Alton School, Alton
Educating all age groups, from babies to sixth formers, this leafy Catholic school in Alton, East Hampshire, has a new Headmaster and ambitious plans for the future
Alton School is an independent co-ed Catholic day school in the market town of Alton, East Hampshire, with a spacious campus for 370 pupils of all faiths, from six months in the nursery up to Sixth Form. Founded in 1938 by the Sisters of our Lady of Providence as Alton Convent School, it was rebranded as Alton School and became co-educational in 2017, with boys also a welcome addition to the Sixth Form (by 2022 there will be boys in all year groups). You’ll find the school nestling in 19 acres, with older buildings, including the beautiful, grade-2 listed Anstey Manor House, leading on to modern extensions and stand-alone additions, plus plenty of woodland and gardens for the children to enjoy.
Expanding outwards from the stain-glass panelled Manor House building, Alton School has plenty of outdoor space, including large playing fields, two tennis courts, three netball courts, wooden play equipment and a sizeable woodland area for the kids to roam around in. At the front of the Manor House, the manicured Sister’s Lawn is used for events including the school’s annual Prep Founder’s Day event, a highlight in the calendar when the new Head Boy and Girl is announced.
Perhaps not the most exciting facility (but one parents will appreciate) is the sizeable car park with its own morning parking and crossing team, as well as a fleet of 13 minibuses, serving pupils from Basingstoke, Liphook/Petersfield, Farnham, Haslemere and Winchester. Indoors, classrooms are well-equipped throughout, with notable facilities including a large, well-equipped food technology room, a light, airy refectory and a new prep-school ICT suite.
Competing with some pretty heavyweight schools in Hampshire, Alton’s A’ team netball and hockey sides regularly place well in local leagues and also compete nationally. In winter, football is played on three 7-a-side football pitches and a full-size pitch with hockey on a neighbouring facility, with plans in motion to create the school’s own astroturf pitches. In summer, athletics take place on a 6-lane 300m track, along with rounders, tennis and cricket. Making use of the leafy grounds, pupils also participate in woodland cross country and compete in ISA competitions. Games take place in the indoor Sports Hall and swimming at the local leisure centre. For older students, there’s a fully-equipped gym and fitness suite.
Alton School sings… a lot. There are two senior choirs, three junior choirs plus a co-curricular chamber choir, Chanteurs, which performs everything from classical to disco without missing a beat. All that practice comes in handy for the school’s own House singing competition and annual primary schools’ singing festival, which it hosts and runs. Claim-to-fame: Alton’s singing culture may very well have influenced now-professional singing alumni like electro-pop vocalist Alison Goldfrapp and country music twins Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas.
Music takes place in three large classrooms and practice rooms, moving to the drama studio (with Yamaha grand piano) and acoustically-pleasing chapel for events. Prep and Senior Schools both have an orchestra, with a recorder and wind club for the Prep and lunchtime string wind groups for the Seniors, which also has an after-school composing club.
Fewer than 40% of pupils take private lessons, though many of those play multiple instruments, getting ABRSM exam results above the national average. Hats off to the Music Department who got the school band back together for a number of virtual performances during the Spring 2020 lockdown.
ART + DRAMA
From paints to prints, art at Alton is driven by pupil interest. The department has a printing press, dark room and sewing machines, with additional kit hired in. Lunchtime clubs are an open forum for pupils (when I visit a photography workshop is in full swing), with most going on to perform very well: in 2020, A’ Level pupils achieved a 100% A*- B Art pass rate while GCSE results saw 100% grades A*- B in Art and 100% A* and A in photography.
Led by Head of Drama James Daniel – formerly a professional actor in the US – Alton has a well-equipped studio and performance space, with extra-curricular drama and movie-making clubs and a solid 100% A* – C GCSE pass rate in 2020. Past productions have included Beauty and The Beast, Alice in Wonderland, Singin’ in the Rain, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Anything Goes.
Alton’s Sixth Formers have their own block with quiet study rooms, a well-equipped kitchen, comfy sofas and pool table. Comfortable in their self-contained hang-out, enthusiastic students say they love small class sizes, one-to-one tuition and quiet spaces for independent study.
With a large college close by covering a wide choice of subjects, not all of Alton’s Year 11 pupils carry on to its relatively small Sixth form. Those who do really appreciate the individualised support for University applications and entrance exams. In 2020, the Sixth Form had a 100% A’Level pass rate, with 93% achieving A*- B grades and all students being accepted at their first choice of University.
New Headmaster Karl Guest joined the school in April 2020 – when it was empty because of the national lockdown. Previously Deputy Head at Sydenham High School, London, he’s also worked as Assistant Head at Sutton High School in Cheam, Head of Boarding at Hampshire Collegiate School, and Head of Theology at Worth School in West Sussex, and Head of House and Head of Philosophy and Religious Studies at St Hilda’s School in Perth. Drawing on his Australian connections, he has plans to introduce exchange programmes with Perth, New Zealand and Fiji, expanding the school’s existing international network in France, Columbia and Spain.
Guest’s approach to his headship is extremely hands-on: despite only being in the role for a few months – and being unable to meet his young wards in person for many of them – he’s already well at home. He’s clearly not the kind of head that likes to stay in his office all day, regularly popping up in lessons and even playing in goal in friendly football matches on campus. It’s been tricky to make too many plans since April but it’s on Guest’s priority list to broaden the curriculum in areas such as sport and computer science, as the co-educational school continues to evolve from its single-sex legacy.
Fledgling Chicks and Robins aged up to three are tended to in The Nest, a self-contained nursery building, becoming Pre-Schoolers at 3 years. Along with the usual array of EYE activities, there’s a big focus on outdoor activities like fruit-picking in the orchard, woodland walks, outdoor play equipment and getting good and messy in the pre-school mud kitchen. When they move up to the Prep School, they also have use of a great bug hotel and similarly enjoy the school’s great outdoor play areas.
There are relatively few schools with their own founding congregation of Sisters still resident on site – let alone their own chapel. Singing and an offbeat approach to teaching extends beyond the music department – an operatically-trained Year Four teacher is well known for her impromptu outdoor lessons, her voice reverberating around the grounds.
Latin is also a pretty unusual feature of the curriculum, offered alongside French and Spanish as an A Level option. Uniformed ‘peripatetic’ staff are another frequent but less typical fixture, providing teaching support both in and out of the classroom. Alton became a Combined Cadet Force (CCF) school in 2018 and has its own MOD-funded cadet unit.
Full day sessions in the nursery run from 8am – 6pm, with morning, afternoon and core day sessions along with early drop off and late pick up options also available. The Prep School has breakfast club and an after-school club costing £3 per hour. Before school care runs from 8am; after school care runs over two sessions, 4pm – 5pm and 5 – 6pm. Senior pupils can stay on every weekday evening until 6pm for study, with no additional charge.
Most co-curricular clubs including chess, languages, sports, study groups, choirs and music ensembles are held during lunchtime. Combined Cadet Force (CCF) activities take place after school.
FEES + SCHOLARSHIPS
In a word, reasonable. In the nursery, a full day session costs £64 for two-year-olds and under, rising to £77 at 3 years.
Fees for Reception and Year 1 are £3,528 per term; Years 2 – 6 is £4,272 and Years 7 – 13 are £5005. When three or more siblings attend the school (R to year 13) concurrently, a 20% discount is applied to the basic school fees of the youngest child.
Alton is also introducing an art, drama, music, sport and academic awards scheme. Students with awards will benefit from an enrichment programme in their subject area with access to extra-curricular opportunities, workshops and mentoring.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Parents welcome the school’s family feel and style, with one saying their child absolutely loved singing in the open air with Mr. Robinson. During my visit there are plenty of examples of a creative approach to the curriculum, with one class engaged in a science lesson explaining ‘a day in the life of a blood cell’ and another taking part in an extremely competitive game of maths hangman.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Smaller than many other schools in the area with great pastoral care, pupils that thrive in Alton School’s nurturing environment are given plenty of opportunity to shine. Starting at the nursery, Alton educates right through to 18, a big advantage for parents looking for a truly complete through school with a good academic record
Not for: Kids with ambitions to become a first fifteen rugby player or similar – traditionally ‘boys sports’ are still a work in progress. Alton is no longer a Convent school in name or practice; entry is non-denominational and its resident Congregation takes a guardianship role. That said, it’s Catholic “with a small c” ethos won’t be for everyone
Dare to disagree? Be my guest… Alton School has virtual tours, tours around the Nursery by appointment, a virtual Reception open event on 12 November and a virtual Year 7 taster event on 17 November.