Top-notch academics paired with a family vibe make this rural Dorset school a happy place to be. And with a prep school on the same site, it offers an excellent all-through option. Leaving the prep feels seamless (95 per cent of its pupils join the senior school), and with the stress of being drilled for exams to get into senior school eliminated, the inclusive holistic approach established at the prep continues organically – pupils don’t even need to change uniform, bar a couple of items.
The school sits in 62 glorious acres on the edge of the beautiful village of Iwerne Minster, with an imposing turreted mansion at its centre. It’s grand, yes, but there’s no sense of entitlement or arrogance. Pupils just stroll in through the big oak door, past the enormous fireplace, dropping their sports bags in the porch ready for afternoon fixtures.
Day pupils come from roughly a half-hour radius – Sandbanks, Salisbury, Sherborne, Shaftesbury – and there’s a school minibus service. Gillingham Station is about 20 minutes away, with a straight service to London Waterloo that takes 90 minutes. Many London parents are attracted by the small size of the school.
Calm, measured and confident, Mrs Thomson is a real advocate of taking children outside, literally, and out of their comfort zone, metaphorically, so they can discover their passions and develop resilience that will see them through into adulthood. Her 13 years at the HMC school Aiglon College, in Switzerland, informed her holistic views on education. Since joining Clayesmore in 2016, she has introduced an innovative programme that gives pupils the kind of memorable and transformative experiences that classroom teaching alone can’t provide. Called the LEX programme after the school’s founder Lex Devine, it’s seen the school tear up the traditional rule book of a six-day-a-week independent school education, replacing academic lessons on Saturdays with a supercharged weekend of trips, experiences and events. Pupils master new skills, seize new opportunities and build up a bank of memories they’ll never forget.
Numbers double from Years 8 to 9 with the 95 per cent of Clayesmore prep-school pupils joined by an intake from other preps and state schools. External pupils sit CAT tests, and all who join must have the potential to pass at least six GCSEs. Some 60 per cent are day pupils from Years 9 to 11, with a 50-50 split of day and boarders in the sixth form.
Academics and destinations
Class sizes vary but are no larger than 20, and lessons take place in lovely, purpose-built classrooms. Like the prep, at the heart of school is the Teaching and Learning Centre, where pupils (currently 20 per cent) get SEN support.
As well as taking GCSEs and A-levels, pupils are offered BTECs in a wide range of subjects that includes creative media production, sport, and enterprise and entrepreneurship. Grades are good – last year, 28 per cent of Year 13s achieved A*-A at A level.
Leavers go on to an array of destinations, including RADA and Bristol Old Vic.
The outdoor space is wonderful, as are the indoor sports facilities, which include a sports hall, indoor cricket nets, a climbing wall, an indoor swimming pool and a gym. The usual sports are on offer, mainly unisex, but there are mixed teams too.
The school has a great reputation for drama (as mentioned above, Clayesmore pupils have gone on to RADA and Bristol Old Vic). Passion for the stage drives participation, not age. And there are plenty of productions throughout the year to get involved in. This year they’re staging a comedy, Shakespeare in Hollywood, for Years 9 to 13, and a summer play for Years 9 and 10. Sixth-formers run a ‘Play in Three Days’ competition for Year 9s in the summer term too.
The D&T department is also full of creativity, with glass fusion sculptures being made when we visited. There’s also woodwork, metalwork, jewellery making, 3D modelling and product design. The pupils even built a shepherd’s hut, which is now a mobile purveyor of drinks.
The LEX programme is designed around five pillars in the senior school: the great outdoors; arts, creativity and culture; service and leadership; enterprise and employability; and wellbeing. Pupils take part in trips, lectures, expeditions, community/charity work and specialist coaching, all with a view to getting them out of the classroom and preparing them for the challenges and possibilities of adult life. As part of the programme, the school has partnered with a school in Tanzania to share cultures through letter-writing, live link-ups and fundraising initiatives – and a visit is planned soon. LEX is clearly a wonderful way to broaden horizons, and its popularity is a testament to its success.
There are three boys’ boarding houses and two girls’, each with their own individual styles. Gate, a boys’ house, is in an old clock tower, another house is in the village and Wolverton, a girls’ house on the top floor, feels relaxed and homely, and looks over the playing fields. Each house has a team of pastoral assistants (formerly known as matrons). Saturdays are filled with sports fixtures and LEX activities, with outings and experiences offered on Sundays. The school organises trips to London, Paris and Edinburgh, among other places, for overseas pupils on exeat weekends so they don’t need to go to guardians. Day pupils are assigned a house too, so the school feels very well integrated between those who board and those who don’t.
Pastoral care is strong, helped no doubt by the small numbers. Pupils told us that staff are kind and approachable, and there’s a health and wellbeing centre that looks after pupils’ physical and mental health. The school also tackles issues such as sexual harassment head on, opening up discussion rather than shutting it down.
A Church of England chapel serves the prep and senior schools, with all faiths welcome. The chaplain presides over year-group services once every other week, and congo (singing practice) is very popular.
Environmental awareness is high. The in-house catering team is careful to limit food miles, and there is a biomass boiler and solar panels to fuel the school in an eco-friendly way. Clayesmore also takes its charitable status seriously – it is currently funding 12 Ukrainian children.
The Clayesmore community is strong, with a lot of governors living locally and the school’s new café frequented by villagers. An active parents’ association organises book clubs, fitness classes and even a ceramics course, which currently has a waiting list.
A nurturing school that is happy in its own skin and has no time for airs and graces, Clayesmore is a cheerful place with happy and confident pupils, all of whom are wonderfully supported by the motivated and dedicated staff.