King’s Ely School, Cambridgeshire
An idyllically placed co-ed school for kids aged 2 - 18, with an extremely strong music, art and drama department.
King’s Ely is a co-ed school (with a 50:50 boy/girl split) for a little over 1000 children, aged 2-18 years, with buildings dotted around the pretty cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire. Pupils can board weekly, flexi or come as day pupils. As well as being well-known as the choir school for the Cathedral, it also has a reputation for its family-friendly vibe, its all-round approach to education that focusses on more than just league tables and – more recently – its academic clout.
Despite the fact that it’s based in the middle of a town (it’s a push to call Ely a city as it’s the second smallest in the UK), with no obvious grounds to speak of at first glance, King’s Ely actually has an impressive 75 acres for its pupils to enjoy, including a boathouse and access to a stretch of the River Great Ouse. The school is very well established, having been founded in AD 970, making it one of the oldest schools in the world, while the boy choristers’ boarding house is apparently the oldest residential building in Europe. It even counts Edward the Confessor amongst its alumni. Quite a history then!
There’s no denying the historical beauty of the school – the main building and entrance is in The Old Palace, an elegant 15th century house acquired back in 2012 that overlooks a quiet green and cobbled streets and has the awesome Ely Cathedral, The Ship of the Fens, as its next door neighbour. The Old Palace is a really excellent addition to the school as it now houses the sixth form centre and gives the older pupils plenty of space, plus the cathedral is a constant and inspiring view from many of the windows. The school has maintained strong ties with the cathedral and still leases some of its characterful 12th century monastic buildings for lessons and dining.
Not all the school buildings are palaces or former monasteries though, and there are some modern additions. The junior school (ages 7 – 13) is in a 1980s building, but the space has been well thought out inside, while the nursery and pre-prep at King’s Ely Acremont (ages 2 – 7) is in a homely Georgian building. Plus, there’s a contemporary Arts Quad with Music School, Hayward Theatre, Art Centre and Dance Studio for the Senior School (ages 13-18) which fits in well to the surroundings.
Class sizes across the board here are really small given the overall number in the school, with no more than 15 in the Prep and Junior and 18-20 in Senior School. A Level classes are smaller depending on the subject.
There’s no doubt that the facilities at King’s Ely are one of its massive selling points. The Old Palace Sixth Form Centre is particularly impressive. The 170 or so Sixth Formers now have their own more sociable and grown up café for lunchtimes, (the rest of the school dines Harry Potter-style in a dramatic and historic Great Hall), there’s a sizeable and well-equipped gym and two study areas (one silent study and the other more relaxed, which is absolutely vast).
The £3m custom-built Arts Quad really reflects how strong the school’s music and arts department is, with an entire floor dedicated to textiles, large light-flooded art classrooms, a dance studio, a recital hall, and a fully rigged theatre with state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems (all students are encouraged to get involved in the school performances even if they’re not jazz hands types, with plenty of behind the scenes and front of house roles too).
Also worth a mention is the gorgeous library, reached via a storybook-style winding tower staircase within the imposing monastic Porta Building. Another impressive extra is the large well-equipped classroom dedicated to food technology and cooking, which encourages budding Hestons and Delias to learn how to fend for themselves beyond baked beans on toast once they go to uni.
If you’re not bowled over by all that, let me go on to the sports facilities, which include a full-sized flood-lit astroturf complex, a sports hall, a heated outdoor swimming pool, cricket nets, seven tennis courts and over 50 acres of grass pitches, as well as an excellent stretch of river with a boathouse, which means the school performs particularly well when it comes to rowing competitions.
King’s Ely Acremont, based a short walk away, has a large garden, with a vegetable patch and fruit trees for gardening lessons and a wildlife area for forest school. There’s also a dining hall, which is currently quite dated, but there are plans afoot to improve this space, as well as to add and improve the classroom spaces for the youngsters that the charming, yet slightly constrained prep and nursery buildings make tricky at the moment. Once this project is completed, the younger members of the school will benefit from facilities that are in line with the rest of the school.
The Junior School doesn’t have the space constraints of the older buildings and has a large IT suite, impressive music department with many individual practice rooms and separate outdoor spaces for the different year groups to play in. None of the classrooms are vast, but then again given the small class sizes, they don’t need to be.
MUSIC, ART, DRAMA AND DT
Music and arts-wise, King’s Ely is hard to beat and these subjects are a huge part of the school’s culture, with more than a third of children taking individual music lessons and receiving vocal tuition on top of the scheduled music classes – that’s around 500 lessons given each week. Unsurprisingly given its choir school status, singing is big business at this school and there are plenty of choirs, ensembles and orchestras galore, including the 80-singer-strong Chapel Choir, who regularly perform and tour, alongside the King’s Barbers, the award-winning boys’ a cappella group (my Sixth Former tour guide, an active member of The Barbers, informs me that they currently have a Christmas charity album doing pretty well on Spotify). Then there’s the King’s Orchestra, Concert Band and Jazz Band and plenty of string, woodwind, brass, percussion, guitar and rock groups, led by a team of music professionals, all of whom get the chance to perform outside of school.
It’s not just the staff that lead this love of music, there are also regular student-led concerts, workshops, masterclasses and inter-house competitions – music is still very much the beating heart of King’s Ely, over 1000 years after it was set up as a choir school.
Drama is also very popular here, with a large number of students taking part in one of the half a dozen productions each year, so professional according to one teacher that he happily invites friends to come and watch the students in action.
The DT department is also really sizeable and well-equipped. There are 3D printers and laser cutters and pupils get the chance to make everything from musical instruments to asthma inhalers. The focus is on getting the kids ready for the outside world when faced with a practical problem, as well as an awareness of environmental impacts.
When I visit there’s an after school club in progress, which has salvaged old bikes from reclamation and are stripping them down and bringing them back their glory. The same idea about learning how things work from the beginning happens in the IT department. As well as online safety and the usual computer skills, kids strip down computers and look inside them to see how the hardware works.
In terms of external praise for the arts department, recent accolades include a 5* review for original production Ugly Youth at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, The King’s Barbers being crowned National Champions, the school won the Art & Craft category at the Education Business Awards 2018 and the Photography Department won the Ilford Photo International Student Photography competition in 2019.
All major sports are offered including rugby, football, hockey, netball and cricket, as well as rowing. Athletics, golf, equestrian and clay pigeon shooting are just a few of the other options available to students. Academic lessons on Saturdays were dropped a few years back, now this day sees students competing in a whole host of sports fixtures and extra-curricular events. The focus isn’t on filling the trophy cabinet however, and more about encouraging pupils to pursue their own talents. Choristers have just as much, if not more, status in the school as the captain of the rugby team and teachers appear genuinely more impressed by pupils that are caring and well adjusted than pupils who are top of every sport. That said, the school isn’t exactly short on sporting accolades: The boys rugby team have just had an unbeaten season and students are regularly called up to county and national level, plus they’ve recently seen success at the British Rowing Senior Championships 2019 and for the King’s Ely Equestrian Team at NSEA National Championships in 2018.
No sport is too much for the school to accommodate either. Despite having no stables, the school maintains an impressive eventing team and encourages and supports pupils to pursue the sport that they are passionate about. Boys hockey has just been re-introduced too.
King’s Ely has really improved its academic standing over the past couple of decades and now over 90% of students gain a place at their first choice of university, which have recently included Durham, York, Warwick and Edinburgh.
In 2019 55.7% all GCSE grades were 9-7 (A*-A). For A level it was a similar story – with 58.2% achieving A*- B grades. Away from exam papers, it’s also a pretty story. King’s Ely students won prizes in the National Maths Challenge and Maths Olympiads, they saw success in the MFL Eastern Region Debating Competition, as well as in the Inter Schools Parliamentary Debating Competition.
Across the school there are around 200 boarders – including children on a choral scholarship who have separate boarding houses. There are seven boarding houses in total, all of which are single sex apart from the Junior boarding house, Priory. Flexi boarding is available for pupils from Year 5 upwards and the boarding houses are homely, characterful (some date back to the Middle Ages) and have a family feel, because they are run by house masters and mistresses whose families live on site too.
Students are divided up into houses, with many inter house competitions encouraging students to mix with different age groups and foster a healthy sense of competition, outside of regular subjects.
Leadership and responsibility is encouraged from an early age here too, with older students buddying up with younger ones as mentors and someone to talk to other than teachers, plus there are plenty of chances to discover leadership qualities through student-led performances and charity work.
John Attwater only took over as Principal of the school in September 2019, so it still remains to be seen what his big plans are. He was overseas spreading the word about King’s Ely to foreign students when I visited (King’s Ely caters well for overseas students with a strong and supportive international programme). I did meet with the heads of the Acremont, Junior, Senior and Sixth Form however, who confirmed that John Attwater has already, in a few short months, brought the four different sections of the school much closer under the one King’s Ely ethos. The former principal used to be head of the senior school, so was always very involved in the older years. This means the King’s Ely journey should feel nice and seamless for those students joining at 2 and going all the way through to 18.
The main priority of the school isn’t to hothouse and generate league table topping results, although over the last ten years it has shot up the league tables anyway. The senior staff here want to encourage a creative mindset and offer a breadth of opportunity for the kids to excel in what they do best, whether that be maths or drama or singing. It’s less about which student drew the best picture or got the best score and more about enthusiasm and inclusivity at this child-centred school.
King’s Ely is big on wellbeing, happiness and individual attention – an ethos that starts early in Acremont and goes all the way up to Sixth Form, and which is what the school is known for in the wider area. King’s Ely is a melting pot and there’s not a stereotypical student, although clearly children with a love for music and the arts will have a richer experience than a child with no creative interests at this school. Wellbeing isn’t just a buzz word either. The school has been ahead of the curve with a dedicated team and support staff in place for many years now, ensuring the children are mentally as well as physically looked after. The overall feeling, is that while King’s Ely does push children to get their best results, they prefer to help send confident children off to university with well-rounded and full UCAS forms, rather than just a set of impressive grades. The heads aren’t just saying they care, they have the results to prove it. Pastoral care was deemed outstanding in the most recent ISI report.
There’s a breakfast club at King’s Ely Acremont for children from 8am until school starts as well as various co-curricular clubs. After school care is available until 6pm for children from Nursery to Year 3 with a light tea at 5pm and there are loads of after school clubs for the entire school including cricket, golf, yoga, dance and of course plenty of musical options.
Outside of term time there are holiday clubs too, which run from 8am – 6pm.
- A long-standing tradition inaugurated by Henry VIII and later Queen Elizabeth II means that each year, up to 12 of the top academic achievers in Year 12 are nominated as King’s Scholars (boys) or Queen’s Scholars (girls), which means they become members of the Cathedral Foundation and also qualify for other privileges, including wearing red gowns and taking part in the annual hoop trundle – a race involving bowling traditional wooden hoops. That’s one way to encourage students to study harder for their GCSEs!
- The school has a unique outdoor education programme called the Ely Scheme, which goes well above and beyond DofE (although this is of course included and each year a handful of students gain their DofE gold award). Students in Year 9 upwards can get involved in expeditions, the annual Martin Doyle Endurance Challenge, and assault courses.
- The school hosts a number of quirky and fun events throughout the year including the Junior Soapbox Race and the Osfest and Colour Dash (a colourful, summer fete style extravaganza to raise money for charities).
- King’s Ely has an annual Erasmus+ scheme, which sees the students working and sharing skills with students from around the world.
- The school drama department performs an original production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
- Students get involved in a huge amount of charity work, with each section of the school choosing their own charity each year and then working to raise tens of thousands of pounds for them.
- King’s Ely launched the Cambridgeshire Educational Partnership in 2019, which sees headteachers, educational professionals and youngsters from across the county’s independent and state schools come together to provide opportunities for students from schools within the partnership to gain access to a variety of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), MFL (Modern Foreign Languages), Arts, Sport and Enrichment activities.
- Oh and if you like a bit of English eccentricity – there’s dicky bow Fridays for the Sixth Formers!
Children can join in any year and any time depending on places, but the majority join at Nursery, Reception, Year 3 or Year 9 in September, after a test and interview. In Year 9 and Year 12 scholarships are available in academic, STEM, music, drama, art and sport (maximum 10 per cent of fees available).
From £3,490 – £10,355 per term for day pupils. Boarding (from Year 5) is from £7,860 – £13,600 per term.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: It’s hard to find fault with this historical school with its family-vibe and child-centred approach. Parents who want their children to be educated according to their individual strengths will love it here. It’s a particularly good school for children who have an aptitude for music and the arts too.
Not for: If you’re looking for acres and acres of surrounding countryside, forests and a sweeping entrance, King’s Ely isn’t going to be for you. It’s very much a school within a town with a uni campus feel to it and the bonus of large playing fields.
Dare to disagree? Be my guest! The next Open Day is on 28 February 2020.
King’s Ely, The Old Palace, Palace Green, Ely, CB7 4EW