"A friendly, high achieving school with a truly holistic approach to education delivered via an enlightened balance of academic and co-curricular studies, inspiring a real sense of purpose and opportunity. Refreshingly lacking in arrogance but quietly setting itself up as the place to be schooled in Cornwall."
Since September 2020, Andy Johnson MA PGCE (40s), previously deputy head academic at St Dunstan’s College, London. Born in Wales and raised in London, he was educated at Westminster School, where the spark was lit on viewing education as a journey of inspirational curiosity. After reading history at Cambridge he toyed with the idea of a career in law but a bit of soul-searching brought him to teaching. Following his PGCE at Leeds and a stint at Berkhamsted School, he spent 13 years at his alma mater of Westminster teaching history, serving as day housemaster and coaching football, tennis and cricket before taking arguably the biggest leap of his career, founding a sixth form free school, the London Academy of Excellence, in the deprived London borough of Newham. As deputy head he spent almost three years establishing and challenging his own views of what makes a great education, describing it as ‘exhausting, bonkers and amazing,’ seeing first hand how extraordinary aspirational outcomes are possible for all if the academic and pastoral support sparked and supported the students. The restrictions of sixth form only education led him to take his holistic educational approach on to a five-year stint as deputy head academic at St Dunstan’s College, Catford where he fully developed his evolving teaching philosophies and from where he was fuelled with the desire to lead a school. Truro School held immediate appeal – childhood holidays in Cornwall had fostered an early love of the county, coupled with the offer of taking over the helm of a highly successful and ambitious school. Not to mention the lure of bringing up his own two young children with wife Pamela by the sea.
We found him considered, analytical and enthusiastic – a true advocate of a learning journey that isn’t merely focused on the outcome. He holds deeply rooted and practically explored philosophies on the development of young people where the words ‘holistic’ and ‘pastoral’ aren’t merely brochure buzz and his plans to ensure that this school is the beacon of success as an curious, inspiring and socially happy hub are enlightening. ‘Impressively conscientious,’ say parents, with with an ‘extraordinarily balanced approach between education and mental health’.
A keen runner, he has two London marathons under his belt. Also speaks of his lifelong interest in history (including teaching it), art and sport (he played and enjoyed coaching football, tennis, cricket and real tennis). An eclectic musical taste too – ‘everything from a childhood playing the French horn and adoring classical music through a teenage heavy metal phase to the house music of university in the 90s.’
Around 60 per cent comes from the prep, the rest from a range of state and independent schools. ‘It is such a happy school and I felt settled and made friends here really quickly,’ said a year 7pupil. Moderately selective (around 120 applications for 110 year 7 places) with main entry points at 11+, 13+ and 16+. Entrance exam, school report and interview although, as numbers are burgeoning, the head is exploring an ‘experience day’ thereby facilitating ‘attitudinal rather than merely academic’ selection. At sixth form, 18-25 new starters are assessed via GCSE grades, school report and interview.
After GCSEs, 40 per cent heads elsewhere, many to Truro and Penwith College four miles away, something the head acknowledges as ‘healthy choice’ but is also addressing competitively via the introduction of a new sixth form diploma – more of which later. After sixth form, 91 per cent to university with 10 per cent taking a gap year beforehand. Top destinations are Exeter, Edinburgh and Cardiff plus a good handful to Oxbridge – four in 2020 (plus nine medics, all encouraged by the aspiring healthcare professionals programme). Foreign universities have growing appeal with three pupils gaining 2021 scholarships for sport at universities in USA and Canada.
Homework considered sensible by parents and pupils – starting at 20 minutes a night per subject (up to three subjects a night) and rising as youngsters get older.
In 2020, 69 per cent 9-7 at GCSEs; 61 per cent A*/A at A level (88 per cent A*/B). In 2019 (the last year of exams), 57 per cent GCSEs; 45 per cent A*/A at A level (70 per cent A*/B).
Teaching and learning
Pupils are encouraged and celebrated for working hard and engaging in lessons, and they really do. The level of enthusiasm and eloquence from pupils throughout the lessons we sat in was striking, made easier by inspirational and upbeat teachers who are also very open to comms with parents, with one parent laughing, ‘I have learned not to send them a message late at night as they always reply straight away and I feel guilty!’ Parents also like the regular progress reports and half termly assessments: ‘We really know how are children are doing, both academically and pastorally’.
Sciences and maths stand out. The school is one of only 230 in the country to offer geology – ‘We’ve got a department that isn’t far off a small university department.’ Pupils were clamouring to be able to study it younger than the current year 9 pre-GCSE taster.
Though not compulsory, vast majority takes at least one (sometimes three) languages at GCSE (pupils can study a third language from year 9 in extra twilight sessions first thing, at lunchtime and after school). Mainly French, German and Spanish but the school will do its best to accommodate other requests (pupils have taken Mandarin, Dutch and Russian in recent years). Exchange trips for younger pupils and work experience in France and Germany for older ones.
More than 20 subjects on offer at A level, including business studies, economics, PE and psychology. Thanks to a bit of timetabling wizardry, students can take any combination. EPQ on offer too. We loved the English A level lesson we observed – a small class of calmly enthusiastic and fully engaged students sharing ideas with mutual respect and impressively articulate language with a teacher that gently guided, stretched and inspired them.
A new sixth form diploma is available from autumn 2021, with a view to extending the limitations of the A level academic pathway by ‘validating the strength of personal choices and co curricula success’. Covering everything from life skills topics such as driving theory and personal development courses, it will also enable pupils to gain ‘recognition from the school for service and leadership’ that, according to the head, aims to ‘shape and define ambition with evidence’. There are high hopes that the diploma will bolster the sixth form retention and selection.
Learning support and SEN
Learning support department is run by team of full-time head and two part-time staff who across both the prep and senior school with all pupils diagnostically tested during their first year within the school. ‘Hugely enlightened and reassuring,’ said a parent. Extra support given individually or in small groups (no extra cost). School caters for dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and ASD, with parents describing the support as ‘fantastic, intuitive and sensitive’.
The arts and extracurricular
The creative arts have huge prominence at this school with facilities and enthusiasm to inspire even the most creatively wary. Works of art hang from every wall, combining respected local artists’ and pupils’ creations with a confidence that makes it hard to spot the difference. The school’s own onsite Heseltine Gallery hosts exhibitions and talks by established artists, often in conjunction with Falmouth University, and gives pupils immeasurable opportunities to gain from their expertise.
The art and DT block is room after room of tantalising equipment and award winning samples of recent work. One student was diligently assembling a 3D printed model aircraft ‘just for fun in my lunch break’, another finalising ground breaking A level design approaches to cycle safety, in amongst working models of a marine wind training system. Watch this space for a new option to study architecture within the design and technology A level.
Impressive music. Truro School is the Truro Cathedral choristers’ school, an honour which not only acknowledges the school’s music provision but also gives access to the school with a 25 per cent scholarship to those choristers. The music department buzzes with activity from dawn till dusk. A third of pupils take instrumental lessons and there are orchestras, choirs, bands and jazz bands to join with endless performance opportunities. Pupils frequently selected for National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Choirs. Music GCSE is popular and around four to six a year take it at A level.
School has its own theatre opened by Sir Tim Rice, which is used by both prep and senior pupils, with productions throughout the year both by the school and touring companies. The drama staff are true professionals and the department is run as if it were a theatre company. ‘Phenomenal,’ say parents. We watched auditions for a Wind in the Willows production where giggling pupils were full of jangly nerves and boundless enthusiasm. Those preferring to be behind the scenes have a full technical remit to explore, from light and sound to set design, with the aim being for as much as possible to be student led.
The icing on the cake is the bespoke cookery school, opened by (and named after) Prue Leith. Runs cookery classes for all ages, including Leith’s certificate for sixth formers – perfect for that gap year spent chalet hosting in a ski resort.
Wednesday afternoons are given over to extracurricular activities including sport, art and music right through to astronomy, horse riding, debating, surfing and sea fishing. Truro pupils certainly don’t lack fresh air. DofE is huge (over 100 take part each year) and there are always school teams in the gruelling Ten Tors Challenge across the wilds of Dartmoor. World Challenge on offer, plus a raft of expeditions at home and abroad.
A very sporty school, with a refreshing focus on creating good all-round sportsmen and women who genuinely thrive from the game and the spirit not just the results. Having said that, or maybe because of it, they are usually top of their locality: team county champions in rugby, hockey, netball, cross country, tennis and cricket. Individual success abounds too, one pupil crowned champion at the European Life Saving Championship, two pupils representing GB at the Sabre European Youth Fencing Championship, four top five placements across the Junior English Surf Championships and another pupil winning the U19 World Champion title in windsurfing.
But Cornwall has its downsides, with teams often having to travel long distances to compete – a gripe among pupils and indeed staff, who bemoaned the long journeys to and from matches. But travel they do and, once up-country, they have excelled against the likes of Millfield with national school achievements including first for U16 football in Independent Schools FA, second in squash National Schools Finals and first in sabre fencing at Public Schools’ Fencing Championships.
The jewel in the crown of the extensive and well maintained facilities is the Sir Ben Ainslie Sports Centre, opened by the man himself, boasting an eight-court sports hall, two squash courts, fitness suite and dance studio not to mention the triple aspect views over Truro. The school excels at fencing and runs an elite academy programme which sees competitors travelling the breadth of the world to compete. Water pursuits a given with sailing, kayaking, surfing and snorkelling all on offer.
The three boarding houses (two for girls, one for boys) are small and homely, each with resident housemistress or housemaster. Currently a 50:50 boarding split between British nationals and international students, with 15 different nationalities represented. EAL is included in the fees via one-to-one or small group sessions.
Busy weekends include kayaking, coasteering, surfing, cookery, laser quest etc. Parents spoke of feeling absolutely in touch with what was going on. ‘I cannot speak highly enough of the housemistress, who spent so much time and effort with my daughter, helping her totally fit in with exemplary kindness,’ added one. Some flexi-boarding available and no apparent segregation, with a pupil telling us, ‘We all have friends across day and boarding, it makes no difference.’
Boarders eat in the main school, although they can make toast, pasta, hot drinks etc. in boarding house kitchens.
Ethos and heritage
While not on the same site, both the prep and senior schools have enviable hill top positions, two green havens on opposing edges of Truro. The distance between them is only a few miles but ‘it is an unpredictable traffic nightmare,’ according to parents with children at both. The school does its best to alleviate this with a shuttle bus between the two, enabling parents to drop siblings at one school.
The senior school dates back to a Methodist school founded in 1880, which opened with 35 boys and two teachers in a schoolroom in the centre of the city and moved to its current site in 1882. Original gothic building in local stone has been much added to, with every building housing a separate department, the result of which is a university campus feel. School went co-ed in 1990 and is now a ‘pretty even’ split between girls and boys.
Food gets resounding approval with lunch included in the fees and decidedly not your average school fodder – we had an impressive Indian curry. ‘As a vegan, it’s like having an awesome private chef,’ laughed one pupil. Sixth formers have their own café and sixth form centre, complete with common room and study area.
Former pupils include Govt Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance, former M&S chairman Lord Myners, actors Robert Shaw, John Rhys Davies and Nigel Terry, baritones Benjamin Luxon and Alan Opie, sopranos Lynette Carveth and Saffron Jones, quadruple Olympic gold medallist sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, chess grandmaster Michael Adams and Queen drummer Roger Taylor.
Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline
‘They really walk the talk on being utterly caring and full of compassion,’ said a parent, typically. Part of the Methodist Independent Schools Trust, Christian values underpin its approach, something that parents applaud: ‘Pupils have a very clear moral compass and spiritual guidance that doesn’t feel awkward.’ Pupils and parents alike spoke warmly of ‘the Rev’ – the school’s Methodist chaplain who is a vital member of the pastoral team.
School has clear expectations of pupils but everyone we spoke to reckoned it’s a fair, equitable place. ‘There are lots of rules but they are reasonable ones,’ said a year 8. Parents praised a ‘sensitive approach to discipline where children are gently guided without being labelled or shamed for mistakes’. Most lower sixth pupils do a 16-week peer counselling programme. Prefects are trained to play a big brother/sister role to younger counterparts and there’s particularly good support for new pupils, with sixth form prefects taking them under their wing.
Deputy head is responsible for pupil progress and welfare. Tutor groups organised by year and tutors are pupils’ first port of call if there are any problems (they can also go to their head of year, chaplain, medical centre, school counsellor and sixth form peer counsellors). Head boy and head girl, plus deputies and a raft of senior prefects, and a house system in place. Pupils are well turned out in smart uniform, sixth formers wear business dress.
Pupils and parents
Pupils are engaging, modest, warm and enthusiastic about their school. In the place of arrogance or entitlement there was a refreshing sense of inclusivity, opportunity and friendship.
They come from all over Cornwall – around half from Truro, others from up to an hour away and as far afield as St Austell, Bodmin, St Ives and Penzance. Many travel long distances by train (a fleet of double-decker buses ferry them from the station) and parents have organised minibuses from places like Helston. The boarders include weekly boarders who live in the Scilly Isles, children of expats and a small number of international students who provide a healthy multi-cultural environment. Everyone mixes – ‘what stands this school apart is the lack of judgment, you are warmly accepted for who you are and encouraged to be yourself,’’ a sixth former told us.
Parents are an eclectic group, some local to Cornwall but many more from families moving down to the area. The school goes out of its way to help incoming families working in tandem with an active parent network that reaches out to welcome and include new parents. ‘Many of us are acutely aware of how isolated and alienating a new start in Cornwall can feel when you first arrive so we make a point of helping others through this – we’re a ready-made bunch of friends!’
Scholarships at 11+, 13+ and 16+ awarded to both internal and external applicants in academic, art, drama, fencing, music and sport (plus modern languages at 16+) to a maximum of 10 per cent of the fees, offered via relevant auditions, interviews and assessments. Sibling discounts across both schools and means-tested bursaries and Foundation awards.
The last word
A friendly, high achieving school with a truly holistic approach to education delivered via an enlightened balance of academic and co-curricular studies, inspiring a real sense of purpose and opportunity. Refreshingly lacking in arrogance but quietly setting itself up as the place to be schooled in Cornwall.