Bedford School, Bedfordshire
Muddy says: One of the top independent boys’ schools in the country, Bedford School excels in the arts, empathy and sport, in addition to its outstanding academic results
Bedford School is a boarding and day school for boys aged 7-18 in Bedfordshire’s county town. There are 1120 boys: 415 in the Prep School and 705 in the Upper School. The school is within easy reach of London (35 minutes by train to St Pancras) and a short train journey from Hertfordshire towns St Albans and Harpenden. Bedford is close to the M1, and also the A1 and A6, making both Cambridge and Northamptonshire easily accessible.
Founded in 1552, Bedford School has an illustrious past. While it is a town school, its expansive and picture-perfect 50-acre estate feels country. If you were a location scout for a TV drama featuring a traditional independent boys’ school, your search would end here. The entrance is grand. The main building is striking and the welcome is warm and friendly with smartly dressed young men who offer to help with directions. But wait, what’s this? Girls dressed in combat gear? It must be time for Combined Cadet Force, just one of the activities shared with Bedford Girls’ School. And what about this glass and steel building next to the Gothic chapel? It’s the new concert hall. Kevin McCloud would surely swoon. I can’t wait to see the rest. Shall we?
The school has its own boathouse, a nature reserve, an observatory and planetarium, a concert hall, and a 300-seat theatre. The playing fields are vast and immaculate. The Great Hall is magnificent, and you don’t need to have a connection with the school to get married here. The Grade II listed 19th Century chapel is equally impressive and it’s easy to imagine a soaring rendition of Jerusalem and traditional sermons taking place here, although during my visit I learn that less traditional stories are also told.
The music department was designed by RIBA award-winning Eric Parry Architects. There are 15 teaching rooms, several practice rooms, and a recording studio offering iMacs with Sibelius and LogicPro9. Boys regularly take up places in national youth choirs and orchestras. The school now has one of the largest school music departments in the country, offering jazz, samba, choral and chamber music groups. While the Chapel Choir has sung in front of the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall, the main musical event is the annual inter-house singing. Weekly lunchtime concerts are open to the public.
What do you do when you want to improve your school’s drama facilities? You transform a former Moravian church to create a £6.5 million theatre. The Quarry Theatre at St Luke’s opened in 2015 and it links the school and town both physically and artistically. The town side is on St Peter’s Street, and the box office is open to the public during the day. There was a lauded joint production of Little Shop of Horrors with Bedford Girls’ School in 2019. In recent London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) exams, every boy who took the exam garnered a distinction. Three pupils are currently in the National Youth Theatre.
Art and design:
The art and design department is spectacular. There’s even a 3D printer and infinity cove. No surprise that some Bedford School boys go on to study product design at UAL. Art feels central to the school: the foyer in the main building doubles up as an art gallery, exhibiting works from both local artists and many renowned artists from further afield. An Old Bedfordian now runs the Marlborough Gallery in London and is a benefactor. Thanks to him the school has rebuilt the entrance to the art school, which now has its own gallery.
Bedford School will probably always be synonymous with sport. The school teams in all major sports are consistently in national finals. Old Bedfordians include former England cricket captain Alastair Cook; Phelan Hill, British rower and cox who won gold at Rio 2016, and oarsman Jack Beresford. Many current pupils play sport to a professional level and Bedford is known for breeding professional rugby players. There’s an established relationship with Northampton Saints Rugby Club and Woburn Golf Club.
There are two golf scholars in each year group and they play golf with professional golfers twice a week. The river, Great Ouse, flows through Bedford, and the school makes good use of it for rowing. There’s a sports hall with all-weather courts for every racquet sport you can think of as well as indoor hockey. There’s a floodlit AstroTurf complex for hockey and tennis and a swimming pool where you can play water polo. There’s a visiting physiotherapist and sports psychologist. The school is proud to have E and F teams. Everyone plays sport three afternoons a week, including Saturday.
In addition to Combined Cadet Force with Bedford Girls’ School, there are over 70 clubs. How about cheese club? Fancy a glass of wine? Join the wine appreciation club (sixth formers only, natch). Archery, beekeeping, stage crew and the rock music society are also on offer. There’s also an astronomy society (good to make use of that observatory).
Other Old Bedfordians include Paddy Ashdown and comedian Al Murray. Another former pupil is Noel Carrington, brother of Bloomsbury Group painter Dora Carrington. He went on to become an editor for Country Life, and came up with the idea for Puffin Books. The school caterers win national awards. I tucked into my Moroccan lamb wrap, minty yoghurt dip and salad with gusto. The school is one of the biggest school fundraisers in the UK. Movember is a major fundraising fixture and since 2010 the school has raised over £60,000.
When the big charities have their away days to brainstorm ideas for fundraising, I suggest they come to Bedford School and ask the boys to run the sessions. A short film they made for Movember went viral and was picked up by the BBC. The science department is inspiring. Proximity to Cambridge is advantageous for linking with aerospace groups for work experience and visiting speakers. The school has a Career Mark accreditation and is one of only nine schools in the country to have garnered this award.
James Hodgson has been Head Master since 2014. An Ernst & Young escapee, he has a contagious zest for teaching and for life. He seems to have an innate talent for making history relevant and for making connections that create memorable stories. His assemblies are on the school website (and they’re worth reading) and I believe that he could have a great third or additional career as a motivational speaker. In one assembly he manages to make a seamless link between Johnson’s baby powder and Thebes. A classicist and cricketer, James Hodgson went to school at Wellington College, read classics at Durham, then went to Cambridge for his PGCE. Before coming to Bedford, he did a mixture of teaching, ran cricket and admissions at Tonbridge, taught at a boy’s school in Sydney, and then went to Magdalen College School, where he was Deputy Head. He and his wife have four children.
He is very open about the things that he wants to improve. Despite the school’s excellent academic results, James believes, that academically, ‘we could do even better’, and as for communication with parents, ‘we could always do better’. He’s now getting more parents to come in for meetings. In the classroom, there is a focus on staff development, ongoing training and peer observation.
While he loves sport, it’s when he talks about teenage mental health and the need to nurture a culture of creativity, empathy and openness that he really lights up. He shares more stories: a boy who stood up in front of the whole school and talked about his anxiety and depression. A female teacher who gave an assembly where she told the boys why everyone in the community was a feminist. And he tells me about a pupil who is openly gay and keen to raise the profile of LGBT issues at school. The boy told James Hodgson that Bedford School is the most tolerant place that he’d ever been to, but he wants the school to be accepting, rather than tolerant. This has sparked a whole new debate about the difference between tolerance and acceptance about all kinds of issues, not just LGBT, and throughout the school.
Sixth Form: My guides for the school tour are lower sixth formers Ignatius and Connor. They are interesting and interested and amazingly good listeners who demonstrate a huge amount of emotional intelligence. We talk about consideration for others and the fact that we are all different. We talk about IB v A Level; time management (they have some real nuggets of wisdom); bullying and that it’s never tolerated, and boarding v day. From our conversation, it is clear that at Bedford, once you find something you’re interested in, the school will do everything to support you. Learning for the sake of learning is also encouraged.
The school is run as a boarding school even though day boys outnumber boarders. This includes being part of the boarding school sporting circuit. I visit Eagle House, purpose built for the prep boarders and located in the school grounds. The boys have just finished for the day and are in and out of the kitchen wearing shorts and flip flops (with reassuringly smiley matron) raiding the larder and fridge (big bowls of fruit strategically placed) and with much dunking of biscuits in milk. Miele white goods churn away. For the Upper School, the six boarding houses are either just on the edge of the school grounds, or are a few minutes’ walk away in leafy residential areas
Quirks: Don’t expect a snow day at Bedford. When the whole building caught fire in 1979, the next day a notice went up saying ‘School open as normal’. Classes were held in the pavilion, boarding houses and in the swimming pool. The general vibe is compassionate and warm. You might expect a school known for its rugby to be high on testosterone, but the atmosphere in the dining hall, in corridors and various departments, where teachers dip in and out of conversations with boys they pass, feels calm, informal and friendly. Old Bedfordians make up one of the oldest alumni societies in the world. Very strong ties after leaving and 8,500 old boys are still involved with the school. You can learn Greek. It’s not on the timetable but a group of boys asked Head Master James Hodgson if he would teach them. He said he could if they turned up at 7.30am on a Friday morning. They’re now doing Greek GCSE.
Academic results: The school’s Fifth form boys recorded another set of record breaking GCSE results in 2019, when two-thirds of exams were graded at 9 -7 (A* – A) and over 20% of exams were awarded at the top grade 9. No fewer than 30 boys achieved at least nine grades at 9-8 (A*). Almost three-quarters of A-Level and International Baccalaureate pupils achieved A*- B grades, and 83% of boys went on to Russell Group and/or Times Top 30 universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, along with leading universities across the world. Seven boys had Oxbridge offers for 2020.
There’s loads of extra support for SEN and English as a Second Language. There is wide participation and success in Olympiad across the board: maths and languages; astronomy and astrophysics. Class sizes are small, with on average 19 boys per class in the senior school and just seven boys per class at sixth form. Boys who want to, automatically go into the Upper School from the Prep School without an entrance exam. Scholarships, worth up to 35% of fees, are available in academia, art, drama, music and sport. Further financial support is also available in the form of means-tested bursaries. For entrance at 13+, boys sit the Bedford School Aptitude Test.
Fees: Starting at £4,286 per term for Years 3-5; they go up to £11,186 per term for Upper and Sixth Form boarding.
Wraparound Care: The school week is run as a boarding school, so there are lessons on Saturday morning. A boarding timetable makes it easy to offer wraparound care. In the Prep School, the school day starts at 8.35am and ends at 4.10pm. It is possible to arrive at school at 7.30am and for those who need to, you can stay on until 7.30pm. You pay per session: before school £5.00 and after school £15.20.
Word on the ground: Parents like Bedford School, saying that it turns out well-rounded, charming human beings. One mum tells me that the boys are very supportive of each other. They throw themselves into the annual inter-house singing with the kind of gusto they might not display in a co-ed school. Another parent said that she’d been impressed by how much help and attention teachers had given her son when he started.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Boys who want to be part of a solid school that feels noble (in the non-aristocratic sense), and with outstanding facilities in every field. Boys who want to explore lots of different things and then relish the fact that they’ll get all the encouragement and support they need to succeed.
Not for: Boys who dream about being in the middle of the countryside and surrounded by sheep, far away from a train station, theatre and the nearest Nando’s.
Dare to disagree? Take a look for yourself by booking on a small group tour to meet the boys, the teachers and the Head, and see the school in person this autumn. Their small group tours will run during September and October 2020 and you can book your space here.