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Muddy reviews: Abbey College, Malvern

Looking for a unique and quintessentially English day and boarding school with a dazzlingly international feel? Abbey College in the stunning Malvern foothills is an academically-driven yet nurturing choice, and something slightly different for your teen scholar.

WHAT? WHERE?

Abbey College in Malvern is a quintessential English boarding and day school for ages 14-18 (years 10 to 13). Set in 70 acres (40 of which are used) that tumble over a series of lush green terraces looking out onto the stunningly scenic Malvern Hills. Originally a girls school dating back to 1874, this school has history oozing from its brickwork, but it’s USP in 2022? Providing an internationally-recognised education to pupils.

Offering a range of GCSE, IGSCE, A-levels and short residential courses, the College is fully co-ed and currently has a boarder to day pupil ratio of 80/20. Without a doubt one of The College’s main plus factors is its size. Although it can take up to 150 pupils – and has done in years gone by – it currently has a role call of 30 students. This fact means that the average class size here is one of the smallest we’ve found, ranging from just 3 to 7 pupils, with a maximum of 12 (there are only 8 students in the current year 13 for example).

But the low numbers shouldn’t put you off – it means that the teaching here can be bespoke and tailored to individual students, arguably a far more personal experience than you’d get at a bigger school.

Principal Daniel Booker (a title he goes by out of tradition at Abbey College) took over in September 2020. He understandably explains the reduced intake with the ‘pandemic effect’ and Britain coming out of Europe. The school depends on a largely international peer group – predominantly from the Middle East but also Spain, China, and beyond – so the resulting impact is currently being felt. But it feels like a new chapter is beginning at the school as Daniel is ‘reinventing’ the College somewhat, with a drive to attract more UK students in for the first time – both locally and nationally.

For many years the school has been exclusively international, but the mission for 2022 is to build on that UK push, so it’s an exciting new proposition for any UK teens looking for an alternative Worcs option. Indeed as part of its drive to up its ‘community cred’ the school is opening up the stunning grounds for a series of summer camps from 2022 onwards, where children from Malvern and the surrounding area can be part of a new rewilding project (more on that later). And, it has also offered the hall, grounds and canteen for a local street party for the Queen’s Jubilee.

Located in the culturally rich town of Great Malvern, Abbey College certainly has a 5-star platinum location. Sitting in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the eastern flanks of the Worcestershire Beacon, it has one foot in the countryside and one in the nearby historic centre of Malvern.

FACILITIES

Overview: Abbey College’s facilities include a library, computer rooms, three science laboratories, 15 classrooms, common room areas, mini indoor cinema, and a multi-gym. The buildings themselves are distinctively Gothic, hewn from grey local Malvern granite with the odd modern and 80s portakabin style building mixed in. The College itself is set out on a small and easily navigable ‘campus’ style setting, with five residential buildings for boarders.

SPORT

Although sport is played on a social rather than competitive basis, pupils are very much encouraged to get involved with sport here for general wellbeing. As numbers increase there is a drive to bring in a more competitive element, playing against other schools. But keen sporties shouldn’t be deterred as there are internal competitions held with big shiny trophies up for grabs still.

The facilities for the sports-inclined are certainly adequate, including a-good sized sports hall, three outdoor tennis courts, an indoor basketball court and a multi-gym.

Although some might miss a professional astroturf, there are plenty of grassy terraces to lob a ball back on forth on, so I don’t think you’d ever be short of practice spaces, and down on one of the bottom terraces is a football pitch. As an extra provision, in the summer months the College lays on archery and fencing classes too.

There is an outdoor pool here which is heated with pupils telling me it’s a really popular place to have a splash and let off steam in the summer months (perhaps less so in winter!). And also popular is the multi-gym, which sits next to the pupils general socialising area, and looked packed with great equipment for a workout from cross trainers to punch bags.

The outdoor pool

MUSIC & DRAMA

Although music is not currently offered as a subject at the school, musicians are still catered for here, with interested pupils able to take up individual lessons with private teachers who come in on an ad hoc basis. The school has three different areas where pupils have access to a piano (the Hall, Common Room and Formal Meeting Area). There’s also a drum set, a great set of amps and a mixing board.

Every year the Abbey Show is held, a drama and music showcase, which the students decide themselves what they want to perform, as well as termly art exhibitions of students’ work. There are lots of music clubs and a film club – in fact the College has its own small indoor cinema which students can use whenever they like, and looked very cool. Drama is not taught as a separate subject per se, but as part of the English component of the curriculum.

The school hall – with its resplendent show of pupils’ flags

The science department and provision here also needs its own shout out in my opinion. The College offers a Medicine and Dentistry Foundation Course which will particularly appeal to anyone wanting to pursue those careers. In addition it impressed me that students are offered extra time in the laboratories and additional revision sessions throughout their studies at A-Level if they’re aiming for Medicine, Dentistry or the Sciences.

ACADEMICS

Abbey College is a non-selective school, but it does require students to have ‘pass’ grades at their existing school, there is also an interview with the Principal to ensure that the school is a good fit. In terms of its results it has a 100% pass rate for IGCSE and A-Levels. A brief look at the 2021 results shows that out of 70 exams taken in total, 23 of those achieved A*s to As. And out of the 18 A-Levels taken 7 were A*s or As.

The school is also pretty proud of the fact the A-level results for 2020 won it the accolade of no.1 for student progress out of 4470 schools in England.

Daniel’s mission is openly to raise the level of academic attainment here from ‘Good’ to ‘Excellent’ and it has to be said that language-related subjects here at GCSE seem to do really well. In terms of where students go on to, although there isn’t a huge Oxbridge cohort every year (although students have in the past) pupils go on to very good courses at prestigious universities, such as Art at Birmingham; Maths at Sheffield; Business at Bristol and Engineering in Swansea.

The vibrant art studio

Students at the College have four ‘prep’ days a week, but the emphasis here is on helping them to build their own self-discipline to study. As well as the strength in Science here traditionally, Daniel is also actively expanding the art and design offering – coming from an arts background himself it’s clearly a bit of a passion project for him. The art department was indeed one of the nicest spaces in the school, a converted chapel-type space, full of colour, projects and life.

On top of taking IGCSEs and A-Levels there is a High School Experience programme, which lasts from two weeks to a whole term (a cohort of Spanish students were on their way when I visited).

Short courses are also held throughout the summer, there was a group of Uzbeks and Italians arriving in the next few weeks after my visit. In addition there is a pre-Uni programme called Foundation Level for subjects like Architecture or Engineering.

Pupils aren’t closeted here, despite being tucked away deep in the Malvern Hills, there are plenty of extra-curricular clubs – the Eco Club stands out for being behind the current project to ‘rewild’ a section of the grounds – and lots of trips take place including recent ones to London’s Excel and The Morgan Experience in Malvern.

PASTORAL CARE

With such small class sizes this inevitably allows for plenty of one-to-one attention, and the school also offers additional tutoring to support students. There is a seperate Student Services department run by full-time experienced staff that are responsible for every aspect of student well-being. With such a diverse wealth of creed and culture in the College a lot of effort is put in to provide a sense of ‘family’ and cohesiveness within the school.

Regular welfare meetings ensure all staff are kept up-to-date on issues involving students and students receive care 24 hours per day.

There are also dedicated House Parents to deal with in-house matters including checking-in and waking-up all under 18-year olds daily. Students under 16 receive particular care and attention and the College also employs a school Matron to deal with health matters. 

QUIRKS

There are pianos placed around the college (awesome Paddington Station vibes!) which give pupils the chance to sit down and play spontaneously and whenever they feel like it, if you walk around day or night you’ll often hear the strains of music filling the corridors which is rather lovely.

If your teen loves a good party (obvs), they’ll probably get along very well. With such a diverse student body from so many countries there is naturally a constant stream of international festivals to celebrate, from Persian New Year to American Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year and so on, all year round.

Students are currently rewilding a portion of land as part of an ecology project running on the campus, plus. students also have their own council committee and are encouraged to express how they feel about life at school – and the quality of the education – as all part of encouraging them to develop curious and enquiring minds.

HEAD

Principal Daniel Booker comes across as a kindly, jovial and considered kind of Head. There’s an air of quiet calm about him but it belies a savviness which you’d clearly need managing a school of teenagers with multiple global backgrounds! Living on site, he has only been at the helm of Abbey College for just over a year, so it’s early days for his tenure, but he certainly seems to slot perfectly into the international feel of the school, having previously been Director of Studies at Cavendish School of English and 25 years in teaching EFL.

During our chat it’s clear that although he is averse to making any seismic changes to the College (he’s more of a ship-steadier), he is keen to make it more attractive to UK pupils and get the message out that they can now study here, despite its strong international rep.

There were six native English speakers at the College in 2021, so he’s definitely got a challenge on his hands, but this feels like a school cleverly future-proofing its offering. There have clearly been a lot of hurdles of late, with teachers leaving due to the pandemic, the challenge of filling those posts, Brexit (and most recently, although after my visit, the war in Ukraine), but Daniel is infectiously excited about the new chapter for the College.

Anything else in his notebook? There’s also a big five-year plan to improve and upgrade the current boarding houses, one of which was covered in scaffolding for repairs when I visited.

BOARDING

A large 80% of pupils here board and students can choose to full board from the age of 14. They are able to leave campus on certain weekends, however the school does not close at all during term time and parents can visit whenever they would like to. For boarders there is a lot of fun to be had as there is a full time activities staff who organise outings (two per term) around Malvern and further afield, as well as organising quiz nights, discos, karaoke and more.

The residential area of the school looked like a great kind of cool club with an indoor cinema, a bean bag film room, table tennis tables, snooker, fussball, a multi gym to use and general chill out areas.

There is also a plethora of activities to get stuck into from utilising the amazing Malvern Hills nearby with walking and hiking, and also yoga, karaoke, barbecues, talent shows and volleyball.

Every third week the students are taken on an excursion with recent places visited including Bristol, Stratford, London, Birmingham and Salisbury among others.

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The Boarding Houses are very much keyed up to monitor pupils wellbeing as you’d expect with an intake living miles away from home overseas with the House Mother’s room being in one of the girls’ boarding houses and her office is in the midst of the students’ common rooms and socialising areas so she’s always on hand to help with problems.

I only got to see one of the private dorm rooms on my visit, but it looked clean, simple and perfectly adequate, nothing fancy, but peaceful, spacious havens for the pupils to come back to after a day’s study. And the current upgrade that has started will soon introduce a fresh lick of paint to them. On the whole, the small-community feel of the College gave it a really cosy family atmosphere.

MOBILE / TECH POLICY

All pupils are expected to abide by the school’s general mobile phone guidelines, and parental controls are kept on student internet accounts.

WORD ON THE GROUND

Past students variously describe their time at the College as like having a ‘big family, with one interantional pupil describing the teachers and staff as ‘friendly and dedicated’. Likewise there are glowing report from parents and children for the pastoral side and good resources to sort problems when they arise. A UK family loved the ‘charming’ character of the place and applauded the teachers for helping the different cultures get along so well.

ISI REPORT

Find it here.

FEES

Not too bad at all. For British Students fees are on the lower end of the scale at £11,375 per year, with combined boarding and tuition fees for British Students at £22,750. Day Fees for students with HR, WR or GL postcodes are £3,600. However that takes a leap if you are an international student. Full tuition fees for International Students not boarding in 2021/22 were £16,250 per year. Full tuition fees and full boarding (including all accommodation) £32,500 per year.

MUDDY VERDICT

GOOD FOR:

A quintessential English boarding school with a worldy outlook. If you want to forge a citizen of the world out of your teen – you’ll get an internationally recognised education here. By its nature Abbey College is a really inclusive school – so it’s great if you want them to be exposed to a variety of cultures and languages. A teenager who’s bored with the standard British school offering and wants something a bit ‘more’.

NOT FOR:

Teenagers who want to be in the centre of things. It’s not too far away from 2 or 3 major shopping cities (it’s an hour to Birmingham and 45 minutes to Cheltenham) but historic Malvern and the beautiful surrounding hills have a quieter feel. Anyone really into competitive sport or kids who thrive in big peer groups, the classes are small.

Dare to disagree? Be our guest. Head to the Open Day on Friday 25 March where you’re invited to join pupils and teachers from 5pm to 7pm for a school tour.

For more details go to www.abbeycollege.co.uk.

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