Good Schools Guide Review
"It’s in there competing with the heavies but still unpretentious, with feet firmly on the ground. Parents value its special atmosphere, rooted in being reasonably non-selective, both academically and socially. Steadily improving results and facilities are putting Dauntsey’s among the front-runners in the area. Its friendliness, breezy campus and outdoorsy image belie a focused academic purpose, which encompasses arts and sciences, though it doesn’t inhibit the pupils from having a pretty good time. Dauntsey's is fab.”
— The Good Schools Guide
Since September 2012, Mr Mark Lascelles (mid forties), previously lower master, and temporary acting head of King's School Canterbury – something of a rough ride. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and Durham, where he read geography and was keen and proficient in cricket and football to county level and beyond. Now he only plays social cricket, - frustrating, as he is very competitive. Back at Shrewsbury for a further 17 years, he became a housemaster and coached many of the Shrewsbury teams before joining King's School in 2009. He is married to Amber, a teacher and graduate of Durham, who was a national level canoeist. They have three young daughters.
Mr Lascelles is stunned by ‘the quality of pupils’ at Dauntsey’s, not just their academic level but their genuine niceness and the energy injected by having an intake at 11: something he had ‘missed out on before’. He sees Dauntsey’s as a collegiate school, for families who understand about good education, and are not blinded by fashionable pretension.
So far both the curriculum and the classrooms are quite traditional, (he promised not to make changes during his first year) but the stunningly high level of pupil satisfaction registered in the recent ISI inspection bears witness to the excellence of the teaching. Parents like him and say he is accessible, listens and takes a personal interest in all pupils, meeting the school bus every morning and being a friendly presence at most activities. He had a hard act to follow and is very different to his predecessor, ‘but has finally mastered the art of feeding biscuits to paddling canoeists as they pass in the Devizes to Westminster race!’ Out of school he enjoys travel, skiing, reading and theatre – and is rapidly developing a taste for musicals, which is just as well as Dauntsey’s is about to put on Sondheim’s Into the Woods followed by Mamma Mia
Over the last few years Dauntsey’s has come up quite a few pegs in the academic stakes and has a pretty impressive record for a ‘not overly selective’ school – though of course success breeds demand which ups the ante. In 2013, 50 per cent A*/A grades at A level and 76 per cent at GCSE – mostly IGCSEs which, pupils say, ‘prepare better for A level’. Big Cheeses of the school world locally should look to their laurels or Dauntsey’s might pip them at the post. Curriculum includes a four language carousel of French, German, Latin, and Spanish for the first year from which two or three languages may be chosen. Other languages – Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Greek, Arabic etc - are done in extracurricular time. Native speakers are encouraged to take exams in their own languages.
Three science IGCEs for two-thirds of the year group; the rest do dual award science (three sciences taken as two GCSEs). Spanking new science labs full of GCSE groups practising practicals. A spectacular full size skeleton monoplane hangs in the hallway and the charming courtyard with super bosky pond has raised beds crammed with Japanese anemones.
No limits on choices at A Level. DT (resistant materials), in a whizzy new class room, with new courses in psychology, history of art and English language starting. Outstanding in maths and further maths and more than sound across a very wide board including theatre studies, music technology and class civ as well as the mainstream stuff.
Class size around 16 in GCSE years. Busy SEN department with three full-time staff, providing help, within the timetable but at extra cost. Mainly helps mild dyslexia and offers a safety net for the organisationally challenged but, 'If pupils pass the entrance exam,' says the head, 'it is rare for us to say we can't cope with their special needs'. Impressively wheelchair friendly (even disabled wet-room showers!) for a school with no current need for it. Thirty or so need and get EFL tuition, which is thrown in as part of the special enhanced international fees. Efficient IT taken for granted, having virtually reached IT saturation point, though pupils are pretty impressed that free standing printers at convenient points access and print from their personal files activated by thumbprint. Pupils register by thumbprint too for afternoon school, but house staff like to lay eyes on everyone in the morning.
Sport is definitely big and timetabled three times a week. Boys' and girls’ hockey, rugby and cricket doing pretty well at county and regional level. Football played in senior years, tennis, for all, and netball, for girls, all tackled competitively. A smart-looking rugby pavilion graces the grassy expanse in front of the main school and new sports pavilion is planned, which is nice for the girls.
Girls regularly send a hockey team to South Africa to match the triennial rugby tour of the Australia, and there is no shortage of opportunity. The recently acquired Mercers’ field has extensive pitches, ‘levelled by computer,' pupils say. Archery happens there but was elusive on our visit, though we spotted the coach’s van. A huge range of ‘strenuous pursuits’ available in the ‘long break’.
Situation alone gives Dauntsey’s a whiff of bracing contact with the great outdoors, focussed, during our visit, by the whole school cross county race. The delightful lower school guides, when asked what happened to non-sporty people, didn’t think there were any. Some parents feel that the less talented enthusiasts need more chances to play in teams, even against each other. Masses of expeditions like the Brecons Challenge and a long distance canoe race from Devizes to Westminster. Moonrakers, a third year programme, offers all sorts of outdoor adventure challenges (at no extra cost), and the more ambitious Dauntsey’s Mountaineering and Expedition Society travels to the orphanage they have adopted in Romania or visits their contacts in Bhutan. Lots do D of E though they skip Silver because of exam pressure.
Solid rather than spectacular facilities - indoor swimming pool, two handsome Astros, sports hall, athletics track a hike away - a source of grumbles for a few, macho fitness area with scary weights and levers currently getting a facelift and a bit more space. Too unusual to omit is the sailing club. No Optimists or Fireflies on a pond for Dauntsey’s, which has bought a 100 year old Tall Ship, the Jolie Brise. Pupils competed in the Fastnet in 2013 (she actually won the first in 1925); they also cruise more lazily off the Isle of Wight. Everyone gets a go in mixed teams of eight and parents are envious.
What the music department lacks in size it makes up in enthusiasm – multitudinous groups of every genre happily play away, certainly more than 20 groups timetabled – choirs, orchestras bands. It needs a bit more space. A good take up of instrumental tuition on every instrument ever invented makes for plentiful concerts with some mature and accomplished performance. Practice sessions timetabled for junior boarders.
There is serious drama – King Lear is probably as serious as it gets - when enthusiastic performers can be weaned away from everyone’s first love, the many enormous school musicals and ‘extraordinary performances’ which sometimes even make it to London theatres. Smashing A level results in theatre studies. The multi-function ‘memorial’ school hall has really good lighting and equipment thanks links with the West End. Plans are a foot to refurbish it with better seating (sinking into the floor) though it would be a pity to end such bizarre juxtapositions as the stately school altar, sanctuary and organ at one end and a stunning full size white puppet cow at the other. Annabel's, the well-equipped drama studio, has everything needed to launch careers via the Edinburgh fringe and such venues. Good and popular dance studios too - it’s in the curriculum - with a few boys taking part.
Across the playing field, the chimneyed art block has a deceptively arts and crafts look but is full of all the relevant IT and pottery things. It’s about to get an upgrade to make more space and dark room for photography planned for A level. Head of art keen on observational drawing. Bags of school trips – modern languages to Spain and France, geography to Iceland, RS to India, Adventurers to Bhutan, skiing in Italy
There’s not much you can’t do at Dauntsey’s, which is probably just as well for 300 or so boarders residing in a leafy backwater.
Founded in West Lavington in 1542 on the deathbed largesse of William Dauntsey, master of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, the school opened in 1895. Mercers' Company still provides six governors, occasional generous financial help and annual knees-up for its associated schools which include an unlikely spread from St Paul's Schools in London - both boys' and girls' versions – to Peter Symonds College (state sixth form in Winchester), two new academies and The Royal Ballet School.
The advantage to being almost at the back of beyond is that Dauntsey’s has plenty of room to spread itself - a seven hole golf course at the Manor House (co-ed boarding for juniors) who undoubtedly get the prettiest building. Some choose to ramble home through a lovely mile of so of woodland path, from which their Victorian mock Tudor mansion welcomes them at 4.30pm into a spacious galleried hall with inviting sofas round blazing fire in winter, to take tea and delicious looking scones and cake. It’s a spick and span version of Hogwarts, with its long oak tables and panelled common rooms smelling of furniture polish rather than 60 small boys and girls. Dormitories are functional but spacious with lovely views, weekends full of well planned, child friendly activity, mostly on the spot.
Lawns and trees enhance the setting of the handsome main school building, and the recently redesigned reception area is reminiscent of a five star hotel with its glass topped tables, comfortable furniture and well lit pictures changed regularly by the art department – and it is nice to see the artist’s names. Other facilities are more functional, but very well maintained. Perhaps a bit countrified for some hardened Londoners – until 1930 the school was known as Dauntsey's Agricultural School.
Dauntsey’s has mushroomed, to the extent that buildings jostle haphazardly with an increasing number of lawned and planted milling-about spaces between buildings, so the brightly coloured maps at every corner are necessity not decoration. A young pupil claimed to have taken only a week to find his way about. What impresses is that it has absolutely every facility a school should have but nothing extravagant. Boarding houses (single sex), both old and new are exceptionally spacious, some with en-suite facilities and all have kitchens, workspace and proper recreation area. A sixth former described it as ‘certainly better than adequate but not quite luxury’. Day houses get everything the boarders have except the bedrooms and the juniors have their own similar on-site day centre.
The most spectacular feature is a superb bright and airy new library –which must say something about academic priorities. Some exposed desks/computers down the centre of the building may not be everyone's cup of tea (where do they hide the sweet packet?) but more sheltered study space is available upstairs plus round tables and comfy chairs for a good read. Fooling around can be done in the cyber café or in the tuckshop. Lessons finish at 4pm and it is technically possible for day pupils to creep off then, but most stay on for prep or take part in clubs or sports until the mass bus exodus at 5.30pm. Boarders have two hours of prep in the evenings, one just before and one after supper.
Uniform is as expensive but not more than most. Girls have a rather limp blue check skirt with blue blouse and pullover. Boys in blue shirt and grey-blue jacket. No uniform in sixth form but smart-ish dress required (suits or chinos, tie and jacket for boys and at least a nod towards formality for girls) - quite widely interpreted. The reversible black and white rugby shirts are just being phased out for smart though less popular mainly white ones which wash better but get smelly very quickly. The busy school shop has an endless supply to lend to those who forget games things. The San is modern and inviting with quiet places to sit and suffer and comfortable looking bedrooms. Pupils definitely value the care given there, including counselling.
Much less privilege orientated than many schools, so apart from the 17 Club, which is the hub of sixth form social life, and biscuits at morning break, sixth form and prefects live and work alongside the upper school and take a full part in house life. Relationships between year groups are definitely flexible. Responsibilities taken seriously by prefects and captains of houses, who are selected by head and staff. Drugs get immediate expulsion and pupils know it. Apart from that, ‘rules are’, pupils say, ‘a matter of common sense’, though a new rule book is issued each year. The comments they made on ‘how far into the opposite sex house’ they are allowed showed they had a pretty shrewd idea of what is and is not acceptable. They also emphasised the trust between pupils and staff.
The pastoral system functions through the houses, in which the house staff and at least four assistants act as tutors to about 60 pupils. Parents say problems are handled successfully and with great sensitivity.
Not toffs on the whole, more local families, farmers and small businesses, with quite a number from state primaries or first time buyers. Lots of professional families with two parents working to earn the fees. International intake widening from Hong Kong and Russia to a wide spread of countries: Europe and beyond. Fifteen bus routes from Salisbury (south), Swindon (north), west to Frome and east to Hungerford and Andover, which puts them into competition with a number of good grammar schools as well as some top independents. Being just over an hour from London, Bristol and Southampton makes boarding pretty accessible from UK or abroad. Breakfast provided for all-comers in the pleasant dining hall. Boarders have to be there by 8.15. Buffet service with spectacular and popular ‘live cook’ every day and all meals in on the fees though not compulsory – a few chose to use the house kitchens though the dining room was full, although it staggers sittings.
At 11+, from state schools and a few preps, entry is by Dauntsey’s own exam (maths, English, VR and optional music auditions). Selective in that they accept about the same standard of candidates as Salisbury Grammar, according to the head. At 13+ they take mainly boarders from prep school and some from abroad via 13+ CE or scholarship exams, with very few day places at this stage, adding an extra two forms. Feeders include Chafyn Grove, St Francis (Pewsey) and St Margaret's (Calne), All Hallows and Thorngrove plus many local state primaries. Everyone sitting an exam at 11+ is automatically considered for a scholarship and around 15 pupils out of 80 admitted get some sort of award.
Some 50 pupils join the school for sixth form, around a third from abroad – a minimum of three A and three B grades at GCSE is required from UK pupils, plus interview.
A trickle – up to 15 – leave after GCSEs mainly for local sixth from colleges. Good proportion to solid science, medicine, languages etc courses at uni and a respectable number to Oxbridge (six in 2013).
Much more aware than many schools that parents’ resources are not infinite. The vibe from parents is that day fees here particularly good value for money. A few nice touches: music lessons cost the full whack for first instrument but less for second and subsequent ones; a 10 per cent reduction for siblings who are boarding at the same time (a very sibling-friendly school). Mercers' connection is a help when it comes to funding building projects but not a bottomless pit.