With a new London boarding option and bespoke approach to GCSE, A level and beyond MPW offers a fresh take on 14+ options. Absolutely Education finds out more

Words: Libby Norman

MPW is a very different prospect from a traditional independent school. First up, there are the small class sizes and the dizzying array of options at GCSE and A level. Then there’s the city settings – London, Cambridge and Birmingham. And finally, there’s the culture, for this is a place where the dress code is liberal (no uniforms) and staff are addressed by their first names.

In London, MPW is breaking exciting new ground with a dedicated building for 70 boarders. Located in Queen’s Gate House, South Kensington (formerly Baden-Powell House and HQ of The Scouting Association), and less than five minutes’ walk from its London college, the building will welcome its first residents this September. The reason was simple, says MPW London Principal John Southworth, student demand. “We’re getting an increasing number of international students who are asking if they can be on our site, rather than having to find accommodation elsewhere. And there are also an increasing number of applications from UK and international students who are 14 and 15 years old – and the only way to accept them is by offering boarding.”

MPW has gone through a shift over the past couple of decades. Where once it was seen as a Sixth Form College, it is now attracting a broader cohort. This year’s London intake at Year 10 is around 20 students, and for Year 11 it’s around 60. “I think word has got around that we can do some great work with young people in Year 10 and Year 11, as well as in Sixth Form,” adds Southworth.

“Word has got around that we can do some great work with young people in Year 10 and Year 11, as well as in Sixth Form “

Importantly, this is not an international school – it welcomes many overseas students (around 30% of intake), but the remaining 70% are UK-based and MPW plans to keep it that way to ensure the right balance. In London, most UK students travel to its South Kensington site from within the M25 corridor. “I’d say the average journey time is approaching an hour, but some travel further because of the flexibility we offer.”

Wherever they hail from, what students share in common is self-determination and a spirit of independence – they have done their research and found that MPW offers the study pathway they want. Southworth has no doubts that it is the students who have agency in the decision making, with parents in supporting role. “When I’m doing interviews, and I do a lot of them, it’s the young people who are far more in charge. They are the ones who have been doing the investigation or heard about us through their friends and are excited about the prospect.”

May : M P W London
John Southworth with MPW students – the college offers high levels of student support

The college does offer something that feels different, both in atmosphere and teaching style. Those small class sizes have been there from its foundation in the 1970s as Mander Portman Woodward. The three founders – all Cambridge graduates – wanted something run along their university’s guidelines and that’s what they devised, initially operating from Rodney Portman’s lounge. MPW has come a long way since, but still today you’ll find very small teaching groups and Directors of Study who act as pastoral guides as well as giving one-to-one study advice to any of their students at any time during the day. “That is quite unique,” says Southworth. “I have 20 Directors of Study, where most schools have one.”

Then there’s the dizzying array of study combinations. MPW offers 27 GCSE courses and 45 A-level subjects – students can choose any combination. This enables them to pursue a passion for Arts, Humanities or Sciences or choose disparate subjects. The point is, they select. “As our strapline says: ‘tailored, not uniform’, so we are tailoring our programme to every individual, to what they want to study.”

The main focus is on getting students to where they want to go – and in nearly all cases that’s university. The MPW team have a very specific approach. “What we’re trying to do is give them advice on the best options to move forward to what they want to do in the future,” says Southworth. His interviews – all students are interviewed, and he conducts the majority – tend to start with asking where students have come from and where they want to be in 15 years’ time. Then he will try and fill in the gaps by suggesting the best route.  “It is very bespoke. It might be that a student wants to come here to do some A levels with us and some GCSE retakes in parallel. Or they might be doing A levels over three years because they have a health or other issue.” For example, MPW has supported a number of elite athletes who have training and events that affect their ability to study to a typical timetable. “So, what we say to them is: tell us what your constraints are, and we will try and work an A-level or GCSE programme around your sporting activities.”

S Art Room
The new boarding house for MPW includes a fabulous top-floor art studio that will be home to students taking the UAL Foundation Diploma

What MPW doesn’t support is a hothouse or ‘crammer’ approach – recommending three A levels and eight GCSEs to all but a few. There are a handful of “self-selecting” students who choose an EPQ (and invariably get top grades). Southworth firmly believes more is not better, since it’s grades that count: “You can go to Oxbridge with six GCSEs and three A levels”. Instead, the MPW approach is all about right course, right guidance – and it works. “We get a few every year into Oxford and Cambridge, but we get 70 per cent plus every year into Russell Group universities – and that in itself is a great statistic for a non-selective college,” he says. “However, what’s more important still is that we get a very large number to university, but they go to the right course, rather than what they think is the right university. The course is the most important thing.”

“MPW’s new summer schools – a collaboration with EtonX – will immerse international students in UK life and study”

MPW spends time on the guidance to ensure students are making smart choices and will stay the course, including creating “Getting Into…” university subject guides with Trotman Indigo. Written by its own subject specialists, these are particularly useful in an era of high student fees and loans – and in the eight years he’s been MPW Principal, Southworth can only recall one student who left a course. Having chosen to head to a Scottish university, she quickly realised it was too far from friends and family. MPW intervened and she successfully transferred to King’s College London to complete her degree.

The smooth transition from school to university is now being bolstered with Summer Schools for international students aged 13-17. Launching this summer in Cambridge and Birmingham (and with a London Summer School in 2023), it’s a collaboration with EtonX and designed to immerse international students in UK life and study as a springboard to great things at MPW or another UK school setting.

Another exciting departure for MPW is the introduction of a UAL Foundation Diploma to prepare students for a degree course in Art and Design. MPW London has an incredibly long and strong track record in Art courses – regularly getting its students into the likes of Parsons New York, Ravensbourne and Marangoni – and UAL has been a great supporter of its approach for many years. “It’s a stunning outcome, we’re so privileged to be able to run this course for them,” says Southworth.

A bonus, for those Foundation Diploma students is that the MPW Queen’s Gate House opening this September includes a funky glass art studio spanning 120 square metres at the top of the building where they can get creative – and enjoy all the benefits of prime South Kensington turf alongside MPW’s new boarders. Queen’s Gate House is already sounding like the coolest place to be in one of the coolest cities on the planet.

MPW mpw.ac.uk

Further reading: Alternative pathways at 18+