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Review: Rochester Independent College

A real alternative to traditional schools - with no uniform and pupils on first name terms with teachers - Rochester Independent College is a breath of fresh air.

WHAT? WHERE?

A progressive, mixed private school in the heart of Rochester, with just 332 kids (11-18 years) and boarding provision for 15 year-olds and above.

Genuinely offering something completely different to any other school we’ve reviewed here in Kent (always refreshing) Rochester Independent College (R.I.C.) started as a Sixth Form College and retake course specialist and then grew down to intake from Y7. It feels very much more like a university campus than most schools – albeit a very cosy, caring one.. Shall we…?

FACILTIES

This is not a school where I will regale you with onsite swimming pools, multiple sports fields and music auditoriums! For facilities like swimming and sports they are off campus (ergo, what minibuses are made for). After all restriction breeds invention!

Sporty students use Medway Park, a multimillion-pound sport centre. Facilities include a swimming pool, athletics track, sports halls and fitness suite. The Y7-10 kids have at least 2 hours of sport each week.

It may be an urban campus, but at the heart of the school is the Wildlife Gardens – that have won many an award. And there’s allotments outside the Lower School building (for the Y7 – Y10s). In fact everything in the campus revolves around these gardens. While walking around, you’d never know the busy streets that lie just beyond the walls. It’s the most ingeniously designed little oasis – I’ve included this site map (above) so you can see what I mean, as a written description just wouldn’t do it justice.

There’s been some exciting – and true to form – original additions to the school’s facilities since my last visit. These include the brand new geodesic dome – it’s basically an outside teaching space that looks wonderfully futuristic (pictured below). If that doesn’t inspire young minds, not sure what will.

There’s also a new Wellbeing Lodge, sitting amongst the trees in the college gardens, and a relaxed building called the Maths Shed which has been well received by students. For more on Future Plans click here.

The approach to learning at this college mirrors the rather creative, grown up – but caring – space. There’s no uniform, no school bells and students and staff are on first name terms. The theory being that with the rules relaxed, there’s less to rebel against. Certainly, in the right kind of environment, with the right kind of pupils, this approach breeds mutual respect between teachers and students – as I toured the school, this feeling was tangible.

The average class size is a lip-smackingly small 8 (maximum is 12). They already teach more than 40 subjects at A Level – and choices are kept relevant and constantly updated. In Sixth Form the average class size is around 5.

I walked into both Y7 and Sixth Form lessons and in both cases the class was sitting around a large table with chairs surrounding it, rather than in formal rows. Whether working individually or as a group the space felt collaborative and inclusive – teacher on a learning journey with pupils, who all seemed very relaxed and engaged.

SPORTS

Onsite, the school has a fully equipped gym and – a new addition since our first visit – a MUGA pitch (below). There’s no green lawns for traditional sports of football, rugby, or hockey. But they have strong connections with local teams and clubs, meaning that they are able to enjoy decent facilities offsite, travelling by minibus for each sport lesson to venues such as Medway Park Leisure Centre. Staff also like to encourage students to try out what they call more ‘thinking outside the box’ activities such as climbing, shooting, horse-riding, dodgeball and martial arts.

This school is probably not for sports mad kids who like the traditional rugby, football, hockey or netball. There’s no big facilities on tap nor does it have the numbers for a hard-hitting A Team. But interestingly some athletes and sportsmen have joined the school to enjoy the flexibility around the training they do outside of school.

MUSIC & ARTS

Music classes here are not dry, but involve technology and digital elements of music production.

David Bowie (who was born in Kent of course) played in what was once The Good Companions Club, but now called the Lower School building (and home to the Y7 – Y10s). This claim to fame is celebrated in a piece of wall art.

The College has an unusually broad range of arts subjects available at GCSE and A level including Photography, Digital Media, Film Studies, Graphic Design and Textiles as well as traditional Fine Art.

And, in fact, they have just heard the exciting news that the school is a finalist in the national Independent Schools Association (ISA) Award for Excellence and Innovation in Fine Arts. So watch this space…

Student art work decorates the whole site – I comment on some colourful cushions decorating the sofa in reception (below left) – they are the work of a student of course. I walk into a Sixth Form Art lesson and there’s a student drawing in more traditional ‘fine art’ style, another who is a potter and another (who didn’t study Art at GCSE) working on an impressive computer graphic design she created on her iPad (see below, right). Bags of creativity – and variety – going on here.

Recent student prize winners include prizes from the ISA (Independent Schools Association) for film making and the BSA (Boarding Schools Association) for photography.

If you’re creative this is definitely the place to be – not just the college but the entire setting. Rochester itself is a small town, but punches above its weight in terms of its rich cultural heritage. It’s famous for its connections with Charles Dickens and there’s currently a flourishing contemporary arts scene.

DRAMA

The school puts on a big productions off site in the Brook Theatre, Chatham, or the even larger scale Central Theatre, Chatham. On site, there is a smaller hidden underground hall built into the ground on the school site, called Underhill Hall. On top is an open air theatre for summer productions (I’m not surprised to learn one of the school founders was not just a maths teacher, but an architect too).

There’s no obvious place for the entire school to congregate which is quite unusual and a bit of a shame in some ways. But they certainly make best use of the space they’ve got.

ACADEMIC RESULTS

Established as a Sixth Form in 1984, R.I.C. has been offering places for children in Year 7 since 2006. Teaching is tutorial-style with the aim of active collaboration between student and teacher.

While the atmosphere is informal they follow a traditional academic curriculum. The small class sizes and college feel means that despite its groovy first name credentials there’s no place to hide for would-be blue-tack flickers.

The school’s value-added credentials are noteworthy, particularly at A Level, where they sit top of the table in the Medway area and in the top 2% in England, an incredible achievement for a non-selective school.

In 2020 students achieved nine University placements for Medicine, including six retakers. But it’s not just about academic study here – creative arts share equal billing with those ‘traditional’ subjects.

The school has a very strong reputation for success in GCSE and A Level retakes. Every year they welcome a number of Y13 transfers for when it’s just not working out for a student at their current school. R.I.C. specialises in intensive, short, one-year GCSE and A level courses. Click here for more on Retake Options, for A Level or GCSE.

There’s no option blocks so students can choose literally any subject combination they want (although staff will obviously advise them). But the message is very much that anything is possible.

Rochester College stands for the idea that students mustn’t feel held back by the choices they made at such a young age or regret changing their mind (I mean, it’s a huge pressure we put on such young people to decide what subjects they want to do that might affect the rest of their working life, right?). Hence the one-year intensive courses and retake options.

THE HEAD

In keeping with the ethos of the school there’s no stuffiness whatsoever about headteacher, or Principal as they call him, Alistair Brownlow (above, right). He’s clearly as caring and full of character as the school he heads up – laid-back and charming, but still possessing that all-important gravitas required to lead a school.

An active English teacher, I walked in on one of his Sixth Form English lessons and there was a relaxed, but respectful vibe – not dissimilar to my university tutorial days.

FUTURE PLANS

There are exciting times ahead for this school. RIC has set out some pretty transformative plans for growth over the next few years, with several ambitious building projects, to be completed by 2025 on and off-site.

The College has recently acquired two buildings on Rochester High Street, just opposite the College’s main entrance (see pic above). This will see the development of 100 single ensuite student bedrooms and extensive communal and study spaces for their boarders; a gym, cinema and medical centre.

On campus there are plans for new buildings, including a purpose-built Visual Arts Department and whole school refectory area, landscaping and circulation projects. These exciting changes will dramatically transform RIC’s home bringing new opportunities for environmental projects and improved spaces for the college community.

BOARDING & WRAP AROUND CARE

The boarding houses are smart, Georgian, terraced town houses that surround the school. I toured the girls’ boarding house, Dickens House (no actual connection, but you can’t blame them for nabbing the name).

It fell somewhere between a normal school boarding house and a university hall of residence (see pics above). There’s a grown up feel – all boarding is in single rooms, a lot of which are en suite – but at the same time the pupils are well looked after (members of staff live in the building, all pupils have a curfew). The boys house is just the same.

USP & QUIRKS

R.I.C. was founded by two maths teachers from London. When they approached the bank to raise money for the school they were granted the funds but told ‘Pigs Might Fly’. Having proved their doubters wrong they turned this phrase into a positive and the school has taken on the mantra to show anything is possible, even against the odds.

This theme of believing you can achieve your dreams, no matter what, is continued throughout the school with dozens of tiny flying pig symbols dotted about the place (see above).

Another wonderful quirk that seems to sum up the school are the stunning gates, pictured above, that were created by a Faversham-based Sound Sculpture artist. From the front they are a sculpture and stunning art installation and from the back, they are a musical instrument, which can be played. Pretty original, no?

WHAT ELSE?

Pupils come from fairly far and wide. Around 20 per cent of students are international and 80 per cent from the UK, most of which are from Kent.

Maidstone, Sevenoaks and Ashford are the main feeder towns, with decent public bus and train links nearby. There’s also daily minibus services put on by the school from Sevenoaks, Maidstone, Kings Hill, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells.

WORD ON THE GROUND

Extremely positive. On gathering feedback from parents the general theme is that they were looking for a nurturing secondary school with small classes to suit their child. Parents love the school’s ethos and obvious passion for individual learning. One Sevenoaks parent said: ‘The 40 minute journey is completely worth the quality of education my son is receiving.’

They all talked about the top teaching, friendliness and lack of friction at the school. It seems without adults putting up barriers between them and the students, there’s nothing for the kids to actually rebel against.

FEES

All fees are given as an annual cost, to be payable in 3 termly instalments. Y7-Y9: £13,900 per year; Y10-Y11: £18,500; Y12-Y13: £19,500. Intensive Course Fees – Entry into Y11 or Y13 and 1 year retakes: £21,750. Full Boarding: £15,500; Weekly Boarding: £13,500.

Divide any of those figures by the 3 terms – so around £4,633 for Y7-Y9 and £6,500 for Sixth Formers and you’ll see the fees are relatively reasonable if you compare to other private secondary schools (particularly, say, those in the Sevenoaks area for example) .

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Anyone looking for a genuine alternative to academically selective grammars or traditional independent secondary schools.Or for pupils looking for retake course specialists or just a change for Sixth Form, in a more relaxed, mature environment to prepare them for university or life beyond. Children who respond to smaller classes and a less hierarchical approach to teaching.

Not for: Anyone who wants to luxuriate in a mile-long country drive up to their child’s school and green playing fields. Sport is well catered for but I’ve seen private schools with more sport time offered on the curriculum. Yes, there’s the Wildlife Gardens and the (smallish) sports court but finding large grassed lawns mean leaving the school premises. Even although discipline is exceptional and the school follows a traditional curriculum, the lack of uniform and first name terms might be too progressive for some.

Have a look for yourself: Year 7 Taster Day on Thurs 4 Nov 10am – 3pm or Sixth Form Open Evening on Thurs 18 Nov 6 – 8pm. Click here for all the info.

St Margarets Banks, 254 High St, Rochester ME1 1HY, Tel: 01634 828115, rochester-college.org

2 comments on “Review: Rochester Independent College”

  • Dianna Whitfield November 21, 2019

    This school is exceptional. Turned my daughter around after a horrendous boarding school experience. From not working at all she obtained A* AA in A levels without any nagging from us – she loved going into school and did virtually all the work there and not at home. Teachers amazing and interested in their pupils and subjects which shows. Discussion of all view points is encouraged in lessons. which means answering A level questions is just like being in class according to my daughter. Cannot speak high enough of its whole ethos.

    Reply
    • aliagnew November 21, 2019

      Hi Dianna – thank you so much for taking the time to comment. There’s no better endorsement than from the parents whose children have lived and breathed a school. So pleased your daughter ended her school days with such a positive experience. From what I saw on my visit I couldn’t agree more that the teachers were very focused on each child and it had a wonderful ethos. I hope she continues to shine in her future endeavours! xA

      Reply

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