Stoke College, Suffolk
Exciting times ahead for this pastorally-strong non-selective secondary day and boarding school, which has enjoyed shiny new investors and Head since November last year.
Stoke College is a rural co-ed secondary boarding and day school in beautiful Stoke-by-Clare, near Sudbury for 11-18 year olds (until recently it had a prep school, but this has now moved to nearby Barnardiston Hall and the school maintains close links with the prep students). The school is known locally for its family-orientated vibe, excellent pastoral care and nurturing environment. Currently it has a very small cohort, with only 85 pupils (so lots of individual attention for children), but this is the smallest it has been. With exciting future plans afoot, new owners and a new head, there are ambitions for this number to increase to around 350 (50 of these boarders), with a strong emphasis on increasing student diversity with overseas pupils, especially in Sixth Form.
The school is in a stonkingly lovely setting, easily commutable from lots of major towns including Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Braintree and Saffron Walden. There are flexi, weekly and full boarding options and good school bus routes too if parents prefer not to have a winding country road school run each day. It feels like a National Trust estate as you approach via a private road surrounded by pretty countryside, an historic church and river views. There’s a beautiful centuries-old main building that has a fascinating history, with period outbuildings and modern additions around it, plus 28 acres of grounds that border the River Stour, which is used by the pupils for sports like wild swimming and fishing.
There are no snazzy concert halls or olympic-sized swimming pools here… yet. Stoke College has just entered into an exciting chapter, having been bought recently by new owners. The new Chinese board of directors includes investor and Chairman Mark Wang, a significant figure in the United World College movement, a passionate believer in bringing sixth formers from around the world together and an all-round remarkable role model for overcoming adversity (he was paralysed as a child and educated in hospital).
Over the next few years there are grand plans and several millions of pounds put aside to improve pretty much every inch of the school. The school currently has all the facilities it needs to deliver brilliant academic and co-curricular results (students have access to an astro turf, indoor sports hall, cricket fields, rugby pitches and purpose built performing arts facilities). However, a lot of areas will benefit from an upgrade, especially as student numbers increase. The plans include new boarding facilities, a state-of-the-art theatre, purpose-built library, the upgrade of the sports hall, pitches and outdoor swimming pool (currently not in use), new classrooms, laboratories and a technology centre. Smaller plans to make the most of the gorgeous grounds include bringing the formal gardens back to their former glory and setting up a literature walk around the gardens. Busy times ahead for this quiet corner of Suffolk.
But to focus on facilities entirely misses the point of Stoke College, which is its outstanding pastoral care and focus on finding each individual student’s passion and strength.
The beautiful main building is currently home to the headmaster’s office, a newly renovated event space, and a very well-regarded Learning Development Centre, as well as the dining hall to the side. This house is a history lesson in itself, with a staircase that once belonged to Sir Christopher Wren and having been the original home of John Elwes, who inspired Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge character.
No need to be a Scrooge about the school fees here though, they’re some of the most affordable in the UK, plus there’s a 50% discount for any families that live in Stoke-by-Clare. With schemes like the fee discount, events and work experience, one of the school’s other big focuses is on integrating with the wider community.
The college also lays claim to being the birthplace of the Church of England – the last Dean was Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, and effectively the founder of the Anglican church. There’s a beautiful church just at the entrance to the school, which is now use twice weekly for chapel.
Outside there are a collection of more modern outbuildings, which house the classrooms, including a large DT room and cookery room, which smelt divine when we entered with vegan muffins cooling on the side. The music and arts block and sciences buildings are all light, bright and fit for purpose, but will definitely be much improved when the building work is complete.
The old stables is now the current boarding house and still retains cool, quirky features like the original iron hooks that horses were tied up to. Younger students share a room of up to four while older students all have generous individual rooms, which they are free to make their own. The communal spaces are welcoming and well-equipped.
Class sizes are tiny given the numbers (15 students max), so students get a huge amount of individual attention, every teacher knows each student extremely well, and teaching is tailored to ensure each and every student is reaching the best of the their potential, whatever that might be in.
Music is a strong suit for the school. There are the usual variety of small lunchtime and after school music ensembles and the chance to take individual instrument and singing lessons. With a new head with a doctorate in musical composition and opera singing background and snazzy new facilities on the way, you can expect to see music become even more popular here over the next few years. Kids will be excited to hear that Matt Cardle, of X Factor fame, is an alumnus of the school.
Art and drama are also a key part of school life for Stoke College pupils and, before Covid, the school organised concerts and cabarets as often as possible. The school are still delivering on this front but with virtual events like prize givings instead being a chance for pupils to shine creatively and perform.
Each spring the majority of the school gets involved in a huge musical production, which is staged in nearby Haverhill. Recent productions have included Guys & Dolls and All Shook Up.
You wouldn’t send your child here if you want them to be in the 1st team for all the classic competitive school sports. With the small amount of students the current sporting strengths are mostly in individual pursuits like cross country and athletics, as well as sports like squash and tennis. With the parkland campus, access to the river, sport-loving teachers and chance to use Barnardiston Hall’s sportsgrounds, Stoke College pupils get a lot of chance to exercise and sport is an area that the school is really looking to grow and enhance.
The one-to-one attention continues in years 12 and 13 and Sixth Formers are taught in extremely small tutor groups and have daily personalised mentorship from their tutor.
Off the back of the success of their online learning provision during the first lockdown, Stoke has devised a blended online-offline teaching model that allows Sixth Form students to choose to learn on campus or remotely or mix up the two. As well as A Levels all Sixth Formers at Stoke enter the EPQ to help their uni applications stand out.
Impressive, especially when you consider this is a non-selective school, proving that the individual attention really works to get the best out of students.
In summer 2020 the school celebrated 96% of GCSE results at 9-4 and 87% at 5-9. The Sixth Form at Stoke was only established in 2018 and A Levels were impressive with a 100% pass rate and 44% of all grades being A-A*. The school’s future plans aren’t just about enhancing facilities though, and there’s a focus on improving academic excellence, starting with the appointment of Dr Rui Chen, former Head of Mathematics at Scarborough College, as Deputy Head of Academics.
Dr Gareth Lloyd joined Stoke right in the middle of the first lockdown (talk about baptism of fire), but appears to have taken it all in his stride. I challenge anyone to not get on with Gareth. He’s charming (especially if you’ve got a soft spot for a nice Welsh accent), impressive, approachable and inspiring – just what you need in a head. He’s the ideal man for the job of running a traditional British school with Chinese owners and ambitious development plans, having spent time setting up an IB school over in China and speaking the language. He’s also been head of leading independent schools in both Wales and England. Other achievements include running 154 marathons (no that isn’t a typo!), composing a requiem (world premiere taking place in New York soon) and being a competitive squash player. He translates these passions into daily school life with a very hands-on-for-a-head teaching approach – he has introduced a popular lunchtime cross country club, he co-ordinates a couple of the school vocal groups, and he’s personally coaching the year 7, 8 and 9 students (and some staff) in Mandarin.
Pastoral care is an area that Stoke College really excels in. Wellbeing starts at the top here, with headmaster Dr Lloyd citing the happiness of each pupil as the most important aspect of their school life and fervently believes that happy children get the best academic results. Dr Lloyd has introduced his personal philosophy to the school (he asks students to work hard, play hard and look after each other) that he believes makes for well-rounded individuals with excellent results and extremely employable personalities.
Children here have a lot of one-to-one attention and there’s no chance of slipping through the net thanks to the small class sizes, attentive form tutors and supportive house structure. In a nod to the equal emphasis placed on wellbeing and brainpower, there is a Deputy Head of Pastoral and Designated Safeguarding Lead as well as a separate Deputy Head of Academics. There are no barriers between the children and staff here – with an extremely friendly and light-hearted atmosphere and relaxed communication evident throughout the school.
Stoke College is a pretty traditional school in terms of set-up, but the school’s size makes catering to individuality its core promise and as such it can be pretty flexible in its approach to letting children pursue whatever subjects and clubs spark their personal interests (pilates, fishing, gilding and upcycling to name a few). The fact that the headmaster can be heard chatting away to passing students and staff members in Mandarin in the halls is pretty quirky to witness in this rural corner of Suffolk.
Some of the most affordable in East Anglia and a really good option for parents put off by some of the eye-watering fees of the central Cambs schools. There’s a rather attractive price freeze commitment, so once you’re signed up fees won’t be increased from those advertised: Years 7-11: £4500 per term; and Sixth Form: £5,000 per term. Full boarding from £10,250 per term.
Stoke College calls itself a ‘family school’ and that’s very evident in the fee structure. Families get discounts the longer they remain in the school and there are brilliant sibling discounts. A series of new scholarships are due to be introduced as part of the plans, for both pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as current students.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Parents who put happiness at the top of their wish list for their child. Making sure each child is enjoying school life and identifying each individual’s strength(s) are top of the agenda here. Also great for parents who are torn by the cost of some independent schools in the area. Fees here are some of the lowest in the country and even with the massive development plans intend to remain that way.
Not for: Tiger parents and competitive kids who want to be in a large school with all the wow facilities and who value academic success above all else.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! There will be a socially-distanced Tour Evening on 12 May, which you can sign up for here. Stoke College also holds regular open mornings and events for prospective parents and students. Sign up for virtual coffee mornings and symposiums here.