their old choir or orchestra for the night.
The Sixth Form drama students even run their own company, called Theatre in Transit and perform at local community theatres as well as at the school, with many of them going on to drama school afterwards. The ‘elite’ performers also have a chance to take part in special expert-led workshops, which train them to work within the industry. To give you an idea of the calibre, Jeremy Irvine (War Horse; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) is an OBM.
There are some really talented young artists here. The A-level students have their own studio, where they can display their work and there’s even a couple of traditional printing presses in the classroom which explains the very effective lino prints adorning the walls.
BMS also invites visiting artists, such as Jo Atherton, who ran a three-day art and sustainability workshop there last year, inviting the kids to create a piece of work using plastic collected from the ocean and harnessing the sun’s light. Intriguing stuff!
The D&T department is a wannabe engineer’s dream, (and there are a number of those at BMS, with students regularly winning the prestigious Arkwright Scholarship). There’s a plastics room, print room, systems and control room for circuits and programming and a workshop with some brand new laser cutters. They even have drawing-board style desks for working on technical designs. The kids tell me that as long as they clean up after themsleves they pretty much have free reign (I’m sure the younger kids are well supervised though!)
With more than 30 different physical activities on offer, 100 teams and 1000 fixtures a year, it’s safe to say that BMS has a thriving sports community. As well as PE and Games, all Junior School (plus Year 7) pupils also do Key Skills sessions in their sport of the season, which allows them to really hone in on specific techniques.
Facilities-wise BMS pretty much has it all. Are you ready…? There’s a swimming pool; a large Sports Hall with a climbing wall, five badminton courts, plus basketball and cricket nets; a two-floor Fitness Centre with more whizzy equipment than you can shake a stick at (yoga sessions are held here at lunch times and after school, too); two floodlit netball courts; a floodlit Astro and another all-weather pitch; a 12-pitch playing field; a boathouse with 34 boats and weight training facility; grass cricket nets and a cricket pavillion (built in 1884 and currently undergoing a re-furb); six Fives courts and even an indoor ergometer suite (that’s rowing machines to you and I). Phew! I’m worn out just writing about it!
There have been some recent successes in the pool with five students picking up 21 gold medals between them in the Bedfordshire County Swimming Championships and one BMS student plays water polo for GB. Also, those backing the Lionessses will be pleased to hear that women’s football is going down a storm here, with one Year 10 girl being selected a as a goalkeeper for the ISFA U16 team and the U16 Arsenal Player Development Programme.
And did you notice the mention of the boathouse above? Yep, rowing is super popular here too, and being handily located near the embankment of the River Great Ouse, means there’s easy access to the water for training (and there’s always that ergo studio too, of course!) Clearly it pays off, as Olympic gold medallist Tim Foster is an OBM and recently a Year 12 rower was selected for the GB Junior Women’s sculling squad to compete in the Munich Junior Regatta this year.
They’re also pretty hot on a couple of the less mainstream sports like Fives (a bit like squash, but played with your hands), with two pupils reaching the U18 singles and doubles finals in ther National Schoolgirls’ Rugby Fives Championships, and one taking the singles title. Plus, there’s a ski team that trains at the Milton Keynes Snowdome and girls cricket is becoming popular too, with it being a summer term Games option up to Year 10. On that note, Monty Panesar is an OBM, as well as rugby star Lizzie Adam and Paralympian Julie Rogers.
BMS students perform very well academically. Last year, their A-Level results were the best in Bedfordshire, with a third of all students obtaining at least 3 As, and 17% achieving A* grades (over double the national average). The GCSE results make for similarly impressive reading with 36% of the grades awarded last year being A*, 9 or 8.
It’s no big surpise that 85% of students get their first choice of university (with 67% of those being Russell Group unis). However, BMS support the students in whatever next steps they choose – some go straight into work, or are sponsored by companies, while others choose apprenticeships or to go to drama school.
My guides, Anna and Charlie are both technically employees of the Harpur trust and get paid to supervise the younger kids in after-school club (until 6pm) – what a brilliant idea! – It fits in better around their GCSE and A-Level studies than other part time jobs, and also helps them to give something back by acting as a sort of mentor to the younger pupils. They help with homework and play sport but mostly they just chat in the common room. I bet the Juniors love having buddies in the Senior School to look up to.
BMS is certainly forward thinking – the clue’s in the name really – It’s no worries if a pupil forgets their lunch, or even their lunch money, thanks to finger-print scanning at the canteen. Yup, the kids can literally just tap in if they want to eat school lunch that day (it just gets added to their parents’ end-of-term bill). There’s a similar system for the school printers, too. It all feels very Minority Report, but it’s the future… Added to that, Sixth Formers can simply text to sign themselves in or out of school for their free periods if they are going off site or home for the day. What a genius idea to keep tabs on them, but on their own terms!
If you spot a Year 13 donning a braided blazer, it’s a sign that they’re either have a responsibility as either Head of House or Senior Monitor. Some of the Sixth Form boys look rather dapper in bow ties and waistcoats, too – one of the flexible uniform options in Upper School.
And for those interested in a career in medicine, there’s an opportunity to win £1000 towards their Sixth Form school fees, thanks to the Medical Essay Scholarship established by an OBM, Robert Luff – a nice little leg up for those facing multiple years studying medicine at uni.
WORD ON THE GROUND
There’s a really down-to-earth feel here. At a glance it could easily be a typical grammar school, but dig deeper and parents soon uncover the wealth of opportunities BMS offers, from its sporting prowess and excellent reputation in Performing Arts. But what’s most refreshing, and what people often comment on is the friendliness, and the fact that the pupils here are very grounded – they know how privileged they are to be here but don’t carry any of that private-school arrogance around with them. As Anna and Charlie demonstrated, the students want to show off their school – they are proud of it, and so they should be. It’s refreshing to hear that Anna, who joined in Year 9 from a state school, said she made friends here within her first week, which is testament to the school’s inclusive and welcoming culture.
They keep it simple with just two fee levels (no sliding scale) at £3,257 per term for Junior School and £4,468 per term for Senior School and Sixth Form.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
GOOD FOR: Parents considering independent education for the first time and feel daunted by more traditional schools are bound to be won over by the positive, friendly and unstuffy atmosphere here.
NOT FOR: Those who judge a book by its cover. There’s a lot to love about BMS once you scratch beneath the surface but if you’re not prepared to do that, this isn’t the school for you.
DARE TO DISAGREE? Email Pauline Heappey at email@example.com or phone 01234 332690/659 for more information.