While this all-boys school for 11 to 18-year-olds is certainly academically ambitious, it steers clear of being an exam factory through its commitment to life skills and extra-curricular activities.
This selective school for 950 students has a tough admissions process that attracts those boys working far above the national average; there’s a competitive, hardworking environment that reaps outstanding results in both GCSE and A Levels – and has seen 325 Oxbridge offers in the last 10 years. But, while there is an unashamedly ambitious and academic ethos here, there is also a commitment to a much broader education.
As headmaster Dr Jon Cox told us, “academia is just one part of a richer experience”. There is a timetabled programme of extra-curricular activities, known as Period 8, for all students; a growing focus on sport that has seen the recent introduction of PE as GCSE and A Level subjects; and a strong peer mentoring programme, with the older boys acting as role models for the younger boys.
Yes, you need to be very bright to study here, but as Dr Cox says, “There is no such thing as a typical RGS boy.” He describes them as “confident without being arrogant”, and welcomes every new boy at the first Year 7 assembly by saying that he has three expectations – “kindness, kindness and kindness”.
The RGS has a strong belief in the value of single-sex education, whether that’s through its choice of literary texts to which are geared to the interests of boys, or by taking a very practical approach in its science experiments. There are opportunities for boys to mix with their peers from local girls’ schools (Tormead School is only five minutes away). So, it’s not unusual to see the RGS boys co-performing with girls in drama productions and music concerts, enjoying joint trips and expeditions, and learning together through the General Studies programme in the Sixth Form; there are even organised social events.
Engaging and energetic, Dr Jon Cox has been headmaster of RGS Guildford since 2007. Describing himself as lucky to working at “the best school ever”, Dr Cox has introduced several changes to the school over the past 15 years to move away from its reputation as “an exam factory”.
“Over the last 10 years we have had the courage to put the academic excellence to one side and focus on the other side, (important skills like being able to think critically, being independent and creative of thought, being organised, being self-motivated and being able to work as part of a team)… The funny thing is, as a result of focusing on the skills, the academic excellence is as good, if not better than before!
“Our school gives our young people a chance to get things wrong. We call it tenacity, but whatever you want to call it, persistence, resilience, tenacity... it’s really unbelievably important. I think if a school like ours can give young people the space to get things wrong, to take risks, particularly from an academic point of view, they will be prepared for life in the future far better.”
With its historic Tudor buildings located in the heart of Guildford's high street, the RGS has a very charming campus that is steeped in history. It’s just a short walk up the cobbled streets of this fashionable Surrey town from the train station; the school also has a 20-acre sports ground at nearby Shalford.
RGS was rated Excellent in its most recently available ISI Educational Quality report (2013).
While teachers at the RGS follow the National Curriculum for England up to GCSE and A Levels, they are given the freedom and encouragement to conduct their own pedagogical research and “take their students off the syllabus”. Dr Cox is the biggest advocate for this and when teaching his weekly lesson (which he describes as the best part of every week!), he says:
“I teach half a lesson on what they need to know for their exams and for the other half we go off on tangents and get students thinking and really challenge them. That is far better preparation for exams than just sitting and working through the syllabus.”
During their first three years at the RGS, boys study at least three languages. All boys study Latin in the First, Second and Third Forms (equivalent to Years 7, 8 and 9), as well as French or Spanish. In the Third Form, students choose an additional language from Ancient Greek, German, French or Spanish. There are also opportunities to learn Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Russian.
All boys take the following at GCSE: English language and English literature, mathematics; (French, Spanish or German), Biology, chemistry and Physics. Options at GCSE include either history, geography, or RE, and then two subjects from art and design, computer science, design and technology, drama, French, geography, German, Greek, history, Latin, music, PE, religious studies and Spanish.
Students need at least six GCSE passes at Grades 7 – 9 to enter the Sixth Form. All students study four A Level or Pre U subjects in the Lower Sixth, with the opportunity to drop one subject at the end of this year to ensure that students “keep open a broad range of university opportunities”. The school believes that there is much to be gained from studying a fourth subject for one year; for example, improving essay writing or language skills.
The RGS offers a very traditional and “robust” list of subjects at A Level, which is focused on sending its students to “the most competitive and highly regarded universities”. Boys can choose from fine art, biology, chemistry, Latin, Classical Greek, ancient history, design and technology, drama and theatre studies, economics, electronics, English literature, geography, government and politics, history, mathematics, French, German, Spanish, music, physics, PE, religion and philosophy. Maths is the most popular option at A Level (and headmaster Dr Jon Cox is most proud of the teachers in this department), followed by physics, economics and chemistry; students here benefit here from a specialist Economics Library as well as Oxbridge maths sessions.
Students are not entered for the Extended Project Qualification, but instead complete the school’s own extended research Independent Learning Assignment in the Lower Sixth.
While the RGS is not known as a particularly sporty school, it does do sport well. The major sports played here are rugby, hockey and cricket (there’s no football until the Sixth Form) – and boys will need to leave their Saturday mornings free as these quickly become booked with sports fixtures.
Boys are encouraged to compete in at least one sport, and with a list that extends to fencing, judo, sailing, shooting and skiing, there are many opportunities to try less traditional sports for the first time. GCSE and A Level PE was introduced in 2019 and there are hopes that its small cohort will grow in future years.
There’s no swimming pool on campus (the boys head to the local Spectrum pool for lessons) and much of the sport is played at Bradstone Brook, the school’s 20-acre playing field and pavilion a few miles away.
While the number of students taking arts subjects at GCSE and A Level is low, there is plenty of creativity on show at the RGS. Students perform and practice within its purpose-built Art School, which has a long gallery, two large teaching studios, sculpture studio, separate studios for GCSE and A Level students, a digital-media suite, a departmental library, and a small studio for installation work. Boys can be see rehearsing throughout the week in the school’s symphony orchestras, string orchestra, wind bands and a wide range of smaller ensembles. There’s a chamber choir, which involves girls from Guildford High School, and a very active Parents’ Choir of over 100 members.
Drama is taught weekly in the first three years, and there are annual junior and senior productions, as well as a full-scale musical involving students from both the RGS and Guildford High School.
The RGS offers a well-rounded programme of activities that sees students working in the community (sixth formers volunteer to teach Latin to local primary schools, for example); travelling overseas (there have been trips as far afield as Nepal and Cambodia); and entering a wide range of academic, sporting and arts competitions. The annual Cock House Cup is a very enthusiastically contested house competition, and, as mentioned before, there are plenty of example of different year groups work on activities together (for example, a Year 9 tutor group working with Sixth Form mentors on a current affairs quiz).
Life at the RGS can continue well beyond the end of lessons at 4pm. Boys in the Third Form have timetabled, weekly Expedition and Adventure sessions, which culminate in a two-day expedition. As they move up the school, boys can get are encouraged to expand their horizons in a timetabled programme of extracurricular activities known as Period 8. There’s a choice of more than 70 different clubs and societies as varied as sports, arts, Combined Cadet Force, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, fencing, film, student robotics and Scouts.
There are strong links with the local community, too: a number of RGS staff teach in primary and secondary schools in Guildford on a regular basis, and every Monday during the Michelmas and Trinity terms, students from local primary schools visit for a Tudor Experience Day.
The RGS has an academic record to be proud of. It’s one of the top all-boys’ schools in the country at both A Level and GCSE., and ranks within the top 50 secondary schools in the UK.
In 2020 at GCSE, 53% of all grades were Grade 9 and 79% of grades were Grade 8 – 9. At A Level 81% were A*/A grades and 16 students achieved a perfect set of A* grades; in the previous year, 81% of grades were A*/A.
Students go on to study at some of the UK’s leading universities, including Durham, Exeter, Warwick, Bath, Bristol, Nottingham and the London universities of Imperial, UCL and KCL; over the last six years, on average, 25% of boys have gained a place at Oxford or Cambridge.
The RGS campus runs alongside both sides of Guildford’s High Street, with a 450-year-old building on one side, including the Chained Library and more modern buildings from the 20th century on the other. There’s a purpose-built sixth Form Centre with a work area, a computer room and common room; a music centre including a recording studio and rehearsal space; and a new purpose-built design and technology centre.
The school is expanding globally. The Royal Grammar School Guildford in Qatar was established in 2016, and it opened a co-educational school for boys and girls aged 3 to 18 years in Dubai in September 2021; the Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai initially opens with its Early Years and Prep school sections.
Dr Cox explains:
“I think it is very easy for schools to have an international ‘arm’ and just leave them to just get on with it. That is not what happens with our international schools. I’ve visited some of our other schools over 20 times in the last four years. As Head of the RGS it is my job to keep our international schools as a close part of our community. A name is just a name, you need the heart and you need the sense that when you walk in the door, this really is RGS.”
At the opening in Dubai, Dr Cox said that the new school feels like the original in a number of ways:
"Firstly, I look around and see the RGS Tudor Rose symbol everywhere. I see the windows I look out of every day in Guildford reflected in the roof design, I see the beams in the old building in these great black beams around us here, but most of all I see RGS in terms of the community that is already coming together. We have lovely staff in Dubai, some of whom I have worked with for years in Guildford. I know the team; I trust them and I have absolute confidence in them in bringing our ethos to this school as well."
Asked how he plans to ensure the relationship between the two schools endures, Dr Cox said:
"That is one of the reasons why we wanted our UK staff out here. It is very difficult to transfer an ethos and a community feeling to another place unless you have people who know what it is all about. With Clare [Turnbull] as the Head of Prep here, well, she has ‘lived’ RGS for the past 15 years and has been fundamental to everything we do. The pupils here are already talking about the ‘RGS values’, and that has been great to hear so early on."
Boys join the RGS from primary and prep schools within the state and independent sectors, and there is stiff competition for places; there are typically applications from around 120 different schools and nearly 40% of boys now come to the RGS from state primary schools.
The school is selective, and all boys must sit entrance exams in English, mathematics, and verbal reasoning, as well as attend an interview in pairs so that “we can start to get to know the boys and see the personalities behind the examination results”.
Annual tuition fees are £19,035 for the First to Sixth Form (Years 7 - 13), which may surprise some people as being lower than many top tier independent schools. The school offers academic and music scholarships at 11+ and 13+, which range from 5-10% remission of fees.
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