The Leys School, Cambridge
A friendly all-rounder with show-stopping sports and arts facilities in a buzzy, city setting. Though a big school, pastoral care is an emphasis, and personal to each child.
Spanning a breezy 50 acres, you’ll find the Leys School is right in the heart of Cambridge, sandwiched happily between Coe Fen and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Starting out its life as a Methodist boarding school for boys back in 1875, the handsome Victorian red brick buildings now house the only co-ed boarding and day school in Cambridge with 575 pupils aged 11-18 and a 60/40 split between boys and girls.
It’s highly unusual to find a city centre school with the kind of grand grounds offered by The Leys – nearly one acre per ten children will do very nicely thank you. Along with its relatively bijou cohort you could argue that The Leys offers the best of both worlds: expansive facilities but plenty of focused attention, with class sizes capped at 20 for GSCE and 10 for A level subjects. Certainly pastoral care is put centre stage at The Leys – its holistic approach to learning is an overt calling card for the school, and bang on the money with current thinking.
It’s a generalisation of course, but often I find it’s boarding schools that edge it on facilities over day competitors (all those children to entertain on evenings and weekends), and The Leys is no exception. So there’s a £4m Boat House redevelopment in Chesterton on the River Cam, shared with three Cambridge Colleges, King’s, Selwyn and Churchill, with 4 eights, 7 fours, 7 double sculls and 22 single sculls ready for action. There’s also a 4-lane 25m indoor swimming pool, 35 all-weather tennis courts (and 3 grass courts in summer for those who want to channel their inner Emma Raducanu or Andy Murray), 6 rugby pitches, 2 full-size astros, 7 netball courts, 9 outdoor cricket nets, 3 squash courts, indoor climbing wall, rifle range, dance studio and gym, plus two competition standard trampolines with overhead rig.
Away from sport The Great Hall, a £10m development opened in 2013, is a stunning arts and culture space. Complete with motorised flying system (hello, Peter Pan!) adjustable stage elevators, computerised control room, backstage dressing rooms, scenery workshop, green room, and seating up to 337 people, it would give any West-End theatre a run for its money, but the gallery seating is retractable, allowing it to seat 600 for assemblies and events.
Upstairs there’s a rehearsal studio and teaching rooms, plus the Trumpington Gallery space for art and DT exhibitions, and on the ground floor there’s a café with outdoor terrace. Pinkies out, it’s all very civilised!
The grandly named Vision Studio, opened in 2021, sounds suitably techy and explores how VR and AR can enhance education, but it also has sound desk and microphones from where the school podcast is created by the pupils.
I think it’s fair to say that The Leys thinks of itself as a sporty school! Plenty of international coaches here, including rowing head coach Simon Hames, a former GB International, and former NZ International Darrel Cassidy coaching the hockey teams to National hockey finals in 2015 (boys) and 2017/18 (girls). For boys the main sports are rugby, hockey and cricket and, actually, cricket is a major sport at The Leys for girls too – the Girls’ 1st XI are currently in the semi-finals of the School Sports trophy. Netball is very competitive too, with two U13, four U14, three U15 and four Senior teams.
For those who were inspired by the Olympics and want to look beyond mainstream sports, that’s also encouraged here – there’s an established Outdoor Education programme where climbing, sailing (2 Bosuns, 6 Laser Picos, and 2 Laser 2000s at Huntingon Sailing Club, a 20 minute drive) and canoeing/kayaking are all on offer as part of a bigger project to help build self-confidence and life skills.
ART, DRAMA, MUSIC
Making the most of its in-house mega theatre (see Facilities), the Drama department puts on five productions a year, a mix of modern and classical plays, as well as a musical every other year. It’s not all about the budding thesps either, there’s a Backstage Company offering equal dibs on the likes of make-up artistry and set production.
The Rugg Centre is another creative hub, where pupils can experiment in an impressive roster of arty pursuits – the likes of ceramics and sculpture, video and web design, wood turning and photography where, unusually, film-based cameras are used to teach the fundamentals of the art from Year 9, with processing in the dark room.
On the music front, The Music Hall was opened by some bloke called Julian Lloyd-Webber, who happens to be the school’s patron of music. The Hall boasts a 120-seat recital hall with both Steinway and Yamaha grand pianos, recording studio (the Chapel Choir have recorded two albums already), rock rehearsal room, percussion suite, music library and ICT suite with 10 Mac computers with compositional software. Roughly 35% take music lessons at the school which I’d say is a little lower than average, but there’s no absence of enthusiasm in terms of provision with Chapel Choir, Chamber Choir, Symphony Orchestra, Wind Band, Jazz Band, String Ensemble, rock band and groups for brass, flute, bassoon, ukulele, sax, guitar and clarinet.
Half of the kids here board full time, with a further 20% taking up the ‘home boarding’ option from Year 9 with the day running from 8am to 8pm (so basically, everything except the bed) and the final 30% as day pupils. There are 11 houses at The Leys, 8 of which are for boarders (4 boys boarding, 3 girls boarding, 1 junior boarding) and a mix of grand Victorian buildings and more modern additions, with the requisite pool tables, squidgy lounge sofas, and Formica bedroom furniture. Unless you’re planning to bring up a mini Kelly Hoppen (seriously, will taupe never die?), the accommodation is tasteful and homely, with upper sixth students being guaranteed a single room.
Well, we’re in Cambridge here and academic rigour is to be expected, right? The Leys was East Anglia Independent Secondary School of the Year in 2019 by the Sunday Times, which lists the 2,000 highest-achieving schools in the UK based on exam results so the school has form. Results just in for 2021 at The Leys are pretty handy too – 72% A*-A at A level and 97X A*-C, and for GSCE 61% 9-8 and 82% 9-7.
Subject choices at The Leys are largely traditional – the usual sciences, modern languages and arts. Politics A level is about as out there as it gets. To get into the Sixth Form, pupils need an average of at least 5.5 at GSCE, with a Grade 6 pass the minimum for studying an A level subject. A big plus for The Leys is its strong links with Cambridge University – post grads mentor superbright Sixth Formers, the Chapel Choir collaborates with its university college choir counterparts, and there are endless opportunities to hear leading academic and cultural figures speak in the city.
The latest integrated ISI report on The Leys is from 2014 so a new inspection is surely in the pipeline soon, though there’s a more recent Regulatory Report from 2018. You can read them both here.
One of the common fears with big schools is that they are impersonal and problems with children slip through the cracks, but The Leys is wise to this, and seems to take its ‘big, little school’ ethos seriously. Each child has his or her own tutor AND housemaster/mistress, irrespective of whether they come in daily or board. The tutor acts as a first point of contact for any concerns about academic work while the HMs keep daily tabs on general wellbeing. One of the nurses at the school has skills in adolescent mental health and a counselling service is also on offer. Though like most faith schools, The Leys welcomes all religious denominations through its gates, the School Chaplain clearly also plays an important pastoral role beyond the weekly chapel services and Divinity lessons. The school also has a dedicated Director of Pastoral Care whose job is to ensure that pupils are supported across the school.
Martin Priestley has been at The Leys since 2014. Achieving an encouraging family atmosphere is one of his main drivers and he likes to get to know pupils over small group lunches. Smartly suited and amicable, he comes across as a thoughtful head teacher and holistically driven – he’s behind the drive to introduce more Fair Trade products in the School Shop and across the school.
Is Saturday school a quirk? It’s fast becoming one, but The Leys is one of the boarding schools that still offers Saturday morning lessons followed by Saturday afternoon sports fixtures. What else? My journalist-nerdiness loves the fact that The Fortnightly, the bi-weekly school magazine put together by students, has been published since 1876. The Covid-inventiveness of the Virtual Friday Chapel has been a surprise hit, and I love the fact there’s a mixed beach volley team at The Leys, despite there not being a beach in Cambridgeshire!
Lots of handy options on this front. The school day starts at 8.15am and day pupils can either go home at 4.30pm or stay on for activities until 6pm, with day houses staying open until 7pm. Home boarding is really popular amongst families who live in Cambridge and want all the benefits of life at The Leys from 8.20am to 8.15pm or 9pm, with the added comfort of sleeping in their own bed. You’re advised to book early for this option though, as it’s mega popular.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
Pupils are required to leave devices in their houses during lessons times but can access them during breaks. They collect them from the houses at the end of the school day.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Very positive. The school is sought-after and has a reputation for turning out well-balanced, confident students. Sixth formers enjoy socialising with Cambridge undergrads and they love the perk of going to their Leavers’ Balls in the Uni’s fancy Queens’ College. The family atmosphere, as well as good communication from the school and flexibility on visiting their kids as and when, is a big plus for parents.
Average for a quality boarding school, I’d say. Per term, for Years 7/8, it’s £5735 for day pupils and £8655 for boarders. Year 9 – 13, prices rise to £7945 for day pupils, £8930 for home boarding and £11870 for full boarding. Academic, sport, music and drama scholarships carry a 5% discount in fees; the biggest value is in the kudos.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: All-rounders. Children who love to get stuck into a million and one activities will have a blast, and the family atmosphere and lack of hot-house mentality will please parents who score a school’s success on a more holistic register than exam grades.
Not for: Those who have strong religious beliefs (or perhaps none at all) may find the school’s Methodist faith a deal-breaker. The Leys’ intimate cohort might not suit children who want to swim in a bigger shoal.
The Leys School, Trumpington Road, Cambridge CB2 7AD.