School spotlight: Monkton Combe School

During my visit to Monkton Combe School – a boarding and day school in Bath for pupils aged 2–18, I realised the school’s motto, ‘thinks differently’, could relate to many things.

For example, its boarding houses have become so much more as during the holidays they are used as residential lets for the community – meaning facilities are never left empty. And the school has had to adapt enormously, going from just seven pupils in its founding year to the 720 they have today.

Learning curve

One way Monkton truly thinks differently though is with its food. Recently the school decided to move away from its contracted caterers to take full control of the catering process themselves.

Catering manager Steve Brown says: “Last April we came in-house with the catering to do our own thing. It’s been a steep learning curve, and a challenge, but a great opportunity to buy the food we want to buy and do our own training.

“For me it’s all about good quality, well-prepared, healthy, sustainable food. It’s the right thing to do.”

In 2018 Monkton became the first independent school in the south-west to secure the Soil Association’s Food for Life Served Here silver award for using fresh, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients.

Now it’s working towards the gold award where points are awarded for ethical and environmentally friendly food, making healthy eating easy and championing local producers.

To achieve silver, at least 5% of ingredients must be organic but to achieve gold a minimum of 15% of ingredients must be organic, and at least 5% must be free-range pork or poultry meat. Brown says currently, sourcing large organic volumes is a challenge – as the school serves 9,500 meals a week – but it’s something they’re looking into.

For the gold award organisations are also rewarded for buying food produced in their region and for above-average UK sourcing levels.

“As much as we can, we’ll buy UK produce,” says Brown.

Five numbers

Founding year: 1868
Number of pupils: 720
Number of heads/principals to date: 12
Number of catering staff: 45
Number of meals served across the schools per week: 9,500

The school uses a host of local suppliers, including milk from Ivy House Farm, yoghurt from Brown Cow Organics (which gets delivered weekly to Ivy House Farm to use fewer vehicles), bread and organic products from Hobbs House Bakery, meat and groceries from Philip Dennis (which Brown says have been “instrumental in getting the school Red Tractor meat”), as well as fruit and vegetables from Lovejoys. The suppliers all come from surrounding areas such as Wiltshire and Beckington.

Pupil involvement with the food is strong, with cooking activities linked to the curriculum, such as bread-making, a regular occurrence.

There is a food council, even in the pre-prep, and food committees, and the catering team listens to pupil and parent feedback. Pupils are now growing vegetables in their own allotments too.

It gives them an appreciation of what’s actually involved in the production of food

Staff member Will Etherington says: “It’s all about building up the students’ engagement and interest in where their food comes from and knowing that meat and vegetables don’t come from a packet.

“It gives them an appreciation of what’s actually involved in the production of food.”

The catering team of 45 focus on healthy and sustainable food

Sustainable school

Etherington is passionate about making the school an environmentally-friendly place and works with the catering team to make sure things are going in the right direction.

He says: “It’s something we want to build on but working with the catering team, they’ve been so accommodating with everyone.”

The school actively engages in environmentally-friendly initiatives such as zero wasting, reducing plastic and taking food waste to a biogas plant. Its recent tree-planting initiative will see hundreds more trees planted around the school – at least one for every student.

“It’s a legacy project that will last hundreds of years,” says Etherington.

Inclusive environment

During my tour of the school’s facilities, I realised what Monkton does really well is provide an inclusive environment where everyone is encouraged to join in.

Head boy Johnnie says: “One of the best things about music here is the head of music, Mr Bevan. He is awesome and all about trying to get everyone involved, not just the best getting better.”

Bevan has pulled this off with a brilliant project called The Choir Who Can’t Sing, which is a big hit with students because, as Johnnie says, there are no expectations. “His motto is enabling every pupil to find their voice,” says head girl Nancy.

On top of this, there are informal concerts every week where students can perform to small groups, piano recitals, band nights, a soundproof recording studio for pupils to get creative and much more to keep the music going.

Five facts

1. Monkton Combe School merged with Clarendon School in 1992
2. Monkton celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018
3. Monkton has a silver Food for Life Served Here award from the Soil Association, and is working towards gold…
4. …it was also a runner-up in the Independent School Champion category at the Food for Life Served Here awards last year
5. Monkton is nestled in the Midford Valley overlooking rolling hills and woodland

Another key part of the school is its extensive sporting programme. The sports hall has a digital screen outside showing school games, and large banners of the school’s sports captains are proudly hung inside on the walls.

“I’ve been trying for years to get the place open more often and it’s finally happened,” says Johnnie.

Fantastic facilities such as a gym, astro pitches, rugby fields, cricket pitches, a swimming pool and more provide space for pupils to engage in just about any sport going.

Monkton is a Christian school and pupils spend a part of every day in the chapel – whether it’s for a chapel service, house meetings, singing practice or the principal’s assembly.

It has, as Nancy explains, been designed for everyone to take part in. “The Christian aspect is a big part of the school, but they make it for everyone as much as they can by having lots of different activities in here,” she says.

Of course, you can’t mention Monkton without talking about principal Chris Wheeler, who has led the school since 2016.

Passionate about innovative education, his prize-giving ceremony speeches have become quite the talking point.

In 2018 he ripped up his notes and ran out of the room leaving pupils and guests to watch a video of him driving round the school in a golf buggy, finding out what the school had been up to that year.

He even threw in hilarious moments like pushing the director of sport into the river (if you haven’t done so yet, watch the video on YouTube).

Monkton has exciting plans to expand and improve the school across all stages of education but already it has a lot to offer, whilst still managng to be a small, inclusive and nurturing place for young people to receive their education.

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