Bedford School, Bedfordshire
One of the top independent boys’ schools in the country, Bedford School excels in sport, the arts and empathy, has a glittering alumni and offers exceptional preparation for the future.
This boarding and day school for boys aged 7-18 is right in the heart of Bedford town – not that you’d know it from visiting the expansive and verdant 50-acre grounds, which feel very countrified.
There are 1100 boys: 402 in the Prep School and 699 in the Upper School. It’s easily reached from London (just 35 minutes by train to St Pancras) and Hertfordshire towns such as St Albans and Harpenden, as well as being close to the M1, the A1 and A6, making Milton Keynes, Cambridge and Northamptonshire easily accessible.
Founded by Royal Charter in 1552, Bedford School is the oldest of the four Harpur Trust schools and has a rich history which you’ll find evidence of dotted around the buildings, from a crest connecting the school to New College Oxford and portraits of past Heads, to memorials for pupils lost to war, and an illustrious alumni.
The main building is ever so striking in red brick with its turrets and crenelations. Adjacent to that is the grand Gothic chapel and both overlook the vast playing fields and a rather impressive cricket pavillion. And that’s just the start…
Where to begin… the school has its own boathouse, (just a ten minute walk away on the banks of the River Great Ouse), a nature reserve (which is used for everything from science and conservation to art, bushcraft and DofE), an observatory and planetarium (in fact, they’re the only school in the country with both), a concert hall aaaand a 300-seat theatre. Phew! If that lot doesn’t impress you I’m not sure what will!
My first stop though is the maginficent Great Hall, usually where assemblies are held in non-Covid times, with the Head taking the podium to regale the boys with progress and achievements from the week. The House Singing (one of the most anticipated events in the school calendar, I’m told) as well as the annual musical showcase, St Cecilia’s Concert, are held in here too. The hall was rebuilt following a fire in 1979 and it’s easy to see why it won a RIBA award when you gaze up at that grand vaulted ceiling.
The Grade II listed 19th Century chapel is equally impressive, with the names of Old Bedfordians who lost their lives in battle inscribed on the walls. Apparently a number of these are read out during the remembrance service every year. The boys would usually go to chapel every Wednesday (and the boarders on Sundays, too), but at the moment the services are being streamed live to classrooms.
There’s also the Memorial Hall which looks a bit like a gentleman’s club with its leather sofas and wood panelling. And in a way, I suppose it is, with its main role being a space for society meetings, as well as gatherings from across the wider school community, plus exams and study.
Another RIBA award-winning building, designed by Eric Parry Architects, the Music School has 15 teaching and rehearsal rooms, two recording studios, a tech suite and a 100-seat recital hall, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the grounds. What a spot to take in some musical entertainment! Weekly Thursday concerts are held here, (which give all boys a chance to perform to the public), as well as one-off events, such as the charity Open Mic Night, with the £5 entry fee going to causes like Movember, which the boys are really passionate about.
A third of all boys take private music lessons, with 20% playing more than one instrument and their enthusiasm is kicked off in Prep, where they get two years of free starter lessons – first on a string, then a woodwind instrument.
It’s now one of the largest school Music departments in the country, offering jazz, samba, choral and chamber music groups and the boys regularly take up places in national youth choirs and orchestras too. A major musical highlight of 2020 was Fourth Former, Alexander Olleson, being named BBC Young Chorister of the Year.
While the Chapel Choir has sung in front of the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall in the past, performances have, of course, taken a more virtual turn this year, including the annual Summer Concert and a recording of Wellesley (Captain Sir Tom’s Regiment’s quick march), by the school orchestra and Old Bedfordians.
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, of course! 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’s also a lovely light and airy café/bar overlooking the sculpture studio and gardens.
The boys tread the boards alongside the likes of professional visiting theatre companies, and well-known actors, directors and choreographers regularly run workshops there too. Each drama teacher directs a major production each year.
In 2019 Little Shop of Horrors, performed with Bedford Girls’ School got rave reviews, being compared to West End shows. It’s no surprise then to hear that in the last five years at least one boy per year has been invited to join the National Youth Theatre – however last summer, that offer was extended to three pupils. Impressive stuff.
And it’s not only natural performers who get a look in. There are tonnes of other opportunities to get involved with drama behind the scenes, including learning about lighting rigging, sound and set design.
ART AND DESIGN
One of my Sixth Form guides, Andy, an artist, took great pleasure and pride in showing me the Art School, housed in the Howard Building, and with good reason. Old Bedfordian and art bod (he now runs London’s Marlborough Gallery) Gilbert Lloyd, gifted the art foyer to the school, which doubles up as a gallery for the boys’ work.
Art is clearly instrinsic to school life with mini galleries to be found everywhere – from Henry Moore sketches in the library to Rembrandts in the halls. And the teaching quality is comparable to that of any fine art school, with the staff being practising artists themselves. Some works by the Director of Art can be seen around the school, including former Head Masters’ portraits and a lovely painting of Captain Sir Tom in the dining hall.
The boys study sculpture, printing and painting on rotation to give them a feel for what they want to specialise in, plus life drawing classes are offered too. There’s also a newly renovated sculpture studio, which looks like a budding artist’s dream, and even a sculpture garden where projects are displayed.
Design-wise, there’s a thriving DT department with two workshops and there are all manner of projects on the go from bike racks to chairs. Around half the boys take the subject. Ash, another one of my guides explained that he enjoys it as it feels like a good release and a change from the bookwork.
It’s safe to say that you really can’t mention Bedford School without reference to sport. I’ve mentioned the expansive sports fields, but there are also nine cricket pitches (and remember that pavillion?), two astroturf pitches for hockey, four squash courts, four fives courts, a rifle range, a rec centre with a 25m six-lane pool (water polo is popular here) and a fully stocked gym, which looks better than any I’ve paid membership for! There’s even a golf simulator.
A whopping 96% of boys represent the school in one sport or another and all the school’s major sports teams are consistently in national finals, with many pupils playing at county or national level already and at least one leaver from almost every year going into professional sport – my guide, Ash, plays cricket for the first team and plans to move to Australia when he finishes school to try out with the pros (before studying history, then doing his law conversion – he’s got it all mapped out, although is realistically aware of how plans can change, which is refreshing).
The sporting alumni speaks for itself… Old Bedfordians include former England cricket captain Sir Alastair Cook; Phelan Hill, British rower and cox who won gold at Rio 2016, and oarsman Jack Beresford. Plus Bedford School is known for breeding professional rugby players. Northamptonshire Saints team members George Furbank and Fraser Dingwall (both OBs) were selected for Eddie Jones’ Senior England squad for the 2020 Six Nations Championship.
In fact, the school has an established relationship with Northampton Saints Rugby Club, as well as Woburn Golf Club. On that note, there are two golf scholars in each year group, who train with professional golfers twice a week at Woburn – one of this year’s scholars is going on to join two former pupils in the USA on a golf scholarship.
But it’s not just the first teams that get all the glory. The school is proud to have E and F teams. Everyone plays sport two afternoons a week, plus Saturday matches, and in normal times the fixtures have an electric atmostphere. While first team games are taken pretty seriously, the lower ranking teams seem to have a lot of fun.
There’s no doubt it’s been a seriously tough year for all schools, but Bedford appears to have emerged delightfully unscathed. Much of this was to do with prepping the boys in advance of the first lockdown and being ready to switch from real school life to a virtual classroom setting at the drop of a hat: Lockdown was announced on the Friday and by the Monday morning the boys were set up for lessons on Microsoft Teams, with only a Saturday morning missed. Surveys and regular contact by phone allowed staff to keep tabs on the boys’ mental health and to ensure they understood all the procedures throughout.
Today (in May 2021) mask wearing in lessons, use of personal IT equipment only, and queueing outdoors (in weather-proof polytunnels!) for lunch just seem like a normal parts of school life. The big question now is how things will change when we come out of Covid. Head Master, James Hodgson has some big ideas on that, as you’ll read below.
There’s no shortage of clubs here – over 70 in fact. From Combined Cadet Force with Bedford Girls’ School, to Bake Off Club in the Prep School and Strava Club has been a hit this year, with the boys recording their runs and cycle rides as they compete in individual, year group and house competitions. Archery, beekeeping and the rock music society are also on offer, and there’s an astronomy society (good to hear that the observatory’s getting some use!). My guide Andy tells me everyone can find their niche here – we even pass some Prep boys filming a sports game with proper camera equipment on my tour – a future Sky Sports cameraman, perhaps?
There’s a huge community programme here, which encourages boys to give back in, (crucially), a mutually beneficial way – it’s not just a tick-box exercise. It’s a formalised programme which all Lower Sixth take part in and if boys choose to drop to three A-Levels, they need to increase their community work. The boys are also really passionate about charity and Bedford is proud to be one of the biggest school fundraisers in the UK.
I’ve written below about how the Head’s prioritising tech, and that extends to offering Computer Science as a GCSE as well as at A-Level – there’s even an inspiring digital enterprise award up for grabs in Year 9. Outside of the curriculum the boys take part in cyber security competitions and hackathons galore. In fact, Bedford boys came third in a competition organised by Barclays Bank – the winners were Santander! You show ’em, boys!
And entrepreneurial spirit is equally encouraged. In fact, the school has appointed its first Entrepreneur in Residence, Zubair Junjunia, CEO and Founder of ZNotes, an online platform for exam revision notes, which he started as a GCSE student and has had over 30m hits worldwide. Not bad at just 24 years old! His role will be to encourage the boys to develop a different set of skills and bring their ideas to fruition.
One of the coolest examples of this has been an art/fashion/sports-themed start-up, developed when exams were cancelled last year (part of a Fifth Form initiative to bridge the gap between GCSE and A-Level). YBK, (Your Best Kicks) is a custom trainer design biz, which had gained 1,200 Instgram followers and was in profit by the time the project was submitted. Kudos, lads.
And when it comes to prepping the boys for life beyond school there’s a wealth of careers advice and resources on offer. The school actually has a Career Mark accreditation (one of only nine schools in the country to have this) to show for it. There’s a new remote professional skills course for Upper Sixth and the careers fair went virtual this year too, both of which allowed for boys to hear from OBs and professionals in a huge range of industries internationally – there were volunteers from investment banks in Frankfurt and ad agencies in Sydney. The school has also set up a network called Eagle Connect for OBs to network, and The Eagle’s Nest – Bedford’s answer to Dragon’s Den – is coming soon, so watch this space.
James Hodgson has been Head Master since 2014. An Ernst & Young escapee, he has a contagious zest for teaching and for life, as well as being a magnanimous speaker. His assemblies are on the school website and they’re worth reading.
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 boys’ 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 ‘we could do even better’. Having achieved record-breaking GCSE results in 2019 with almost half of all grades recorded as 9-8 (the old A*), Mr Hodgson admits that it is frustrating not to have been able to see the same boys’ A-Level results in the traditional sense this year – he’s after that all-important Holy Grail of consistency.
However, recently his focus has shifted from academic results to how they can help the boys to forge future-proofed careers. In 2018 the governers were asked where they saw their careers going long term and they came up with two key ideas – that young people are entering a highly tech-driven world and that it’s never more important to be human, and to nurture skills that computers can’t replicate.
With that, Hodgson came up with three strands to focus on: Technology, Service and Entrepreneurial Thinking. For the first they hired a Director of Digital Learning, to give all boys from 7-18 a solid foundation in tech as well as allowing those with a natural aptitude to really fly.
Secondly, in September 2019 the school’s community partnerships were expanded and by March 2020 almost half of the boys were involved with projects, from helping primary school children with reading or sport, to providing a pianist to a local school choir and working with care homes. The’ve continued this work virtually wherever possible.
The final strand – Entrepreneurial Thinking – saw a group of boys set up a business to send care packages out to pregnant women in South Sudan who are at the highest risk of motherhood mortality in the world. It’s not just about having the idea, or even making money, but following it through to fruition and making a difference. This is seriously humbling stuff.
Hodgson explains that those three strands have never been more important at this time of transition as we come out of Covid. His aim is for digital tech not to be taught as a stand-alone lesson but to become embedded in all they do at Beford. He’s also predicting that environmental matters will come out as a key focus, and inclusion, which has been highlighted through campaigns like Black Lives Matter, Everyone’s Invited and LGBTQ issues.
He knows that Bedford boys are in a privileged position and he’s keen to remind them of that. They also have an open dialogue with Bedford Girls’ School when subjects cry out for further conversation. Plus Hodgson and the boys themselves have been working to embed inclusion in every aspect of school life – from changing the school’s recruitment materials to encourage more women and ethnic minorities to apply for jobs, to starting the Eckersley Society (named after first black head of school in 1983) to give boys of all ethnicities a voice.
I wasn’t able to go inside the boarding houses this time, due to Covid restrictions, but my Sixth Form guides offered a glimpse into the friendly competition that goes on within them. Boarding is available from Year 3 (flexi and weekly only, but full boarding is available from Year 5) and the Prep house is in the school grounds, while for the Senior School the six boarding houses are either just on the edge, or a few minutes’ walk away in leafy residential areas.
The boarding houses have different names to the day houses, by the way, but they’re paired up for house comps. There are 225 boarders in total and while flexi boarding is available for Prep, only weekly or full boarding is offered in Upper School. More than 50% of the boarders are from the UK, and the remainder come from some 26 different countries, including Cambodia, Hong Kong, Australia, Ghana and Russia.
While Covid has presented a boarding challenge – two boys have not been able to return home since August 2020 – the numbers of boarders hasn’t diminished because of it. And the former study centre has now been repurposed as a Covid quarantine and isolation boarding house, which will help ensure that normal school life is resumed as quickly and safely as possible.
Don’t expect a snow day at Bedford. When the whole building caught fire in 1979, a notice went up the next day saying ‘School open as normal’. There’s a rather apt comparison to be made with the school’s handling of the Pandemic some 40+ years later. It feels very Keep Calm and Carry On – good old British stoicism, but with an underlying empathy.
On that note, you wont find normal PSHCE lessons scheduled into the timetable here. At Bedford five days per year are set aside for Citizenship Mornings, where every single boy is released from his normal studies to attend lectures, workshops, practical sessions, such as ‘how to cook mince three ways’ and performances on everything from cyberbullying to human rights to managing finances at university. Incidentally, all Lower Sixth boys now take part in mentor training with a mental health professional.
Pastoral care is of utmost importance here and in the Upper School vertical tutor group system helps with that. The boys are put into groups with pupils in each of the school years and are mentored by tutor who will stay with them throughout their Bedford career.
You may also have seen Bedford on the news last year, when Captain Sir Tom celebrated his 100th birthday. His grandson, Benjie, a current Sixth Former, explained that the Post Office was overwhelmed with cards and well wishes for his grandfather, so naturally the school rallied around and transformed the Great Hall into ‘Captain Tom’s Sorting Office’. More than 150 volunteers (staff, pupils, families and Old Bedfordians) spent 1,750 hours opening and reading the 160,000 cards.
You’ll have read about Old Bedfordians a lot in this review and that’s probably because they make up one of the oldest alumni societies in the world. They are intrinsic to the school and over 9,000 old boys are still involved. That’s loyalty for you.
In spite of all the Covid challenges, 87% of Bedford’s 2020 leavers went on to Russell Group or Times Top 30 universities (topping 2019’s 83%), and seven went on to Oxbridge. The anomalous results, which were graded without exams were actually higher than the previous year too, with 88% achieving grades A*-B at A-Level and 93% graded 7-5 (the equivalent of A* – B) in the International Baccalaureate. 87% of GCSEs were graded 9 to 6.
Class sizes are small, with on average 15-20 boys per class in the Senior School and around 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. Generous scholarships 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.
Starting at £4,393.20 per term for day boys in Years 3-5. They go up to £11,465.70 per term for Upper and Sixth Form full boarding.
The school week is run as a boarding school, so there are lessons on Saturday morning. In the Prep School, the day starts at 8.35am and ends at 4.10pm. It is possible to arrive at school at 7.30am (for an extra £5 per session) and stay on until 5.45pm free of charge. Plus those who need to can stay on until 7.30pm (£15.20 per session).
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Boys who want to find their place in a modern society, aren’t afraid of showing their feelings, supporting each other and ultimately paying it forward. There are so many opportunities at here, but it’s those who really appreciate what they’ve got – from the incredible facilities to the amazing support and teaching – who seem to thrive within the Bedford School community and beyond.
Not for: If parents are purely looking for a highly academic, results-driven school, they might want to look elsewhere. Bedford is all about the holistic experience, getting involved in the opportunities that are available, and learning to become life savvy, not just book smart.
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. There’s on taking place on 22 May 2021. You can book your space here and check out the virtual tour while you’re there.