I was given a personal tour of Stowe by two 3rd Formers; Miles and Nico. They were utterly charming, relaxed and engaging, and said they were typical, ‘Stowe-ics’. They showed me a school that was in a, ‘growth and redevelopment phase’, with new science labs being built, sports halls being redeveloped and running tracks and swimming pools being replaced. Although you would never really think any of this was needed (unless you had visited Uppingham’s new sports centre!) there was a sense that the school may be slightly bursting at the seams – with a lot of children and perhaps not quite enough space. Miles explained that it all worked out fine as long as everyone stuck rigidly to their timings but that it would obviously be better in the future.
From a student’s point of view, Nico told me that Stowe is attractive because it is a, ‘proper boarding school’ but there is still plenty of opportunity to escape the school for trips into nearby towns. At any time, children are free to wander the grounds. This is probably part of the reason why everyone seemed relaxed and happy – including the teachers.
My comfortable but routine, ‘typical nice school’, impression of Stowe changed mid-way through the Headmaster’s speech. After reciting the usual ‘uniquely good’ points that all good schools seem to share, Anthony Wallersteiner really impressed me by explaining that Stowe was on a journey: that it has come from a place of less than brilliant academic results to one that now ranked highly amongst the very best independent schools in the world. He stressed that Stowe had achieved this by, ‘increasing the gap’ – working harder with all students to improve results across the board. This is in contrast to schools with higher entry requirements at CE (Say 75% compared to 50-60%), where the children are likely to excel regardless. This is music to the ears of a private tutor who gets more satisfaction from helping normal children reach their full potential, rather than spoon feeding young natural geniuses.
The tone of Mr Wallersteiner’s introduction was confident but humble – like a boy who has had a good term, but still needs to work harder. This level of honesty seemed to encourage parents who were perhaps used to visiting schools where everything was, always had been and always will be, absolutely perfect. It created the impression of a school that was, ‘real’; with failings as well as successes and not at all corporate or bland. It had the effect of making you want to really get behind the school and watch it succeed. Wallersteiner spoke of an arms race where schools are having to compete with eachother to woo parents with the latest facilities and buildings. Parents and children these days, are obviously impressed by these things. However, I thought it would be lovely to be part of a school family were parents were more impressed by the level and style of education, sports on offer and pastoral care than simple aesthetics.
As usual, the most telling insights to the school are revealed over lunch with the visiting parents. I met two families, one London and one Monaco based, who were thinking about sending their boys to Stowe. They had visited about seven other schools and were impressed by Stowe’s lack of stuffiness and it’s proximity to London (without being an extension of it as they had perceived Eton and Harrow to be). They felt the academics were strong but not overwhelming. Interestingly, they felt that Stowe was now, ‘the hot new thing’ amongst their friends – the current ‘cool school’ to send your children to. Although this is never really more than a recommendation between a circle of friends, it is interesting to see that even though Stowe tries not to be ‘cool’ – it is.
One of the lasting impressions came from James Tearle, Stowe’s head of Science, who gave a very interesting introduction to smart boards and e-learning. As someone who runs a tuition company that is seeing an increasing demand for online tuition, I was really impressed by the psychology behind using specialist software to foster interest and engagement with the learning materials. It works.
Stowe has several scholarships (academic, sports, all round) and bursaries (Some of which go up to 90% of school fees). More information can be found on their website.